We’re blessed with generally well-behaved kids. Of course, they muck up all the time, but nothing too drastic. It hasn’t always been that way.
Just over a year ago we were going through a particularly rough patch with discipline, until we introduced a new disciplinary system, which we call ‘warnings’. Since then, we’ve noticed an improvement in our kids behaviour. Others have noticed it too. I’ve had many friends commenting, and asking how we manage it. Some have even adopted our approach, and found it worked for their families too.
It started with realising we needed a system that gives immediate verbal feedback to the kids for misdemeanours, without yelling or actually imposing an immediate ‘punishment’. Instead, we’d give the offending child a ‘warning’.
Our Warnings System
The idea behind warnings, is that we are able to give a gentle reprimand for minor misbehaviours on the go. The warning itself serves as the punishment.
For instance, if we were calling the kids to dinner, we might say that they had 1 minute, and that I’d count down the last 30 seconds aloud. Any child who was not at the table by the time I got to zero would get a warning.
We track both kids’ warnings on a bar chart drawn on the chalkboard in our kitchen, both to help the adults keep track, and as a visual way for our kids to see how they are going. This is especially handy for my youngest who was only 2 when we started this system, and couldn’t read numerals but could understand that the height of a bar chart represented how many warnings she had received that day.
Most days the kids will get to 1 or 2 warnings, and that will be it. The counter resets the next morning.
But if a child accumulates five warnings by the end of the day, they then suffer a minor punishment / loss of privilege. Usually for our family, this punishment / loss of privilege is that the offending child doesn’t get to choose a TV show after bath-time. This is a fairly minor punishment, as the other child still gets to choose a TV show that they can both watch, so it’s more about the choice than the actual quantity of TV. We set it out this way on purpose, because we wanted to be able to dish out warnings for minor behaviour lapses whenever we saw them, and we wanted to consistently be able to follow through on the consequence.
If they both get to 5 warnings, then since neither would be able to choose a show, they both don’t get to watch any TV that day at all. It only took one time for this consequence to sink in. Now they work together to try to minimise warnings for everyone. It still sometimes happens, but it’s rare.
Which behaviours warrant a warning?
We give warnings instead of nagging and yelling. It’s actually quite refreshing to have an alternative!
We try to be consistent with giving warnings, so the kids know what to expect. The kids never get warnings for accidents or for first offenses.
We try to give ample notice before issuing an official ‘warning’, so the kids have time to comply, or choose to suffer the consequence.
We say things like “I’ve asked you to clean your teeth twice, and now I’m getting frustrated. I’ll count to 15, and if you haven’t started cleaning your teeth by then, you’ll get a warning” or “I don’t like it when you roll your eyes at me JJ. That is impolite behaviour. I know you’re still working on remembering that, so just letting you know that if you roll your eyes at me again this morning, you’ll get a warning.”
Sometimes just whispering “You haven’t had any warnings yet today. I’ve asked you to stop doing that. If you keep doing it, I’ll have to give you one” is enough to change the course of behaviour. That’s awesome-sauce in public. I’ll admit it doesn’t always work like that, but when it does, it feels little bit like magic.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember to give warnings instead of yelling. JJ is especially sensitive whenever I yell (OK, roar) at her. She’ll say “You scared me when you yelled at me Mummy. You shouldn’t have yelled. You should have just given me a warning.” Sometimes the kids will turn the tables and give me a warning for yelling! (So, when I say ‘without yelling’ in this post, I’m not implying that I never ever yell, but more that this system is helping me with it, lol…)
We noticed that when either of our kids receive warnings in quick succession, it usually is an indication that they need a break. We started to notice that several warnings in quick succession means that my kids need help regulating their behaviour. With my eldest, it usually means she’s hungry (or ‘hangry’), so in addition to the warnings, we’d also offer her some fruit and cuddles.
My youngest can get overexcited and needs “quiet time”, so we take to her bedroom and cuddle her until she calms down.
These aren’t supposed to be a punishment (as warnings are enough), but we found that 3 warnings in quick succession marked as a handy indicator that something else might be needed.
Occasionally, stroppiness would come out in JJ, and she’d say “I don’t care if you give me a warning, I don’t want to choose TV tonight anyway” or “We’re going out tonight, so we’re not going to be able to watch TV anyway, so I can get as many warnings as I like and it won’t matter.” On these occasions, we’ve had discussions about all the various privileges we have up our sleeve that could be removed instead.
Occasionally we’ve had to change the punishment / loss of privilege to something that was more meaningful at the time, like not being able to go to the park the next day. We never changed it at the last minute (I’m not trying to ‘spring’ a devastating consequence unexpectedly), but it really hits home when you see your dad take your sister to the park and you don’t get to go too. We’ve always found that once JJ tested the limit and found it steady, she’d quickly lose her bravado and things would settled back down.
One thing I should mention, is that we’ve never threatened a consequence that we weren’t prepared to follow through on, and we don’t choose ones that have large social consequences. We wouldn’t threaten that they couldn’t go to a friend’s party for instance. We go to the park all the time, so to miss out on one occasion wasn’t that big of a deal, and we did do something fun at home to take the sting out of it.
After a while, we introduced the concept of “Minus Warnings” where if we see the kids behaving in an especially polite or helpful way, they could redeem their previous warnings. A whispered verbal ‘minus one’ is a reward. The kids beam and run to tell the rest of the family that they got a ‘minus one warning’ and what it was for.
Usually we surprise the kids with a minus warning whenever we ‘catch’ them behaving well. Sometimes the kids will actively seeking out minus warnings, like volunteering to do the dishes, or bringing groceries in from the car.
Sometimes (very occasionally), their minus warnings are greater than their warnings, and they go into negative numbers.
We discussed and agreed as a family, that if either kid ended the day on negative warnings, then we’d add their score to an accumulated tally, working towards a big privilege or a special family outing when they’d accumulated minus ten. We’ve only reached this three times so far. The first time we went ice skating, the second time to Luna Park, and the third time to the movies. (Incidentally, these were outings we wanted to go on anyway – we just let the kids’ behaviour influence the timing.)
Behaviour improvements aside, our warnings system has actually been really great maths practice! We’re constantly counting (forwards or backwards) to give time frames for when the kids need to start activities by. My kids will often choose a large number if they feel they need more time, and they often count up or down themselves. We’re graphing our warnings on a daily basis. My kids are pros at adding or subtracting warnings by ones or twos. They’ve learned to view the number of warnings as a continuum increasing and decreasing between -10 and +5 (with zero not being a finite point, but rather a number in between).
We didn’t implement this entire system in one go – it has morphed and evolved with our family needs. Our warnings approach to discipline won’t work for every family, but it has worked for ours. (At least, so far…) Quite a few of our friends have also adopted this approach, and they’ve noticed it’s improved the behaviour of their kids too. It gives a way of disciplining our good kids gently for minor lapses, without nagging or yelling.
Hopefully it might work for your family too.
Related: You can find all our parenting related posts here. You might like:
- 8 Battles I’m letting my toddler win
- 6 Coping strategies for when the kids are driving you insane
- A positive alternative to “Don’t Touch!”
- Should I let my daughter cut her dolls’ hair? I think so, and here’s why…
- How to encourage good old-fashioned backyard play
I also have a parenting board on Pinterest, where I pin all the parenting posts I love here: