Example of Reasonable and Enforceable Consequences

Setting: A 10-year-old boy has been leaving his bike lying in the driveway. His parents frequently have to stop their car, get out and move the bike, then get back in the car and drive into the garage. Not only is this annoying, but a less careful or alert driver might hit or run over the bike. Obviously, here is a problem that needs to be solved using logical consequences before the natural consequences of a smashed bike result in even bigger problems: replacing or repairing a bike, and perhaps repairing damages to a car.

Giving the boy a piece of one’s mind, a good scolding, a heavy dose of logic, a spanking, and the pronouncement that “If I ever see that bike lying in the driveway again, you won’t see it for a month-if you ever see it again!” is obviously worse behavior than leaving the bike in the driveway.

The better way is to decide in advance exactly what the boy is expected to do with his bike. This might be as simple as having him put his bike on the lawn, against the house, beside the porch, or out of the way in the garage. This, then, becomes the expectation of the boy’s behavior. Knowing in advance the expectations of his behavior is of primary importance. Next, the parents must decide how to state their expectation to the boy so he fully understands it, and can demonstrate that he understands it! This is best accomplished in a simulation or role playing exercise. It might go like this:

Dad: “Son, I notice you really enjoy riding your bike. It’s neat having a bike. I sure enjoyed mine when I was a boy. What do you like best about your bike?”

Note: Start on a positive note, and be brief. Stop after a few seconds and give the boy a chance to respond. For example, the 32 words I used above take between 11 to 12 seconds to say. When you ask a question, be sure it invites a substantive response. Don’t invite a yes or no response. If the boy says, “Gee, Dad, I don’t know,” probe a little. Say something like, “Tell me one thing.” The chances are 95 out of 100 that after you have probed only two times, the boy will come forth with a substantive response, as follows.

Son: Well, I like it because I like to run around on bikes with my friend, Joe.”
Dad: “Ya, Good example. Biking around with your friends can be a lot of fun.”

Note: Once an acceptable response is forthcoming, reinforce the response with an enthusiastic acknowledgment, and perhaps even a bit of embellishment: “Biking around with your friends can be a lot of fun.”

Dad: “Son, I have one concern. You sometimes leave your bike lying in the driveway, and before I can drive into the garage, I have to move it out of the way. And besides, leaving your bike in the driveway could be dangerous. How can that be dangerous?”

Note: In expressing your concern, do two things: First, state your concern calmly and in only a few words. No lectures! Secondly, make your concern his concern by inviting him to tell you what he has to lose.

Son: “I suppose my bike could get run over.”
Dad: “That’s right, Son. And why would that be such a terrible thing?”

Note: Get the child to see what he has to lose. Help him see what natural consequences could do to him. Don’t dwell on your annoyance, inconveniences, or the possible damages to your car. A 10-year-old (or a 19-year-old, for that matter!) couldn’t care less about those things. But the loss of his bike! Now that means something.

Son: “Well, I wouldn’t have a bike to ride.”
Dad: “And what’s so bad about that?”
Son: “Gee, Dad. I wouldn’t be able to go with my friends.”

Note: Probe these consequences just long enough for the boy to get the message. Don’t you tell him the message. Let him tell you. He’ll be a lot more impressed by what he tells you than by what you tell him. Remember: never tell a child something he already knows!

Dad: “I can see your point. That would be terrible! And I would never want to see that happen to you, so here is what I expect you to do. When you get off your bike, put it someplace other than in the driveway. Where would be a good place to put it so that it would be out of the way and safe?”

Note: Again, say only a few words and ask questions that put the boy in the role of problem solver-with you. This gets you both on the same side of the issue.

Son: “I could put it in the garage, over to the side.”
Dad: “Good idea, Son. You’re a good thinker. That would be a great place to put it. Any other place that is as good as that?”

Note: A positive response such as this is very reinforcing in itself, but it also gives you an opportunity to describe a behavior you want your son to develop; that is, “You’re a good thinker.” Tell the boy he is what you want him to be. Find something you can build on. This is called selective or differential reinforcement, and you want to reinforce those behaviors that are like, are related to, or which approximate the behavior you want. In this instance, the boy thought of a good solution. Being a good thinker is a highly desirable behavior, so it would be very wise to say, “You’re a good thinker” since that is such a good approximation of the mature behavior you want the boy to ultimately possess.

