Parents’ Guide to Setting and Enforcing Consequences

Many parents have great difficulty setting and enforcing appropriate consequences. It is one of the hardest jobs in the process of raising children.

I spend a lot of time counseling and working with parents on getting their kids to “mind”—listen, follow through, obey the rules, show respect, and take care of basic responsibilities. The inconsistencies and failures to elicit cooperative and productive behaviors are a nemesis that afflicts most families at times, especially during certain stages of children’s development. But for many families, wayward, disrespectful, dismissive, and out-of-control behaviors are the bane of their family life. It is a phenomenon that’s all too common, usually causing extreme stress, dissatisfaction, and hostility. It often results in family dysfunction and children inadequately developing the discipline and self-management skills they need to adapt and cope effectively.

Why is getting kids to behave properly so elusive and difficult? Most of the parents I deal with are intelligent, responsible, and successful. They love their kids, and are themselves highly effective and accomplished in their adult lives (many are professionals, executives, and managers). Yet when it comes to controlling their children, they are often abjectly frustrated and ineffectual.

This article provides a concise guide to becoming more efficacious in setting and enforcing consequences in order to increase desired behaviors and reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviors.

I have written extensively about using scientific and pragmatic behavioral methods in articles and in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times. I also often counsel and advise parents on strategies and tactics for applying successful methods of behavior modification, tailoring behavior plans specific to their needs and helping them implement these strategies and tactics to obtain desired outcomes.

I will try to distill and summarize the key points and concepts parents need to know to change their children’s behaviors. First, let’s review the most common problem behaviors that call for change.

Kids’ Behaviors That Parents Want to Change

Here are typical behaviors that cause problems for families:

  • Disrespect, talking back
  • Homework
  • Chores and household responsibilities
  • Going to bed and getting up
  • Getting ready to leave the house
  • Arguing and bargaining
  • Making excuses
  • Anger; tantrums; meltdowns
  • Spending too much time on devices, games, social media
  • Avoidance and forgetting
  • Lying
  • Stealing; taking things without asking
  • Drugs and alcohol; smoking

There are, of course, many behaviors that you may want to change (including modifying your own habits or the behavior of peers); but the list above comprises the top “hits” that typically exasperate parents.

What Parents Typically Do and Why It Doesn’t Work

You have probably tried several things to reform your child’s behavior. Topping the list is the proverbial repeating yourself ad nauseam (until you’re nauseous or blue in the face, as the saying goes). This is usually accompanied by escalating voice volume and tone. You may have explained to your child why it's important to do what you ask. If your child is rebellious or blatantly disrespectful, even nonthreatening reminders or requests can trigger refusal, hostility, and mounting conflict. More typically, though, your child either says, “Okay” to simply placate you, or offers excuses, promises, rationalizations, or illogical and transparent defensive arguments. None of this produces the desired results. You’ve threatened to take things away. Then, you’ve followed through and actually taken things away: phone, computer, video game privileges, etc. This usually results in either heated objections—“It’s not fair!”—from your child or passive and resentful resignation. Either way, you may get limited and begrudging compliance, but this tactic usually fails, especially in establishing the habit over the long run.

You’ve given it your best shot, and you’re quickly out of “ammunition” to combat your child’s resistance and obstinate habits. “Taking away” what your child values may irritate him, cause friction and stress, and make you feel “mean” and ultimately powerless. You can’t understand why your child won’t follow some simple rules or directions to regain his privileges and make everybody happy. Moreover, your list of “takeaways” or incentives to motivate your child is extremely limited—often boiling down to a phone, game, and/or computer access.

I have these conversations with parents many times each week. I hear the exasperation and the helplessness—and I know where the errors occur.

