Growing up there were two main punishments me and my cousins received if we acted up: timeout, or a spanking. Sometimes our moms threatened us with spanking using a "chancla" (sandal), a belt, or by hand. Given a choice between the two, I always preferred to be spanked by my mom. Timeout was awful. It’s hard to be quiet and sit still when you’re a little kid. At the time, I never really realized the impact not letting me choose the consequences for bad behaviors would have on me. Though I did get to choose — the lesser of three evils — I sometimes what would've happened if I had authority over my own behaviors and got to have a say in what I should have to do without because of the way I'd acted.
Now, as mom to two girls, I continuously waver on the “correct” discipline method. Spanking, or no spanking? Timeout, or no timeout? Right now, we are very firmly a no-spanking household, but my husband and I are big on timeouts and taking a moment to acknowledge bad behavior. Because of this, there are days when I feel like the killer of all things fun. Other days, all I hear myself say is, “no!" and “stop that!” Then come the threats. I threaten to take their toys away or to make them to X, Y, Z thing in response to bad behavior. In truth, telling my kids not to do something takes up a large percent of the daily interaction with them.
It feels as though I'm always threatening to do something: "I'm going to take away your doll/lego/Play-Doh," or "we won't go to the park/play date/ jump house." In my three years of parenting a very spirited 3-year-old girl, I’ve learned that taking something away usually results in a behavior change. But a threat with no follow-through rarely works.
Sometimes I just get tired of being the behavior officer, constantly on the lookout for any naughty behavior, ready and waiting to give out punishments to correct the offense. But is there something better I can doing when attempting to show my girls right from wrong? Does taking away something really matter? Do I need to raise my voice and put her in timeout to get her to behave?
Perhaps negotiating is the way to go and giving my daughter more say in deciding her own punishment rather than forcing one on her would be more beneficial.
For seven consecutive days, I allowed my 3-year-old daughter to decide her own consequences with one exception: if for some reason she was unable to land on a consequence, I would offer up two choices: 1. Timeout in her room or, 2. Take a moment and come back to the activity when ready.
I also prepped my daughter a few days before starting the experiment by asking her if she knew what a consequence was and then by giving her some examples — just so she could really grasp the meaning of the word when I asked her to pick her own.
I mentally prepared myself for the first day of the experiment during my drive home by praying that my 3 year old had napped. Typically, evenings are either difficult or easy depending on whether or not she has logged at least an hour-long nap. Napping usually means a calmer kid with fewer meltdowns. No nap means everything is a struggle and we spend the night sending her to timeout or taking things away.
Fridays are usually movie-and-pizza night, so my daughter was rightfully jazzed when I got home. She was so excited to see me and show me the snowman she made at school. The evening ran smoothly, and silly me, I thought I’d get through the first day without having to let her pick a consequence.
But then it was time for bed.
When I asked her to give her dad a kiss and hug goodnight she said, “I don’t care.” I told her that she was being rude and disrespectful. Again, she said she didn’t care, only this time with a little more attitude. Instead of sending her to her room to think about what she said and whom she was hurting, I put the experiment in action.
“B, you're talking back and being rude to both daddy and now to me. I can’t let you talk that way. What do you think your consequence should be?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, calming down and reaching for a hug. “Well, what do you think?” I asked again.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said and went over to my husband and gave him a kiss and a hug goodnight.
She allowed me to put her to bed without a fight, no tears, no back talk. Nothing.
I was pretty impressed with this first attempt, but also thought it was a fluke. No way would it be this easy the next six days.
Saturdays are hectic for us as we shuttle the kids from soccer practice to story time and sneak in errands here and there. For this reason alone, I anticipated at least one whiny episode in the morning, which did happen during cleanup time.
The girls made a huge mess in the playroom during the short time my husband and I got dressed, packed a diaper bag, dressed the girls, and downed coffee. When I instructed the girls to start cleaning up (mainly aimed at my eldest since a 1 year old is useless when it comes to cleaning anything), my daughter started to do her usual pushback and taking her time.
“C’mon start cleaning up," I told her as I tossed markers and crayons into a Tupperware bin and gathered up sheets of coloring paper. "I’ll help you but you need to put all the puzzle away."
“OK,” she said, taking the Frozen puzzle apart piece by piece, looking at each piece before putting it in the box. A few more minutes passed and not much progress had been made.
“B, let’s go please. We need to get to soccer practice.” “OK, mama,” she said before getting distracted by my husband who was in the family room putting the baby in the car seat.
“Come here and clean this up,” I asked for the third time.
“I don’t want to,” she whined.
If I'm honest, I really wanted to threaten to take away her puzzles unless she put them away, but instead I walked over to her, knelt down, and told her that she needed a consequence because she was not listening to my words and following directions.
“What should it be?” I asked her.
“It should be that I have to pick up my toys right now?” she asked. "Is that what you think it should be?” I countered.
“Yes, OK I’ll do it.”
And she did. In record speed. My husband and I stood in the living room completely fazed by what just happened.
“I didn’t expect that,” he said. Neither did I.
We were tantrum-free the rest of the day until bedtime. Getting ready for bed has been a struggle for a few months now so it’s not surprising that this is when things get hairy. When I told her it was time to go to her room and put on pajamas, she walked calmly to her room, got undressed, and let me put on her pajama top before going nuts. She ran from our room to her sister’s room, then back to our room where she started to roll on the floor. Where does this energy come from? And why do kids love to run around naked?
Instead of raising my voice and sending her to timeout until she calmed down, I asked her to come to her room and tell me what consequence she should have. She surprised me by saying it should be to “let me think,” and left the room and headed to our room. “What did you think about?” I asked her when she came back a few seconds later.
