Do your consequences for children teach or just punish?


By: Gabe Seldess, LMFT

I like advocating for children’s consequences that are aimed toward teaching life skills.   A consequence is obviously put in place to call attention to a mistake of some degree.  Taking a toy away, setting a time out, restricting activities are all ways we can emphasize that a bad decision isn’t okay.  I don’t personally support spankings, but this is also something that can signal that a limit or rule has been breached.  It may not always be clear to a child why they are getting in trouble, so take time when your child is calm to specify why there was a punishment.  A popular example is when a child is angry:  being angry is okay, what someone does because of it is not always so.  A child may think anger needs to be suppressed as opposed to managed if there isn’t time spent on isolating issues.   Consistent reaction to enforce rules and set consequences can help children recognize family expectations, social norms, and safety issues.

Once your child knows what behaviors are okay and which ones will lead to trouble, is that enough?

I’d argue usually no.  Children will often learn what the limits and expectations are, but not always what the best behavior would have been in a situation, or even how to do it.  With anger issues, a child may learn that hitting is not accepted, but may not know what else to do when he or she is that upset.  Incorporating additional aspects to a consequence may help to not only stop a behavior, but prevent it in the future.  Additionally, some elements of consequences can help teach empathy, respect, and self-reflection, which can also be beneficial life skills. 

Consequences that only take things away may miss the mark because they only teach what not to do.  When an activity is taken away from a child (No TV!) that is a great opportunity to replace it with something else.  For example, “No TV today, instead you are going to practice your deep breathing and relaxation”.   Writing an apology, spending time cleaning the mess that was made, or using TV time to get an original task ignored completed are other examples.  Take time to teach the needed skills, to teach responsibility, and to re-enforce the fact that when parents say something needs to get done, it gets done.

 If a child gets home late, it makes sense to either take the privilege away or make curfew earlier.  But for how long?  Some parents say, “… for one week, Missy!”, but what does the child learn?  A teaching consequence may be that the new rule is in place until Missy can show better respect overall for rules or demonstrates a different skill.  What if Missy didn’t get curfew back until she was able to get her homework done AND the dishes done on time for a week?  Would that demonstrate that she understands expectations as a whole?  What if Missy has to report to her parents the ways in which she impacted them, acknowledging the worry, lost sleep, and frustration that comes with wondering where a child is?  Might this help re-inforce empathy skills and awareness of one’s impact on others? 

As you know, it is not always possible to control a child.  Sometimes what we have is an opportunity to teach, try to contain, and guide them to wiser options.   When you are making consequences for your child, consider it a teachable moment.

Please check out the following web sites:

Further posts will address identifying values and skills you want your children to have (these can guide what you teach and what behaviors you govern) and also how to negotiate and coordinate with your co-parent around consequences and parenting styles that work for you child. 

7 Skill Building Games to Play with Your Children

7 Skill Building Games to Play with Your Children

     It's always great to have a variety of toys and games children can pick up to entertain themselves. Whether alone or with other youth, it gives parents a chance to take a break and address other issues. There is so much that needs to get done that it can get tempting to dump your child off in front of a TV or among a pile of toys.

     Many games and toys, such as Legos and Simon, can encourage creativity, dexterity, and memory. Dolls and action figures foster fantasy and an exploration of relationships and personal interactions. Even video games help with problem solving and eye-hand coordination. Youth can learn and hone many skills alone, but we shouldn't forget the value of interacting with our children in play and entertainment.

     When we engage with our children in play, we can model appropriate behaviors, demonstrate coping skills, and prompt and encourage our children to do the same. We can play referee - to interpret and enforce rules, and address cheating and fair play. Or we can simply enrich our relationships through play and laughter. I strongly encourage outdoor activities and joining your children in sports or an afternoon at a park.  Physical exercise, team building, and developing coordination are important pieces of development that, due to advances in the quality and affordability of technology, can get easily lost with a reliance on TV and Playstations.  However, here are some indoor games that are entertaining and enriching for youth that parents will also enjoy.

 SORRY:  A simple game based on chance, Sorry doesn't require a lot of skill. The playing field is even. Younger kids can play with older kids, or younger kids can keep up with the adults. Part of the strategy requires sabotaging your opponents, so Sorry helps kids deal with losing, obstacles, and understanding that setbacks are not always intentional attacks on them. Basic life lesson: Things don't always go your way.

 PICTIONARY: Pictionary helps kids develop some mechanical coordination and fosters creativity. Drawing engages the brain in a different way than speaking. Learning to conceptualize and communicate in images is a nice balance to games teaching logic and strategy. Also - an effective picture is better than a beautiful picture, attacking the myth that art needs to be "perfect" to be good.

 QWIRKLE: Another game that's good for a varied age group. The game involves sequencing tiles by shapes and colors. A player needs to pay attention, but it's not beyond most people's ability. Qwirkle can help kids develop some basic strategy, pattern recognition skills, and problem solving. Your best move might not be there by the time your turn comes around again. Time for plan B.

 SET: Like Qwirkle, Set is a game of pattern recognition. However, Set is much faster and depends more on cognitive processing speed and memory. Set is better for older kids or when played among children of similar skill levels. But the more you play, the faster your brain gets at seeing the patterns.

 LIFE STORIES: Share stories and ideas with family members! This game encouraged sharing and opening up about a variety of subjects and interests. It's a good way to learn about what is going on with your kids, and for them to know you, too. 

FLUXX: "The Ever-Changing Card Came". The overall game stays the same while specific rules and goals can quickly and unexpectedly change. Fluxx teaches strategy and planning, but also flexibility. There is a logical progression to what players need to do to make sense of any given set of rules, but you need to pay attention. There is a structure to how you follow the game. I like playing Fluxx with kids that have ADHD, because it can help with organization... "First you do This, then you do That, then This, and you are in pretty good shape!"

CHESS: Don't be afraid to jump in and play Chess with your kids! You don't need to be an expert. Just teach how the pieces move and the basic objective, and your child is off and running with strategy, decision making, and problem solving. You can learn more about the finer points of the game with your youngster as you go along.


Avoiding power struggles with children

There are two resources I really like for helping parents learn to manage child defiance and harmful behaviors.  Love and Logic, by Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline, M.D. ( and The Total Transformation from James and Janet Lehman (  Both approaches address establishing rewards and consequences, limiting verbal conflict, and setting firm and reasonable rules and limits.  Both strategies also emphasize the benefits of helping youth learn to identify expectations, recognize possible consequences, and develop healthy independence and problem solving skills.  These resources assist parents with picking appropriate battles, conserving energy, and maintaining appropriate authority in the home.  I recommend these websites for all parents, whether or not they are in a crisis with their family.