Parents frequently tell me that they are inconsistent in their implementation of consequences, or that each parent has differing standards, expectations, and strictness codes. Parents may blame each other for being too lenient, too harsh, too uninvolved, or too absent. Oftentimes, the child has special needs or developmental issues that impair or interfere with attention, comprehension, memory, or follow-through. But these individual differences do not overshadow or account for the habit-forming effects of environmental consequences—including the ones you may not intend or recognize.

The bottom line is that all people “get away” with the behaviors that they can. Habits are easily formed, and we act out of preference, self-interest, and the effects (including toleration) of consequences. It is usually not malicious or even intentional. It is simply selfish preoccupation, governed by the principles of reinforcement, the behavioral force that controls what we repeat. For example, if I could park my car wherever I want without getting a ticket or being towed, I would. I don’t like this about myself, but I know it’s true. How about you? Aren’t you motivated and controlled by what you know or expect will happen?

Your child “gets away” with disobedience or subpar performance because he can “weather” or tolerate the consequences, even if he doesn’t like them or they run counter to his interests. Your yelling and threats may temporarily inhibit or frighten him into acquiescence (along with inducing anxiety and resentment); but his tolerance for this predictable response will inevitably increase, thereby conditioning you to repeat yourself with increasing sternness and allowing your child to “wait” until you are in his face before he complies. It’s a familiar dance: awkward, frustrating, and detrimental. You have trained each other into exasperating, maladaptive behaviors. Parents typically say, “But if I don’t raise my voice, he won’t move!” Yes, because that’s the reinforcement paradigm you have inadvertently set up.

What Is Reinforcement and How Does It Work?

This principle of reinforcement denotes the strengthening or encouragement of behaviors contingent upon consequences that raise the likelihood that those behaviors will reoccur. We say that a behavior (noticeable or otherwise) has been reinforced when it maintains or increases in frequency, intensity, or duration.

Reinforcement has some very interesting characteristics and properties. For one thing, it is, as in the case of gravity, an equal-opportunity force. (Reinforcement and gravity don’t care! They exert their effects relentlessly and predictably, regardless of whether these effects help you or harm you). Reinforcement will exert influence upon behaviors you like and behaviors you don’t like. It is a scientific control mechanism and a fundamental operating principle in our universe. For another matter, reinforcement is ubiquitous; it occurs when you plan it, and it also operates behind your back. The good news is that if you take charge of reinforcement and harness it, you can exert a great deal of control. The not-so-good news is that reinforcement occurs in your life quite routinely, whether or not you recognize or understand it. Thus, behaviors and habits that persist can do so only because they are being reinforced. The really bad news is that this reinforcement often occurs without your knowledge or ability to stop it. Thus, that bad habit you can’t seem to break (like yelling), that irresistible temptation to play video games or engage in other online activities, your child’s persistent talking back or arguing are all being reinforced, despite your will to have it otherwise and your best efforts to cease rewarding or encouraging the unwanted behavior. Don’t despair. There’s also good news about entrenched habits, but you will have to read further to understand how to make the habit-breaking procedure work.

Elevator Behaviors

I encourage parents to think about behaviors in objective terms. I sometime refer to elevators as a concrete analogy: elevators go up and down. What makes them go up and down is an electromechanical arrangement operating by physics and controlled by signals given to the elevator by its passengers. When the elevator circuitry receives a call from a certain floor, it goes to that floor. It queues the calls in sequence and executes that sequence without preference or concern for the whims or desires of passengers. If you press the wrong button, or if someone presses a different button ahead of you, the elevator will take you to the location dictated by the call. Undoubtedly, you have occasionally expected an elevator to go down, only to feel the surprising compression as the lift pulls you to an ascending floor. A working elevator is always correct, even though it may take you in an undesired direction. It operates according to principles and instructions, even the ones you didn’t think were given.

Behaviors are much like elevators in that they go up and down, and they operate faithfully according to rules and principles—in this case, those described by learning theory. If the behaviors you don’t like (the bad habits) are persisting or increasing, then someone or something is pressing the call button that keeps them in the up direction. In psychology, this principle is known as reinforcement, which was described earlier.

