Tag Archives: consequences


Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.

Natural 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

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.”

Make sure:

  • 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.


When/Then and If/Then

Two useful discipline tools for parents are the “when / then” and the “if / then” statements.

When / Then

This statement basically says “when you do [this positive behavior], then you will get [this positive social reward].”

Some examples:

  • “When you’ve brushed your teeth, then we get to read a bedtime story.”
  • “When you finish cleaning up your Legos, then we get to play a game.”
  • “When you’re ready for school, then you can work on your drawing.”
  • “When you’re sitting down in your chair, then I will give you your dessert.”
  • “When you’re sitting in your car seat, then I will tell you a joke.”

The statement clearly explains to your child what you want them to do. (It also implies that you are totally expecting your child to do this positive thing, now that you’ve explained to them what’s expected.) And in return for doing it, they can expect to continue to have your loving, positive attention.

If / Then

Notice how different the tone is when you say: “If you do [this negative behavior], then you will get [this consequence.]”

  • “If you don’t brush  your teeth right now, then no bedtime story!”
  • “If you don’t put your Legos away, then you can’t play with them tomorrow.”
  • “If you’re not ready for school on time, then you can’t draw.”
  • “If you don’t sit down now, then no dessert tonight.”
  • “If you don’t sit in your car seat by yourself, I’m going to put you in there.”

These statements assume they are likely to do something wrong, and tells them that if they do, they will experience a negative consequence.

You don’t want to start here: First, assume the best of your child! Giving a “when / then” first gives them the best chance at making a positive choice and being rewarded for that.

If the when / then didn’t work, that’s when we turn to if / then.

Think about your tone when presenting these statements. These don’t need to come off as angry threats that sound like “If you don’t cut that out, you’re going to be in big trouble with me!!” They can just be matter of fact statements about the natural or logical consequences of their actions. You may even let your tone show that you’re a little disappointed that you won’t be able to do what you had hoped – that encourages them to try harder to win back that positive social reward from you.

  • “If you can’t finish getting ready for bed in the next five minutes, then we won’t be able to read a bedtime story, and that will make us both sad.”
  • “If you don’t sit in your car seat by yourself, then I will have to put you there and buckle you in. Then I can’t tell you the great joke I have saved up for today.”

Test these two tools out over the next few days, and see how it goes. Does your child respond better to one than the other? Which do you feel better about using?

Learn about lots of other tools for your Discipline Toolbox, including: the Attention Principle,  Substitution and Re-direction, and Natural Consequences.


[cartoon images from white-garden.blogspot.com, marked free to share and use]

Your Discipline Toolbox

There are lots of different discipline techniques for to guiding children toward good behavior. Learning about them is like stocking your toolbox for home maintenance. If you have a good solid foundation, and you perform routine maintenance, you may not need to pull out your toolbox very often. But we all have  little repair jobs from time to time that require a basic, all-purpose tool, and some days we have really big issues that need specialized power tools to address, and sometimes we call in a professional to help. This post will orient you to all the tools in your toolbox, and help you figure out how to use the right tool for the right job, in the right way.

[Note: This post is intended as an overview… there are LOTS of links in this post that will take you to other articles I’ve written with more details on these techniques. If you prefer video content, I also offer a video overview of the Discipline Toolbox.]

What is Discipline?

Discipline means guidance. It means being a good example, setting clear expectations for how we want our children to behave, not assuming that they know how, and setting clear limits on things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we will tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

Building a Strong Foundation

All discipline is grounded in a positive relationship. Here’s some ways to build that foundation:

  • Play together—often!
  • Have snuggle time and special time and let them know you love them.
  • Listen to them—build a “Love Map” of what’s important to them.
  • Validate their emotions—their feelings are always OK. (Some behaviors are not.)
  • Be consistent and trustworthy.
  • Ask for respect from them and treat them with respect.
  • Teach how to be good: talk about values; model, coach, and praise good behavior.

Do Routine Maintenance

  • Take care of yourself. Get the support you need in order to have enough energy to be a calm, thoughtful parent.
  • Whenever possible, ensure your child is well fed and well rested.
  • Avoid overstimulation (it leads to meltdowns).
  • Spend time each day in kid-friendly environments where it’s easy for them to succeed.
  • Set expectations: warn of transitions, and explain what the plans are.
  • Create predictable routines & clear rules so they know what’s expected of them. Set appropriate limits on behavior. (Be sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate.)

To Improve Behavior

Sometimes there are situations where your child is not necessarily mis-behaving but they could be behaving better.  Here’s how  to move things in a positive direction:

  • Use the Attention Principle: pay attention to positive behavior you want to see more of.
  • Use When / Then. “When you do [positive behavior], then you get [something positive.]”
  • Create a Reward System. (Read more about praise and reward here.)
  • Create a Routine to address any chronic challenge in daily family life.
  • Clarify rules—your child may do something that they didn’t realize was wrong. You can explain what the problem is and how to avoid it in the future.

