Consequences Teach Responsibility

How to discipline children by letting them experience the consequences of their behavior, and by using “time-outs,” “reverse time-outs,” and “think space” are described in this publication.

Gail L. Brand and Marilyn S. Fox, Extension Educators


Of the many ways to discipline children parents can choose the ones that suit them as individuals and that fit their beliefs and values. Allowing children to experience the consequences for their behavior is one discipline method.

This “hassle-free” way to discipline children allows them to learn from experiences, just like adults. It’s called “learning the hard way.” Children learn that every act has a consequence. And, they learn to be responsible.

Discipline by Consequences

Parents can declare that the consequence of not coming to the dinner table on time to eat is that the child does not eat dinner that evening. Hunger is a natural consequence of not eating. If he complains, the parent can say, “I’m sorry you feel hungry now. It’s too bad, but you’ll have to wait for breakfast.” The child who experiences the unpleasant consequences of behavior likely will not act that way again.

Parents should tell the child, before it happens, what the consequences are for breaking a rule. If the child knows the consequences of not getting to the dinner table in time to eat with the family, then the child has a choice — whether to get there in time and eat, or to be late and not eat. Children must understand that they have choices and must accept the consequences of their choices.

Children also need to know the reason for the consequence; for example, it is extra work for parents to keep food warm, inconsiderate to expect someone to clean up the kitchen twice, and eating together is a valuable family time.

It is important, too, that parents be willing to accept the child’s decision; that is, they must be willing to allow the child to go without dinner if the child chooses to miss the meal. Doing without one meal will not harm the child.

The differences between consequences and punishment are:

calm tone of voice angry tone of voice
friendly attitude hostile attitude
willing to accept the child’s decision unwilling to give a choice

Take a Time-Out

A “time-out” is an excellent discipline method to use when your children are using inappropriate behavior. It works like this: Sandra and Sarah are fighting over a game. Their mother says, “Since you can’t play together without fighting, I think you need a time-out. Sarah, you go to your room, and Sandra, you go to the bathroom and stay for five minutes. I will let you know when five minutes are up.” (They can be sent to any room where they can be alone.)

A time-out is not a punishment. It is just a boring five minutes when nothing happens.

Think Space

The Think Space method helps children take responsibility for their own behavioral choices while giving adults a safe and responsible way to take themselves out of their child’s emotional loop of misbehavior. This is similar to Time Out but gives your child a chance to talk through or think through better choices for “next time.” The Think Space uses a 6-point procedure that quietly communicates positive messages — from unconditional love to personal responsibility.

  1. Calmly and patiently take — never send — your child to the Think Space.
  2. Allow your child to finish inappropriate behavior such as screaming or whining in the Think Space without guilt or repression.
  3. Help your child to think about how to respond the next time: i.e., help him/her look forward to better choices in the future. By helping your child think through better choices, he/she is practicing behavior for the next time.
  4. Instruct your child to leave the Think Space when he/she is finished thinking and is ready to cooperate.
  5. Look for a change of attitude, demonstrated by willing “cooperation.”
  6. Guide your child to repair damaged relationships and/or physical property as he/she exits the Think Space. “While this tool is somewhat demanding of an adult’s time in the outset, the investment is well worth the effort. When applied correctly and consistently, the Think Space is both powerful and rewarding in its ability to generate desirable, enduring change,” says Calvin Richert, author of Think Space.

Reverse Time-Out

Reverse time-outs can be used when the child is really “bugging” you. Remove yourself from the situation. You may be unable to change his behavior, but you do not have to suffer through it. Instead of isolating the child, as in a time-out, it is the parent who is isolated.

If the child is acting silly, arguing, or whining, leave her and go where the behavior can’t get to you. For example, take a magazine, go in the bathroom, and lock the door. Come out when peace and calm are restored.

Some parents may dislike this discipline method. It is inconvenient, and they interpret it as “giving in.” However, your children consider your presence rewarding. When you remove your presence, you are withholding a reward. Children soon learn that if they behave a certain way, you will leave the room.


Misbehavior is a normal part of growing up. No child is good all of the time. However, if your child has severe behavior problems, such as repeated acts of violence, these discipline methods may not work, and you may need to look for professional help.

  1. Using consequences as a discipline method helps children learn to take responsibility for their behavior.
  2. Consequences must be logically related to the misbehavior.
  3. The child must see the relationship between misbehavior and the consequence, or it will not work.
  4. The child must know that there is a choice when logical consequences are used.
  5. Use consequences in a firm, kind, friendly manner.
  6. Time-outs work well when your children quarrel and fight.
  7. Call time-outs in a firm, calm voice.
  8. Calling a time-out instead of punishing makes for a happier atmosphere in the home.
  9. Taking a child to Think Space helps children think about solutions and take responsibility for their own behavioral choices.
  10. A reverse time-out means that the parents isolate themselves from the child instead of isolating the child.
See How Much You Have Learned
Read the following situations and check an effective way to respond to them.


Think Space
1. Jenny, five years old, left her bike in the driveway.
2. Mike and Karen are always leaving their toys strewn all over the living area.
3. Todd keeps pestering his mother for a cookie. Mother knows lunch will be ready in an hour, so she tells Todd he will have to wait until after lunch. Todd continues to beg, whine, and argue.
4. Five-year-old Jose is playing with his favorite red fire truck when Rosa, who is three, rudely snatches it away from him. Jose is furious and tries to take the fire truck away from Rosa. Their quarreling is “bugging” you and you feel like exploding.
Practice Exercises

1. Try calling a time-out when your children fight or argue. Notice:
(a) How did I feel?
(b) How did the children respond?

2. Try using logical consequences. Pick some behavior that doesn’t get you “uptight.” It is difficult to learn a new discipline method when you are upset.
(a) What did the child do?
(b) What consequences did you and the child decide on?
(c) What happened? Did it work?


Richert, Calvin & Carolyn. (2001). The Think Space, Take V Publications, Box 4490, Overland Park, KS 66204-4490


This revision is based on the original NebGuide, “Consequences Teach Responsibility,” by the late Herbert G. Lingren, UNL extension family life specialist.

Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Publications Web site for more publications.

Index: Families
Issued January 2008