Consequences

The other day my husband visited a Dunkin’ Donuts. Inside the store was a class of preschool kids who appeared to be around three years old, accompanied by their two teachers. The kids were all sitting very quietly, apparently waiting patiently for their treats, and my husband was impressed by their good behavior.

“Lucky group of preschool kids, getting donuts during class!” my husband commented to the cashier behind the counter.

“Um, I don’t think the kids are getting any donuts,” the cashier whispered. “The teachers only ordered for themselves.”

Just as the cashier finished speaking, the two teachers, balancing their donuts and coffee, ordered the kids to follow them out the door. As they were leaving my husband heard one of the teachers say, ever so sweetly, “And maybe next time you’ll remember to listen during circle time so you can get a donut too!”

The three-year-olds obediently followed the women out the door, never making a peep. Quiet, chastened, and utterly donut-less.

Compared to some of the truly horrible things inflicted on the children of the world in the name of discipline, this particular example of public humiliation and rubbing-your-nose-in-it donut withholding seems pretty mild. Yet this story has bugged me ever since my husband relayed it. I’m sure these teachers convinced themselves they were doing the right thing: the kids probably were naughty during circle time, and how are kids supposed to learn if there aren’t consequences for their bad behavior? And hey! The disciplinary strategy worked: the kids had become docile and complacent. But I can’t help wondering if underneath the surface of all those justifications, those two women felt a little tug in their heart that said, “No. Nope. Not the right way.” I wonder if those donuts felt a little dry in their mouths.

As a mother, I have plenty of my own “No. Nope. Not the right way,” experiences as I seek to parent my own kids. Implementing consequences for bad behavior is a particularly tricky skill to master. I’ve never been very good at being letter-of-the-law strict, even before I became a mom. During my first year as a high school English teacher, my supervising teacher wanted me to implement a “check marks on the board” method of discipline (it worked for her), but I found it frankly exhausting and not in keeping with the kinds of interpersonal relationships I wanted to develop with my students. Instead, I adopted a kind of “Hey, let’s get to know each other and trust each other and respect each other and hopefully that will work, but if it doesn’t I reserve the right to briefly lose it, and then we can get back to trusting and respecting each other again.” For the most part, this strategy worked for me. Except when it didn’t.

With my own kids, I function in much the same way. I’m no good at job charts or making my kids earn screen time coupons they can exchange for computer privileges. I’ve had good intentions (over and over again, I’ve had good intentions) but then the job chart gets compromised over spring break and it becomes such an incredible hassle to keep track of the screen time coupons, and I slide back into my regular MO: trying to maintain an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in my home, interspersed with random shrieky demands that the TV be turned off immediately and not be turned on again for 24 hours (“But why?” “Because I said so!”) and the occasional eruption of ill-considered in-the-moment consequence making that NOBODY benefits from. (Have you seen the episode of Modern Family when the parents threaten to cancel Christmas unless somebody confesses to burning a hole in the couch? Like that.)

Sometimes I worry that I’m too easy on my kids. Sometimes I worry that I’m too hard. The truth is, there is no perfect way to parent. There’s no perfect “choice and consequences” scheme that will ensure that our kids will grow up disciplined and unscathed by serious sin while still providing ample opportunity for them to exercise their own agency, all while enveloped in the sturdy embrace of unconditional parental love and acceptance.

We will all make mistakes as we seek to train our kids up in the way they should go. I just hope that when I get that little tug in my heart that says, “No. Nope. Not the right way,” I’ll be sensitive enough to listen to it, and strong enough to change.

And for Pete’s sake, everybody. Don’t eat Dunkin’ Donuts in front of the 3-year-olds as a disciplinary tactic. That’s just egregious.

How do you navigate your responsibility to provide consequences for your children? What worked and didn’t work when you were a child?

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

25 thoughts on “Consequences

  1. I find myself battling with the ugly aspects of behavior, trying to find natural consequences and more often than not just battling. I always feel like I’m searching for some plan, some organization, some system I can manage that will work. There is no silver bullet, though I wish there was!

