Even in infanthood, we learn that there are consequences for our actions. If a baby puts a too-small toy in her mouth, mom or dad will take it away. If a toddler goes outside without shoes on, their feet will get cold. If your middle school child doesn’t get his homework done, it will affect his grade.
Consequences happen for all types of reasons—not just for doing something bad or getting into trouble. Consequences are the result of choices we make throughout our day, from small choices like stealing a toy from a sibling to bigger ones, such as stealing from a store. Teaching your child about consequences early on is a great way to curb misbehavior and bad choices.
One way to think about consequences is to separate them into Natural and Logical consequences:
Natural consequences are those that occur without adult interference—and children can learn a lot from these, including cause and effect and how to link their actions with consequences. For example, your child overloads his backpack with toys. The natural consequence is it’s too heavy to carry. As soon as your child gets uncomfortable from the natural consequence, offer them an option: “If we take out some of the toys, your pack won’t be so heavy and you can easily carry it. Which toys should we leave home?”
Other examples of natural consequences include:
- Child stays up late = sleeps in and is late for school, feels tired all day
- Leaves toys out in the rain = toys get wet and rusty
- Child doesn’t put away a jacket = the jacket can’t be found when needed
- Child plays roughly with the cat = the cat scratches the child
Natural consequences can help children learn without a lot of action from you as a parent, but can also be problematic if it puts your child or another person in danger; or affects the health and well-being of your child. For instance, if your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, parents need to step in to prevent cavities. Going out in the cold rain without rain gear can be okay for a little bit, but if it lasts too long your child can be harmed. Natural consequences are never OK if it puts your child in danger.
Logical consequences don’t occur naturally from a behavior, like getting cold if you go outside without a coat, but they are still connected to your child’s behavior. You create or impose logical consequences for your child based on what they are doing.
Logical consequences are more effective when they are related to the action – the consequences make better sense to your child. Make sure your child understands the possible consequences of their actions and that the consequence makes sense for the behavior. If your child won’t put on their shoes, it’s sensible to say, “We can’t go outside until everyone has their shoes on.”
For example, if your child is slow getting ready and you miss the bus, your child may be able to understand that because you missed the bus they won’t be going to the playground today. However, if you tell your child there is no television tonight because you missed the bus, they may not be capable of understanding how their action caused this result. They may have a hard time understanding any “logical” connection, especially when it’s delayed from the event.
Other examples of logical consequences include:
- Riding your bike in the street when asked not to = bike is put away for the morning
- Not listening when asked to turn down the TV volume = TV turned off
- Purposely breaking all the crayons = crayons are off limits for a bit
- Siblings fighting during a game = putting the game away and choosing an independent activity
Logical consequences send the message that the behavior is the problem, not the child. It may require you to put on your thinking cap to asses the situation, asking:
- What rule was broken?
- Is it clear to my child what the rules are and what is expected of them?
- Is the rule and expectations developmentally appropriate for my child’s age?
- What will help solve the problem?
Whether the situation calls for natural or logical consequences, use a calm and clear voice when talking to your child—chances are they already feel bad for their actions. The goal is to create a desire within your child to want to do better rather than just avoid the punishment.
Whether you let a natural consequence unfold or use a logical consequence, children need an opportunity to practice doing the right thing. If they’re young, you may want them to practice right away; for older children it may make more sense to wait until the situation comes up again. Natural and logical consequences are an important part of your child’s learning, and can be useful tools in your positive discipline tool belt.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).