Your child has been pushing your buttons, and try as you might, you finally lost your temper - but, does the punishment fit the crime? She didn't do anything really wrong this time, but it was the cumulative effect of all the things she's been doing. Did you send her to her room, take away TV time, cancel a playdate?
When your child does something wrong and you threaten her with a punishment, you need to carry that out. Just make sure the punishment fits the crime. If consequences don’t make sense, they will not resonate with the child. When your child is a toddler, she will understand immediate actions. Appropriate punishments might include going to bed a half hour early, missing a favorite video, or skipping dessert that night. Telling her she can't go to a friend's birthday party in a week isn't a reasonable punishment. It's too far away and by then you may not even remember why you punished her in the first place.
For older kids, say teenagers, there are plenty of electronic devices that can be taken away. But that's not always the best punishment, especially if your child needs her cell phone to arrange rides or let you know she'll be home late. Also, does that punishment fit the crime?
“Nowadays, the first thing parents want to do is take away a cell phone, computer privileges, or Playstation, but if it’s not matching what the kid has done that’s not appropriate, than it doesn’t make any sense and it’s not good for learning,” suggests Marlene McDermott, Marriage and Family Therapist at Serenity Counseling in Palmyra, NJ.
For example, if the child refuses to get out of bed to go to church, the parent needs to find a punishment to fit the crime, and that should be more than merely taking the phone away. McDermott believes that all privileges should be taken away, until the child goes to church. Whether it’s a day or a week, that’s how long their privileges should be withheld.
“This is going to sound very harsh, but in my opinion, privileges are anything besides food, clothing, education, love and affection,” Marlene says. “Nobody is required to give their kids toys or buy them top-of the line shoes or take them out to dinner. Those are all privileges. We’ve gotten away from giving our kids what they have earned and moved into taking things away from them for things they have done, when everything they have is a privilege anyway.”
She believes that the child should only be allowed to go to school, their sport or other responsibility, and come home. “Those things are important for living and are commitments that they’ve made and should follow through on,” she adds. “It is no longer the parent being the bad guy, but the kid making the choice about how long their consequence is going to be.”
Even cell phones are a privilege, not a necessity, she believes, despite safety concerns. There are phones in school, or a friend’s home and anywhere else the child would be if needed. “You lose your cell phone, you’ve got fifteen other friends that have them. They’ve got computers that they can use to talk on-line. It just doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t become a deterrent,” she points out.
Consequences should be discussed before an infraction occurs and they should be based on age. The older the child, the stiffer the punishment. “The kids need to know what their expectations are, that’s only fair to them,” she says. For example, for every minute the child is later than curfew, they are grounded for one day.
For more dangerous behaviors, Marlene thinks parents should choose consequences that educate the child. If the child is drinking, for example, it’s not only a grounding that has to happen, but the child needs to learn about the perils of drinking. The punishment might include having the child visit or volunteer in a drug and alcohol center, or do research about the effects of drinking.
“Be creative and think outside of the box, instead of, well, you lost your cell phone,” she suggests.