Setting Expectations and Consequences
Episode #8 of the course Parenting skills to raise responsible, mature children by Roger K. Allen, PhD
In this lesson, I’m going to teach you the skill of setting expectations and imposing consequences.
In the real world, there is a cause-effect relationship between our choices and their consequences. Don’t go to work = don’t get a paycheck. Don’t put oil in the car = the engine freezes up.
Our children also have to experience the natural consequences of their behavior so they can begin to develop the discipline and wisdom to make good choices. Don’t eat dinner = go hungry. Fail to clean up = lose your toys. Refuse to study = get a poor grade. Run out of gas = walk home.
Of course, sometimes children need more than natural consequences. We need to impose logical consequences when they violate family routines and norms. Here are the steps in setting expectations and enforcing consequences:
1. Accept your authority and parental power. Don’t give your authority away in the name of keeping the peace, not wanting to upset your children, or not wanting to do the hard work of enforcing an expectation.
2. Clarify your expectations (and consequences). Write them down so you are clear. Communicate these to your kids—not all at once, but little by little.
3. Praise positive behaviors. Praise or social reinforcement is a powerful influencer of behavior. Our kids need to hear when they are meeting our expectations.
4. Take action when an expectation is violated. It’s easy to end up talking (lecturing, criticizing, threatening) about the violation instead of taking action. Your action, to be effective, must be matter-of-fact: immediate, consistent, without guilt, and without anger.
I like the analogy of gravity. If I trip and fall, the consequence is immediate and consistent. Gravity doesn’t get mad nor does it feel sorry for me. We teach responsibility by imposing consequences in the same way.
Here is an example.
Playing Xbox has become a problem for 13-year-old Michael. He stays on way too long and then pitches a fit when Mom finally coaxes him off. So, she took some time to clarify her expectations:
• You can play Tuesday and Thursday nights, plus Saturday.
• You must do homework and chores before you can play.
• You must set a timer for one hour on weeknights and two hours on Saturdays.
• Get off immediately and without a fuss when time is up.
She also thought through consequences for failure to comply: Michael would not be able to use the Xbox at the next scheduled time, and he’d lose the privilege for a week if he had two incidents in a week.
She then had a meeting. She stated her expectations and then asked Michael to repeat them back. It went like this:
Mom: “Xbox has been causing a real problem lately. You have a hard time getting off and then spend the rest of the night being grumpy. Xbox is a privilege, and I want to share what I expect in order for you to continue using it.”
She then explained the four expectations outlined above and asked, “Michael, what are my expectations for you to use the Xbox?”
Michael: “These are silly rules, Mom. Most kids spend as much time as they like. Their parents aren’t as mean as you and Dad.”
Mom ignores the negative comment and persists: “Nevertheless, what are our expectations?”
“Mom, this is dumb.”
“Dumb or not, we’re only going to let you use the Xbox if you follow our rules. Otherwise, the Xbox goes away. What are our expectations?”
“I can’t believe how stupid this is. Okay, I have to do my homework and chores before I can play.”
“Very good. You were listening to me. What else?”
“Oh brother. I hate this. We only get one hour on weeknights and two on Saturdays.”
“Great. Which weekdays can you play?”
Michael, with resentment: “Tuesdays and Thursdays. You think I’m stupid, Mom?”
“No. I just want to make sure we are clear. What else do I expect?”
“I have to get off immediately. But Mom, that is really hard. If I’m in the middle of a level, I can’t just get off, I have to finish.”
“What is the rule?”
“You don’t understand, Mom. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“What is the rule?”
“I have to get off immediately.”
“That is right. Very good, Michael.”
Mom then goes through the same process of explaining the consequences of not complying with their expectations and asks Michael to repeat them back. Again, Michael complains, but his mom ignores the complaints, pressing him to answer her questions.
Notice that Mom side-stepped Michael’s pushback. Her son is expressing a natural frustration and disappointment and also testing to see if she’ll back down. If she gets hooked, she’ll end up in an unproductive power struggle and lose her ability to enforce consequences. By sticking to her guns, she controls what she can, family structure, and allows her son to take responsibility for his own feelings and behavior. He’ll handle not getting what he wants and learn to tolerate frustration and take responsibility for his emotions in the process.
As parents, we make enforcing limits too complicated. We want our children to comply, but we don’t want to enforce consequences, so we end up ordering, threatening, bribing … all in the same conversation. We’re trying to change the child (which we can’t control) rather than our own behavior (which we can). Initially, it’s inconvenient to enforce boundaries. However, long term, family life becomes more peaceful and productive. Pay now or pay later.
Sometimes we want to involve our children in helping set limits and deciding on family rules. I’ll introduce the skill of negotiating agreements in the next lesson.
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