    One thing that I try really hard to do is not take away negative natural consequences. We talk about being able to choose what we do, but not the attendant consequences. I will tell my kids how I feel about their choice and ask what will happen if things do go south (little stuff, so far like lost toys they weren’t supposed to be bringing, hungry tummies when they wouldn’t eat dinner, bad grades when homework isn’t completed). They know I will say “too bad so sad” or breakfast is in the morning or bummer or some other expression of sympathy without a change in the circumstances.

    My parents were highway parents (my way or the . . .) and that ultimately did okay for them only because the first thing they made sure they taught was the gospel. We had testimonies first and foremost so we learned to make choices because of truth and not because of parental agency theft. I have seen the highway plan go so wrong in other families though. Ultimately though, my parents realized we were okay because we were reasonably pliant good kids and not because of the dubious merits of the highway system. But still, my mom will sometimes tell me I should “make” my kids eat or obey etc. As much as I would sometimes love to (it never works really), I always hear in my head a comment I think Dalene made once: “that was the other plan” and I shudder.

    Ultimately the only thing that “works” for us is trying to tie eternal consequences to our actions. We try to do the basics (prayer, scriptures, FHE) to provide a good foundation. We talk a lot about the Spirit and how much we need it and how we lose it and how to get it back. And we teach patterns and goals (practice = good performance, study= good grades, doing chores = peaceful, clean house, obedience = going HOME)

  2. Love this post, Angela.

    One fact that stuck with me from a family development class twenty-three years ago, is the most successful families have fewer rules. It sounds counterintuitive at first glance, but operates on mutual trust and respect. So really, you’re doing it just right.

  3. I think I am a lot more like you in how I parent, but I do think there is a place for the donut situation sometimes. My kids are pretty good kids, we have good communication, etc. But, I hate taking them places (like Sacrament meeting). It would be awesome to walk in a store and have them behave the way the preschoolers behaved. Just once.

  4. When my oldest was in fourth grade he missed a recess b/c he’d forgotten his homework at home (for the third time?) At first I was upset thinking about him sitting in the classroom alone while everyone else went out to play but after I thought about it for awhile I decided it was not a bad thing. First of all, missing one recess never killed anybody and second, he never forgot his homework again. But I agree with you–making a three year old sit there donut-less is not an age-appropriate consequence.

  5. I parent much like you, but I have had a couple of three-year-olds who could have used this lesson, would have dealt well with the no-donut consequence, and could have used a parent or teacher willing to follow through like that. :) I have so many fewer ideas of what to do to be a truly successful parent now that my oldest is 15 than I did, say, 16 years ago. I know I have to love my kids, I try to teach them the gospel, and I know I have to allow consequences to teach them. I have other opinions, but I’m not sure they’re all valid.

    Also, now I want a donut. Sigh.

  6. I guess I’m in the minority in thinking that the preschool teachers were perfectly fine. Withholding a donut is a great punishment, if you ask me, because you are withholding a privelege, not a right. Priveleges are earned and are not necessary for living. It was simple and tangible; easy to understand for a 3 year old. Bad behavior = no treats. Works for me.

  7. Michelle, I love your idea about having a few firm rules and mutual goals. When I’m parenting at my best, that’s the philosophy I like to use.

    And Strollerblader, the problem for me was marching an entire classroom full of kids to the Dunkin Donuts and making them watch as the two teachers ordered some for themselves. It seems unnecessarily harsh to me, especially since punishing an entire class full of kids in exactly the same way doesn’t strike me as a good idea, when there’s no way that every three year old was equally culpable for not paying attention during circle time. (Didn’t you hate it when a teacher would pull that? Some of the kids were goofing off, and everybody gets punished?) I also don’t like the public nature of it, and the extra amount of rubbing-your-little-noses in it that happened when the teachers ordered donuts for themselves. I don’t think that’s effective in the long run.