There are two “take home” messages in this elevator analogy:

  1. If a behavior persists (although you may not like it), it is somehow being reinforced (even if you are not consciously or intentionally doing so). Thus, the encouragement system that keeps behaviors is working just fine—but it is working well against you rather than for you. This is what bad habits are all about.
  2. Reinforcement only makes behaviors more so: stronger, more likely, increased frequency, harder to counteract or reverse. Reinforcement never makes behaviors go down. To make behaviors go down or away, you need to use another method.

Reducing or Eliminating Behaviors

The behaviors that parents most frequently and urgently want to change in their children are typically those that are unpleasant or annoying: behaviors that are disruptive, disrespectful, negative, inappropriate, or disorganizing.

This presents a problem because reinforcement never reduces or weakens behaviors; it only strengthens them. Reinforcement is the “elevator up button.” To make behaviors lessen, you must use another method. The best method to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviors is to impose a response cost upon the occurrence of those behaviors.

A response cost is some predictable and specified payment for the commission of an act that’s against the rules. It’s not punishment. But it has a strong deterring effect. For instance, parking tickets are response costs that tend to govern and inhibit or limit illegal parking. Paying interest on your credit card is another type of response cost that may induce you to pay your balance to avoid extra charges. In these cases, the rules are known and the costs are determined by your discretion and your behavior.

Because children (many people, actually) often get attention by disruptive or negative behaviors, the behavioral temptation is to criticize or lash out in response to these acts. Unfortunately, any such response—even just noticing the behavior—simply reinforces the behavior due to attention to it (even “negative” attention). Thus, yelling and criticism become traps that reinforce and perpetuate the cycle. The unwanted behavior remains persistent.

The better method is to impose response costs.

Consequences That Work Using Reinforcement

You probably routinely use and have used “consequences” as a natural method of responding to behaviors without thinking of them as austere or “heavy duty” consequences. A consequence is simply a result: an association or relationship between cause and effect, typically one that can be analyzed and predicted.

Consequences happen naturally and routinely because, as we act upon the world, it responds to us. This is nothing new or enlightening. However, you can facilitate and manipulate the outcomes of behavioral interactions by noticing what effects typically result when behaviors are exhibited and what the consequences—intentional or otherwise—are doing to influence and strengthen the behavior.

The easiest way to do this is to observe what your child likes to do, have, or use. If he spends a lot of time online, using his phone, playing video games, and so forth, these are known as high probability behaviors. Other behaviors you might want him to do more of (such as homework, chores, speaking respectfully, etc.) can be seen as low probability behaviors. The idea is to schedule and condition his access to his high probability behaviors contingent upon his engaging in more low probability behaviors. (This is known as “bubbameister psychology” or “Grandma’s rule”: First, you do what I want. Then, you can do what you want.”)

In addition to utilizing high probability behaviors as reinforcements for strengthening low probability behaviors, you can also use material rewards, privileges, and other tangible and intangible commodities that will serve as incentives.

This is probably not new to you. The difficulty often lies in finding reinforcements that really work to motivate your child—and in rescinding reinforcements that are stubbornly in place without creating unbearable stress or conflict. This is where the use of response costs becomes instrumental.

Whereas the stubborn child may not be readily motivated or induced by “rewards” that are intended as reinforcement, once response costs are introduced as the “other side of the coin” in managing behaviors, the child usually becomes more interested in winning—that is, earning what reinforcement brings and avoiding response costs.

Consequences That Work Using Response Costs

A response cost is a consequence that predictably follows a behavior, one that costs the person exhibiting a behavior that is undesirable or against the rules. For example, a parking ticket is a response cost. It’s something you have to pay for committing an infraction.