“A unicorn,” she said.
“OK, but do you think that’s what you should be thinking about?” I asked.
This daughter of mine told me she needed to think again and ran off. This time when she came back to me she said, “I think I want to be good.” She stepped into her pajama bottoms, went through our nighttime ritual, and went to bed without any meltdowns. I have to admit, it was nice not feeling like the enforcer, and I was able to get through the day without worrying whether or not I yelled too much, which was a really nice change of pace.
The weather was beautiful so we packed up the car and headed to a new park that’s steps away from a baby beach. The kids did surprisingly well at the crowded spot given that it was close to lunchtime and both are prone to hangry behavior. The rest of the day was spent playing in the sand, eating ice cream, and just letting B run around.
Then bedtime came around, and the power struggle arose once again.
Of course settling down for the night was difficult since she didn’t nap, but getting ready for bed also meant the end of craft time. My daughter's love for crafting is at an all-time high right now so she spent much of the evening putting stickers on cards for her classmates and coloring hearts.
I instructed her to pick a consequence when she continued coloring after I asked her to cleanup.
“I want a choice,” she told me, referring to the method we typically use, which is to give two choices for her to pick from (for instance, she could color one more and then clean up, or she could stop coloring now and we can read one book before bedtime). This wasn't totally in line with the rest of the experiment, but since she asked, I figured why not. I gave her the option of either having timeout in her room or to take a moment. She chose to take a moment and stopped coloring.
Unfortunately, the attitude did not stop there. When she took her time getting ready for bed, I told her it was time for consequence. “I have to go straight to bed and you clean up the mess,” she said.
“OK, then get to bed,” I told her as I started to pick up her discarded clothes and put them in the hamper. Of course she ran off to give her dad a hug first, but when he reached down to kiss her goodnight she got upset. For some reason she thought he would give in and let her stay up.
“I don’t want to go to bed,” she said, beginning to cry, “I’m so mad at you.” I reminded her that she needed to go to bed because a) it was late, and b) that was her consequence. However, the three of us stood there waiting for something to happen for a solid two minutes before anyone budged.
“Do you need a hug?” I asked her. Nodding her head, she reached for my husband and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry,” she told him.
Where did the apology come from? I have no clue, but it completely caught me off guard and made me wish I were the one she was hugging.
Day three proved insightful. Sometimes, rules need to be bent, and I don't need to be tied to one specific discipline method. My kids need different reactions from us in various situations. Maybe it’s a hug that will quell a tantrum instead of forcing them to think about what they are doing.
My daughter napped today which made the evening tantrum-free. After dinner she asked to play pretend and instructed me to be a student and she was the teacher. She set up all her My Little Ponies on her little table and began to “teach” them.
When I was playing school with her, I overheard her tell her Twilight Sparkle pony that if she did not behave there would be a consequence. “Oh, I’m going to listen,” my daughter stage whispered in the voice she used for Twilight Sparkle. She then told the doll that she could still play and that she didn't need a consequence.
Of course this caught my attention because not only does it show just how receptive she is, but it’s telling of how the way she’s disciplined affects her. I wasn't sure if I should be upset that she's disciplining her dolls or if I should be happy that the message is resonating.
Days 5 & 6
Absolutely no consequences were required these two days, not even during bedtime, which left me reeling. Why isn’t she acting up?
Perhaps not acting so quickly was part of the reason less discipline was required. During the duration of the experiment, I found myself letting some time pass before barging in with a consequence. No counting to five or threatening to send her to her room left more time for me to talk to my daughter about her behaviors. I'd ask her something three times and if by the third time she had not stopped doing it — for instance, taking a toy away from her sister or talking back — then I would dole out a consequence. Before this experiment started, I'd just send her to timeout or tell her to take a moment within seconds of the naughty behavior.
The final and last day of experiment started off smoothly... until late afternoon. My daughter had a hard time sharing with her sister. It's like, no matter what it is, the other one wants it and has to have it. My husband asked B to pick a consequence after she refused to share the Frozen microphone with her sister. Her response? “I need a consequence!”
When asked what it would be, she said she'd like to go to her room. After running up to her room and closing the door, we were left staring at one another. My daughter does not like having her door closed. Screams and tears are usually the result of having her door closed so it was surprising when she actually elected to shut the door.
A few seconds later we heard the door open and the sounds of her running to the top of the stairs. “Ready to join us?”
“No, not yet,” she yelled and ran back to her room. A few seconds later she came down the stairs and sat down by her sister on the bean bag and said she was ready to share now.
Will I Continue To Let My Daughter Decide Her Own Consequences?
When I first suggested this experiment, I thought I was setting myself up for failure. Not only would my daughter take complete advantage of the situation, but it would cause so much frustration.
I was wrong.
After the first two days of feeling anxious and worrying that my daughter would act up in public and I’d have to let her decide how she should be punished, allowing my daughter to decide her own consequence actually got easier. It was encouraging to see her really think about what she needed to do in order to get back into a space where she was ready to listen, share, and behave.
Not only is she able to grasp the meaning of a consequence, but she knew what she needed in order to help her feel better. Sometimes it was taking a breath, one time it was thinking about a unicorn, and another time she needed help picking a consequence.
I also discovered that I definitely don't need to yell or raise my voice to get her attention. I do not have to threaten to take something away or not let her do something fun. At least, not all the time. There are still situations that will require timeouts and taking something away, but now I know letting her play an active role in her discipline is also an option. Oh, and here's the kicker: I never once felt like I was the Fun Killer in this experiment, which was absolutely awesome.