Consequences Are Not Appropriate For Young Kids' Impulsive Behavior

Why Consequences For Young Kids Are Not Appropriate

December 29, 2019 Updated December 11, 2019

Before our first kid was born, my husband and I talked at length about consequences and discipline. We quickly decided spanking wasn’t for us, and neither was any other form of physical pain-based consequence. We knew we didn’t want to use shame or isolation. Time out was a no-go, as was any kind of consequence that might cause humiliation.

Eventually, we kind of settled on the idea that we wouldn’t stand in the way of natural consequences unless our kids were in danger. Other than that, we would just kind of…see how it went. We wanted to do our best to give them space to make all kinds of choices, and watch them play out. They’d learn from their own mistakes (within reason). We’d be there to comfort them when it didn’t go the way they hoped.

Seven years in, and some things have changed for our oldest. As our expectations for him grow, so does his obligation to meet them consistently, even if he doesn’t feel like it.

For our almost four-year-old, on the other hand, we still use consequences very sparingly. Sometimes we encounter a situation where not having a discipline game plan makes for a really challenging day, but most of the time this “no-plan plan” works out great.

Choosing to parent without a set of predetermined consequences is definitely a lesson in patience. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of repetition. Sometimes I wonder if my boys are ever going to stop doing the things that make me want to lock myself in my closet and hide.

So far, the answer has always been yes. They will learn. Maybe they won’t comply as quickly as they might if they feared a painful or upsetting consequence. But eventually they will discover ways to control and regulate themselves.

According to Dr. Deborah MacNamara, PhD, a clinical counselor and developmentalist, we made a pretty solid choice. As it turns out, there aren’t many consequences that preschool brains are ready for anyway. Keeping our expectations for obedience realistic and supporting our kids through their big emotions without punishment isn’t just a kind idea; it’s backed by real science.

In her book, “Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one),” Dr. MacNamara explains the psychology of a preschool brain, especially as it relates to impulse control.

“The pre-frontal parts of the brain responsible for a child’s impulse control will ideally mature between the ages of 5 to 7 for most kids, or 7 to 9 years for more sensitive ones,” she says. “Until the 5 to 7 shift occurs giving rise to more sophisticated brain integration, a young child will have little to any braking capacity when stirred up emotionally.”

Yeah. Five to nine years old. That’s when your kid’s brain will likely be mature enough to develop the ability to do what you ask over what they really, really want. Before that, Dr. MacNamara likens them to cars without brakes or reliable steering. When they’re moving fast through big feelings, there’s not a lot you can do to convince them to do what you ask.

Pretty much until kindergarten, you can go ahead and assume that there isn’t a consequence in the world that will actually motivate a child out of impulsive behavior, especially when they’re already in an emotional state.

Dr. MacNamara is careful to emphasize that this is exactly how it should be. Preschoolers only see one thing at a time, usually through the lens of their own desires. It makes their world less overwhelming; they can take in smaller pieces of information to try to understand how things work. All they have to think about is their own wants and needs. They are free to learn and observe without a lot of outside expectations. It’s a really smart system.

Preschoolers don’t disobey or ignore us because they don’t want to listen. They do! That’s why they might cooperate ten times, then suddenly refuse. Ten times, it was what they wanted to do anyway. It made sense in to them in that moment. But the minute they want something else, their own impulse will take over. It’s not an act of their will. It’s a manifestation of the state of their brains. They just aren’t wired to value our wishes over their own yet. They want what they want. It can be frustrating to deal with when you have an adult brain, but it’s not disobedience. It’s just science.

“There is nothing like the force of an immature child to test the maturity level in a parent,” MacNamara tells Scary Mommy. “When we find ourselves struggling with the emotions our children stir up in us, the goal is not to lose ourselves in self-absorption but to focus our attention on what our child needs from us. The growing edge of parenthood is when we sit in the middle of the conflict between how we treat a child and how we really want to take care of them.”

We have to work hard to rein in our emotions when our kids push us to the brink of frustration. Those impulsive, explosive toddler moments are HARD. Preschool is just going to be tough. They’re not ready to listen all the time.

But hang on, parents. Change is coming.

When they hit that five- to seven-year-old age where their brain starts processing more input at one time, they begin to understand consequences. You can get a little more strict with them. Make sure they know that controlling their impulses is an important part of growing up. It will work better at this age, because they begin to value their ability to compare their impulse against the possible outcome and choose the more prudent road. Kids brains are incredible little machines at every stage! The more we know about how and when they mature, the more we can help them stay in control. We can oversee as they make good choices all along the way.

We can’t very well just let our kids run wild until they’re five, and then expect them to spontaneously learn to control themselves when their brain matures during the elementary school years. So, what can we do?

We can continue to lay out our expectations for our small children, with the understanding that they simply will not and cannot cooperate one hundred percent of the time. Celebrate when they do the expected thing and give them heaps of grace when their impulses win.

We need to keep our behavior expectations in line with their actual abilities. Preschoolers aren’t going to be able to control themselves sometimes, and that’s a scientific fact. It’s not willful misbehavior. It’s just because they’re little.

According to MacNamara, the absolute best thing to help a child learn how to manage and regulate their impulses is a secure connection to an adult who models that behavior.

As it turns out, controlling your own impulsive behaviors as often as you can and doing your best to be a calm example is more effective than any consequence for a preschool kid.

They’re literally not ready to learn a lot of other ways, and that’s okay.