Every now and then I am drawn to write about something parenting related that is not directly about sleep. Consequences are one such topic. And while it is not directly sleep focused, consequences also become an integral part to sleep teaching with toddlers and older children.
In any event...
A few years ago, I was standing in line at a McDonalds behind a mother and her five, count ‘em, FIVE little kids, who had to between the ages of three and eight.
The mother was asking the kids what they wanted to eat and conveying it to the guy at the till, and the kids were getting pretty excited. They were loudly discussing which Happy Meal toys they wanted and a couple of them started chasing each other around a bit, when the mother suddenly turned around and calmly but firmly told the oldest one, “Can you please get your brothers and sisters together, go find us a table and sit quietly until I get over there?”
And to my sheer amazement, they did exactly that. The older brother gathered them up and, without losing their smiles and enthusiasm, they marched to a nearby table and sat down.
“Those.... I mean wow! Those are some amazing kids you have there,” I said to her.
She realized what I was referring to, smiled, thanked me for saying so, agreed that they were indeed great kids, and then added, “My husband and I have definitely put the work in with them.”
I knew exactly what was behind that statement; that these astonishingly well-behaved kids were the result, at least in part, of a hundred thousand situations where she and her partner had to play the unfortunate role of, “The Enforcer.”
So today, I want to talk about consequences; how they help us raise better kids and enable us to be better parents.
The most common issue I see with toddlers who are, what we might cordially describe as, “out of control,” is that they never face any consequences. Their desirable behavior is rewarded but their unwanted behavior is met with either indifference or anger from their parents.
(Just a quick note for those of you who might be thinking that making your parents angry is a form of consequence. It’s not. Anger is attention, even if it’s negative attention, and if your toddler is looking for attention, they’ll take it in whatever form they can get it.)
Now, I’m as progressive as the next parent, and I think most of us can agree that our kids should be free to experience emotions and figure them out in their own way. Anger, sadness, frustration, and other negative emotions shouldn’t be suppressed. Kids should explore those feelings and learn how to cope with them.
But that doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to throw their toys or hit their siblings. It’s our job as parents to teach our kids about the real-world consequences their actions can have.
And the truth is, toddlers don’t want that level of autonomy. Every child I have ever known or worked with has been happier living in a world with structure and boundaries. Giving your little one free reign to do as they please sounds fantastic, but it’s too much for a child that age to navigate. The feeling that they’re completely untethered leaves them with no direction or expectations, and they end up feeling overwhelmed and unguided.
So there have to be rules, and when those rules are broken, there have to be consequences.
Otherwise, they’re not rules, they’re suggestions.
How do we put these consequences into effect? Just like everyt
hing in parenting; clearly and consistently.
1. Give a warning
Even if your little one knows that what they’re doing isn’t allowed, I always like to try to give one warning before implementing a consequence. There are exceptions, obviously, but for the most part, it’s best to make sure they know that what they’re doing will earn them a reprimand if they keep it up.
2. Use Natural or Logical Consequences when possible
An unrelated consequence, or a punishment, aren't as effective at changing your toddler's behavior. My personal choice is to use natural consequences (ie if your child doesn't want to wear their coat, bring it along and when they feel the feeling of coldness naturally, they will make the choice to wear it) or logical consequences (ie if you don't get dressed today, you won't be able to leave the house to go to the park with Daddy).
3. Set a timer Time based consequences can help parents stay realistic (rather than screaming, "You're grounded for LIFE!) and help toddlers learn about the concept of time. I find the best approach is to set a timer, show your little one how long they’re having to stop playing with that toy they were throwing or setting a timer for getting PJs on and if they don't cooperate and get them on by then, they loose one bedtime story. 5. Consistency is key It may sound cliche, but I still love the saying, “A rule is only a rule… if it’s a rule.” If you explain the rules to your toddler. but then only enforce them some of the time, well they’re not really rules after all. It’s confusing for a child when they don’t know if the rules apply in a specific situation, and they can end up feeling really frustrated if they end up getting punished for something that was clearly not an offense the night before. So set clear boundaries and enforce them 100% of the time.
That mother I was talking about at the start of this piece, you can bet she probably had a few thousand moments of feeling insecure, questioning her judgement, and wanting nothing more than to ease up when her kids pushed back on a boundary. But if she had, she wouldn’t have the relationship with them that she does, where she can turn to them and say, “This is what I need from you right now,” and have them listen without the need for intimidation or threats.
I totally understand that none of us want to be the bad guy. We all want to have a perpetually loving and happy relationship with our kids, and not play the prison warden. But we signed on for the job when we became parents. We have to accept the responsibility of establishing and enforcing firm, but loving boundaries and having consequences in place for our children's behaviors and these things will actually help our kiddos feel more secure and learn to navigate their own emotions with greater ease.
If we don’t, well, you guessed it.
There will be consequences.