Photo by Will Truettner on Unsplash
Please comment below- When have you used natural consequences to teach your kids?
Life is tough and unforgiving… But every once and a while, the stars align and Karma comes through for you!
Every once and a while, life does the parenting for me!
What are Natural Consequences?
Natural consequences are life’s way of teaching.
Basically, every time we act, there are good and bad ripple effects of what we do. If there are more good than bad ripples, we consider that action to be a good thing and we continue that behavior. If there are more bad ripples than good, that behavior is a negative one and we stop behaving that way.
There’s no teacher to plan out and enforce the rules, they just happen. We just learn from the good and bad effects of our actions without someone to control the outcome.
Parents have a goal in mind to help their children become the best people they can be- people who will choose to send good waves into the world through their actions.
That’s why we correct our children when they act out. That’s why we try to teach them skills that they will need- like being responsible, being kind, building strong relationships with people around them, managing money and time effectively, and being a good citizen.
In order to encourage our children to act the in an appropriate and responsible way (so that they can become what we want them to become), we often set up our own rules, along with consequences for breaking those rules.
The awesome thing is that we don’t always have to set up rules and consequences. Sometimes life does it for us!
One Parent Who Had Life (And a Wise Dentist) on Her Side
A while back, I had a client with special needs who struggled to brush his teeth. He didn’t like doing it, he hated that his mom was always asking him to do it.
In desperation, this good mom tried many different techniques to encourage him to brush his teeth every day. She tried sticker charts, she tried various apps designed to help kids with self-help skills, she tried hand-over-hand, she tried being silly and making it fun, she tried immediate rewards after each time he brushed… She tried everything she could think of.
Most of the time, when she implemented a new strategy the child would comply for a day or two and then relapse. He was just as frustrated with the situation as his mom was.
And then one day, I came to visit the family. I checked up with his mom to see how he had been doing with brushing his teeth.
All she said was, “Watch this.” She sent him to the bathroom, asked him to brush, and stood back while he cleaned his teeth completely independently. No help, no bribing, no encouragement, no plan. He just did it.
I couldn’t believe it!
When I asked what changed, she explained that he had a dental appointment. It had been at least a few days since he had brushed when he went to visit the dentist. His mom spoke to the dentist privately and filled the dentist in on the problems they were having.
So this wise dentist had a one-on-one chat with the child. He didn’t try any grand plan or implement rewards or consequences. All he did was explain to the child what would naturally happen to his teeth if he did not brush.
Now, this good mom had briefly explained it to the child- usually saying something like, “Your teeth won’t be healthy” or “Your teeth are dirty.”
But the dentist did much more- He showed the child pictures of the stages of tooth decay. He showed the client how teeth turn yellow, then brown, then black, then fall out. He explained that it can hurt and can mean extra dental visits and procedures.
He didn’t try to exaggerate facts or scare the child into submission (if anything he was very careful to keep it G rated). He simply stated some of the bad things that would happen if this habit continued in a clear way, using visuals to help the child understand.
And that’s all it took.
That’s the power of natural consequences.
Now, every parent knows that there is no single strategy that will fix all your problems.
But give it a try! What if it’s exactly what you needed?
How to Use Natural Consequences
Here’s how to do it.
- Step 1: Identify what the problem behavior is.
A while ago, my daughter started dumping out her juice onto the table every time we sat down to eat. She would wait until we weren’t looking because she assumed she would get in trouble. At first, I thought she was spilling on accident, so I asked her to help me clean it up and we moved on.
After a while, I started to catch on to the pattern, so I watched a little closer. Sure enough, she was pouring out her cup and watching the liquid spill out and run across the table. At first I was frustrated, but after trying to see things from her perspective, I realized that it probably did look pretty cool- like a waterfall or a stream. I love watching waterfalls.
I didn’t want to yell or put her down, but I did want her to learn that you can’t just pour out your water anywhere.
- Step 2: Think of natural consequences to the problem behavior.
I tried to brainstorm all the possible consequences that I could implement. I considered not filling up her glass again after she spilt it… After all, if the drink is all gone, then it’s all gone! But I am very careful not to use natural consequences in a way that could at all endanger my child. In this case, I didn’t want her to get dehydrated or maybe choke on her food if she didn’t have a drink to wash it down with.
