Child Caring

Taking Away Her Birthday Party Was Way Too Harsh A Consequence

I have a question about my 7.5 year old (8 in August.) Lately she has been refusing to do the simplest things that her father and I ask her to do. Last night it was taking a shower after a hot day. My husband said, If you don't get in the shower, you can't have your birthday party at the bowling alley (which we were planning for the end of June.) She didn't, and so he took it away. I feel horrible about this. Her birthday is at the end of the summer, but we wanted to have it right after school lets out. If we give it back, what message does that send?! We could just postpone it, and do in August closer to her actual birthday. I said to my husband that he shouldn't make such huge threats -- because then we have to follow through and it is really awful for everyone. I said he should do something like take away TV or dessert or something like that -- not her birthday!
What should we do??


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Barbara's Mailbag

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Dear AZ,

Dad went way too far, and now he needs to apologize. Yep, you read that right. He needs to own his mistake.

I know many parents think that admitting a mistake is a form of relinquishing authority. On the contrary, it shows you're human, that we all make mistakes, and, perhaps most importantly, it models how to own up and move on:

"Remember that day when you didn't want to take a shower and I said if you didn't take your shower, you couldn't have your birthday party? Well, that was a mistake. I over-reacted and that wasn't a fair consequences to not taking a shower. I've been feeling badly about it ever since. I'd like to apologize."

What might be helpful to both of you is to think of your reaction to inappropriate behavior as a consequence rather than a punishment.

A consequence needs some connection between what the child did wrong and what happens next. It gets the name "natural consequences" because the original idea was that parents don't need to do a thing, the child learns from the logical unfolding of events that he made a bad decision. Even though your idea of taking away dessert may feel more equitable, what does it have to do with not taking a shower? What about this instead:

"Well, it's your body. But if you don't want to clean it, you can't exactly wear clothes that are clean, can you? Why don't you find clothes to wear in the dirty hamper." There are kids who won't even blink at that so, obviously, you have to know your child, but most will find that disgusting enough -- and logical enough -- to get in the shower after all.

So yes, "natural consequences" often require intervention and creativity. What's more, they frequently demand that, as parents, we tolerate a result that feels somewhat icky to us.

The other take-home here is not to over-react in general. When you or your husband feel frustration mounting, before you find yourself saying something you regret, remove yourself form the situation: "I need to take a time-out." Walk away. Cool off.

Meanwhile, I hope you haven't missed the window for her June birthday. What's more, in the process of re-instating the party, consider that you might be giving your daughter an unanticipated gift: the recognition that parents make mistakes, reconciliation is possible, and relationships can deepen even when feelings have been hurt.