When my son was 3 years old he snuck out of his room after bedtime, found my work bag, and preceded to make several murals along our staircase, down the hall, on the door and walls of his room, and on various pieces of furniture with permanent maker, washable marker, and a full pack of gum. The devastation to our walls, banister, and furniture was epic.
Upon discovering this masterpiece my blood began to boil and I immediately sought out my partner, who was working late in our basement office, BEFORE I approached our son. I knocked lightly on the office door, interrupting his board meeting prep. “I need you for the next 30 minutes of parenting we have to do.” What unfolded next was a mix of strong parenting and not-so-stellar-parenting as we attempted to make this situation a learning moment for everyone.
We found my son still awake in his room sorting through the rest of the contents of my work bag. The second he saw us he started to cry – he knew he was in big trouble. While I had a chance to preview Pax’s handy work, my partner was just now seeing the full effects of our son’s actions. Regardless, neither of us had any clue what we were going to do when we confronted Pax. It was late, we were both tired, and it stung to see our clean walls defaced with black permanent marker. We both yelled.
“What were you thinking?!” “Why did you do this?!” “I can’t believe you would do something like this!” “You’re in big trouble!!”
Pax responded with uncontrollable sobs and a desperate plea for us to understand his ‘why’. Apparently, he was drawing monsters to scare away all the spiders. SMH. Not cool, dude. Not cool. If I’m being honest, I think we should both get medals for attempting to talk to Pax before we went in hard with any consequence. That night tested our patience like no other; I’ve never been more angry with him than I was in that moment. We put Pax in bed, sobbing, and left his room.
After debriefing the episode downstairs, we talked through what his consequences should be and decided to go back into his room that night for a quick follow-up conversation. We didn’t feel good about how we had yelled and then left him alone to cry himself to sleep. While his actions were not acceptable, he was still just a little guy learning boundaries. It felt right to go back in and remind him of a few things, most importantly that we still loved him. Pax had stopped crying, thankfully, so we all sat down and communicated a few things to him directly:
- We love you, and always will.
- You made bad choices; you are NOT a bad person.
- Your actions were unacceptable and there will be consequences.
- Your consequences are x, y, and z. We will discuss this again tomorrow morning.
- Goodnight, we love you and always will.
All in all, the entire episode took about 30 minutes and left us feeling like we had the right next steps in mind. Below is the framework we used to PICK his consequences. It’s a framework that can be applied for all consequences, big and small.
Does the punishment fit the crime? The consequence should be in line with action so the toddler can gain a healthy understanding of how actions have repercussions in real life. Small mistakes should be met with smaller consequences, and big mistakes bigger consequences.
The consequence should speak directly to that specific individual toddler, meaning, it should focus on something they can relate directly to. For example, if your child is allowed to watch TV, then limiting or cancelling TV time would be a consequence they can relate to. If they are not TV watchers, clearly this won’t work. Try to pick something that they will really feel and experience as a loss while keeping in mind the proportionality mentioned above. I would also recommend never putting any comfort items on the consequence list – taking away a favorite lovey or stuffed animal that your child uses for comfort verse play would be cruel and might undermine the entire consequence altogether.
Toddlers are very literal beings in that they need to see, touch, and experience something before they can understand it’s meaning and context. As such, consequences should be concrete so they see, feel, experience the repercussions of their actions. I give an example below of one consequence we implemented then later took away because it felt too abstract for Pax to grasp.
K: known Time
When will the consequence take effect and how long will it last? Time is a tricky thing in toddler land – 5 minutes can feel like a week and things that happened last year can be recalled as ‘yesterday’ experiences. For this reason, you need to be clear and purposeful when setting time boundaries on consequences. In most cases, the consequence should start immediately, or at least be communicated immediately, and last no longer than a few days to a week. Anything beyond a week and toddlers tend to forget why they were given the consequence in the first place and it loses its power.
Consequences in Action
Pax’s actions were pretty extreme; he had never done anything this naughty that left this much devastation before. That being said, he was still just a 3-year-old with a developing brain. While shame is an emotion 3-year-olds can process easily, guilt and regret are still in development. We decided on a handful of consequences that would both send a message and help teach Pax a lesson.
First, we locked his door that night and told him the lock would be on until we could trust him again. Pax was an early climber, which meant he transitioned into a toddler bed at an early age. We had to install a toddler lock on his door to prevent him from roaming the house in the middle of the night before age 2. The lock wasn’t used anymore, but we decided it was necessary after this epic post-bedtime adventure. His door remained locked at bedtime for the following three nights and we talked to him daily about why so he could internalize the idea of a consequence for bad choices.
Second, I had Pax help me the next morning in cleaning up his mess. I gave him a wet wash cloth and made him wipe down all the walls and banisters that had marker on them. The washable marker came off easily, thankfully, but the permanent wouldn’t budget. While he did that, I scrubbed away the best I could at the permanent marker and we talked about how some markers last forever and some wash away. We also talked about when to use makers, paper only, and why it’s important to only use markers supplied by adults, verses going through Mama’s work bag.
Third, we canceled a weekend play date planned with Pax’s good friend Harrison. Since the marker debacle happened on a Tuesday, this meant Pax had three full days of playing with Harrison at school before the scheduled playdate. As the days ticked on it became clear that Pax wasn’t really bothered by this consequence and it was losing its power. So, we backtracked and decided to keep the playdate. It didn’t feel concrete anymore AND it wasn’t very fair to Harrison. This was huge for us as parents, too. We were still angry at the damage but also recognized cancelling might have been a little too much. It’s ok to change your mind and share the reasons why with your kids. Humans make mistakes. How we respond to and learn from the mistakes is what makes a human different. In backtracking on this one consequence we were showing Pax that adults can make mistakes and that we can always do something to make it better.
Lastly, we put Pax ‘on consequence’, as he called it, which meant no dessert after dinner. This was lifted at the same time we took the lock off his door and he was officially ‘off consequence’.
All in all, the marker debacle of 2020 was a big test for us as parents and helped us lay the foundation for healthy consequences. Pax has never colored on anything other than paper since that night, and is the first to alert us anytime his little sister attempts to. He also has a strong understanding of what ‘consequence’ means, contextually, which makes it much easier to preemptively stop bad choices in the moment with, “Pax, think about your choices and make a good one.”
What do you struggle with most when it comes to consequences and your toddler? Do you think PICK will help you the next time you need to implement some? Share your thoughts and questions by commenting below – we always enjoy learning from other parents on this crazy journey.
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