In the realm of gentle discipline, allowing your child to experience natural consequences can be an effective strategy for shaping behavior and teaching cause and effect.
Sometimes it’s scary to let our child suffer the consequences of their actions, but in many cases it’s a strong learning experience for them. Losing something they weren’t careful with can be a much more powerful lesson than a parent’s constant warning.
In most cases, it’s wise to let your child experience consequences without running to the rescue. But of course, there are times when it could be dangerous or the lesson is too big at a young age. Here’s much more on how to navigate this particular gentle parenting tactic.
Logical vs. natural consequences for kids
Natural consequences and logical consequences are very similar. A natural consequence is the natural or inevitable result of a person’s action. Your child leaves their new toy in the middle of the hall. A parent walks through with a laundry basket and steps on it, and the toy breaks. The toy breaking is the natural consequence of it being left on the floor.
Your child is petting a cat that starts giving signs that it’s time to back off. You point out that when the kitty’s ears are back, she’s getting defensive and doesn’t want to be bothered. The child continues petting or prodding the animal and gets a hiss or a scratch.
We can certainly console our child for any pain or sadness these situations brought. But our reaction shouldn’t be to go out and replace the new toy or scold the cat for doing what animals naturally do. We can use these as teachable moments not punishment. You can even help your child save their allowance to replace the toy on their own.
Natural consequences differ from logical consequences. Logical consequences are typically used in discipline where the resulting punishment is reasonable for the child’s behavior.
Here’s an example. You have an agreement with your tween that there’s no screen time after 9pm. You find them using the iPad after hours, and their punishment is no screen at all the next day. This is a much more logical punishment for misuse of screen time than assigning your child to do the dishes for a week.
As a child, if I forgot my flute at home, no one was going to bring it to me before band practice. If I got a bad grade on a test, neither of my parents would have considered debating the issue with my teacher. In fact, they probably didn’t even know about it.
Times were different.
Kids were often implored to fend for themselves.
Punishment and logical consequences are one and the same. When a child does something wrong, they experience the effect of it – big or small.
Today, many parents work hard to prevent children from experiencing any kind of natural consequences. Parents are protective by nature, but some consistently intervene to help children avoid any kind of failure. This is an enormous mistake.
What do children learn when we intervene?
Children learn from their experiences, but when parents repeatedly butt in on each and every troubling matter, they set children up to have difficulty navigating the real world.
Failing to allow for consequences for behavior we would like to see changed is akin to promoting it. A teen who sneaks out his bedroom window after dark but experiences no punishment is likely to think that behavior is okay with his parents.
What of the child who asks for an extra cookie, is told no, but takes one anyway? Here’s the lesson she learns: “To heck with rules, to heck with laws. This is my world, and when I want a chocolate chip cookie, I’m taking it. Who is going to stop me?”
Some parents impose consequences for kids with reckless abandon. They are authoritative in nature and expect an extraordinary level of compliance. When parents take away privilege after privilege, eventually children feel there is nothing left to lose.
There’s really no way to discipline a child who just doesn’t care anymore.
Take away a teen’s phone, computer, and video game at once and the child might lose all motivation to improve behavior. This is the danger of using consequence too frequently or too harshly. Often, parents who are punishing constantly are also forgetting to reward children for their positive behavior. That’s a double whammy.
Another mistake parents make is setting a consequence that has no impact. If you take something away that has zero emotional value, the child will not feel the impact. Therefore, the consequence will have no effect on curbing future behavior.
Outcomes to behavior that are not orchestrated by parents are called natural consequences. Children learn from unpleasant moments.
If you never trip over untied laces, you fail to see the importance to tying them. These sort of lessons—painful, uncomfortable, requisite—help children decide to do it all differently next time. Nothing modifies a child’s behavior more efficiently than natural consequences.
Allowing your child to experience natural consequences
Here are some classic examples of children experiencing natural consequences:
Examples of natural consequences
- A child forgets their homework and receives a zero for the assignment.
- A teen leaves the house without a coat in the middle of winter. When the sun sets, they get cold.
- A middle schooler decides to dye their hair blue without permission. They end up with locks the color of seaweed and hate it or even get teased about it.
- A child protests dinner when they’ve eaten the same food many times before. The child goes to bed still a little hungry, and the rumbling of an empty stomach keeps them up at night.
And here’s how to support your child in these situations.
Don’t intervene prematurely
Here’s the trouble: because parents intervene prematurely, children often miss the unpleasantness of their actions. Mom and Dad swoop in to rescue the day.
And, to be clear, I understand the impulse. We all want to do a good job parenting. But without realizing it, parents who preempt the lightbulb moment remove the learning opportunity for children. We have to let our kids fall, scrape, cut, fail, underachieve.
How to allow natural consequences
If parents let children deal with their mistakes, invaluable lessons are learned. The tricky part is allowing children to have the “oh, crap” moment. Resist the strong urge to save the day.
By using the Ignore It approach, parents can learn to tolerate the barrage of begging, whining, and negotiating that surely follows when your child insists you are the meanest parent ever because you refuse to offer an alternative for dinner.
They will not reinforce the behavior (not brushing hair) that resulted of a natural consequence (tangles the child has to deal with or a low-maintenance hair cut). Additionally, they will not be reinforcing the response behavior (whining, arguing, etc.).
Situations that require a parent to intervene
Some instances aren’t appropriate for allowing your child to experience natural consequences. Here are a few…
1. If the consequence would not be felt by the child immediately, this usually breaks the connection between the action and outcome. Therefore, the child may not learn a lesson from the potential discomfort of an action.
2. Natural consequences for kids cannot be used when the outcome is dangerous. For example, we can’t just allow kids play in the street and risk getting hit by a car or allow them to stick their hands in fire. Parents need to take precautions to keep children safe from danger.
3. When others might be hurt by the child’s behavior, parents should intervene. If a child decides to take scissors and cuts their little sister’s hair off, who feels the natural consequence? The sibling, which isn’t a fair consequence.
Excerpted with permission from Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. Dr. Catherine Pearlman, PHD, LCSW is the founder of The Family Coach, a private practice specializing in helping families resolve everyday problems related to discipline, sleep, and sibling rivalry, among other issues. Dr. Pearlman is a licensed clinical social worker who has been working with children and families for more than twenty years. She is an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University and received a PhD in social welfare from Yeshiva University and a masters of social work from New York University.