Response costs become very effective tools for reducing unwanted behaviors for several reasons:

  1. They are predictable ways you can respond to bad behaviors by imposing a cost upon the behavior. The cost has a deterrent effect instead of a reinforcing effect you may not intend (such as when you yell, threaten, or criticize the behavior).
  2. Response costs involve very little work on your part, once you set up the rules and contingencies (if you do this, then you pay that).
  3. Response costs are very economical, since they cost the child, not you.
  4. Response costs can be material (such as forfeiting money or possessions for a period of time)—or they can be costs imposed in the form of work: for instance, if your child acts disrespectfully or fails to turn in his homework, you can require him to clean the toilet for each undesirable act or transgression.
  5. Response costs are very effective ways of controlling the child who “doesn’t care” when you take away his computer, phone, or privileges. It’s one thing to “adjust” to having things taken away. It’s another matter to have to do some odious work as a direct consequence for misbehavior.

By setting up a system of reinforcements and response costs, you cover all the bases for the outcomes of your child’s choices. It is an intentional, carefully structured “win-lose” paradigm. If he does required things correctly, he gains what he likes, wants, or needs. If he fails to comply or cooperate, he loses things upon which he depends or takes for granted.

Legions of difficult children control their parents by weathering takeaways; they seem to not care and they adjust to being without. The parent says, in frustration, “When I take away (whatever is important), he simply adjusts and continues to misbehave. He doesn’t seem to care.”

Here’s the truth: he does care, but since he can’t overrule your taking things away—and since he doesn’t want to change his behavior—he settles for the best control he can manage, an effective one indeed: he gets to continue in his ways, to frustrate you, and to be in control of the situation, by passive default. You see, the most powerful reinforcement available to your child is to have his way, while you can’t do anything to change his behavior, try as you might. This may sound peculiar, but it happens all the time. Think about this: you can take things away, get frustrated, yell, cajole, wheedle, criticize, and bargain (just like your child), but you cannot actually force him to do his homework or remember his chores! And he resists passively, taking the easy way out, quietly (and often subliminally) taking satisfaction in your frustration and powerlessness. All he has to “pay” is enduring your lectures and doing without his devices—a small price for continuing to behave irresponsibly. No wonder your appeals and incentives haven’t gotten him to perform! Being in control and continuing his inertia trumps the lure and promise of “rewards.”

The game changes, however, when you introduce systematic response costs. When these are in place, you child can no longer just be passive, apologize, and wait you out. With this system, each infraction costs him—predictably and reliably—in possessions, privileges, imposed work, or some combination thereof. Failures to perform may result in:

  • Forfeiture of devices for a short and specified time period
  • Payment of money (this can be integrated with earnings as reinforcement for good behaviors)
  • Menial, repetitive work (such as cleaning, writing apologies, climbing up and down stairs on a schedule, even transferring pennies from one jar to another)
  • Sleeping without a pillow
  • Wearing dowdy or “unhip” clothing for a day
  • Recording and/or delivering verbal apologies to teachers or family members

You can get creative with response costs. The idea is to be effective, not mean. Find things that your child does not want to have to do or relinquish, and establish these as predictable costs for disallowed behaviors.

Earnings Are Better Than Takeaways

The biggest mistake that parents make is taking things away and expecting that this will correct and motivate a resistant or difficult child. Yes, taking away what he values or threatening to do so may work with the less difficult child, and it may seem to work at first with the more resistant child; but for reasons explained previously, the takeaways become ineffective and breed resentment and powerlessness.

There is a better method to train behaviors: rather than confiscate when the child misbehaves (this is a reactive response that puts your child’s misbehavior in control of the interactions and relationship), make him earn what he takes for granted by putting those things on a contingency reinforcement schedule. For example, instead of taking away the phone or computer access, make them conditional on a day-by-day basis, dependent upon his fulfillment of required behaviors. “If you complete your homework and turn it in, then you can watch TV/play video games for the allotted time the following day.” “When you go 12 waking hours without arguing, fighting, or disrespecting, then you may have your phone for 12 hours.” “When you give me your phone for the evening and get into bed on time without my reminding you, then you may have your phone back in the morning.”

