Motivation of Imposing vs. Eliciting

In a recent conversation I had with a father, he told me that when his  sons were young he had attended a parenting seminar. He then related to me how using “natural” and “logical” consequences really helped him. He explained to me that the older son bullied the younger son. The father finally put the older son on the floor and with his foot upon his chest asked him how he felt when someone picked on him. The father said he never again had a problem with the older son picking on the younger son.

Regardless of what you label this approach, it is coercive and not the most effective one. The son stopped picking on his younger brother—not because it was the right thing to do—but because of fear of the parent.

When adults impose “logical” and/or “natural” consequences, authority is used as a form of punishment. It matters not if the adult’s intention is to teach a lesson. Imposed punishments increase the likelihood that the young person will feel punished by the adult. Anything that is done to another person prompts negative feelings.

In addition, when authority is used to impose, it deprives the young person of an opportunity to become more responsible. Working with a young person, rather than doing things to a person, is so much more effective. This approach avoids the problems typically associated with imposing something because (a) people do not feel like victims when they design their own consequence and (b) they are guided to focus on learning from the experience. By eliciting, rather
than by imposing, the person owns the consequence. People do not argue with their own decisions.

By imposing a logical or natural consequence, the responsibility for thinking about the nature of the consequence falls to the adult, rather than upon the young person. The young person (as opposed to the adult) should be the one required to do the thinking.

Here is an example in a school setting to help explain  the difference between something imposed and something elicited. A young student has scribbled on a wall or an older student has vandalized a wall with graffiti.

In a school where consequences are imposed, the adult would think about the situation and arrive at a consequence that seems fair and meaningfully related to the misbehavior. In this situation, the adult would decide that as an appropriate consequence the student should be required to clean up the mess on the wall. The adult would impose the consequence, thereby making it feel like punishment.

However, in a school using a collaborative approach of working with the student, the situation would be handled differently. The adult would expect the student to do the thinking, thus inducing  the student to take responsibility. Instead of imposing a consequence on the student, the adult would elicit an appropriate consequence from the student.

The student would be asked, “What do you think should happen now that you’ve marked on the wall making the school less attractive to everyone else?”

Because the student would be induced to think, you can imagine the student might say something like, “I should clean the wall.” The adult would agree that this would be a suitable consequence. Interestingly, in either case, the consequence is exactly the same; the person who committed the act cleans the wall.

You may ask, “What’s the big deal? If in both scenarios the situation ends up so that the young person cleans up the mess made on the wall, what does it matter who thought of the idea?” This is the critical difference. Learning, growth, and long-term change come as a result of reflecting about one’s actions and about the outcomes that may result from them. By being prompted to think about and determine the consequence, the student not only takes ownership and responsibility but also is more likely to make more responsible choices in the future.

In summary, the most effective way to promote responsibility—be it regarding inappropriate behavior, reducing apathy toward learning, or even with home assignments—is to elicit a consequence or a procedure to promote responsible behavior—rather than impose a “logical” or “natural” consequence.