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Boundaries #4 – Consequences

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (March 15, 2014)

This series is on the theme of boundaries with children. In the same way that sports can only be played with boundaries of a court and rules of the game, children can only grow with boundaries to help them know what they should do and what they shouldn’t. Children without boundaries often end up seeming spoilt and wanting their way. In look at boundaries, I have introduced the 5Cs of effective boundaries:

  1. Clarity – boundaries have to be clearly defined

  2. Consistency – boundaries have to be consistently implemented

  3. Consequences – consequences have to be given if boundaries are broken

  4. Cooperation – different parties within the household have to cooperate to implement boundaries

  5. Change – there is a need to change boundaries with time according to what is developmentally appropriate

We already looked at how it’s important to have clarity in giving boundaries. If expectations are not clearly defined and explained, it is difficult to understand and implement. For example, the boundary ‘sleep early’ isn’t clear but ‘sleep at 8pm’ is clear. We have also looked at how it’s important to be consistent in boundaries. If we expect one thing one day, and another thing on another day, it will cause confusion to the child.

The third aspect of setting boundaries is CONSEQUENCES. Often, I’ve heard parents tell me ‘I already tell my child to do x, y, and z. I have set boundaries! But he doesn’t listen!’ My next question is: “what happens when the don’t adhere to the boundary?” And sometimes, these parents don’t have a response, which goes to show me that no consequences are given.

Let’s use a tennis game as an analogy again. If a player hits a ball out of the court, the consequence is that he doesn’t get points and his opponent does. That motivates the players to not hit the ball out of bounds. However, imagine with me now that the player hits the ball out of the court, but the umpire gives both him and his opponent equal amount of points- that wouldn’t make sense!

Sometimes, kids step out of bounds but we don’t give them consequences for it. In that case, there is no incentive for them to change their behaviour. Let’s use packing a school bag as an example. Perhaps you’ve been clear (point 1) in telling your child that he has to pack his own school bag before going to bed. Perhaps you’ve even been consistent (point 2) in telling him to pack it every night before going to bed. But if you’re not implementing consequences (point 3) for when he doesn’t, there’s no motivation for him to pack his own schoolbag! If the bag gets packed for him every time he doesn’t do it, then it gives him no reason to do it on his own. It creates a negative atmosphere in the house because parents and caretakers are nagging but there is no reason for change in behaviour.

Sometimes, consequences can be as simple as letting things take their course. For example, if a child doesn’t pack his school bag and it doesn’t get packed for him, he might get in trouble for forgetting something. This natural consequence might be enough to motivate a child to change his behaviour.

However, in some cases, it might not be enough, and that is when created consequences have to be implemented. And my 2 rules of thumb are:

  1. give them something they don’t like (e.g. stand in the quiet corner, do more worksheets, write an apology letter)

  2. take away something they like (e.g. no computer games, no free time, no going out for dinner)

The challenge is sometimes finding the effective consequence for each child. For one child, taking video games away may be completely ineffective but for another child, it gets the point across. Bottom line is that it has to be something they care about.

So be creative with the consequences you give and remember to make them age-appropriate. The naughty corner might work when they’re 3 but certainly won’t work when they’re 13! Give consequences and you’ll see how helpful they are to implementing your boundaries.


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