Using Consequences To Change Behavior: Sometimes It’s Not the Right Choice

Using Consequences To Change Behavior: Sometimes It’s Not the Right Choice
Changing misbehavior with consequences doesn't always lead to good behavior. Learn about positive discipline and how it helps children learn life skills and behave well.

Late in the afternoon, on the way home from school, my son took hold of my hand and started talking softly. He spoke so quietly, I could tell something unusual was going on.

“I got kicked in the back at recess mom. It hurt.” he said looking to the ground.

That’s when my mind started racing.

“Oh my! did the teachers see this…he’s walking ok,I guess it’s not serious…?! Maybe it’s bruised…Ugh…why did this happen in the first place…”

Realizing this wasn’t helpful at all, I quieted my mind just in time to hear “actually it started because I pushed him away mom.”

As I took in my son’s words, I noticed he was smiling. It wasn’t a mischievous or a nervous smile. Rather a sweet, trusting and hopeful smile.

Our eyes met and instantly my son’s smile was replaced with teary eyes. His voice was shaky as he shared that he had felt angry, scared and confused.

You might be thinking that my son should have some sort of consequence for this kind of behavior.

Clearly it’s not acceptable to just let this kind of thing slide. In that moment though, I didn’t talk to my son about consequences.

Not Using Consequences Doesn’t mean Your Child “Gets Away” with misbehaving.

Many parents believe it’s necessary to make children feel badly about their behaviors. That without consequences children can’t learn responsibility.

Dr.Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent Happy Kids, explains that we often think when we blame that we’re doing something positive—holding someone accountable, teaching responsibility. But when kids grow up in a household where blame is a way of life, they’re more defensive, more inclined to watch their back, and more inclined to blame and attack than to take responsibility.

Using Consequences to Change Behavior

How often do you use consequences with the well-meaning intent to teach responsibility?

Do you set consequences and follow through in the hopes of changing your child’s behavior for the better?

Do you want to encourage your child to understand mistakes, misbehavior and shortcomings?

If you think using consequences is always necessary, you are not alone.

Many parents believe that consequences are not just good but a necessary teaching tool.

Research on child development doesn’t really show that to be the case.

When children are misbehaving or struggling, positive interactions, ones based on trust and safety are what can help your child learn.

When children sense a parent is making an effort to understand them, instead of blame them, they are more likely to want to change their behavior.

Kindness and respect are not rewards for bad behavior, but necessary in order to create a strong connection with your child and encourage change.

My child had just openly admitted to hurting someone, so this approach can’t possibly be good right?

Well, positive parenting is not about finding the fastest tools for raising flawless kids. There is no single solution to misbehavior that makes children perfect. This approach keeps long-term parenting goals in mind.

As children grow, they make mistakes, misbehave, hurt, test limits and push boundaries.

This is exactly why children must have loving, respectful guidance so they can trust themselves to be capable of doing better and better.

On that day, feeling hurt and scared my son made a regrettable choice, but he also recognized it and came to me for guidance. Many children that experience punitive consequences don’t dare to speak up when they make mistakes.

Consequences might keep your child stuck misbehaving!

Traditional punishment and “discipline” techniques often focus on making a child feel badly about themselves.

A lecture about how hitting is wrong, grounding my son or taking away his screen time might tick off the boxes on a traditional approach to what happened that day.

What does your child truly learn by sitting all alone after being reprimanded for hitting a classmate?

  • Not using a computer for the afternoon can’t teach your child how to step away from a conflict.
  • Not watching TV does not teach self-regulation skills.
  • Skipping baseball practice doesn’t teach a child how to make amends for a mistake.

Doesn’t it make more sense to guide children towards solutions?

Dr. Haim Ginott explains in his book, Between Parent and Child that most of the time, consequences are punitive and keep a child feeling upset and resentful towards you.

Instead of thinking about how to solve a problem or change their behavior, your child now feels incapable and badly about themselves. 

If your child is feeling really badly about himself, it’s not likely they will start reflecting on better ways to behave. Instead they will simply think badly about themselves or try to get back at you.

While dealing with defiance or lack of cooperation is difficult, children most often misbehave when they are already feeling disconnected, bad, tired or overwhelmed.

On that day, my son already knew that what he did was wrong. He was so certain it was wrong, he made sure to tell me about it as soon as he saw me. There was no lying or hoping I would never find out. There was honesty and an attempt at taking responsibility for his actions.

After I listened to my son and offered him a hug he finally said “I shouldn’t have pushed mom…I shouldn’t have, but I did. I’m going to apologize tomorrow morning. Can I have some paper to write a note?”

