Matching Behavior and Consequence

When a child doesn’t know how to do math, we teach them.  When a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach them.  When a child doesn’t know how to behave, we punish them.  What’s wrong with this picture?

This blog is a summary of a fascinating interview I did with my friend Bradley McCallister on the Let’s Parent on Purpose Podcast.  Bradley has a Masters in Christian Counseling and has worked with foster and adoptive parents for five years with Bethany Christian Services as a licensed professional counselor.  Additionally, he and his wife are recent adoptive parents of a special needs teenager from Ethiopia.

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I HIGHLY recommend you actually listen to the podcast, as well as checking out Bradley’s company Redirected Wood Company, which supports his family’s adoptive journey though costume made reclaimed wood projects.

All kids are different, but many parents reading this have children who have been brought into their homes from traumatic backgrounds.  As Bradley states in the interview, researchers have found that with these kids, punishing behavior doesn’t actually get them to change their behavior.  It might encourage them to isolate or get sneakier with it, but not necessarily change it.  Even with kids that have “normal” backgrounds, we must remember that our goal is never to simply get our kids to “stop doing that”.  There’s some behavior we would much rather them do.

There’s no way to give an exhaustive list of behaviors and consequences here.  So I’ll nail down the main principal and then highlight a few examples.

  • Your ultimate goal is to train appropriate behavior in your child.  There’s a spiritual parallel.  In our sanctification process as followers of Jesus, God’s goal for our lives is not that we would simply “stop sinning”.  It’s that we would live righteously, evidenced by our love of God and love of others.  God wants us to put off the old man and put on the new man.  You want your child to put off these unacceptable behaviors and put on appropriate and helpful ones.
  • One of the recurring mistakes we make as parents is to meet unacceptable emotional behavior with unacceptable emotional behavior.  If a child (or teen) is inappropriate in their attitudes, emotions, or level of respect they show us, the LEAST helpful thing we can do is blow up at them, emotionally cut them down, or go over the top with consequences exponentially worse than the crime.  In essence, when we do that we are teaching them that whoever is bigger and stronger gets to physically and emotionally force others to do what they want.  We are training them to blow up on their wives, their kids, their coworkers, and their friends.  (Hey, I am writing this as truth.  And it’s true that I’m guilty.  I’ve got three children within 30 months in age.  I’ve overreacted PLENTY).
  • In general, our standard with unacceptable behavior should be
    1. Swallow your boiling emotions and pray for God’s grace
    2. Call out the unacceptable behavior specifically, explaining why it’s not acceptable and what would be acceptable.
    3. Provide a reality based consequence (example: in the real world if you don’t pay your house payment you get your house repossessed.  In the home if you don’t do your chores you lose your opportunity to go places because work affords us the opportunity to play).
    4. When appropriate provide an opportunity for them to redo the behavior correctly.
    5. Celebrate and affirm the correct behavior.
    6. In all of this, treat them with love and respect, because, in the big picture, this is a more important character trait than perfect performance at tasks.

So what should you do when…

  • Your children are arguing and fighting with one another?
    • Explain how this is unacceptable because everyone in your house is way too valuable to fight with.  Suggest ways they can encourage one another and build each other up.  Since their fighting is causing stress in your life, give them jobs they must do together to receive stress from your life.  They will likely buck and fight, so just keep giving them more consequences to do together until the lightbulb clicks that they get their time and freedom back when they learn to work together.
  • Your child is stealing
    • Stealing is a huge breach of trust.  A matching behavior should match the loss of trust.  For example, rather than being allowed to go out and be with friends, explain “unfortunately, since you are stealing, I’m not able to have you out of my line of sight.  So you’re going to stay here with me and we will have to figure out things for you to do where I’m able to watch you until we can build trust again.”  Or perhaps, the consequence might include selling or giving away some of the child’s possessions to make up for the financial loss of what they stole.
  • Your child is disrespectful towards you.
    • Remember that behavior should make you curious.  If they are young, perhaps they don’t yet know that their behavior is disrespectful.  So you will need to instruct them, give them time to pause and think about it, and then give them an opportunity to try again.
    •  If they are older, perhaps they are modeling the lack of respect that the adults are showing in the home.  If mom and dad are biting and snappy with one another, or with their kids, its natural that you’re going to get that back. Talk to your teens, ask them where the emotions and snappiness are coming from.  Establish that its unacceptable for members of the house to talk to one another that way.  Give them chances to correct, and also begin to withhold privileges (nights out, driving them places, etc.) until they show they can improve.

It’s important to remember that most behaviors don’t happen overnight, and most aren’t going to be fixed the first time you give a consequence (just like your besetting sin issues have taken years to sanctify).  But hold on, stay consistent, and as you train up a child in the way they should go, when they are old, they won’t depart from it. Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before….

For a more in depth analysis of this topic, be sure to check out LPOP 46: Matching Behavior and Consequence.


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