By pairing what he takes for granted with specific desirable behaviors, you create reinforcements explicitly associated with what your child wants (or gets anyway). This puts you in the position of authority and control and allows you to shape appropriate behaviors by scheduling and pairing those consequences with the completion of adaptive behaviors.

By making his desired “payoffs” contingent upon the behaviors you want, you are teaching him obedience, compliance, and predictability of reward for effort. You’re also taking control in a positive and sustaining manner, rather than being the “bad cop” with impulsive emotional reactions to misbehaviors that your responses (without a sensible reinforcement plan) will tend to inadvertently encourage and strengthen.

As a responsible adult, you pay for your car, your home, your phone, and other items by routinely “earning them.” If you had to respond to constant threats of repossession, eviction or discontinuation of service, that would be a resentful and miserable business, indeed!

Use the old adage, How you make your bed, that’s how you’ll sleep, to teach your child that his comfort will follow his correct behavior.

Revising the Unwritten Rules

Every family and every relationship has unwritten rules that set expectations and determine follow-through and the effects of consequences. The unwritten rules often describe the discrepancies between stated rules and allowances when the rules are breached. “Do as I say, not as I do” may be the mantra for failing to enforce the stated consequences if the child disobeys or doesn’t follow through.

When you tell your child to do (or not do) something, yet allow him the option to defy your rule by weathering the ineffective consequences, you are inadvertently teaching him that he doesn’t really have to comply—as long as he can tolerate some brief censure, disapproval, or discomfort. The dog with no teeth is really no threat. You must revise the rules—justified only by your compassionate authority—to include response costs that make desired behavior mandatory, rather than optional.

Family dysfunction really becomes apparent when a child’s sense of entitlement supersedes enforcement of the stated rules and the expectation that the child must earn what he gets and not assume or take for granted that possessions or privileges are automatic.

Aside from the very basics—food, shelter, basic clothing, and medical care—everything is up for re-negotiation and re-pricing: consumables, TV/device time, privacy (yes, you can remove the door to your child’s room to get his attention), social privileges, even transportation (he can walk or bicycle to school).

The watchwords are: learn and earn. When you announce that there’s a new sheriff in town, your child will have to learn and abide by the new set of rules, simply because you have the authority to set and enforce them. Despite initial resistance, your child will gradually conform and ironically will like the new rules because they give him a chance to exert self-discipline and competence.

You must develop confidence and consistency in saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and following through with predictability and reliability.

Establishing the New Rules and the Child's Buy-In

Because some parents are skeptical, hesitant, or lacking in confidence in their ability to implement a new program to reform their child’s behavior, they might—despite their desperation—be understandably cautious and tentative about introducing tactics that address the prickly matters of eliciting consistent cooperation and compliance.

In order to establish control and stimulate your child's buy-in and enthusiasm, I recommend the following:

  1. Announce that you have given much thought to your demands and expectations and have decided that your child deserves more rewards. (This is likely to get his attention.)
  2. Present your child with a list (previously compiled, perhaps with the help of a professional) of potential rewards or incentives. This list would comprise a combination of things your child likes, does, consumes, and takes for granted that can serve as incentives for desired behaviors. Tell him that you are going to start “paying” him for things you have required previously without payment: brushing teeth, talking respectfully, turning in his homework, cleaning up, etc. He will like this!
  3. Ask him to review the list and suggest additional items. The list can include special treats, privileges, time spent with parents and friends, new items, dinners he likes, etc.
  4. Review the specific behaviors required to earn these items and the “trade-in” value of the points or markers he earns—e.g., brushing teeth on time earns 6 markers; 8 markers are needed for a dessert or treat, and so forth.
  5. Focus on the specific behaviors you want more of, and ask your child several times if he is able to do those behaviors (because you want to make sure he earns the reinforcements). By repeatedly verifying that he feels capable, you are subtly reinforcing his commitment and confidence and gaining evidence of his attitude that prevails over excuses.

