By Maureen McElroy, LGMFT
Ten-year-old Johnny bursts into the house at 7:45. “What’s for dinner? I’m starving!”
“I can’t believe you’re home late again!” his mom yells. “This is the second time this week! You know we have dinner at seven. We ate, and the dishes are done!”
“But, I’m really hungry, Mom. I was having such a good time! I didn’t know what time it was.”
Mom sighs. “OK, honey, you can’t go to bed hungry. I’ll heat up some dinner. But this is the last time! It’s really not fair that I’m cooking dinner for the second time tonight! You have to be more considerate!”
How often do you feel like Johnny’s mom? Like you are trying to teach your child a lesson, but they are not getting it? Parents often wonder how they can teach their kids good behavior and responsibility without lecturing or resorting to punishments. There is an alternative.
Using consequences promotes learning through the natural or social order and shows respect for children and parents. Children develop responsibility when they begin to make their own decisions and experience the consequences of those decisions. There are two kinds of consequences children can learn from – natural and logical.
Natural consequences occur when a parent does not intervene, notes Jane Nelsen in her book “Positive Discipline.” Children experience them naturally as a result of their actions. If six-year-old Alicia forgets her mittens on a cold day, her hands might get cold. If nine-year-old Ben doesn’t pack a snack to eat before soccer, he might be hungry. Experts tell us that natural consequences offer the most effective way for children to learn. Their brains are wired to process results of their actions to inform future decisions.
As loving parents, we tend to want to protect our children from the consequences of their behavior. Dad brings Alicia’s mittens to the park. Mom packs Ben’s snack for the ride to soccer. However, these actions deprive children of opportunities to develop responsibility. Many parents come to lament the irresponsibility of their teenagers, yet we can foster responsibility when our children are in elementary school. While it might be hard to see your child cold or hungry, by allowing natural consequences you foster skills that will serve your children well.
When NOT to Use Natural Consequences
Nelsen outlines some instances when allowing a natural consequence is either unwise or ineffective.
What’s a parent to do when natural consequences are not advised? Then, logical consequences become important. Parents – ideally, with their children – arrange logical consequences in advance, to occur if a child breaks a rule or infringes a family value.
Take the example of Johnny, who came home late and missed dinner. His mother is tired of lecturing him and resents preparing a second meal. She also wants him to take responsibility for coming home on time. Using logical consequences, she goes to Johnny on Saturday (not at dinnertime) and asks him to help her find a better solution.
After discussing some options, Johnny and his mom agree that, when he misses dinner, Johnny will prepare leftovers himself and clean up. While this might be unpleasant for Johnny, it is not a punishment. A punishment is given in retaliation for misbehavior and is intended to make a child do what the parent wants. Also, parents typically bestow a punishment with anger.
Logical consequences, in contrast, are designed to help a child learn how to behave responsibly and are delivered with a firm and friendly attitude. This is the hardest part for parents. If Mom angrily says to Johnny, “See? Now you have to eat cold leftovers!” she turns the logical consequence into a punishment and invites a power struggle. Instead, Mom needs to take herself out of the situation, soothe her anger and let the logical consequences do the work.
By avoiding lectures and punishment, parents show respect for themselves and their children, and support a good relationship. Parents send the message that they believe their children are capable of learning from experience. No longer acting as judge and jury, parents become teachers and guides. By letting natural learning take place, they increase the chances that their elementary school-age children will grow to be respectful, responsible teens and young adults.
In order to make sure a logical consequence is “logical,” check it against Jane Nelsen’s “4 R’s”:
Maureen McElroy, LGMFT, is a family therapist in Bethesda and a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2½ to 18. This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Washington Parent Magazine. You can read it here. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Michal Kowalski.