    But is it generally okay to withhold a donut from a kid if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Of course it is, depending on the circumstances. We use the whole “you don’t get your dessert if you don’t ____ (fill in the blank)” all the time and I don’t feel bad about it when it’s used appropriately. This perfectly illustrates the difficulty of punishment/reward strategies for changing behavior in general, though: what works in one circumstance may not work at all in another. And what works for one kid can totally backfire for another.

  8. I really like the donut story because it makes me ask more questions than I can find answers to. Initially, I didn’t think it was a very fair consequence because I don’t really see preschool teachers doing the reverse–meaning, I don’t think they would ever buy all the kids donuts as a reward. But I guess if they would truck them all over there as a punishment, maybe they would do it for a reward as well. If they wouldn’t, then it seems really unfair to me. On the other hand, kids don’t necessarily get fair and unfair, but they do get comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes when I’m meting out a punishment or a reward to my toddler, I find myself “following through” with what I said I would do just to be “fair” when sometimes my toddler it totally not paying attention or getting it one way or another. That’s when I ask myself what the heck I’m doing and why I even attempt to rationalize with an irrational being like a two-year-old. Whew.

  9. I’ve second-guessed myself (sometimes with the help of others) for years, and with 5 teens still at home I’ve settled into something that works for me: you can get away with almost anything as long as you’re not unkind. That sounds terribly lax, I know, but I spent their morally formative years catching things before they happened, teaching every waking moment, and correcting every blasted thing under the sun. I always tried to follow the basic 3 (in private, explaining positive behaviors and consequences, hugging afterward) when something did happen, and for the most part, I’ve been blessed with pretty good kids. I have occasionally done the Joseph F. Smith (“Oh, I wish my little kiddies would be good” and sometimes even with tears, and that has sometimes been the most effective thing I could have done). It has seldom worked for me to be mean about consequences (I love Love & Logic) so I could never do the “watch me enjoy this donut alone because you’re such a loser” thing, though I definitely get being at the end of one’s rope. Mostly, we talk. ALL THE TIME. If they don’t tell me where they are, they can’t go next time. If they leave a mess, they get to clean that up and someone else’s. If they don’t do their chores, they get to help me with a project after they do their chores. If they make dinner without asking I may fall on them and kiss their necks and then give them a free pass on something I know they really don’t enjoy doing. They pretty much know what’s going to happen with any choice, but I don’t look at that as discipline. I just laugh and say, “MAN, thanks! I was wondering how I was going to clean out the laundry room AND get the flower beds weeded! You ROCK!”

  10. My children are raised – so I’m not in the throes of raising children, but my heart can’t get around the age of the children in this story. So very, very young.

    3 years old and not with their mothers, who signed up for the responsibility AND WHOSE PRIVILEDGE it is, to teach these principles, one on one, to their own children. I know I’m going to get backlash about saying it – but my heart hurts at the thought of warehousing children in daycares. Whether the teachers’ method was appropriate or not – the real issue for me is after the lesson and consequence are imposed, who is snuggling and individually physically loving each of these children in a parental way so they’re understanding the separation of their worth as individuals from their behaviors? Who is making sure the relationship with the adult is still strong and intact and has an abundance of love for the child? There will never be a way daycare or someone else will love our child the way we do (maybe a grandma is the exception, but the primary relationship for the child, no matter how much they love grandma, is their mother).

    No – I don’t want to hear about developing their social skills with other children. There’s more than enough of that when they are at school age. They have such a limited time of being with mom, being influenced, taught and nurtured by her before going out into the challenges of the world.

    One phrase from the old poem “I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep”.

  11. Sharon, my heart absolutely sunk at your comment. There are so many, many reasons that three-year-old children may be at preschool or daycare (I know several wonderful stay at home moms whose three year olds go to preschool a few hours a week). Obviously this post isn’t about the appropriateness of ouside care for children, but there is no way of knowing what those preschoolers’ home life is like. I would bet most of them have wonderful parents who snuggle them and love them and teach them consequences in an individual way. Your comment comes across as insensitive and hurtful, because you have no way of knowing the hearts, minds, and situations of the mothers of those kids.