Asking a follow-up question is good for two reasons. First, it helps identify other options. This will increase the probability for success. Second, it provides another opportunity for the father to reinforce the son’s behavior.

Son: “Well, I could put it on the lawn by the driveway.”
Dad: “Great idea. You’re really using your head, Son. What a guy!”

Note: “You’re really using your head, Son,” is simply another way of saying, “You’re a good thinker.” When using selective reinforcement, it’s a good idea to vary the words that are used to describe the desired behavior. Along with the declarative “What a guy,” it would also be appropriate to use a physical reinforcer such as a pat on the shoulder or a light slap on the back. Pairing reinforcers is a powerful way to make a point.

Dad: “And Son, by putting your bike in these safe, out-of-the-way places, your bike will not get damaged and it will always be available to you. If, however, you should get careless and leave your bike in the driveway, you will deny yourself the privilege of using your bike for 24 hours. (This is contingency management: bike riding privileges are contingent on proper bike care.) What will happen if you leave your bike in the driveway?”

Note: When the consequence for non-compliance is stated, be sure you use only a few words and keep your voice low and calm, almost matter-of-fact. Make sure that the denial of privileges is stated in such a way that the burden for that denial is squarely on the boy’s shoulders: “…you will deny yourself the privilege of using your bike for 24 hours.” You don’t say, “I’ll take the bike away from you for 24 hours.” The “bad guy” isn’t you. The behavior is the “bad guy.” Let the behavior (his behavior) do the talking, not you! When stating the consequence, be sure the time variable is clear: “…for 24 hours.”

Son: “You won’t let me use my bike for a whole day!?”
Dad: “Close. Listen carefully, son. You will deny yourself the privilege of using your bike for 24 hours.”

Note: The boy will almost always dump the responsibility back on the parent. Don’t say, “No, no son. I’m not keeping the bike from you…” Simply restate the fact: “You will deny yourself…”

Dad: “Now, Son, let’s go outside. I want you to show me what you are going to do with your bike when you are not riding it.”

Note: This is role playing and simulation. It’s a very powerful teaching tool, as well as providing a wonderful opportunity to reinforce more appropriate behavior. Typically in such a situation the child is so anxious to do it right that opportunities to reinforce “right” behavior abound.

Dad: (Once Outside). “Ok, Son, here’s your bike. Ride it into the driveway, then show me where you are going to put it.”
Son: (Jumps on the bike, rides it out to the street, then up the driveway. Gets off the bike and parks it in an appropriate place.) “There, Dad. That’s where it will be safe and out of the way.”
Dad: “Son, I couldn’t have done it better myself!” (Give the boy a hug, a pat on the back, and each goes his separate way.)

This entire encounter will take no more than 10 minutes, which is as it should be. Brevity, specificity, calmness, positiveness. These are the keys.

In the example above, everything went very smoothly. The boy never resisted or argued. But, as all parents know, it doesn’t always go that way. In fact, it seldom goes that way. Here is what you do when problems arise. As you read through these, you will notice that the same principles apply to problem situations as they do to situations that run smoothly.

Suppose that at the outset the boy becomes belligerent and doesn’t want to talk about it. Here is how you would handle that.

Dad: “Son, I have a concern. Sometimes you leave your bike lying in the driveway, and before I can drive into the garage, I have to move your bike out of the way. Besides that, leaving your bike in the driveway could be dangerous. How could it be dangerous?”
Son: “This is dumb, Dad. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Or, he might say something like, “Dad, do we have to talk about this now? The guys are waiting for me. I gotta go now!”
Dad: (In a calm, controlled voice, and without any facial expressions that suggest anger or annoyance, say): “Son, how could it be dangerous to leave your bike in the driveway?”

Note: This is called the broken record approach. You simply repeat your question. Do not-I repeat, DO NOT acknowledge the distractors. Don’t say, “Now you listen to me young man. You will talk about it whether you like it or not! Now you pay attention and do what I tell you to do!,” or “Your friends can wait. This is more important than play. This is serious business. Do you want your bike to get smashed or something?”

