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Parenting: Consequences

Ron Thow is the father of 11 year old Ben. He has a research interest in family and developmental psychology.

One of the major functions of the Father and Child Trust in Canterbury is conducting a parent education programme.

This operates under the SKIP Initiative – Strategies with Kids Information for Parents – part of a positive parenting programme created by the Ministry of Social Development and operated by various organisations around New Zealand.

Most recently the Trust has developed a Tantrum-Buster programme, designed to go into the homes of parents and offer practical advice on children’s behaviours that might be causing concern. Think of it as a male version of super-nanny and you aren’t too far off the mark!

Tantrums are one of those stages that even the most angelic child goes through. As part of the Tantrum-Buster programme I get to talk to lots of different parents and certain issues and behaviours tend to crop up on a fairly regular basis.

One of the most common issues that comes up is deciding the difference between those developmentally normal, or expected behaviours, and those that signal that trouble might be looming on the horizon.

Children go through huge changes biologically, mentally and emotionally as they grow and often these changes aren’t gradual and smooth as they tend to be described in the parenting books.. The tantrums of the terrible two’s are a good example. This is a fairly common developmental stage.

At this point your child is learning that they are an individual and that the word ‘no’ that they have been hearing regularly can be used to drive Mum and Dad absolutely nuts (this is just an entertainment bonus for your child).

Children form their own likes and dislikes as they soak up information and experiences like very short sponges. After all, there are important lessons about the world to be learned by pouring a glass of juice on the floor!

How we as parents react to these phases has a big effect on how embedded some of the behaviours might become. Reacting strongly to a tantrum and worse, giving in to it makes that tantrum a powerful tool in the a child’s arsenal. Ignoring it, and the attached demands, will mean that it tends to be dropped quickly as an ineffective option, allowing your child to move onto trying some other parent-controlling experiment.

Thinking about consequences

Children take many years to develop complex problem-solving behaviours and how effectively they do so is very much determined by the sorts of problem-solving strategies that their parents model for them. One important aspect of this development in children is thinking about the consequences of an action or a behaviour.

Younger children especially don’t really consider the consequences of their actions, they simply aren’t ‘big picture’ people, except maybe when it comes to impromptu murals on the hall wallpaper.

For most children drawing on the wallpaper is a sensible solution to having run out of paper.

The younger the child, the more direct the response is likely to be to the problem. As children develop they become more socially aware and complex in their problem-solving and start considering alternative options based on their experiences. Of what has and hasn’t worked in the past.

In fact, recent developmental research suggests that young people may not fully capable of considering the full consequences of their actions right through to their late teens or even early twenties. Many in the 30 year-plus age brackets may find this a bit hard to accept as we remember how very responsible and grown-up we all were in our own teenage years..

Of course considering consequences is different from being responsible.

Failing to consider the consequences of their intentions is a major underlying reason that most teens (especially males) tend to think that they are 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.

Risk-taking behaviours of all sorts tend to peak in the late teens/early twenties and it often isn’t until mid/late twenties that young people start to think twice about the wisdom of some of their actions and the potentially lethal, expensive or legal outcomes that might be attached to them.

So, with all that to look forward to, it is part of our role as parents to help our children to develop an understanding of the results of their behaviours as early and completely as we are able. One technique is to ’kickstart’ the process of thinking about consequences..

We parents need to talk our children through the process each time if we want them to understand the consequences of their behaviours. Then we are actually modelling the process for them, obvious huh?!. This process means that children tend to start thinking earlier about different consequences, which in turn leads to the development of better decision-making skills at a younger age.

This modelling is as simple as just having a conversation (at an age appropriate level of course) about what has happened and maybe a couple of different things that your child could have done to have a different outcome – simple things like explaining that felt or crayon is hard to clean off the wallpaper and that drawing on the wall will probably result in a punishment next time.

Then you could ask about better places to draw and why they are more suitable. An important feature of these conversations is to ask questions, engaging your child in actively thinking about what might happen if they do different things. This also starts a habit of discussion with your child that will become really useful as they develop and their understanding of your expectations develops as well.

And of course washable wallpaper, paint and pens make the whole process so much easier to be philosophical about!

Next: The Killer Within

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