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There is a skill to sanctioning

Updated: May 13, 2021

For behaviour type three, a challenge to your authority, you may need to put in place a sanctions or consequence. These do not have to be large, they can be removal of the item, moving the child away from the area, close time, time out etc., but it does have to be consistent, suitable for the behaviour displayed, and followed through.

The main thing I recall about how my parents told us off was that they never made empty threats, in other words they always followed through with the sanction, which I have always respected.

Consistency is the most important thing when dealing with children. Children understand the term fairness, they want to be treated the same as others; as long as you are being consistent, they respect you.

I remember the teachers at school I respected the most. It was not because they were the nicest or harshest, they were the most consistent. I knew where I stood with them. I knew what I could get away with and what I could not. Your child needs boundaries, these will be tested, and this is why consistency is needed, ignore a broken boundary once, and they will believe you will ignore it again.

Even though I knew a lot of this before I had children, and we had formed a strategy, we still found ourselves making threats, which in hindsight were more likely to cause us problems than help control the situation. Being able to reflect on how we handled a situation was very valuable, and allowed us to discuss what we would do differently next time.

We were going out one day to meet up with one of my eldest’s friends; she was in the back with her sister. I cannot remember what she was doing at the time, but it was obviously distracting, “If you don’t stop that now we’ll turn round and go home,” was the sanction threatened, fortunately she did stop, and we continued the journey in relative calm. The problem was it was an empty threat; we were not going to turn around and have her wailing all the way home, where she would have been equally inconsolable. Had she called our bluff, we would have lost her respect, and this could potentially have led to further behavioural battles. We discussed what we could have said instead, and decided that we should have threatened close time on arrival, she knew what close time was, and she would know her friend was there, but would have to wait two minutes before going to her. It is usually more annoying being made to wait that little bit longer for something you want, than not get it at all.


A sanction needs to work for you, it needs to work in various environments and locations, and it needs to be effective. Each child’s behaviour is different, and this means that your sanctioning policy needs to be flexible too. When they used to chop off the hands of robbers for stealing, some robbers turned into murderers, no witness equalled no proof, equalled no lost hands. This means that your sanctioning policy should contain more than one sanctioning technique, though it does work to have at least one ultimate sanction, this should be used as sparingly as possible.

When considering a sanction, it needs to be appropriate for the behaviour displayed, and at the right level for your child’s stage of development. Before imposing any sanction, unless there is a safety factor, giving your child the chance to change their behaviour, by pointing out what you would like to see, allows them to practise self-control.

“Can you put that back in its box please?”

“Give that back to your sister please.”

“Come over here, and put your clothes on please.”

I would ask no more than three times and when in the right frame of mind I would try and identify and acknowledge their feelings about having to comply, before adding on the possible sanction which would be imposed if the request was not carried out.

“I understand that you would rather keep playing, but its time to put it away, otherwise I will come over there and take it off you.”

“I know that you like that toy too, but your sister had it first, I will come and take it off you, if you do not give it back nicely.”

“Right, I know you may not want to go out right now, but mummy has to go into town to meet a friend, If I have to count to three, I will be choosing your clothes and you will have to get dressed once we are there.”

If I felt ignored, they deliberately ran off in the opposite direction, or stood there and said “NO,” then I would give them a count of three. This provided them time to realise that I was serious, and gave them the opportunity to show that there were going to comply. The count usually took the form of, “one,…two,…two and a half, I do hope that it is going back in its box before I get to three,…three.”

It was always my hope, that I would be saying, ‘thank you,’ at the end of the count. If they did not do what I had asked, then I followed through with the sanction stated. This usually meant that I had to get up to take the item off them. This move would occasionally cause a mini tantrum, which I would ignore; giving them the message that attention was given for good, not poor behaviour.

When we jumbled up the warning steps, or cut some out, this would lead to confusion in the girls, and occasionally made the situation worse. We both had days when everything they did was annoying, or wrong, and we would make mistakes. We would support each other, pointing out that they were testing the boundaries, and we needed to keep strong. If they constantly did the same thing wrong, then the punishment was equally as repetitive, or the sanction increased to one, which was more annoying to them. If they did different things wrong, then the punishment was changed to suit, and did not always need the ultimate sanction. Having a format to follow, helped us stick to our guns, even when our tempers were being stretched to their limits.

Are rules consistently enforced?

Are all adults enforcing them in the same way?

If I did not have the energy to run after them, or they were refusing to pick up the toy they had dropped, then I would ask the usual two times, before delivering the final warning, with sanction attached. I could not force them to pick things up as the sanction; I needed to encourage them to work with me. These were the types of occasions, when I would sanction close-time (describes in another article). Though it would have been nice to get an instant response to my requests, I realised that if I expected this, and tried to force such a response, then my children may have felt the need to defend themselves. No one likes to be pushed around, and even when you know you are in the wrong, it can be hard to except punishment quietly. I found that using close time, or walking away, was better than letting my disappointment and anger show.

I used close time for events where there had been poor behaviour shown, such as pushing, hitting, biting etc. At times, my girls would act this way in response to a previous sanction.


