Using natural consequences is the disciplinary method of choice in positive parenting, but it feels elusive to many parents. It can be tough to let your child make a poor choice and suffer from the natural consequences. But when used properly, these consequences are great lessons for children to learn from. Find out when and how to use natural consequences to ensure effective discipline.
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What Are Natural Consequences
Natural consequences are the inevitable result that happens naturally, with no interference from the parents. These results are imposed by nature, society or another person.
Consequences can be positive or negative. They are reactions to our actions or choices. Both positive and negative consequences can teach children new behaviors.
In most cases, we want to seek positive outcomes and avoid negative consequences. But in parenting, most parents refer to consequences as negative outcomes.
Here are some examples of negative natural consequences imposed by:
- Nature – If you go outside without wearing a jacket when it’s cold outside, you will feel chilly and may catch a cold.
- Society – If you steal, you will be put in jail.
- Another person – If you are mean to your friends, no one will play with you.
Benefits Of Natural Consequences Over “Logical” Consequences
Letting children learn through natural consequences has many benefits over unnatural consequences.
Learn Logical Thinking
Natural consequences allow children to learn the real cause and effect, not artificial ones created by the parents. They prepare our kids for adulthood by helping them anticipate potential consequences of their choices.
As grownups, we have a lot more life experiences than our children and we want to use that knowledge to help our kids avoid common mistakes.
We obviously should continue to do so and teach our children the consequences of their actions. However, kids don’t always listen. When that happens, we become anxious and try to find “other ways” to prevent the mishaps. That’s when we invent a “logical consequence” instead of allowing them to experience the natural one.
Any consequences that are created to punish are not logical from the child’s eyes unless you count “I want you to suffer for your action” as good logic, a vindictive one by the way. So using so-called logical consequences to teach is counterproductive.
Artificial consequence has its place (more on this later), but for most everyday problems, natural consequences are better at teaching the child to link their actions with the results.
When parents use rules to discipline, e.g. if you do this, you’ll get punished, children associate their actions with the rule or the fear of getting punished. There is no direct link with the real reason why their action is problematic. They only know the action is undesirable and not allowed by the parents.
At the very least, the child is taught the wrong causation confusing their understanding of the world. Without this understanding, it’s hard for children to grasp the meaning of consequence. At worst, the child is taught the wrong values.
For example, do you rather your child help do house chores because:
- I love my family and I want to contribute, OR
- I just want my iPad back, otherwise, I don’t really care
Which kind of values do you want to instill in your child?
Learn to Problem Solve
With natural consequences, children have the opportunities to solve problems and exercise their cognitive thinking skills.
Mom thinks that it’s very cold outside and the child has to wear a coat, but the child refuses because he doesn’t feel cold.
If mom insists the child has to wear it or they’re not going out, the problem is whether to obey mom’s rule. The child either listens or fights. There’s no problem-solving opportunity. There’s only power struggle.
But if mom explains the reason is that she doesn’t want the child to feel cold later and get sick, then it becomes a solvable problem. The child (or you) may come up with an alternative such as carrying the coat and putting it on when he does feel cold. This solution meets the needs of both sides.
You Become The Teacher, Not The Enemy
When parents impose restrictions, they become the enemy. Unnecessary power struggles and fights arise, hurting the parent-child relationship.
Even worse, the child might learn to lie or become sneaky to avoid getting caught for breaking the parents’ rules.
However, when parents present a problem and guide their children to understand the connections and causality, they are the teachers.
Teacher versus enemy, which one do you think a child would rather listen to?
When you are the enemy, every future interaction is set up as fights, even when it’s not. Strict parents with many family rules often complain that their children fight about everything. That’s because they have chosen to stand at the opposite side of the child.
But when you teach them about natural consequences (and let them experience it if they don’t believe you), the child learns to trust you because you give them “the real deal”, not some made up “rules”. When they encounter problems, they will come to you, the teacher, for help rather than hiding it from you for fear of punishment.
Benefits Of Natural Consequences Over No Consequences
Instead of giving unnatural consequences, some parents just step in to save their children. For example, overprotective parents want to keep their children away from the blow of realities. But there are great reasons why natural consequences are better than no consequences created by parents stepping in to save the day.
Learn Coping Skills
Buffering children from any consequences is doing them a disservice. Children who are shielded from any difficulties in life don’t get to develop coping skills they need to recover from mistakes and bounce back from future failure.
Challenging experiences allow the child to develop coping skills. Research shows that some exposure to adversities is needed for kids’ coping mechanisms to mature1.
Responsibilities and Self-efficacy
Children who have parents come to the rescue every time something goes slightly wrong don’t learn to take responsibility.
Hovering parents are notorious for that2.
This is a particularly serious issue when they start gaining adult rights, and entering the workforce.
To become an adult, one needs to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions, make decisions independent of their parents, and be financially independent.
Emerging adults who have a stable role of responsibility feel more independent. They develop a better sense of self-identity and self-efficacy3,4.
When to Use Natural Consequences
Natural consequences should only be used when it is safe to do so. Never let your child run freely into the road with traffic, or play with the scissors to “teach a lesson.”
Here’s the framework I use to determine whether natural consequences are warranted. The following situations are NOT appropriate to use natural consequences.
- Imminent safety issues
- Imminent health-related issues
- Harm to anyone including self, others, animals and properties
- Situational constraints (e.g. we can’t play more now as we’ll be late for the flight)
Things that do not fall into the above categories are suitable.
