Empathy with Consequences

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Prepared by Dr. Bert Alexander

Translation and Prezi by Henry Roncancio

Prezi Presentation: Clic here

What would you do in the following situation? Suppose you have a child or children who simply refuse to go to bed at a reasonable time. You fuss and you threaten, but the more you push, the slower they seem to be about getting ready and going to bed. You know that they need sleep; you know that if they do not get adequate sleep, they will not function well the next day. Yet, even with all your fretting and worrying, your spanking, your taking away of privileges, they do not seem motivated to comply with your wishes. 

Here is a great truth, so get ready to be amazed: you cannot make a child go to sleep. What if you simply told you child that you are sorry for all the interference and in the future they will be in charge of when they go to bed. Establish that there are rules, and the first is that after say eight o’clock, they cannot bother you and your spouse. You don’t won’t to see them or hear them, but they can be awake in their room. The second is that everyone gets up at the appointed time and there will be no exceptions. If they are still up at 10:30, tell them “good-night” and go to bed yourself. 

The next morning, go in and wake them up. You will discover that it is easier to wake up a child than put them to sleep! Turning up the radio to front-row-rock-concert setting takes no effort at all! Flip on the lights and be a “human alarm clock!” You will more than likely hear your child telling you that they are sick; their head/stomach/etc. hurts. Ignore it! Tell your kids, “You know, I feel this way as well when I don’t get enough rest, but I bet that it is going to be a long day at school today. Have a good day, and we will see you when you get home.” You see, it is much better for the child to deal with the consequences of their actions than for you to punish them or to threaten them. 

Hurting From the Inside Out

It has been said that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” With that in mind, we need to remember that as we give control to our kids, that control can corrupt and that absolute control corrupts absolutely. As children misuse their power and control, unwise parents show frustration, anger, and often plead. Wise parents allow natural and imposed consequences to do the teaching, and they are empathetic. Control and power are handled like money: we rejoice when the child handles them correctly, and we show empathy without rescue when unwise choices result in consternation, pain, and regret. 

As adults we don’t get grounded when we mess up in life; nobody washes our mouths out with soap when we use bad language. Punishments don’t happen in the real world unless crimes are committed. When people are punished for something, they seldom pause for self-examination; generally, resentment is the more common reaction. The same holds for kids as well. When we send kids to bed early because they sassed us, we are doling out punishment. If they bring home bad grades and we rescind television privileges, we are not allowing the consequences of mistakes to do the teaching. 

The real world operates on consequences. [When was the last time you talked a cop out of a ticket for speeding?] If we do a consistently lousy job at work, the boss doesn’t take away our I-phone, he fires us! Punishing a child offers a great escape valve for a child to escape the consequences of his actions. They don’t have to change their behavior; they simply have to do their time with the punishment. Their anger is directed toward us rather than themselves for making a bad decision. We want our children to hurt from the inside out:

  • We allow the consequences to do the teaching. 
  • Consequences leave kids thinking very hard about their behavior and their responsibilities. 
  • Consequences lead to self-examination and thought. 

Naturally Occurring Consequences

The best consequences are those that fall naturally. Naturally falling consequences allow the cause and effect of our children’s actions to register in their brains. When they ask themselves, “Who is making me hurt like this?” Their only answer is “Me.” For example, if a child goofs off during a meal and doesn’t eat, they will be hungry later. If a child goofs off in school, makes bad grades, then staying back a grade makes sense. 

These are the things that cause lots of heartburn for parents, but if we want the consequences to do their work effectively, we cannot afford to take the luxury of reminding a child of previous bad choices. If your child is extremely slow at getting out of bed, let them suffer the consequences of not going to school one day. Now this cannot be a fun day, the child must stay in his room, and cannot be entertained by any electronics, games, etc. You as a parent cannot write a note for his absence as it was his fault and he must suffer the consequences. Without the company of others and without the attention of a parent who nags them, they become very unhappy!

Imposing Consequences

While naturally occurring consequences are best, occasionally our children’s actions don’t lend themselves to such consequences. In those cases, we must impose the consequences ourselves. This is a parental art: parents sometimes choose to impose consequences that are irrelevant or, if relevant, the consequences are either too harsh or too lenient. When consequences occur naturally, the imposed consequences must:

  • Be enforceable
  • Fit the “crime”
  • Be laid down firmly in love. 