  12. As to the topic of the post, I appreciate the opportunity to think about my disciplining techniques. I have found that my relationship with my kids is strengthened when I help them recognize natural consequences, especially when I can help them separate the bad thing they DID from the wonderful, good person they ARE. My daughter (3.5) tends to think I “don’t love her anymore” if I show any sort of disapproval, so I’ve learned to give her lots of reassurance but still have to be firm. My older son (6) seems to benefit from being given the chance to “make things right” on his own–he feels proud of himself and I do too. The baby is too little to get any sort of discipline–if he’s having a hard day it usually means I need to get down on the floor with him and play!

  13. Angela, thank you for putting into words exactly how I operate…sometimes I am way too lax, and sometimes I am way too hard.. snd sometimes I am just right… I want them to learn “life’s” lessons, but I also want to show mercy… the one thing I have learned is that it is really really hard…. hahaha

  14. There have been times when I have disciplined a child individually, and other times when I have disciplined all my kids collectively. In real life sometimes we experience consequences individually (if I speed, I get a ticket) and sometimes we experience consequences collectively (crime left unchecked leads to rundown, graffiti-covered neighborhoods or vice versa). No matter which method I use, I find myself making mistakes. Sometimes I get the right amount of justice and mercy mixed together and that feels good when it happens – no lingering hurt feelings and resentment. The times I really bombed and I knew it, I tried to apologize and make it right.

  15. I am preschool teacher and I appalled by this discipline “technique”! Why couldn’t those teachers have found a moment when circle time was going well and told the kids they all get donuts today because everyone was so well behaved? Much more effective. These are three year old children and they probably didn’t even remember, by the time they got to the donut shop who misbehaved. sheesh! I know that preschool children can sometimes be frustrating to work with, but someone has to be the adult!

  16. Bonnie, I agree with you that talking to your kids is huge. I’m lucky that my oldest (a 15 year old boy) is still a pretty talkative kid, but we talk, talk, talk all the time. I think that does go a long way toward establishing both limits and mutual respect.

    And Sharon, although I understand the meaning behind your message (that mothers are the most important influence in a child’s life), I think it’s important to realize a couple of things. First, there are plenty (SO many!) wonderful preschools and preschool teachers, not to mention day cares and day care providers, who do an excellent job loving and guiding children. And I disagree that having a child attend preschool is an abdication of motherly responsibility. I know that my child has absolutely loved his preschool experience: he has excellent teachers and looks forward to strapping on his backpack every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And I don’t have a single iota of guilt or doubt about my decision to send him to preschool. It’s been great for both of us.

    Anyway, I don’t want to turn this into a post decrying the evils of preschool/daycare. It would have been just as easy for me to mention a scene of a mother laying into her kid in the grocery store aisle to illustrate my point — a scene we’ve all witnessed, I’m sure — but I chose the Dunkin’ Donuts example for today.

    And JP, I agree that the age of the kids is a huge factor as well. You’re right that many of them probably didn’t even remember what, exactly, had happened by the time they got to the donut shop. Age appropriateness relating to discipline is so important to keep in mind.

  17. I thought this post was going to be about nutrition. In my good cop voice: “Step away from the donut shop.”

    If it’s about the public humiliation, that’s one thing, but if you put it in a classroom, It’s totally okay to not reward kids if they haven’t earned the reward. I had a primary president I worked with once NOT give out treats she’d baked, wrapped in plastic, and adorned with token cute quote paper because the kids weren’t being good. Any guesses whether the kids’ behavior in sharing time improved? Kids not getting rewarded can be so much more effective than kids getting scolded repeatedly.

    And I couldn’t help but think that your husband was witness to the teachers’ methods for a brief period of time. He/we cannot know what happened before or after the donut shop outing. It’s that “walk a moon in his moccasins” mentality. Judging with too little information has gotten me in trouble more times than I’d like to admit.