Discipline that is effective helps your child find their way back to feeling well so they can behave well.

Effective discipline helps children learn to control their behavior.

consequences for misbehavior

Effective discipline helps children learn to control their behavior so that they act according to their ideas of what is right and wrong, not because they fear punishment.

For example, they are honest because they think it is wrong to be dishonest, not because they are afraid of getting caught. – Valya Telep, Child Development, Virginia State University

Replacing Consequences with Positive Discipline

  • Help your child feel safe coming to you, no matter what they have done.
  • Remember that growing up and behaving well takes practice and patience.
  • Set clear expectations and follow through with what you say.
  • Use discipline strategies that are respectful and that promote learning.
  • Substitute punishments with solutions that help your child feel and choose better.

Replacing consequences with respectful guidance is a process and it takes time.

Your child needs help, boundaries and clear expectations to know how and when to take responsibility for their actions.

If you are wondering how to substitute consequences, begin with the end in mind.

Model respect and kindness, offer guidance and take time to connect with your child each day.

Most of all trust that your child is ready and able to do better with your loving guidance

Peace & Be Well,


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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

9 Responses to Using Consequences To Change Behavior: Sometimes It’s Not the Right Choice

  1. This is great, Ariadne. It’s so beautiful when change comes through connection. Thank you for the reminder :0)

  2. Hi, you write above “Use discipline strategies that are respectful and that promote learning”. Can you please elaborate on what are these discipline strategies? Thank you very much, Alexander

  3. Hello Alexander,

    Discipline strategies that are respectful are ones that help the child understand what they have done that is unhelpful and leads the child towards making better, more helpful or acceptable choices. I will share with you a few other posts from our site that have many examples 🙂 You can see a three step discipline approach here that is respectful here There are also more strategies here and here.

  4. Thank you Shona! You are so right, when change comes through connection first it is a win for everyone. It’s amazing how children learn to look for that safe connection and to value the guidance while at the same time taking steps towards making more and more good choices on their own.

  5. Thank you so much Ariadne,it was really a great mind opener,I a mum of three kid’s,2 kid’s are teenagers,often find difficult in managing them,this replacing consequence with respectful guidance, is helping me a lot. I am a Kindergarten teacher,can you give ideas or any tip’s to manage the kids tantrum behavior,it would be nice. Thank you, May God Bless You.

  6. Hello! You’ve addressed so many good issues here, so many that I feel strongly about personally.

    My biggest concern has been in how to discipline my toddler. I’ve been practicing positive parenting with her since the beginning, and so far so good. 🙂 I’ve not really had any trouble with her being disobedient, or honestly mean. Admittedly, though, she’s only two-and-a-half. Haha! If she’s hitting it’s because she’s angry (we work out her anger), if she’s biting, it’s because she’s tired (I put her down for a nap). Anything that a child does is done for a reason, and they need to have a safe zone to return to every time. If they don’t feel safe to talk to their parents, who will they go to? Sadly, probably not someone of a good influence. 🙁

    I feel like the important thing is just to keep our cool. If we don’t keep our cool, how can we teach our kids to keep theirs?

    Awesome article, I thank you so much for writing it. 🙂

  7. Hey Shona,

    I am new here, but this line will make me stay: “Kindness and respect are not rewards for bad behavior, but necessary in order to create a strong connection with your child and encourage change”.

    Thank you for sharing this (and taking the time to write it all).

    Abby 🙂

  8. Hi Ariadne, I really needed you today!:). I announced to my strong-willed 6-year-old son that we were going to a show today and he would like it. I spent money on tickets and was terribly annoyed he didn’t want to go. There were a lot of other things going on that morning — I was yelling for him to get out of the toilet — and he came up to me and told me he wished I would die! This was about the worst thing he ever said to me and I was furious, took it personally. Later when he saw an actual video of the show he seemed less scared. I think so much of his life is controlled he wants some freedom. And also, as you wrote in a previous article, I hate you is a cry for help. But the worst was a friend telling me that she hoped I let him have it for what he said because she feels he uses me as a punching bag. How do respond to that? I feel he is trying to express his anger and frustration but doesn’t have the ability to do so and she feels he is getting away with something. Every time we punish him it makes things much worse and I think what he needs is not “no video today” but a big hug, as is what he wanted on the way to school. Yes, he needs to know he hurt me and he needs to be more respectful, but punishing him for saying something mean to me? What does that accomplish! Thanks for listening, Dinah Spritzer

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