After your child becomes eager about being "paid" to do expected behaviors, you can then reveal that there are also response costs for not performing adequately—e.g., failing to brush teeth on time will require him to forfeit points or markers to you.

The purpose and goal of the presentation is to let your child know that it is now possible for him to experience repeated big wins—tangible payoffs—in performing the tasks you have expected anyway.

A viable and well-designed behavior modification system (probably crafted and implemented with professional help) will teach your child by natural consequences that there are rewards for doing what he’s supposed to do and response costs for failing to do so. Once he's hooked by the appeal of winning—i.e., the ease of "getting more"—your job of enforcement will become a lot easier and more fruitful.

Children Grow Up (and Sometimes Fall Down)

The universal rules that govern behavior and the unwritten rules that vary with family dynamics apply to people of all ages. Reinforcement and response costs influence the actions of adolescents and adults, as well as young children. Setting adaptive patterns earlier in life saves much aggravation and trouble later on. However, it’s never too late to change habits. It’s tempting to give up and blame yourself (or another family member) when a child has gone astray. Don’t give in to hopelessness and resentment. Rather, take charge with the principles and methods that work! Even when things seem routine and relatively peaceful in a child’s younger years, adolescence and adulthood can bring trauma and crises to the most loving and supportive families: rebellion, drug addiction, criminal activities, deception. What will you do if these afflictions befall your family? The best solution is to love your offspring dearly and set and enforce appropriate limits and workable consequences to restore order and control in your family. It may be that you have only limited success with the recalcitrant child, but you will protect the rest of your family and finances—and you will find security, confidence, and a relieved conscience in knowing that you did your best and that it has to suffice.

When Parents Back Down

Along with the “big mistake” of reactively taking things away to address noncompliance, most parents have too little assuredness and too much anxiety in setting limits and enforcing consequences. They are afraid—not so much of their children, but of themselves. Parents fear the following:

  • Insisting that the child perform when he really can’t (i.e., he has some condition that disables him from acting correctly)
  • Doubling down on demands or discipline will have debilitating effects on the child’s mental health
  • The child will dislike or disrespect them (even more)
  • Confrontation, embarrassment, and increase anxiety

The undergirding fear becomes overriding and interferes with steadily implementing a rational and planned system for eliciting and shaping appropriate behaviors.

It’s a sad truth that I reveal from decades of experience: despite their good intentions, love, hard work, and commitment, parents who live with a defiant, unruly, and maladaptive kids develop a resentment and hatred (yes, a strong word, but frequently an unconscious dynamic in the parent’s emotions and behaviors) of their poorly socialized and uncooperative child. When you have a dog that chews your clothes and furniture, soils your home, and even bites you, patience and tolerance eventually reach limits.

My advice: get professional help to set and enforce consequences using scientifically validated behavioral methods. Along with the behavioral strategies, get help in eliminating your own anxieties about taking charge on your child’s behalf and in the best interests of all family members.

Children are a blessing, but you have to train them. It’s hard to succeed when you don’t know what you’re doing, misinterpret or attempt to rationalize the obvious cause and effect results, and spend a lot of your time and energy trying to contain yourself and mollify your negative emotions.

If you are in a continuing power struggle with your child, take note of the fact that you are losing the respect, the control of your child, the positive influence you could otherwise exert, and the ability to command your emotions and judgment. To avert a potential disaster, you must be willing to replace the flawed and ineffectual child-rearing tactics you may currently be employing with a functional system of behavioral consequences that will equip your child with the proper cause and effect learning and pragmatic tools he requires to mature adaptively and succeed in life.

Frustration and disobedience can wear you down and make you feel alone. Take heart! You are not alone. Get the right guidance and hands-on assistance, so your child can bring you more of the joy and satisfaction for which you’ve been hoping.