Natural Consequences: Redefining Punishments for Kids
When you let your child learn from natural consequences, they’re more likely to understand the repercussions of their actions. Here's how to create positive punishments for kids.
In days past, "discipline" often meant revoked privileges for poor behavior. Hit your brother? No TV for a week. Didn't do your chores? Forget that trip to the mall. But although this classic approach can make kids cooperate in the short term, research now shows that it's not the best way to teach lifelong lessons.
These days, many experts encourage parents to let their kids experience what they call “the natural consequences of their actions” instead. If your child refuses to wear their jacket, just let them be cold—and they probably won't put up a fight the next time.
Logical consequences entail more adult involvement, but they're also connected to the misbehavior: If your child runs out into the middle of the street, they must hold your hand for the rest of your walk. It's this connection that helps your child understand and learn from the repercussions of their actions.
Sounds easy, right? The fact is, ideal corrective consequences can't do the trick every time, but they'll be effective in more situations than you realize. Follow these tips to get better behavior now and in the future.
The Three “R’s” of Natural Consequences
A consequence is most likely to teach a helpful lesson when it’s related, respectful, and reasonable, explains Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series.
Related: Of course, “related” is the opposite of “random.” So if your child makes a mess, their consequence should be that they have to clean it up (not that they can't play on your iPad).
Respectful: “Respectful” means that the consequence doesn't involve shame or humiliation. "Your child already feels bad when he does something wrong," says Dr. Nelsen. "If you say, 'I told you so,' or if you shame him afterward, you'll lessen the potential for learning because he'll stop processing the experience and instead focus on the blame."
Reasonable: “Reasonable” implies that a consequence should be a task your child can handle—given their age and know-how—and that's proportionate to their misbehavior. This will help them concentrate on what they’ve done rather than on resenting you. If your 3-year-old is goofing around and knocks over a carton of milk, don't expect them to mop the whole floor by themselves to drive home your point. Instead, wipe up the spill together. If they refuse, put your hand gently on top of theirs and physically do the motion with them, suggests Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent.
If they’re screaming uncontrollably, you can hold them in your lap after at least part of the mess is cleaned up. When their crying stops and you feel their muscles relax, praise them for being able to calm down and just move on.
An older kid might give you back-talk instead of having a meltdown, but resist the urge to get angry or let them weasel out of things. You can help defuse arguments by mentioning a consequence ahead of time ("I've noticed a lot of gum wrappers around the house. Please put wrappers in the garbage, or the consequence will be no more gum").
When advance warning isn't possible, help them brainstorm solutions for a problem they’ve gotten into. For example, you might say, "You must be upset that you forgot your project is due tomorrow. I understand that you'd like me to go buy you those materials now, but it's late and I'm not willing to do that. Do you need help figuring out something you can make with the supplies we have?"
Making Effective Punishments for Kids
Connect natural consequences to tasks.
Natural consequences are pretty straightforward if your child has done something they shouldn't have done. However, many parents struggle when their kids fail to do things they should (like chores) and the natural consequence (a dirty house) wouldn't faze them.
"When you tell your child, 'If you don't sort your laundry, then there's no TV,' that's punishment, because the connection between doing the chore and watching TV isn't apparent," says Madelyn Swift, author of Discipline for Life: Getting It Right With Children. Plus, the "If you don't ... " phrase makes it sound like a threat, so they’ll think the point is to make them pay for not doing what you asked. However, you can turn this into a logical consequence by substituting a "When you" construction: "When you have finished sorting the laundry, then you may watch your show."
By putting it this way, you articulate the principle that you'd probably like your kids to live by: Do what you have to do before doing what you want to do. Your child may end up missing their favorite show that night—and not be able to talk about it with their friends the next morning—but once they’ve finished their chore, they’ll experience the natural consequence of enjoying a fun activity more because there's no chore hanging over their head.
Frame privilege as a reward.
Another mantra to emphasize is that privilege equals responsibility. "Our family's rule is that all toys must be put where they belong by the end of the day, and any toy left lying around is food for the garbage can," says Amy Kertesz, a mom of five kids, ages 4 months to 10 years, in Palmetto Bay, Florida. "My kids know that if they don't take responsibility for their things, the consequence is that they lose the privilege of having them. Only my 3-year-old gets a pass. I'll ask him to put something away rather than just tossing it." (If you'd rather be less hard-core, you could put toys on a high shelf or in a box in another room and return them when your child demonstrates that they’ve been cleaning up their other toys.)
This is effective not only for material privileges but also for non-tangible ones: If your child can't handle the responsibility of playing nicely with their siblings, then they lose the privilege of getting to play with them. When they don’t speak to you respectfully, they won't have the privilege of being listened to. However, instead of telling them, "Don't you dare speak to me that way!" calmly explain, "I will be happy to discuss this when you are able to talk about it respectfully. You can find me in my room when you're ready."
Tell the truth.
Parents often overlook the simplest strategy: Tell the truth. For example, if your child has been misbehaving all day and then asks, "Can we go out for ice cream tonight?" go ahead and say what you're thinking: "You know, after the way you've behaved today, I really don't feel like taking you out for ice cream." The lesson? When you do people wrong, the consequence is that they're unlikely to go above and beyond for you.
Have a back-up plan.
Even with these rules of thumb, there will be instances when “natural consequence” punishments for kids won't work. For example, it won’t do much good if your child considers the natural consequence to be no big deal (think tooth decay as a result of refusing to brush their teeth) or if allowing them to experience a consequence could hurt someone else (you can't let them see how it feels to throw rocks at someone). And searching for a logical consequence usually doesn't make sense when you're in a hurry to get somewhere like daycare.
In fact, parenting author Madelyn Swift says you shouldn't ever search too hard: "If the consequence isn't glaringly obvious, then it's probably not the right strategy." Problem-solving, redirecting your young child to an appropriate activity, and family meetings (with kids ages 4 and up), are some examples of strategies that may work when natural consequences won't. "They are just one tool in your discipline toolbox," says Swift. "A hammer is essential to any builder, but he'll need other tools to build a house."