10 alternatives to “consequences” when your child isn’t cooperating

Victoria Gloria Photography

By Dr. Laura Markham

“My 3-year-old was sitting on the couch after bath wearing her towel and said NO about 5 times when asked to get into her pjs. I was busy with the baby and I heard my husband say “OK fine – no books then!” so I said “Hey! We’ve got a problem – it’s bedtime and you need to be in your pjs – How do YOU think we should solve it?” And just like that – she got a big grin her face, suggested we all clap our hands and march our feet and we formed a line right into her room – happily! Same thing for teeth brushing and potty later! Each time I said “Hey, great problem-solving skills! Thank you!” And her response? “You’re welcome Mama – no problem!”   

Most parenting experts suggest that when children “misbehave” the best response is “consequences.” Parents are told that letting children experience the consequences of their poor choices will teach them lessons. Makes sense, right? 

Well, no. 

Natural consequences can teach important lessons. We all have to learn that if we don’t remember to take our lunch, we’ll go hungry.

But when most parents use “consequences” for discipline, they aren’t the natural result of the child’s actions (“I forgot my lunch today so I was hungry.”) Instead, they have become for children the threats they hear through their parents’ clenched teeth: “If I have to stop this car and come back there, there will be CONSEQUENCES!!” 

In other words, consequences mean punishment. Whether you’re threatening a timeout or the loss of a privilege, that is punishment, which is defined as causing another person physical or emotional pain with the purpose of getting them to do things your way. 

Unfortunately, research shows that punishment raises kids who behave worse and are less moral. I know, that seems counterintuitive. But when the discipline comes from outside, the child isn’t actually CHOOSING to “be good.” So he isn’t building those self-discipline muscles. And since he’s being good only to avoid punishment, he isn’t building moral muscles either. 

In fact, since punishment creates power struggles, kids who are punished go on the defensive and blame everyone but themselves.

Inside, though, they feel like bad people – which makes it hard to “act good.”  

Worried about what you’ll do without the threat of consequences to keep your child cooperating? Next time your child refuses your guidance and you find yourself about to blurt out a threat, try one of these responses instead. 

1. Let your child solve it. 

“You haven’t brushed your teeth yet and I want to be sure we have time for a story. What can we do?” 

Like the child in the example above, it’s amazing how children step into responsibility when we offer it in a collaborative way. They love to help, and to solve puzzles. Sometimes they just need a little respect. 

2. Partner for win/win solutions. 

If your child doesn’t offer a solution that works for you, explain why and help her come up with one. 

“You think you should just skip brushing teeth tonight? Hmm…that doesn’t work for me because your poor teeth would stay germy and they could get tiny holes in them. What else could we do to get your teeth brushed and time for a story? Want to put your pjs on, and then brush?” 

Once your child believes that you’re serious about win/win solutions, she’s much more likely to work with you to find a solution that works for everyone. 

3. Invite cooperation with your phrasing. 

Consider the difference in these approaches: 

“Go brush your teeth now.” - Since no one likes to be told what to do, a direct order like this often invites resistance, either directly or in the form of stalling. 

“Can you go brush your teeth now?” - Many kids will reflect on this and just say No. Don’t phrase your request in the form of a yes or no question unless you’re willing to accept No for an answer. 

“Do you want to brush your teeth now, or after you put your PJs on?” - This strategy works because you’re extending your child the respect of giving him some control, at the same time that you retain the responsibility of making the decisions you need to as his parent. Only offer options you can live with, of course. 

“You may brush your teeth now.” – Almost sounds like a privilege, doesn’t it? This is a command, but a respectful, calming one. Works especially well with kids who are over-stimulated by bedtime and overwhelmed by choices. 

4. Ask for a do-over. 

“Oops. I told you to brush your teeth and you ignored me and then I started to yell. I’m sorry. That’s not how we relate to people we love. Let’s try a do-over.” 

This is a great way to interrupt things when you’re headed down a bad road. Get down on your child’s level and make a warm connection. Look in her eyes. Touch her. 

“Ok, let’s try this again, sweetie. It’s teeth brushing time! How can we work as a team here to get those germs off your teeth?” 

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