Dear Kid Whisperer,
We need help figuring out a logical consequence for our almost 9-year-old son who snuck into our closet (definitely off-limits) and snooped around and climbed up to the top shelf and found his big birthday present. This happened last year at Christmas and we thought ruining the surprise for himself was lesson enough, but apparently it didn’t stick with him. What’s a logical consequence? We don’t want to be cruel and not give it to him, but do want to leave him with a memorable lesson in respecting privacy. -Mary, San Antonio, Texas
Let me preface and foreshadow my answer by stating that you and I have different definitions of the word “cruel.”
There is something to be said about allowing natural consequences to befall kids and leaving it at that. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s great when this works, but as you pointed out in this case, it didn’t. No worries, you took a shot: you experimented with seeing if missing out on the surprise of not knowing the present before opening it was enough to make the snooping behavior non-functional. You found out that it didn’t work because he did it again.
Having worked with students for 20 years in situations as a teacher, principal and behavioral consultant whereby I was drastically outnumbered by students, I have developed the habit of erring on the side of using pretty serious learning opportunities with kids to quickly teach them that their negative behaviors don’t work, at least not with me. Efficiency is key when the kid-to-adult ratio is disadvantageous. With that in mind, here’s how I would handle your situation.*
*You will really hate this if you can’t stand to see your kid be sad as a result of his bad behavior.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, shoot. It really made me sad to know that you went into our closet even though you know you are not allowed in there.
Kid: I thought my good cufflinks might be in there.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, shoot. Here’s the deal: Part of the reason I buy you presents is to feel the joy and excitement of seeing you open your presents and being surprised and excited by what you got. I thought you would react that way when you opened this video game system I bought you, but now I am not able to feel that feeling. So, I am going to return the system to the store. I may or may not buy it for you for your next birthday. That way you can see if you can stay out of the closet next year and, if I choose to get it for you next year, I will be able to feel that exciting, good feeling of surprising you with a present that you don’t know that you’re getting.
Kid: But I want the game system now.
Kid Whisperer: That’s only natural.
Kid: Can I have it now?
Kid Whisperer: What did I say?
Kid Whisperer: There you go.
Kid: But I want it.
Kid Whisperer: I don’t know what to tell you.
Kid: What are the chances that another family might be able to adopt me?
Kid Whisperer: Slim to none.
If Kid has a tantrum and demands the game system, that is his way of waving a big red flag that tells you he has a considerable misunderstanding about his place within the family hierarchy and what he is and is not entitled to. Never, ever getting him that game system would be the correct way to realign his perspective.