New research has suggested that parents use natural consequences–in place of punishments like spanking–as a way to guide children’s behaviors. Basically, what this research suggests is that historical discipline techniques, like spanking, teach a child to fear the parent and do what is asked of him out of fear. This isn’t what parents are actually attempting to do with their discipline. They are attempting to show children what is right and wrong, but their attempt seemed to fall short of their goal. This focus on natural consequences better helps kids to know why something is wrong and what will naturally occur as a consequence if they choose to do the wrong thing, instead of complying with adult directions because of fear of physical punishment.
So what should parents choose as a natural consequence for their child’s behavior instead of sticking to that discipline plan that hasn’t done much to teach the child appropriate behaviors? Below is a list of 5 behaviors and some possible natural consequences, including a description of why and how these natural consequences teach valuable life lessons.
1. Your child refuses to listen when you ask him to take a jacket to the park.
Your first instinct is to give him some sort of consequence because you want to teach him that you know what you are talking about and when an adult tells him to do something, he needs to do it. But this argument isn’t so much a direct defiance of your authority. Instead, this is your child exerting some independence. He thinks that he doesn’t need a jacket and he thinks that you’re wrong for thinking that he does. Or, he thinks that his friends will make fun of him for being the only kid at the park with a jacket, and that you don’t understand what it’s like to stand out or be different.
So what do you do? You let him go to the park without his jacket. If he gets cold, he’ll return to get the coat or he’ll suffer in the cold And next time he chooses not to bring his jacket, you can remind him of what he learned during this experience.
2. While at a family reunion, your four-year-old punches another child in the face.
The first instinct of all of the adults in this scenario should be to break up the fight and make sure that the recipient of the punch is ok. As a parent, you are probably pretty angry at your child, but even worse, you are embarrassed. You want to prove to the other parents that you have control over your child. You may be tempted to say any of the following to your daughter to let her know how angry you are:
- “When we get home, you’re going straight to bed!”
- “No TV time for you tonight!”
- “I’m taking the iPad away for a week because of what you just did!
And if you’re really angry, you may even be tempted to take her into the bathroom and give her a spanking, because after all, you can’t have her thinking that it’s ok to hit someone else like that, right?
The problem with all of these things is that they didn’t really teach this little girl that hitting someone else is wrong, no matter how angry the child is. Instead of punishing her with something that has nothing to do with her actual misconduct, provide a lesson that teaches what will happen to her in life if she does this. As you grab her hand say, “You’re going to have to come sit by us for awhile. You just showed me that you can’t be left alone with other children without hitting them, so I need to keep a close eye on you to keep the other kids safe. Since you’ll be with me, you’ll have to miss out on playing with the other kids for awhile.”
This is a natural consequence that will likely come in the future if she is ever misbehaving at school or in a job. Even more than that, you’ve taught your child that you care about the feelings of others, and that it is not ok to hit anyone, no matter how angry she is.
3. Your child throws a fit in the parking lot of the zoo when you tell him to leave his sweatshirt in the car because it is 90 degrees out and he won’t need it.
So far, as a parent, you’ve done everything right. You’ve given him a direction and told him why you gave that direction. However, he still seems to think that he knows better than you. But every adult reading this knows that your son is going to get stoking hot within a few minutes, and of course he isn’t going to want to carry the sweatshirt. So what do you do? You tell him that if he wants to take his sweatshirt into the zoo, that he must be responsible for it. You tell him that neither you nor his other parent, nor anyone else with you is going to carry it for him. And then, you do exactly what you said you would do. When he asks you to carry his sweatshirt, you tell him that you will not because you have already told him that you would not. His natural consequence will be that he will have to hold on to his own sweatshirt or he might lose his favorite sweatshirt.
Next time you tell him that he doesn’t need his sweatshirt, he might be more inclined to believe his knowledgeable parent (more inclined, but not guaranteed) instead of maintaining his stubborness.
4. Despite your rule that any clothes that need to be laundered be placed in the laundry basket in her room, your daughter leaves all of her clothes on the floor.
This pattern of behavior has likely developed because you have set the rule, but have not followed through on it and have washed her clothes for her anyways. This isn’t going to be helpful for her in the future. At school, if she has to turn her assignments into the homework basket, she’ll only get credit for her work if she actually does this. At work, if she has to email her hours to her supervisor every week, she’ll only get paid if she actually emails this informaion to the right person. If you want her to learn how rules work and what happens if she doesn’t follow the rule, then you can’t do things for her when she breaks the rule.
Instead of picking up her clothes and washing them, only wash the clothes that she has placed in the laundry basket. At some point, she’ll run out of clean clothes. You can remind her of the rule, but resist the temptation to start washing some of her clothes for her when it seems the end of clean clothes is near. If she happens to not be able to wear her favorite dress to her friend’s birthday party, then so be it. She’s learned a must more valuable lesson this way than if you do it for her.
5. Your six-year-old continues to leave his toys scattered throughout the house, despite your repeated directions to put them away.
Just as with the laundry scenario above, your child is only going to learn a lesson if you don’t do everything for him. If you’ve asked him to pick up his toys and he doesn’t, and nothing happens to his toys, he thinks that your rule is silly. My favorite way to handle this is to say something like this:
“It is sad to me that you have so many toys and yet you don’t appreciate them enough to keep them safe by putting them away. From now on, if I see you misusing your toys by leaving them around the house just to get stepped on, I’m going to take those toys and donate them to children who don’t have as many toys as you, who will appreciate and respect those toys.”
Create a donated toys box to store the toys, and then pick up any toys that you see lying around in the future. Actually donate these toys to an organization for children so that you aren’t lying to your kid.
This natural consequence shows what happens when people don’t take care of their stuff. Your son can’t just leave his things at the park and expect that no one will steal them from him. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people steal anything that is left behind. It’s better for him to learn how to take care of his stuff than to be unpleasantly suprised in the future when his parents aren’t there to clean up after him and his things are stolen or destroyed.