When you are wound up, tired, and your child is being their usual unhelpful selves, it can seem easy to threaten a sanction which would disrupt or take away, what they usually like or look forward to. The hope is that they will see into the future and carefully consider the sanction, and make the right choice. Unfortunately this is not what happens.

When they are young they live in the now, anything else may as well be a year away. They will usually continue to misbehave, leaving you with the difficult choice of what to do next?

Taking away the fun part can force your child to decide that they no longer have anything to lose or look forward to, so they may as well continue to misbehave, as that way they at least get attention.

Before bed time my eldest used to like running around, expending the last bit of energy in her system before total shut down. This was not always appreciated by us, especially if things were getting late. The problem was that it could be very difficult to get hold of her, to get her dressed, teeth cleaned etc. We found that we were having a constant battle. One night my husband found himself pushed a little too far, and imposed the sanction of no story from him, if she did not calm down, and get dressed. She just giggled and ran off, and so we both worked together to corral her in her room. By the time we had got her pyjamas on, she had calmed down. We continued with our usual bedtime routine, and I read her a story; however when she asked for one from Daddy, she was told no, due to her earlier behaviour, this of course started her off again (behaviour type two). My husband could have read her that second book, but then he would not have followed through with his sanction, and we agreed that this could make future ones less effective, and cause more problems in the long run. It took time for her to calm down, but we stuck to our guns. That evening we reviewed our sanction policy, and discussed what we could do differently next time. We decided that getting hold of her, and getting her dressed, was actually a sanction in itself, as we were imposing this on her, so this could be our first warning. As we really wanted to encourage cooperation in our children, rather than have to manhandle them all the time, we decided that if there was time, then we would sanction close time. Close time would have provided her, and us, with time to calm down, leading to her getting dressed. Both these options had the benefit that they did not affect the rest of the bedtime routine, this meant that the evening would finish on a positive and pleasant note, rather than causing more upset as we had that night.

I would always ask myself the following questions:

What if they call my bluff?

What if I have to follow this through?

Will it make my life more difficult?

Empty or false threats do not work in the long run, keeping it small, repetitive and boring, helped me stick to my guns, and prevented me increasing the sanction to reflect my frustration.

When my children turned three they got cheeky, using the rules against me, by saying things like, “I will still get my book though won’t I?” Indicating that whatever they did, they would still get what they wanted. With this kind of cheek I tended to respond, “yes, but I will be choosing it, and the more you make Mummy tell you off, the shorter the story will be!”

Consistency in the sanction is very important, as I have said before, and will again. This does not mean that the sanction has to be the same every time, more the fact that if you threaten a sanction, of any sort, then warnings should be given, the sanction followed through, if needed, and an apology received. Then you should move on, try not to hold a grudge (can be hard I know).

The delayed sanction of, “wait until… comes home,” is unlikely to have the desired effect at the time, and is more likely to upset the returning partner, who is then expected to exert discipline for an action the child is likely to have forgotten about. Working together to form a consistent sanction policy is much more effective.

As I have gone along I have changed my sanctioning techniques, I do not know if there are set ages they suggest you do this, but I changed mine when I felt they had sufficient understanding to know better.

When I was working with schools on their behaviour policies, they found it hard to take on board the idea that taking away a child’s playtime, or stopping them going on a trip, could make the situation worse. A child who needs to let off steam, would benefit greatly from getting outside and running around, keeping them in, to prove a point, made everyone’s lives more difficult.

We are social animals, and the best way to get to know our fellow peers, is to go out on social events, or team building activities. As an employee if I was continually late for work, or was not pulling my weight, I would not expect my boss to stop me doing what I wanted on my tea-break, I would expect them to follow the usual disciplinary procedure, which I believe says nothing about banning me from having breaks, or attending social events. Peer pressure from colleagues would probably have more effect than a harsh word from my boss anyway. Therefore I do not believe that removing the opportunity for a child to form a social bond with their peers, to be a good idea.

The concept of Golden Time was used in a number of UK schools; this was where each pupil had an extended break time on a Friday, giving them a reward for their good behaviour. Poor behaviour led to the loss of time, but the important thing was that there was a certain amount of Golden Time, which could not be lost, and good behaviour could even buy time back. This meant that the ‘naughty’ pupils were kept in knowing that their friends were having fun, and that they would have to wait to join them. This was more effective than stopping them going out altogether, as the pupil looked forward to going out, and therefore had a reason to behave. Pupils’ who were told they could not have play time, would hide their disappointment by pretending they did not want to go out anyway.

One school I spoke to about this, could not get over the idea of buying back time. “You are saying that if they misbehave on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then they can still earn time back on Thursday? So what kind of deterrent is that?” The thing is the child they were talking about normally misbehaved on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This way the teacher was getting at least one day when the child was trying hard to be good. The idea that punishment should be carried over for days, and that playing the game is not what we all do, was interesting to me. As an adult we all play the game, in the end most of us realise that it is easier to work well enough most days, rather than work badly for three days, and extra hard on two. Something the pupil would hopefully learn in the end too.

I will look at what I term ‘ultimate sanctions’ in another article.

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