For example, if you are often running late to school in the morning because your child is reading or playing instead of getting dressed, you could set up a routine by writing down what the steps are that they need to do, saying when you do these steps on time, then you can read your book, giving positive attention when they do well and giving them a reward at the end of the week if they’re on time every day.

To Correct Minor Misbehavior

(Note: If your child is hurting someone or something, skip these ideas and escalate to the next level.)

As parents, a big part of our job is to help our children learn to be good people, as this helps them succeed in school, work, and in all of life. To do that, we need to set clear limits on what’s OK and what’s not OK. (Learn here about the authoritative parenting style, which balances high expectations for our children with high responsiveness to them as individuals.)

  • If the behavior doesn’t really break rules, but is just annoying, Ignore it.
  • Tell your child what they SHOULD do: Model, Substitute, Re-direct, Offer Choices
    • Here’s a free printable set of discipline tool postcards to remind you of these.
    • Note: If your child is in the midst of a meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them or offer logical choices… they’re in their “downstairs brain” and won’t be able to hear you. (Learn more here.)
  • Give clear Commands. Make sure you have their attention first—connect to correct. Use eye contact. Don’t yell or whine: Speak with a calm, cool voice of authority.
  • Let them suffer the Natural Consequences of their choices, and learn from their mistakes.
  • Warn them, using If / Then statements. “If you continue [bad behavior], then you’ll get [a timeout or a logical consequence.]”

For example, if you’re trying to get dinner ready and your toddler is banging their sippy cup to get your attention, you might just ignore that. Or you substitute by trading the cup for a drum. If their milk spills, then you can let them experience the natural consequences by having them wipe up the milk, then giving them a cup of water to replace it. Or you could say “if you keep banging your milk, then I will take it away, and you can just have water.”

To Correct Major Misbehavior

These are your power tools. You’re not going to pull them out of the toolbox every day, but they’re there when you need them.

You might use them any time your child is hurting someone or something or is at risk of being hurt. You might also use them for non-compliance – if you used the tools in the category above (telling your child what TO DO, given clear commands, etc.) and they continue to disobey, then these tools kick in.

You may notice that I haven’t talked about one discipline tool: Physical Discipline, such as spanking. Many parents have discovered that, in the short term, spanking can be an effective way to get a child to stop doing something bad. In the long term, in the context of an otherwise loving relationship, it can turn out OK. However, it’s also possible that in the long-term, spanking can damage the relationship, or cause fear and anxiety in the child, or teach the child that anger and violence are the ways to get things done.

Spanking doesn’t teach a child much about why the behavior is bad and how they could do better. They may learn to avoid doing it when you’re around so they won’t get hit, but there’s no reason for them to avoid it when you’re not there, so they don’t gain self discipline skills. Read more on physical punishment and spanking here.

If the power tools aren’t working, seek peer advice, parent education, or professional support as needed.

Sometimes handling our child’s misbehavior can make us really angry. Look here for tips on “What if you’re angry at your child?“.

Move On

When misbehavior stops, or after a time out or a consequence is complete, then re-engage with your child, providing positive attention and praise for good behavior.

It’s especially important to do this if you lost your cool and got angry at your child. Read more about Resolution.

Self Discipline

Our goal for discipline, in the long-run, is to make ourselves obsolete. Our children need to learn to discipline themselves. We want to raise adults who are capable of controlling their impulsive behavior, capable of working hard for a delayed reward (or even no reward other than their satisfaction with a job well done), and who have such a strong internal sense of right and wrong that it guides their every action, and who do what’s right simply because they can’t imagine behaving differently. Read more on self-discipline and how to begin to teach it.


If you’d like a free, printable handout that summarizes all this information, just click here for the Discipline Toolbox in color or Discipline Toolbox,  Black and White.

Speaking with the Voice of Authority

In class last week, a mom told me how overwhelmed she was by her kids. She felt like they didn’t listen to her. Not only did they not follow her rules, they would sometimes hit or bite when she tried to enforce those rules. She was feeling out of control and powerless. She asked: “How do you get that voice that puts ‘the fear of God’ in your kids?” In other words, that tone of command that says “That’s it. I mean business! You will now do what I am telling you to do.” It’s the “Stop – do NOT run out in traffic” tone or the “It’s not OK to hit” tone.

I said “It’s all in the voice” and demonstrated my sternest tone.

