How I Gave Consequences that Worked (and Lived to Tell the Tale)

Posted June 16, 2008 by

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When my son was a toddler, getting out the door of our house was always the hardest part of any trip. Nowadays, it’s the leaving of a place—any place, whether it’s the park, a birthday party, or even the doctor’s office—that throws him for a loop. At karate last week, he actually kneeled in front of the vending machine they have there and literally refused to budge. He had his eyes on the Skittles and was not giving up on them without a fight. “No candy today,” I said, bracing for the eruption I could feel was coming.

I was not disappointed. My son slumped onto the floor like a melting Jello mold at a 4th of July picnic and started wailing. He’s getting too big to lift but I tried anyway, at which point he “went boneless” on me (as the book Knufflebunny calls it—the perfect description for when kids go all limp so you can’t pick them up.) I stood there completely embarrassed as the other parents watched. There’s nothing quite like the mortification you feel when your child is misbehaving and the eyes of the other parents are on you. I think it has it’s own special place in parenting hell, along with blow-out diapers and hearing the words “I hate you” from your kid for the first time.

But this was my moment of truth and I knew it: my Waterloo, my Norma Ray moment, my re-match against Apollo Creed. I tried to keep my voice calm, but it was shaking a little when I said, “OK then. I’m going to wait outside the door until you come out. And then we’ll leave, but I’m not going to fight with you. It’s your choice.”

The wailing turned into angry screeches. In fact, the words “Howler Monkey” come to mind. And boy, was everyone really staring at us. Only now, they were quickly looking away like they felt sorry for me, which was even worse. As I stood there outside the doorway, their perfectly-behaved children—or so they all seemed to me—filed out of the Karate dojo without any back talk or histrionics. I imagined these other families getting into their immaculate cars and going home to their clean, orderly houses. (OK, that’s probably just conjecture on my part. During moments like this, I always feel like everyone else has it all together except for me.)

But I stuck to my guns. I followed through on the consequences I’d spelled out for my son and waited on the sidewalk. And he finally stopped his act and came with me. When we got to the car, I gave him a hug, looked him in the eye and said, “I didn’t like what you just did at karate. I’m not going to give you candy when you cry and yell. Candy is something you get for being good, or as a special treat. So when I tell you it’s time to leave, you need to come with me.”

He actually said, “OK, Mommy.”

And you know what? One week later, he’s actually handling it pretty well when we tell him it’s time to leave wherever we are. I know we might have to go back and repeat this process again before it sticks, but for the time being, I’ve been doing a little parental victory dance in the Consequences end zone.

So now it’s your turn. Tell us about a time when you used a consequence that worked for your child, and how you stood your ground—or tell us about a time when you couldn’t. What would you do differently next time? (Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there, too!)


Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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