When imposed consequences are imposed without anger and threats, and when presented to our children in a way that the connection between their misbehavior and the consequences is made plain, they are quite effective. To drive the lesson home with our children without making them feel as though we are not on their side, we must use empathy. Here are some examples:

  • “Of course you are hungry! I bet you won’t do that again!” Try, “I know now that feels, I get hungry when I miss a meal, but we will have a big breakfast tomorrow.”
  • “I told you that you would be tired if you didn’t go to bed on time. Now you are going to suffer all day at school.” Try, “I feel the same way at work when I don’t get my sleep, but have the best day you can, under the circumstances.”
  • “You don’t do your homework, and now you come home with lousy grades. That ought to teach you a lesson.” Try, “You know, when I was in school, I got some poor grades when I didn’t apply myself, but there is always next semester or summer school.” 

Consequences Don’t Have to Be Immediate

Consequences do not have to be doled out on the spot to be effective. Sometimes, they are most effective after a child thinks they have gotten away with inappropriate behavior. Suppose your small children bicker and fight on the way to the store and instead of confronting them, you wait until the next time and say something like: “You know the way you acted the last time we went out, well, this time you are staying home and you can pay for your sitter by weekend, or I can deduct the cost from your allowance, your choice.” They are now thinking, “How are we going to pay for this? How are we going to get Mom to take us with her the next time? How am I going to get along with my sibling?” This imposed consequence is enforceable. If you child returns home late from a play-date, the next time simply say, “Remember when you were late the last time? I am not up to worrying about that today, so you can watch television or play by yourself. We will talk about it again the next time you want to go over there.” The consequence is tied in the child’s mind to returning on time from the neighbor’s house. 

Good consequences don’t always pop right into our brains! This is another reason why delaying consequences is often the best thing to do. It allows us time to consider the best actions as well as get ideas from others. If nothing comes to mind immediately, it is much better to take our time and think of an appropriate consequence than to blurt something out in haste or anger. Much-needed time for thinking can be bought with the following words:

  • “I am not sure what to do about this right now, but I will let you know.”
  • “You know, I have never been the parent of a _____-year old_____ before, so I’ll have to give this some thought, and get back to you on it.”
  • “I’m not sure how to react to that. I’ll have to give it some thought.” 
  • “Try not to worry about it.”

Giving yourself time to consider consequences helps our kids too. They have time to agonize over the possible consequences, and that is quality thinking time!

It’s the Empathy That Counts

The thing that drives the lesson into our children’s hearts after they make a mistake is our empathy and sadness. Our love for them reigns supreme and we put the relationship between us and our children foremost in our minds. When our children make a mistake, we really ache for them, we know what it is like, and we tell them this in all seriousness. When our kids blow it and suffer consequences, it is crucial that we express our sadness to them. Use some of the following phrases:

  • “I know you, and I am sure you will come up with something.”
  • “That’s terrible, how are you going to handle it?”
  • “Oh, no, I’m glad that is not my________. You must feel awful, what can you do?”
  • “How’s that working out for you?”
  • “Wow, what a mess! Let me know what you come up with?”

By using this sort of language, we do not put ourselves up against our kids, but rather squarely on their side. They need to know we will be with them through it all but that we will not take away any of their responsibility in the process. Remember, when you run out of things to say, transfer the problem to the youngster by asking a question, such as “What are you going to do?”

Allowing consequences while showing empathy is one of the toughest parts of Love and Logic parenting. Anger is such an appealing emotion, especially when we use it on our children. Punishment makes us feel powerful: makes us think we are in control. Anger and punishment, put in concert with each other, provide a deadly duo of counter-productive parenting. 

We are constantly giving messages to our kids, but the overriding message of all must be one telling them they are okay. They may have a hard time, make a mistake and have to live with the consequences, but we are in their corner and love them just the same. Empathy about the consequences shows our kids that kind of love. It allows the logic of the consequences to do the teaching. 

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