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Natural Consequences – How To Discipline Kids Effectively

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. Find out when and how to use them for effective discipline.

What Are Natural Consequences

Natural consequences for children are the inevitable result that happens naturally, with no interference from the parents. These results are imposed by nature, society or another person without adult interference.

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

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 video game, you won’t have enough time to do your school work.
  • 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

Logical consequences are unpleasant consequences imposed by the parents so the child will not need to experience the natural consequences to learn.

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 create rules like taking their teen’s phone away if they don’t finish homework. These parents try to replace natural consequences with logical consequences to prevent the real ones from happening.

Differences Between Natural And Logical Consequences

Natural consequences are the natural outcome of the child’s actions. They provide a valuable learning opportunity for children to learn the real cause and effect of inappropriate behavior. These experiences prepare our kids for adulthood by helping them anticipate potential results of their choices.

However, logical consequences are not natural and not 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 and is not an effective way to teach.

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

When parents use rules to discipline, 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 real 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

What sort of lessons or what kind of values do you want to instill in your child?

Which scenario will teach your child why they should do the right thing?

Logical consequences 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 natural consequences of their behavior. 

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

Benefits Of Natural 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 our children what may happen and guide them to the right direction.

Knowing the true potential outcomes of their actions and then making a conscious decision to choose the 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 cognitive thinking 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’s only power struggle

But if mom explains the reason is 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.

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.

Learn Coping Skills

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.

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 mature​1​.

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 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 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.”

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.

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 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 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.

Discipline means teaching a child how to avoid making a poor choice. It should focus on teaching your child the proper future behavior, 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.

Self-motivated learner
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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…

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.

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 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 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 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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