Use Contingencies, not Consequences, to Discipline

Although consequences can be either positive or negative, when parents refer to “consequences” for discipline purposes, these are often in terms of threats or punishments that are imposed. Using an imposed consequence to discipline only works when a young person finds value in the relationship or when the person sees value in what he is being asked to do. Otherwise, people perceive an imposed consequence in negative terms because of the inference, “Do this—or else!” It threatens pain or discomfort should the young person fail to comply with the demand.

Such is the case when the adult says, “If you continue to do that, then this is what is going to happen to you.” Additionally, telling a youngster, “You chose to do that and now you must realize the consequence” is not discipline; it’s a pseudo choice and plays a mind game. It prompts the young person to feel as though he or she brought on the punishment.

The timeless “If your work is not finished, you’re not going” is also perceived negatively. Even worse, the adult workload is now greater because the adult has the added task of checking that the work is finished before giving the child permission to go. This approach transfers the responsibility away from the young person—where it belongs—to the adult.

A more effective discipline approach than imposing consequences is to use contingencies because they paint positive pictures and empower. Contingencies prompt people to feel better, not worse.

Here is what a contingency sounds like: “Yes, you may do that, as long as you first do this.”

And here is an actual example: “Yes, you may go to the park, as long as your room is clean.”  

Contingencies are very effective because they promise with a positive—rather than threaten with a negative the way imposed consequences do. Test this on yourself. Reflect on which of the following you would rather hear:

A. “If you don’t finish, you’re not going.” (negatively stated consequence)

B. “Certainly you may go—as soon as your work is completed.” (positively stated contingency)

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