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Natural Consequences – How To Discipline Kids Effectively

What are logical consequences | Differences between natural and logical consequences | Benefits | When to use | Dos and Don’ts | When natural consequences cannot be used | What if natural consequences don’t work

What Are Natural Consequences

Natural consequences for kids are the inevitable results of their behavior that happen naturally, with no adult interference. The results are imposed by nature, society, or another person directly involved in the issue.

Giving natural consequences is the disciplinary method of choice in positive parenting and positive discipline, but it feels elusive to many parents. It can be tough to watch your child make a bad choice and suffer from it. But when used properly, allowing natural consequences is an important lesson for children to learn from.

There are different types of consequences. Both positive consequences and negative consequences can teach children new behaviors. Most parents, however, refer to consequences as punishment when they give them.

Here are some examples of natural consequences.

  • If you go outside without wearing a jacket when it’s cold, you may catch a cold.
  • If you go to bed late, you will have a hard time waking up the next morning.
  • If you spend all your time playing this video game, you won’t have time to finish your schoolwork for the next day.
  • If you don’t keep your room tidy and organized, you may not be able to find your favorite toy easily.
  • If you get a bad grade, you may have to repeat the year.
  • If you are mean to your friends, they will not play with you.
ten year old girl with headphones and feet on desk, dad stands over. removing natural consequence may make it a logical consequence instead.

What Are Logical Consequences

Parents often confuse a related consequence with a natural consequence. Related consequences, often called logical consequences, are unpleasant outcomes imposed by the parents. They are not the direct result of a child’s actions.

Many parents mistakenly think that giving logical consequences is a different way to use natural consequences. It is not. “Logical consequence” is just another term for punishment.

As grownups, we have a lot more life experiences than our children and we want to use that knowledge to help our kids avoid making mistakes. So some parents use punishment instead of natural consequences to teach.

An example of a logical consequence is taking a teenager’s cell phone away if they get a poor grade in school. It is not a natural consequence because the parent has made up this rule. The parent wants to protect the teenager from the actual consequences they would otherwise face at school. Unfortunately, taking away a teen’s phone also removes an important learning opportunity, in which the child can learn to anticipate real-life outcomes.

Differences Between Natural And Logical Consequences

Natural consequences are the natural outcome of the child’s actions. They provide a valuable lesson for kids to learn the real cause-and-effect of their negative behaviors. These experiences prepare our kids for adulthood by helping them anticipate the potential results of their actions.

However, logical consequences are not natural and not entirely logical. Imposing consequences that are created to punish is 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 this type of consequence to teach is counterproductive. It is also not an effective way to teach because it doesn’t teach positive behavior.

When parents use rules and punishment to discipline, children associate their actions with the punishment. There is no direct link between their poor choice and the results. Those results also don’t teach what the alternative behaviors are. The child only knows their action is not allowed by the parents.

At the very least, the child is taught the wrong causation confusing their understanding of the real world. Without this understanding, it’s hard for them to grasp the meaning of real consequences.

At worst, the child is taught the wrong values.

Do you rather your child help with household chores because:

  • I love my family and I want to contribute, OR
  • I just want my iPad back, otherwise, I don’t really care

The lesson or values being instilled in your child will depend on what the consequences are.

Natural consequences teach children how to make good decisions that will lead to the proper outcome.

Logical consequences teach children how to make decisions that will let them avoid punishment. In the short run, you may get the same behavioral change as using natural consequences. But when there is no punishment, when they grow up and move out, will they still know what is the right thing to do?

Using logical consequences has its place (more on this later), but for most everyday problems, natural consequences are better at teaching the child to associate their actions with real-life outcomes.

Another big drawback of using logical consequences is that it often damages the parent-child relationship and doesn’t inspire positive attitudes in our kids.

Some parents complain a lot about their children’s negative attitudes or lack of respect. But can you be positive and full of respect for the person who constantly punishes you or threatens to punish you?

girl does not want to do chores - natural and logical consequences in early childhood have different effects

Benefits Of Natural Consequences

Letting children learn through natural consequences has many benefits over using unnatural consequences.

Learn Critical Thinking

Learning through natural consequences doesn’t mean we let them find out what happens naturally without warning. We should still explain to them what may happen and guide them in the right direction.

Knowing the true potential outcomes of their actions and then making a conscious decision to choose an appropriate behavior is how critical thinking skills develop in young children.

Develop Problem-Solving Skills

Allowing your child to experience natural consequences means they will have the opportunities to solve problems and exercise their problem-solving skills.

For example, mom thinks that her child has to wear a coat in cold weather, 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 are only power struggles

But if the mom explains that she doesn’t want the child to feel cold 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. Using cognitive thinking to solve problems is one of the most important life skills.

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.

But when parents present a problem and guide their children to understand the natural consequences, they become 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 a fight, 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 on 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.

Learn Coping Skills

Instead of giving punishment, some parents just step in to save the day, every time. Overprotective parents want to keep their children away from the blow of realities. But buffering children from any consequences is doing them a disservice.

Children who are shielded from any difficulties in life don’t get to develop the coping skills they need to recover from mistakes and bounce back from future failures. Challenging experiences allow the child to develop coping skills. Research shows that some exposure to adversities is needed for kids’ coping mechanisms to mature​1​.

Responsibilities and Self-efficacy

Children whose parents come to the rescue every time something goes slightly wrong don’t learn to take responsibility.

Hovering parents are notorious for that​2​.

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 natural 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-efficacy​3,4​.

When to Use Natural Consequences

The tricky part of using natural consequences is when you should or could use it.

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.”

The following situations are NOT appropriate to use natural consequences.

  • Imminent safety issues
  • Imminent health-related issues
  • Harming anyone including self, others, animals, and properties
  • Violating the rights of others
  • Situational constraints (e.g. we can’t play more now or we’ll be late for the flight)

Using natural outcomes is appropriate for teaching anything that does not fall into these categories.

elementary school boy sleeps on homework will face natural consequences definition

Dos and Don’ts of Natural Consequences

DO explain, teach and remind

Natural consequences don’t mean the parents don’t act or do anything. In fact, before the natural consequence happens, you should explain to your child what will happen so they can connect the dots when it does happen.

For example, if your child doesn’t finish her homework, 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.

The next time they want to make the same mistake, remind them what happened before. Children often need repeated reminders to learn a new lesson.

DO let people get involved

Natural consequences don’t mean “no people involved”. It means letting things happen naturally without the parent altering them.

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 your child face consequence

After the natural consequence happens, your child may feel distressed. Use this opportunity to teach them 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 either. 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 use timeout 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 negative action.

For example, your child shouldn’t take others’ 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 may 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.

Self-motivated learner
Have trouble motivating your child? Check out:

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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…

For example, your child is too rough with the dog even after you’ve explained why that’s unacceptable. The dog reacts and bites your child may be the unfortunate natural consequence. 

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 it.

Anyone would want to protect the animal and the child 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 not to be cruel to animals.

dog kisses dog

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 parenting method simply doesn’t work.

Here’s the thing… 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 child’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 they do for adults.

Final Thought on Natural Consequences

For those of us who have grown up with punitive punishment, using natural consequences to discipline a child 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.


References

  1. 1.
    Power TG. Stress and Coping in Childhood: The Parents’ Role. Parenting. Published online November 2004:271-317. doi:10.1207/s15327922par0404_1
  2. 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. 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. 4.
    Nelson LJ, Barry CM. Distinguishing Features of Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online March 2005:242-262. doi:10.1177/0743558404273074

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