Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.
A natural consequence is what will happen if the child keeps doing what they are doing, and an adult does not intervene. Some examples:
- If the child pulls the cat’s tail, the cat is likely to scratch the child’s hand.
- If the child plays with a toy too roughly, the toy may break.
- If they leave their cookie unattended on the picnic table while they play, the crows may steal it.
- If the child doesn’t eat at a meal, they will be hungry later.
- If they don’t bring their comic book inside, it may get ruined by rain.
We, as adults, might be able to foresee all of these natural consequences. But a child may not realize that these things could happen. So, it’s only fair that the parent advises the child of the possible problem: “If you [do this], then [that] will/might happen.” Sometimes, the parent might give a command to the child to stop the behavior and prevent the consequence. Or, sometimes the parent might inform the child of the possible result, then let the child make their own decision about what to do, and perhaps live with the consequences of their actions. Many parents think it’s important to do this at times – if we always protect and rescue our kids from all possible mistakes, they may not learn important lessons about the impact of their choices.
Natural consequences are best used when the results of the mistake will be a little painful so a lesson is learned, but not too painful. For example, if the child might break a $5 toy, you might not intervene, but if they’re about to break your laptop, you should stop them! If they might get a bump or a bruise, you might let that play through, but if they’re risking a broken bone, you will stop them.
Natural consequences are not administered by the parent. They’re the responsibility of the child – they took the action that caused the consequence.
Logical consequences are imposed by the parent for misbehavior.
When entering a new situation, it’s the parent’s job to make sure the child knows what to expect, and what’s expected of them. We teach them how to be good. If they start a mild misbehavior, we might start correcting that by telling them what TO DO instead. But, if the misbehavior is getting worse, a consequence may be appropriate.
Generally*, you will give an “if / then” warning to let them know what’s coming so they have a chance to change behavior and avoid the consequence. Some examples, sorted into categories:
- Removing the child from a situation where there’s an issue:
- “If you run near the parking lot, then we’ll have to leave the playground.”
- “If you knock the books off the library shelf, we’ll go home instead of going to story time.”
- “If you are loud in the restaurant, then we won’t be able to stay to have dessert.”
- Removing the problem item from them:
- “If you don’t put away your toys, I will put them away and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
- “If you two can’t share that toy nicely, then I will put it away for the rest of the play date.”
- “If you knock your plate on the ground, then lunch is over and I won’t get you more food till afternoon snack time.”
- Removing a privilege
- “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, then no screen time tomorrow.”
- “Since you hurt your friend, I can’t let you play tag anymore.”
- “If you don’t put all your laundry in the basket, then no candy today.”
- Requiring the child to do something to repair a situation.
- “If you spill the water, you will have to clean it up.”
- “If you break that, you’ll have to use your allowance to buy a new one.”
- the consequence is developmentally appropriate
- For a toddler, it has to be immediate and short term – if they start throwing blocks, you immediately pick them up and take them away from the blocks. Then you help them find a new activity to do. A few minutes later, they might wander back to the blocks and play with them appropriately.
- For a preschooler, the consequence should still follow closely after the behavior but can last a little longer. If they are playing in a way that could break a toy, you take it away right away, and say “I’ll keep this safe till tomorrow, then we can try again.”
- For an older child, the consequence can be more delayed and last longer. For a teenager, it could even be something like: “if you don’t do well on fall semester grades, then I won’t let you try out for the spring musical.”
- the consequence is in proportion to how bad the behavior was
- If a child spilled juice, you wouldn’t say “no drinks at the next five meals.” But you could say “no more juice today. If you are thirsty, you can have water.”
- If a child failed to put away toys one time, you wouldn’t throw away all the toys. But the toys could “take a break” for a day or two.
- you choose a consequence you can and will follow through on enforcing
- Kids need to know they can trust their parents to keep their promises. That includes being consistent when applying consequences. Don’t go easy on the consequences and back down… if you do this once, they’ll try to beg you down on the next several times.
- No empty threats. When you tell your child “if you don’t come right now, I’m leaving you here at the store and not coming back.” They know that’s not true. (And if they thought it was true, that would be very scary for them.)
- you carry it out calmly, not with anger and shaming – consequences are not about punishing your child or making them “really regret” their choices – they’re about learning that their choices have impact and helping them learn the importance of better choices in the future.
- as I said above*, generally you want to warn before imposing a consequence, so they have a chance to make a better choice. However, if they are hurting someone or something, there’s not a warning – it’s an immediate consequence. “You bit your friend. We are leaving the park now.” At a family meeting, when all is calmed down, you can discuss your rules with your child and establish in advance what behavior you consider unacceptable that will always warrant an immediate consequence.
For lots more on discipline, read The Discipline Toolbox, and follow the links in that post to find lots more tips.
Here is a printable handout on Consequences and Time Out. Find more handouts on my Resources for Parent Educators page.
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