How to Get Kids to Own their Consequences without Looking Like the Bad Guy

January 3, 2019

Strategies for creating and enforcing rules with your kids that work. 

by Jessica Eyre

The beginning of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is iconic. Harrison Ford spends a good twenty minutes sneaking through a booby-trapped cave, switching a bag of sand for a priceless relic, and high-tailing it out of there after tripping the home security system, which kills all the extras and nearly finishes off our hero before he tumbles out into the jungle, prize in hand.

Of course, Paul Freeman shows up and takes the reward away, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: The relationship Indy has with the cave is typically the relationship kids have with their parents.

Let me explain.

Kids work hard to see how far they can push, sneak, and fake-cry their way through childhood to get what they want. To kids, parents can be treasure caves they have to “Indy” their way through. Parents, on the other hand, tend to be pretty clueless about what’s going on until alarms start going off, to which they typically respond by throwing verbal spears, firing empty threats, and rolling proverbial massive crushing balls of punishments in an attempt to immediately correct behavior. . . as children run away screaming for their lives in pursuit of an exit.

If your kid thinks you’re an obstacle, then you’ve positioned yourself that way. Surprise, surprise: that one’s on you! If you’re not quite sure what your kid thinks of you, here’s what you need to ask yourself: “Am I the consequence, or am I the consequence enforcer?”

Reactive parenting is never effective in the long-term. Sure, it may scare your kids into strict obedience for a while, but the only thing they’ll learn from the experience is, “I shouldn’t color on the upholstery with Sharpies because it makes mommy mad.” Wouldn’t you rather the take away be, “I shouldn’t color on the upholstery with Sharpies because ruining someone’s property is wrong?”

It’s a slight difference, but believe it or not, it makes all the difference. And you can make that difference by simple posturing. If you can separate yourself from the punishments and get your kids to own their consequences, that’s where quality learning takes place, which always opens up room for bonding in the end.

Here’s what you need to ask yourself: “Am I the consequence, or am I the consequence enforcer?”

Disassociate yourself from the punishments

The reason companies set up policies and rulebooks is so that they can appeal to them when someone does something stupid. To separate yourself from the punishments you dish out, you need to have policies, or a rulebook, set in place.

At our house, we have an actual reward and consequence book. It’s a bunch of garbled up construction paper with pictures and stickers on it, tied together with ribbon. There are also descriptions from a parent detailing all the rewards and consequences for common behaviors.

It’s nothing too in-depth. We don’t need a list of bylines or a manifesto here, just some basic content that outlines rules in a way that kids can understand.

“If you can’t share, you lose the toy.”

“If you hurt someone, you go to timeout for X minutes.”

“If you help mommy clean up, you get a sticker for your sticker chart.”

And so on.

And believe it or not, the kids love it. They love it because they made it. And they made it because we did it as a family and had fun doing it. They know that if they do such and such, they’ll earn this or that. And if they do such and such, they’ll suffer this or that.

Make sure they understand the rules

For a rule book to be effective, you have to do two things:

  • Involve the kids in building it.
  • Constantly, constantly, constantly appeal to it.

Let them set up their own consequences for their actions. You can have dialogue such as “Hey, so if someone draws on the furniture, what do you think should happen to them?” When your children respond with, “Timeout and no treats,” that’s the first step toward them owning that consequence. You made them believe it was their idea. You helped them understand that bad actions should be followed by bad things. Look at you go!

When the time comes for enforcing that “timeout and no treats,” you simply pull the book out and let it be the bad guy. You’re off the hook! Of course, they’ll still fight you on it. They’re still kids after all, and even adults have trouble going quietly. So don’t think this is a cure-all for bad responses. It’s not. It’s a tool to build a fundamental understanding of cause and effect.

A very important note here. When it comes time to enforce a consequence, never get angry. It should be a simple protocol you both follow. All this could blow up in your face if you decide to put negative emotion into it. As I said, your kids probably will still fight you on it, but they are no longer fearing you, they are fearing the consequence.

Probably the most important aspect of all of this is making sure the kid knows they are loved. I can’t stress that enough!

No empty threats or missed punishments

Another important note here.

Raise your hand if you want to destroy all the trust and respect your kid has for you in one fell swoop.



Didn’t think so.

When it comes to helping your kids own their own consequences, the two most important rules for parents are

  • Never wuss out on enforcing punishments.
  • Never dish out empty threats you both know you can’t enforce.

On the way to Disneyland last month, my 5-year-old figured out that he could quietly undo his buckles from his car seat in the back row, creep up through the empty middle row of our Honda Odyssey, steal a piece of candy, and sneak back to his car seat unnoticed, and do this over and over and over again.

Of course, eventually we caught on, and after telling him to not do this for about the 700th time, I screamed out, “Son! If you do that again, I swear I will hire a very mean babysitter in California and make you sit with her in the hotel room for the entire week!”

There was a long silence, followed by a very snarky reply from the back seat.

“Uh, no you won’t.”

My eyes narrowed to slits and my bottom jaw dropped to the floor. How dare he! HOW DARE HE! My wife cleared her throat, giving me a soft smile, and said, “Try again, honey.”

We eventually decided that if he did that again, everyone but him would get a treat at the next gas station. And, just so you know, everyone but him did get a treat at the next gas station, thank you very much.

Every time we throw our children an empty threat, it’s like presenting them with an exciting challenge. You think you’re curbing their behavior using scare tactics, but what you’re really saying is, “I double-dog dare you, little person.” And if they pull an Indy and get away with it, that’s the equivalent of rewarding them for rule-breaking by making it fun.

That’s terrible parenting. I know first hand.

Make sure they feel loved, loved, loved

Probably the most important aspect of all of this is making sure the kid knows they are loved. I can’t stress that enough!

After a punishment is served there needs to be a period of:

  • Reconciliation on why they were punished
  • Discussion about what was learned
  • Expression of love from the parent

Showing love after a kid owns their consequence is the best way to ensure they continue to own their consequences. They need to see that you feel bad that they needed to suffer through a timeout, but that you are also so proud of them for deciding to be better.

Nothing promotes good behavior like positive reinforcement.

We can’t let ourselves be treasure caves. What we need to do is position ourselves to be the cautionary jungle sherpas who were constantly telling Indy that going into the cave in the first place is a pretty stupid idea. And then be there afterward to show them we love them anyway.

Jason Osmond is a writer, marketing strategist, and professional dad. He lives with his wife and three kids in Vineyard, UT.

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