User's Manual for Parents, Part IV: Using Consequences
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Now we reach Part IV of the long-hoped-for Users’ Manual for Parents. In the first part, we covered building a solid start to parenting. Part II we looked at setting limits, and Part III at what rules to set. Now in Part IV, we come to consequences.
As a reminder, there are three basic things you should be doing with your kids:

  • Have routines and regular times for all the necessary at-home tasks such as dressing, eating, toothbrushing, cleanup, bathing, TV, and bedtime, to avoid constant limit-testing by our children. If kids can choose to do or not do, eat here or there, pick TV instead of a bedtime story, and have snacks whenever they ask, they’ll push limits all day long, and parents naturally get increasingly frustrated.
  • Make sure the family participates in enough daily physical activity so everyone has better sleep, mood control, and energy, and healthier bodies.
  • Make sure there is enough fun – at home and outside of home – in the course of a day for our children and ourselves, Children need fun and so do we.

Now let’s find out about consequences.
Consequences help your child learn to do what you ask. They help her internalize your rules and requests – from picking up her toys, to going to bed, to using her manners.. Consequences should cause your child to hesitate before she repeats problem behavior and to begin to develop inner discipline. You want her to eventually learn to do the right thing without your having to check on her constantly. If the consequences don’t bother her, they’re not effective consequences.

Although there are many kinds of recommended  consequences when children misbehave, there are some that are no longer considered acceptable: physical punishment (spanking, pinching, yanking, etc.), frightening children (“the bogey man will take you away,” or locking them outside or in the dark) or humiliating them (making them stand facing the corner or asking them “why are you ruining our family?”). Instead, you can create boring, tedious, and therefore memorable consequences that will help your child think twice before repeating the misbehavior. Such consequences teach without the negative effects of physical pain, fear, and humiliation.
            The most common but least effective technique is to repeat the request or rule without consequences: “Don’t put your feet on the kitchen table again” or “Go get your shoes. I'm not going to tell you again.” Many things have to be taught using at least some consequences.

It’s wisest to have a variety of effective consequences thought out beforehand.Variety helps reinforce the lesson in multiple ways. Children can build up resistance to overused techniques.
It’s impossible to anticipate every unexpected situation that calls for consequences on the spot. Developing your philosophy about what behavior is and isn’t acceptable, and about what consequences are successful with your child and acceptable to you and our society, will help you react confidently, appropriately, and effectively.

Time-out is a common and useful consequence for children up to about eight or nine years old. Time-outs are usually one minute per year of age (four-year-olds get four-minute time-outs). Your child should stay in his room with the door shut and may have things to play with. (Doors can stay open for children who are going through a period of separation anxiety and can stay in their room.) Using the bedroom for time-out is unlikely to cause a child to fear his room – unless you do something extreme like locking them in or keeping them there for very long periods. The point of the time-out is that he can’t be with the rest of the family nor have freedom of the house. Many children will initially refuse to stay in their room. A parent can sit outside the door as a sentry. This enforces the time-out and lets your child know where you are.  With time, children start to accept that they have to stay in their room. A more recent approach to time-out is to have the child sit on the couch, the stairs or some other “naughty” spot. However, most children will test this limit by moving from spot to spot, aggravating the situation even more, so this is not as effective as time-out in a child’s bedroom.
Don’t worry about his having fun playing with his toys in his room. Kids under four are not happy with being away from you, and for kids four and older, time-out can be used as the first half of the consequence, so it’s fine if he plays because he’s still experiencing “banishment from the family.” The impactful consequence will be the second half.
While in time-out, many young children will kick the door and throw toys. You can help by suggesting something the child can occupy herself with in her room when you bring her to time-out. Letting young children decide to come out of time-out when they think they can behave is not effective because it puts the child in charge of her own consequences.
Using the time-out as a first-half consequence conveys to the child that he needs to be on his own for a while because of his misbehavior. Then a second-half consequence provides some memorable teaching.

The following are some “second half” or secondary consequences to help children four and older learn not to repeat the misbehavior. Many of these techniques can also be used as stand-alone consequences. Most parents take away privileges or a toy. (In fact, time-out and taking things away are the two most common consequences.) But here are some other consequences for you to add to your repertoire:

  • Out-of-time  – Let your child know that so much time has been spent trying to get her to cooperate that she is out of time. Tell her that there’s no time left for a special project or outing because she spent that time not listening. Be sure to let her know when you will do that special outing so she doesn’t get upset thinking she will never get to do it. Or if she’s old enough (six, seven or older), you can tell her that now you’re so behind in your work – she’ll have to do your next two jobs.
  • Redo and practiceHave your child actually  practice doing what you asked him to do. With a child who often ignores you, let him know you’ll be calling his name many times in the next half-hour and that he has to answer you. (“What, Mom?”)  Some of those times, you can say, “I didn’t need you to do anything, but I need you to practice answering me when I call you.” When your child is rude, have him tell you again in a nice way. Then have him practice that three times in a row. You can have your child practice better behavior in many situations. Without real practice, there isn’t much change in a child’s behavior. Practice results in better learning.  This can decrease – even eliminate – the need to have “that” discussion after time-out: “Why are you in time-out? What are you going to do instead next time?” This discussion is generally lip-service, ending with promises, which children are unlikely to to keep.
  • ApologyHave your child do something nice for you when her behavior makes you very angry, such as apologizing and drawing an apology picture, or bringing you something (such as a glass of ice water) to make up to you.
  • EmpathyChildren 5 and older can be asked to look at a situation from your perspective: “What does Mommy think about what just happened, and why does Mommy think that? What does Daddy feel about what you did, and what does he want you to do now to fix the problem?” These questions may be hard for your child to answer, but at least he will think about them, even if only briefly.

For these second or alternate consequences, make sure your child knows ahead of time that if she refuses, dawdles, etc., she'll have to go back to time-out and the same “secondary” consequence will be waiting for her. If you change to another secondary consequence, she’s likely to think you’re trying something else because you’re not able to get her to comply.
Use consequences right away – after only one reminder. When parents repeat their requests several times before using consequences, this slows down a child's learning.

Consequences are necessary in child-rearing. This article provides the information for you and your partner to consider in becoming more effective and less frustrated parents. Part V completes the Users’ Manual as it deals with some of the more advanced concepts in applying consequences successfully.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015