Dos and Don’ts of Natural Consequences
DO explain, teach and remind
Natural consequences doesn’t mean the parents don’t act or do anything. In fact, before the consequence happens, you should explain to your child what will happen so they can connect the dots when it does happen.
For example, if my child doesn’t finish her homework, I explain that she will have to face the consequences imposed by the teacher and the school. It could include losing break time, or going to the principal’s office.
Also, remind your kid what has happened the next time they want to make the same mistake. Children often need repeated reminders to learn a new lesson.
DO let people get involved
Natural consequences doesn’t mean “no people involved”. It means letting things happen naturally without the parent altering it.
For example, “If you don’t share your candies with your friends, they won’t share things with you.”
Fairness is a quality people, especially kids, naturally strive for. You are not changing the outcome, but the child’s friends are still involved.
DO help child face consequence
After the natural consequence happens, your child may feel distressed. Use this opportunity to teach your child how to regulate their emotions, and how to solve the problem they’ve gotten themselves into.
Don’t let your child “self-soothe”. They can’t. Humans are not born with emotional regulation. They need your help to learn emotional regulation skills.
Problem solving skills and coping skills aren’t born out of thin air. They need to be taught. Ask questions and give hints or options to help children solve the problem. Prompting them to think also helps them self-regulate their emotions.
DON’T use time-outs
Time-outs for kids, when done, properly can be an effective disciplinary tool. Unfortunately, most parents don’t do it correctly. As a result, it becomes a punishment.
If you find yourself saying things like “If you don’t stop now, you’ll get a time-out”, then you are using it as a punishment. It’s not natural.
But if you’re asking your child, “You look really upset. Do you need a place to calm yourself down?” and if your child agrees to go, then it means your child is overstimulated and a time-out is a natural solution to help them calm down.
DON’T add punishment
The unpleasant natural consequence itself is already a punishment. So don’t pile on your child’s misery by adding unnatural punishment.
They are learning the real consequences of their action imposed by the situation.
Discipline means teaching a child how to make better choices, not making them suffer for the mistake they already made. If you punish your child to make them suffer, it will only teach them to fear you or the punishment.
Artificial punishment teaches the wrong lesson.
For example, your child shouldn’t take other’s toys without asking because then the other child will be sad. But if your child only knows they shouldn’t do that because you will punish them, then they will just become sneaky and do that behind your back.
“Don’t take other’s possession without asking because then the owner will be sad” teaches conscientiousness. “Don’t take other’s possession because I don’t want to be punished” doesn’t.
When Natural Consequences Cannot Be Used
There are times natural consequences are not desirable. For instance, when there are safety or health related issues, as mentioned above.
In those situations, intervene before your child makes a mistake and teach them why their mistake will be bad. If intervention and teaching don’t work, look for the next natural consequence that aims to teach and protect. Think of things that can contribute to their overall learning.
Here’s what I mean…
If your child plays too rough with the dog even after you’ve explained why that’s unacceptable, the natural consequence is to let the dog react. Most likely, it will bite your child.
Of course, you don’t let that happen.
Then the next natural consequence is to separate the child and the dog, and explain the reason behind.
Anyone would want to protect the animal in this scenario. So it’s very natural. If you explain to the child why he cannot play with the dog again because he wasn’t treating it right, then you’re also teaching your child to not be cruel to animals.
Now, if instead, you ground your child or take away her privilege, then it’s not only unnatural, but it also doesn’t teach your child anything meaningful except for fearing your punishment.
What If Natural Consequences Don’t Work
Parents who don’t like natural consequences will quickly point to the numerous failures they’ve encountered. They feel that this disciplinary method simply doesn’t work.
Most species in the animal kingdom are born mature or fairly mature, but not the human species. It takes humans more than twenty years to finish growing. That’s how long it takes a child to develop, not just physically, but also mentally.
It’s not hard to understand that children cannot lift heavy objects or run fast when they’re young because we can see their bodies are not fully developed. But it’s easy to forget that our kids’ brains are still growing, too.
Because it’s not visible, we have a much higher expectation for our children’s behavior than for their physical strength. If we explain something once and our kids don’t comply, then we’re afraid we’re disciplining the wrong way.
“Maybe our kids are too defiant for this”, “they’re too strong-willed”, or “preschoolers are too young to understand the concept of consequences” are some of the excuses parents think of to justify using unnatural consequences.
This is just not realistic nor fair to our kids.
Natural consequences work. They just don’t work as fast as we’d like them to.
Final Thought on Natural Consequences
For those of us who have grown up with punitive punishment, using natural consequences requires a major mental shift.
Overprotective parents who can’t tolerate whining or disappointment will also need significant adjustment to benefit from this.
At the end of the day, natural consequences are invaluable to our children’s growth, and it’s worth our effort to make them count.
- 1.Power TG. Stress and Coping in Childhood: The Parents’ Role. Parenting. Published online November 2004:271-317. doi:10.1207/s15327922par0404_1
- 2.C. Bradley-Geist J, B. Olson-Buchanan J. Helicopter parents: an examination of the correlates of over-parenting of college students. Education + Training. Published online May 6, 2014:314-328. doi:10.1108/et-10-2012-0096
- 3.Padilla-Walker LM, Nelson LJ. Black hawk down?: Establishing helicopter parenting as a distinct construct from other forms of parental control during emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence. Published online October 2012:1177-1190. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.03.007
- 4.Nelson LJ, Barry CM. Distinguishing Features of Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online March 2005:242-262. doi:10.1177/0743558404273074