Deciding When to Show Compassion and When to Use Tough Love with Kids

Father and son talking after soccer game
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Sometimes there’s a fine line between helping and enabling when it comes to discipline. When your child breaks a rule or has a problem, there are times that it’s appropriate to show compassion. However, there are also times where it’s essential to show some tough love.

Showing too much kindness or excusing misbehavior too many times can cause you to enable misbehavior. But, being too strict with your child can have drawbacks as well – such as encouraging your child to cover up mistakes and discouraging your child from showing compassion toward others.

Here are four questions to ask yourself to help determine when to help and when to allow your child to face natural consequences:

1. Have I taught my child the skills he needs to manage his behavior?

Kids don’t know how to behave in all circumstances - that’s why it’s a parent’s job to teach them. If you don’t teach your child appropriate behavior, your child is going to misbehave. Don’t hold your child responsible for breaking the rules, if you haven’t provided any type of coaching, teaching, or instruction.

A child who has never been informed that the library is a quiet place where people whisper and use walking feet, he may run around and yell as if he’s at the playground. But, unless an adult explains appropriate behavior at the library, punishing him for being too loud or running might be unfair. When your child misbehaves, ask yourself whether you’ve taught him the skills and held previous discussions on the subject before you hold him accountable.

2. Is there a pattern to my child’s behavior?

If your child forgets his lunch and you deliver it to him at school, that’s a compassionate and helpful response. But, if he forgets his lunch four times in a week - and you continue to deliver it to him - that’s enabling his irresponsible behavior. You'll prevent him from learning from his mistakes because he’s not experiencing any type of consequence.

If your child keeps repeating the same mistakes, that signals a pattern of bad behavior and you won’t be doing him any favors by continuing to excuse him. Distinguish between a rare behavior problem and a regular occurrence before you decide how to respond.

3. How is my child’s attitude?

Take your child’s attitude into account before determining how to respond. If your child is remorseful and takes responsibility for his behavior, he may have learned a valuable lesson. If however, he offers excuses for his behavior or tries to minimize his actions, he may need to be held accountable.

When your child makes a mistake, use the opportunity to help your child learn how to recover from the mistake. If he insists something isn’t his fault or he is likely to throw a fit if he doesn’t get his way, he may benefit from experiencing a consequence. For example, if he drops his toy and breaks it and immediately demands that you buy him a new one, you may want to think twice about purchasing it.

4. What do I want my child to learn?

Although it can be hard to watch a child suffer the consequences of misbehavior, sometimes it’s a necessary part of the learning experience.

Before making a decision about how to respond to your child, think about what lesson you want him to learn.

If your child wants to purchase a specific toy, but he doesn’t have quite enough money saved, should you give him the extra money or make him wait until he’s earned enough to pay for it? The answer depends on what life lesson you want him to learn.

There isn’t a specific formula or one size fits all answer when it comes to raising kids. It’s important to carefully consider each situation when making your decision about whether to help your child or allow him to face the consequences.

Read More: Don't Accept Excuses: Teach Your Child to Accept Responsibility for His Behavior

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