The Power of a Delayed Consequence

consequencesWhen the boys were younger, I used to think that if I did the “right” thing when they misbehaved then they would miraculously begin to behave. So I all had to do was scour the parenting books for the “right” thing to do. How wrong I was! Kids learn to behave through a process and I am not the sole contributor to the process. They must ultimately decide that behaving correctly is their best course of action. I can teach and model and correct but I CAN”T make them behave. They have to decide that the behavior I want is best for them too. But I can help motivate them.

Once a child is four or five, their thinking has matured enough that you can delay a consequence of a behavior until after the incident is over. Certainly, verbally correct the behavior in the moment, “Stop, you know hitting is wrong,” but our power to curb or cultivate a behavior is 98% outside of the moment of the behavior. Model the correct behavior; praise when the child does the right behavior; teach why the right behavior is right, but also have natural consequences outside of the challenging moment.

For example, if you have been helping a four year old learn to be kind to his little brother and he is still struggling, call a non-fun babysitter (your friend who you owe the same favor in return) over and take the younger brother out to the zoo. “Oh, no. I’m sorry but you can’t go with us today. You have really been struggling with not hitting your brother when you get frustrated and I don’t want to have a problem at the zoo. I will be watching for improvement so I bet you will be able to go with us next time.” Yikes!

Sure he would promise to be great at the zoo and I’m sure he would be, but that doesn’t create a long-term change. This is similar to bribing a child to be good in the store or threatening them with a punishment. These may provide short-term changes but not necessarily a life change. Trips like the zoo are a privilege. If a child can’t be trusted to obey or not throw a fit or not hit their brother then loss of certain privileges will naturally occur.

This scenario loses its power when it is presented as a punishment. Because you hit your brother, you can’t go to the zoo! Ha! Now the child is mad at you. YOU are the problem. When consequences are presented matter-of-factly the child becomes his own problem. He doesn’t have to change his behavior at all. He can keep hitting his brother, but who knows what other privileges he will lose until he figures it out?

During a season, one of my kids who shall remain nameless lost the privilege of having a bedroom door. This was not a threat. One day the door was simply gone when he got home from school. “Oh, I’m sorry, but you have been really out of control at times lately and we need to be able to see you at all times. Once you regain your self-control, we’ll put the door right back on.“ This may seem like a punishment, but it’s not. The child lost the privilege of the door as a natural consequence of being out of control. Our demeanor was positive and affirming of the child’s potential to do the right thing. Then we waited for noticeable, long term improvement.

Find out what natural consequences you have control over.

Have the courage to take away a privilege and stick to it.

Give the child full responsibility to change his own behavior.

Here’s what it can sound like:

No, you can’t ride your scooter with your friends today because yesterday you pitched that huge fit and I can’t trust you to be out on the roads till I have seen you handle your frustration more calmly.

Sorry, early bedtime. Why? Honey you know you can’t talk to me like you did this morning. I’m assuming that you need more sleep if you were foolish enough to talk to me like that.

Oh no, you have three extra chores this week because I had to use my time to clean up your room after I asked you to three times. One time should be enough right?

No, I can’t let you go over to Joe’s house. Last week you had two missing assignments at school. Of course I can’t make you do your homework, but I can give you plenty of time to do it if you decide to.

No, you aren’t staying overnight at Jimmy’s tonight. You had trouble obeying and being respectful this week and I can’t let you be out with another family until I see an improvement.


Think beyond the moment. How do you teach and reinforce the skill you are working on with each of your kids? You can’t address everything at once, but focus on one area and go after it. One mom I recently spoke to was helping her 9 year old learn that “sometimes people have to do things that they don’t want to do and that’s OK.” Great life lesson! Bit my bit, moment by moment, this child was learning that sometimes everyone needs to do things they don’t want to do, and accepting that reality will be an incredible blessing for her family now and in the future.

What ONE area would help make your child a more pleasant person to live with? Personal responsibility? Obedience? Self control? Choose one and find an opportunity to use a delayed consequence rather than becoming emotionally involved in the moment. Just wait, kids. Just wait…

 The Power of a Delayed Consequence

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