  18. I have spent some time thinking about this. 3 yr olds are too young for such negative discipline.

    I struggle with disciplining my own children. I grew up where my father beat us and when I was in middle school, my mom drew up contracts for us for chores and such, but I see it now as a way mom protected us from being nearly beaten to death by our father each time something was done right. She kept him away from us by those contracts and teaching us about natural consequences for not doing chores or for behaving a certain way in public or private.

    My husband grew up in a passive/aggressive home where everyone was guilted or belittled into doing work or behaving correctly. Self-esteems destroyed and not allow to experience natural consequences by bullying others.

    Discipling/encouraging our children has been our bone of contention in our home for 25 years. And there are times we have nearly divorced over it. He doesn’t like what I do or want to do because he would rather either not do it or do it the way he grew up with. We have been to counseling for years over it and so I do the best I can without stepping on his toes about it and my boys are beginning to see how their dad is. They doing better listening to me, but still try to get away with a lot because they know their father will let them.

  19. Yes, I agree with the above comments that 3 year olds probably missed the point. The younger the child, the more the correction has to be in very close proximity to their action. And with 3 year olds, redirecting energy and focusing on rewarding positive behavior is better. They take-away for them was probably purely emotional: “our teachers hate us.” Shame is really not a good motivator for people of any age.

    My kids are 10 and 14. I love the parenting book “How to Behave So Your Children Will Too.” It emphasizes the need to articulate expectations up front and the importance of being consistent. It also has a great passage called “don’t ever give the ice cream away for free.” He urges parents to link any luxury or privilege with good behavior, “We are going to the movies because you got all As and Bs on your quarterly report card.” It also emphisizes mutual respect and affection as the foundation. It has a story of a father-son relationship that got so rule-bound that the dad installed a home security system to keep the kid IN the house. Wow.

    I could work harder at being consistent. I think that’s super important, but sometimes I get lazy and pretend that I don’t hear/see some of their nonsense because I don’t want to take the time to redirect. I could also do a better job modeling conflict resolution. My WV friend Theresa talks a lot about framing discipline as “we’re learning and growing,” and that goes for the parents, too.

  20. I taught sharing time a few months ago about choices and consequences and how the two are inseparably linked. If you make a choice, you get a consequence. It was enlightening to me that even our Sr. Primary children had trouble understanding that we receive good consequences for good choices. There is such a push these days to give kids consequences (natural ones especially) and we highlight them to the nth degree (the teacher’s speech at the end of their donut trip), but I think we’re missing some very important lessons if we fail to teach about good consequences from good choices, or just blessings from a loving Heavenly Father. We focus so much on the negative.

    When I fail to give my children ‘consequences’ for bad behavior, I just tell myself that this is one way they will learn about the Lord’s mercy, right? :)

  21. KDA, I just read your comment after I posted mine. I’m wondering, what is the benefit of every ‘privilege’ being earned? That has always bugged me. Can’t I buy my child a 50 cent McD’s cone because I love him and want him to be happy? Why does everything have to be a reward? Would that not foster the idea rampant in our society that there are certain things we are entitled to, because we feel we’ve earned them? And what does that teach our children about how we should view the Atonement?

  22. Carrie: I don’t do it all of the time, but I think it’s a good idea to take the time to emphasize the positive outcome of good choices when I as a parent all too easily focus too much on the negative outcomes of bad choices. Also, I am very fond of the phrase “to show you kindness.” I will put away my kids’ homework or do their chores every once and a while and then say sometimes that I’m doing this out of kindness. And then they also do that for each other following my example. Parenting is way more complex than language allows us to represent.

  23. It’s possible that this was a planned teaching event based on the kids’ behavior, but it doesn’t seem like a logical consequence to me, especially with 3 year olds. It’s not cruel, but it sounds a bit mean and childish.

    But maybe it did fit logically; if so, then good on them.

    But I’m reminded of two of my co-workers eating ice cream in front of the girls in the school where I worked and rubbing it in their faces. I was furious.

  24. Adding to my comment #15, I mentioned this to my director and she reminded me that in CA it is actually against the law to withhold food from preschool children as a form of discipline.

Comments are closed.