But really, it’s more than the voice. It’s the body language and the facial expressions too. Gone is the soft and gentle mama (or papa) who will let them get away with anything just because they’re so darn cute. Gone is the tired looking mama they know will let them get away with it because she’s too tired to do anything about it. (Believe me, I know you may FEEL this way, just try not to let it show.) This is the serious mama who Needs Them to Listen to Her Now. (Note: you don’t need to be a mean mama, or an angry mama… you can still be loving and respectful and in calm control of your own emotions when you are being authoritative.)

But really, it’s about much more than how you talk, stand, or look in the moment. It’s about your whole relationship with your kids. Are you generally respectful, loving, playful, and encouraging them to adventure and explore? Have you built a relationship of mutual trust? If so, then when you put on your serious tone, they trust that there’s a reason for it.

It’s also about your discipline style in general. The Voice only has power if they know there will be Actions that follow it up.

Do your children know that you set limits and stick to them? Do you tell them what’s expected of them and what the consequences will be if you disobey? Do you follow through on those consequences? Do you follow through every time? Even when you’re in public? Even when you’re tired? Even when you’re busy? Don’t set consequences unless you can follow through on them in that moment! Find a consequence you’re willing to enforce and enforce it.

This is where the discipline flow chart comes in: step 3 – tell child what to do; step 4 – alert child to the problem by putting on your command voice; step 5 – calmly enforce consequences, and step 6 – move on.

You might say: “When we are in the parking lot, you need to hold my hand. If you let go, I will pick you up.” Then, if she lets go, calmly pick her up and carry her. Even if she’s kicking and screaming. When she’s buckled into her car seat and calmed down, explain that your job is to keep her safe, and one thing you need her to do is hold your hand in a parking lot so the cars know she is there.

You might say: “I want you to use a gentle voice and nice touch with your sister. If you hit her, I will pick you up and carry you out of the room.” Then if he hits, calmly pick him up and carry him out of the room. Then help him take a few deep breaths and calm back down. Even if you have other things you need to do in that moment (like work on dinner), the consequences need to be there and need to be immediate.

You might say: “I want you to share the toys nicely. If you two fight over something, I will need to take it away and put it on the time-out shelf.” When they fight over something, calmly take it away. Then help them re-settle into playing with new toys. You do this even if you’re tired, and really just want them to play by themselves for a moment while you rest. You don’t give up and just toss the toy back down to them when they fuss about you taking it away. And if they bite or hit you, you should clearly say “It is not OK to hurt me. It’s never OK to hurt other people. I’m going to leave you here in your room by yourself for a while, and I’m going to go somewhere else.”

How do your kids know you mean business when you say something? They know because you consistently follow through with actions and consequences if they don’t listen to you when you say it. You “say it like you mean it” because you do mean it.

I promise I didn’t put the photo of Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter at the top of this post because I think you’re being a witch when you enforce limits. I put it there because I think this character (in both the books and the movies) exemplifies the gentle authority. There is no doubt that she loves the children. There’s also no doubt that she means business when she tells them what they need to do. You can find your own loving voice of authority with your kids. Your life will feel more in your control when you do this, and your child will also be reassured – although they may act like they want to be in charge, it’s actually a little scary for them to feel like they are. Kids prefer it when they have a strong loving authority in the house.


The Discipline Flow Chart – 6 Easy (or not always-so-easy) Steps of Discipline


When many people hear the word Discipline, they think of punishment – the consequences for bad behavior. Discipline is so much more: it’s Prevention of problems – setting up an environment where your child can be successful. It’s Picking Your Battles – deciding which lessons are the most important to teach. It’s Teaching your child about the right way to behave (not assuming they were born knowing.) It’s Setting Limits – letting your child know when there is a problem and giving them the opportunity to correct it. Then, as step 5, not step 1, come Consequences. After consequences, we Move On – making clear to the child that their behavior was not OK with us, but they are! Let’s look at the 6 steps in more detail.

Step 1 – Prevent Problems

There are lots of things we can do to set the stage for good behavior. It’s easier for your child to behave when they are well-rested and well-fed. It’s easier for your child to behave when you have predictable routines for your day and they know what’s expected of them. We can plan our activities so that each day the child has plenty of kid-friendly times and places where we can say yes to them – yes, it’s OK to run here, yes, it’s OK to be loud here, yes, you can touch and play with all the things here. Having this time will make the “No” times easier.

Effective discipline is grounded in relationship. If your child trusts you, and trusts that you love them, discipline will be easier.

A key step of prevention is to teach your child what to expect, and what is expected of them. It will take them a while to learn what is appropriate behavior for church, stores, the doctor’s office and so on. On your way to an activity, talk about what you will be doing, and how you would like them to behave.

Step 2 – Pick your Battles

When some questionable behavior begins, think before you intervene.