Ignore distractors. Stay on course.

Avoid these reactive responses. They are counter-productive; that is, they only make things worse by giving lots of attention to the very behaviors you don’t want. The basic principle of behavior that applies here is that behavior is strengthened by the attention it receives. If you pay attention to things children do that you don’t like, these are the behaviors that will tend to increase.

Son: “I’m not wasting my time on this junk!”
Dad: “I can see you are anxious to do other things, but this is important. Now, tell me, why is it dangerous to leave your bike laying in the driveway?” Note: It’s okay to show some empathy and understanding: “I can see you’re anxious to do other things…” But don’t back down or become reactive.
Son: “I’m not taking any more of this. I’m outta here!”
Dad: “If you leave now, Son, without talking about this, your bicycle will be locked up until we have had our conversation.” Note: If you think it will come to this, be prepared in advance to follow through. Have the lock ready. Don’t have to go looking for one. Son: “Hey, you can’t do that! That’s my bike!”
Dad: “As I said before, you can choose to talk about this now, or you can choose to lose the privilege of riding your bike until you do. Which do you choose to do?” Note: By no means should the father try to impose his will through direct, hands-on control. That kind of tough-guy stuff is coercive and can come to no good. The parameters for decision making have been set. The child can choose either option and it’s okay with the father. The boy can stay and talk or leave, having lost his bike privileges. The father is not the bad guy.

If the boy chooses to talk, despite a sullen demeanor, just proceed as illustrated above, not saying a word about the sullenness. If the boy chooses to relinquish his bike privileges, that’s okay, too. In time, the odds are extremely great he will soon be willing to talk in order to regain his bike privileges. Initially, he might go off in a huff, saying something like, “Who cares. It’s a crummy bike anyway. If you were as good a parent as Billy’s dad I’d have a decent bike.” Expect this kind of junk behavior. Since the boy is desperate and not being fully civilized, he will likely resort to about anything to get his way or to defer blame. If nothing is said about this behavior, it will soon extinguish.

When the time comes, and it eventually will, that the boy can simply no longer tolerate the loss of his “wheels,” proceed as illustrated in the first instance.

Another problem that might arise during the discussion when the boy is told what the consequence is (“You will deny yourself the privilege of riding your bike for 24 hours.”) might go like this:

Son: “What! You mean you’ll take my bike away for 24 hours. That’s not fair! Billy leaves his bike in their driveway all the time and no one says a thing. This isn’t fair!!!!”
Dad: “Let me repeat so you’ll be sure to understand: When you leave your bike in the driveway, you will deny yourself the privilege of having your bike for 24 hours.
Tell me Son, what privilege will you deny yourself if you leave your bike in the driveway?”Note: The father didn’t get drawn into an argument over what is fair. Never! I repeat, never get sucked into a discussion about what’s fair. That’s a black hole from which nothing enlightening or satisfactory ever escapes. Furthermore, the father didn’t get sucked into a discussion about what goes on at Billy’s house. He simply repeated himself.After doing this two (certainly, no more than three) times, if the boy continues to protest and refuses to cooperate, then use the strategy just discussed: “The privilege of using the bike is yours when you are ready to discuss the matter,” and then be prepared to lock up the bike.

It is important to keep in mind that the kind of calm, objective responding illustrated here (and elsewhere) between a father and a son must be the same between a father and a daughter. We know for a fact that girls can typically get their way and out of trouble and responsibility much easier than boys. Crying, being coy, and making verbal promises that are honey-sweet are all well known devices daughters can use to get their way and to escape the unpleasant consequences of their behavior. Fathers, particularly, must guard against caving in to such wiles.

As noted earlier, woven into this illustration are principles and strategies that can be applied to any number of situations. Once parents are able to effectively employ these principles and strategies, the environment becomes much more pleasant, and behavior falls into line. Remember, behavior is largely a product of its immediate environment. As the environment improves and appropriate behavior is elicited, acknowledged, and praised, appropriate behavior will soon improve. The momentum of the behavior has been established in the right direction.