Natural Consequences: A New Approach to Discipline
The Benefits of Natural Consequences
In days past, “discipline” often meant revoked privileges for poor behavior. Hit your brother? No TV for a week. Didn’t do your chores? Forget that trip to the mall. But although classic approaches to discipline can make kids cooperate in the short term, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now shows that it’s not the best way to teach lifelong lessons and in extreme cases, can actually be harmful. These days, many experts encourage parents to let their kids experience what they call “the natural consequences of their actions” instead. If your child refuses to wear their jacket, just let them be cold—and they probably won’t put up a fight the next time. Logical consequences entail more adult involvement, but they’re also connected to misbehavior: If your child runs out into the middle of the street, they must hold your hand for the rest of your walk. It’s this connection that helps your child understand and learn from the repercussions of their actions.
The Three “Rs” of Natural Consequences
A consequence is most likely to teach a helpful lesson when it’s related, respectful, and reasonable, explains Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series. Here are the three “Rs” of natural consequences:
Of course, “related” is the opposite of “random.” So if your child makes a mess, their consequence should be that they have to clean it up (not that they can’t play on your iPad).
“Respectful” means that the consequence doesn’t involve shame or humiliation. “Your child already feels bad when they do something wrong,” says Dr. Nelsen. “If you say, ‘I told you so,’ or if you shame them afterward, you’ll lessen the potential for learning because they’ll stop processing the experience and instead focus on the blame.”
“Reasonable” implies that a consequence should be a task your child can handle—given their age and know-how—and that’s proportionate to their misbehavior. This will help them concentrate on what they’ve done rather than on resenting you.
How to Implement Natural Consequences
The 1st Way: Connect natural consequences to tasks
Natural consequences are pretty straightforward if your child has done something they shouldn’t have done. However, many parents struggle when their kids fail to do things they should (like chores) and the natural consequence (a dirty house) wouldn’t faze them. “When you tell your child, ‘If you don’t sort your laundry, then there’s no TV,’ that’s punishment because the connection between doing the chore and watching TV isn’t apparent,” says Madelyn Swift, author of Discipline for Life: Getting It Right With Children. Plus, the “If you don’t…” phrase makes it sound like a threat, so they’ll think the point is to make them pay for not doing what you asked. However, you can turn this into a logical consequence by substituting a “When you” construction: “When you have finished sorting the laundry, then you may watch your show.” By putting it this way, you articulate the principle that you’d probably like your kids to live by: Do what you have to do before doing what you want to do.
The 2nd Way: Frame privilege as a natural consequence of responsibility
Another mantra to emphasize is that privilege equals responsibility. “Our family’s rule is that all toys must be put where they belong by the end of the day, and any toy left lying around is food for the garbage can,” says Amy Kertesz, a mom of five kids, ages 4 months to 10 years, in Palmetto Bay, Florida. “My kids know that if they don’t take responsibility for their things, the consequence is that they lose the privilege of having them. Only my 3-year-old gets a pass. I’ll ask him to put something away rather than just tossing it.”
The 3rd Way: Tell the truth
Parents often overlook the simplest strategy: Tell the truth. For example, if your child has been misbehaving all day and then asks, “Can we go out for ice cream tonight?” go ahead and say what you’re thinking: “You know, after the way you’ve behaved today, I really don’t feel like taking you out for ice cream.” The lesson? When you do people wrong, the consequence is that they’re unlikely to go above and beyond for you.
The 4th Way: Have a back-up plan
Even with these rules of thumb, there will be instances when “natural consequence” punishments for kids won’t work. For example, it won’t do much good if your child considers the natural consequence to be no big deal (think tooth decay as a result of refusing to brush their teeth) or if allowing them to experience a consequence could hurt someone else (you can’t let them…).
To sum up, implementing natural consequences can be an effective way to discipline your child. By using related, respectful, and reasonable consequences, you can help them understand and learn from their actions. Connect consequences to tasks, frame privilege as a natural consequence of responsibility, tell the truth, and have a back-up plan for when natural consequences won’t work. Remember, the goal is to teach lifelong lessons and promote positive behavior in your child.
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