If something is clearly bad behavior, we move on quickly to the other steps… especially if there’s imminent danger of harm to a person or a possession – then we’d jump straight to step 5 – consequences. Or if your child is having a full-out tantrum, you may need to just remove them from the situation and explain later.

But sometimes the ‘misbehavior’ that we notice and react to is really not that big of deal. Sometimes the behavior is just annoying to us but not really bad. (If this is the case, can you just ignore it?) Or sometimes, our kids just surprise us by doing something we didn’t expect them to do and we react negatively before we really think about it. And then next thing we know, we’re caught in a battle of wills about something, and we realize part way through that it’s a battle not worth fighting, but we don’t want to back down because then our child learns that they can out-argue us.

When you encounter one of those moments of “I can’t believe she just did that!”, stop and think before reacting. Share your thought process with your child….  “hmm… I need to think about whether it’s OK to do that.” Once you’ve decided, explain your decision to them so you both know the rules for the future.

[Note: when I say things like “explain”, remember that you always have to act in a developmentally-appropriate way with your child. So, explaining to a toddler may be “no, no, too hot” and an explanation to a 5 year old will be a lot more specific.]

Step 3 – Tell Your Child what TO do

[If the situation is escalating quickly, we might need to jump to step 4 or step 5. But ideally, we can spend a while on step 3… ]

We need to ask for the behavior we want to see. Toddlers don’t understand the word “don’t” very well, so if you say “don’t bite”, they hear the verb, and continue to bite. Also, even if they grasp what they shouldn’t do, they may not be able to think of any alternatives for what they should do instead. Tell them what they should do.

Connect to Correct: Don’t call out suggestions from across the room. Go close to your child, establish eye contact, and then give suggestions. Engage them in the new activity before moving away.

Model: Act the way you would like your child to act. Point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see. “Let’s touch the doggy gently. See, this is gentle.” “Watch how I walk carefully down the stairs, and I get to jump off just the very last stair.”

Re-direct: Tell them what other action they could do with that object. So instead of “don’t pour the rice on the floor”, say “keep the rice in the bowl.” Instead of “Don’t drop that!!” say “Hold it very carefully” and say “when you’re ready to set it down, I’ll take it from you.”

Substitute: Tell them what other object they can do that action with. “I can see you’re in the mood for throwing. Let’s go find a ball.” “I can see you want to bang on things. Where’s your drum?” Sometimes it’s delayed substitution: “I know you want to jump and run today. Later, we’ll go to the playground and you can do that all you want. For now, I need you to sit quietly.”

Offer Choices: “You have 3 cars. Bobby wants to play with one. Which one do you want to give him?”

Note: don’t offer choices to a child who is very upset. It will only make it harder for her to calm herself down. A tantrum-ing child needs to be given clear direction about what to do.

Explain the Reasons: “I want you to stop banging on that, because it might break. That would make us sad.” “I need you to be safe. When you go head first down a slide, it can hurt you. Go feet first.”

Step 4 – Alert Child to the Problem, set Limits

If re-directing has not been working, and misbehavior continues, we need to take action. [If there is imminent risk of harm, jump to step 5.]

Get serious. By this, I mean: change your tone of voice to calm but stern, change your body language. Let them know you mean business. Tell your child that his behavior is not OK. (He might not know. Or he may know and is testing the rule – and you.)

Remind your child what the expectations are and encourage her to behave better. Let her know what the consequences will be if the misbehavior continues.

Try for logical consequences, where ‘the punishment fits the crime.’ The most common consequences fall into two categories: remove the child from the situation until they can behave well, or remove options from the child (i.e. take away toys, buckle them into the high chair, stop them from using the slide.) Make sure the consequence is in proportion to the issue. Some examples: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away for the day” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach.”

Don’t set any consequences you’re not willing to enforce!

Step 5 – Calmly Enforce Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence. Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Your role is to be the authority who helps your child stay safe and grow into the best adult they can be. Although you can be loving and friendly to your child at all times, you can’t always be their friend. Sometimes you’ll be the “bad guy” who blocks them from doing what they want.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just do it.

Step 6 – Moving On

Once the consequence is complete (your child has calmed down enough to return to the situation or the time limit on taking the toys away has run out) then you move on.

Remind your child you still love himhis behavior was the issue. Make plans together for how to prevent or manage this sort of situation in the future.

Over time, we want our children to learn self-discipline, so as they get older, we need to “fade” back a little with our guidance. We ask them to tell us what the appropriate behavior is for a situation, we wait a little longer to correct, we let them experience some of the problems we’ve warned them about (instead of always protecting them from consequences), and take more responsibility for behaving properly.


Would you like a cheat sheet version of this article to print and post on your fridge? Download PDF: Discipline Flow Chart

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