I also considered asking her to drink out of a sippy cup instead of a real glass. I know she would have hated that because sippy cups are for babies. I didn’t end up going with this solution for two reasons: 1- I didn’t want to shame my daughter or make her feel bad about herself and 2- this technically isn’t a natural consequence- it’s a consequence of my own invention.
After a lot of thinking, I had an idea.
- Step 3: Decide on a safe consequence to implement. Allow the child to make the mistake in order to feel the natural consequence.
The next time she poured out her juice, I helped her clean it up but this time I refilled her glass with water instead of juice.
- Step 4: Explain the consequence to the child so that they understand why it is happening.
When she asked for more juice, I told her that she already had her share of juice. I explained that if I gave her more juice, there wouldn’t be enough for the rest of the family to have some.
Then I calmly suggested that next time, it might be best if she decided to drink her juice instead of pour it on the table.
And guess what? She never spilled intentionally again! (To the best of my knowledge… hahaha)
Every once and a while, when a child wants to try a behavior that I have discouraged repeatedly (and one that is safe!) I go ahead and let him try it out.
It doesn’t take long until he realizes that mom knew what she was talking about.
I once saw a video of a kid shooting himself in the nuts with a nurf gun. Yeah, that was pretty funny. I’m sure there was a natural consequence that taught him something that day. Not from his mom. From life and his real experiences. And I bet he learned it better than if mom had just told him about it, too.
Positives of Using Natural Consequences
- It Makes Sense
Natural consequences are so easy for a parent to use because they are logical.
All you have to do is explain to your child the natural progression of events if their behavior continues. Think to yourself, “Why don’t I want my child to act this way?”
For example, I don’t want my child to be mean to other children because then she won’t have friends to play with. People won’t want to be around her if she is mean to them.
I don’t want my child to spend all her money because then she won’t have money left when she needs something.
I don’t want my child to skip homework assignments because she won’t master the material. If she doesn’t master the material, she will feel confused during later assignments that build on what she is learning now.
- It’s Honest
Do you ever hear parents trying to exaggerate or scare the child into behaving?
I do understand the temptation to do that. It can be effective and that’s hard to argue with. The problem is eventually that child will find out the truth, and then you’ll have to face the fact that you lied to him.
Natural consequences aren’t lies.
They’re the honest to goodness result of a person’s actions.
Honest parents never have to worry about if the child has discovered their secrets. Honest parents never have to worry about if the child is hearing the truth from friends at school. Honest parents never have to worry about accidentally letting something slip. Honest parents can relax.
No hiding. No shame.
Natural consequences are a great way to do that, without losing efficacy.
- It’s Not a Temporary Rule
Notice in all my examples above- the parent doesn’t have to contrive these scenarios.
It’s just how life is!
That’s what separates natural consequences from chore charts, and sticker rewards, and even praise- All those things take YOU to implement. That means, if you’re not there, a child might not keep up the behavior that you wanted.
But natural consequences are universal. They won’t end after the child leaves your side. He can go to school, he can hang out with friends, he can move out and leave for college, he can raise a family of his own- and through all this these principles still apply.
Not like that chore chart. That only applies as long as you are enforcing it.
Parents who use natural consequences are teaching a lifelong skill of understanding how a person’s actions affect yourself and others in the long run.
- You don’t have to be the bad guy
This is the BEST!
You know how when you take away your teenager’s phone she curses your name and says that you are ruining her life?
You know when you tell your middle schooler to do his homework and he claims that his stupid teacher gives more homework than all the other teachers and there’s no good reason why he should have to do it?
You know how you try to get the kids to help clean the house and they treat you like a dictator?
My favorite part of natural consequences is that nobody can blame me!
I didn’t make the rules. That’s just life!
It’s really nice to have some of that parent blame taken away. I didn’t ask for this to happen. I didn’t make it so. I am just a kind person trying to help my child avoid some mistakes! And I finally get the credit as such. 😊
When NOT to Use Natural Consequences
Now that doesn’t mean this is a perfect fit for every situation. Like all parenting strategies, we have to be conscious of when to use natural consequences.
Here are a few situations when I avoid using natural consequences:
- When a child is too young to understand
Natural consequences can be difficult for kids under age 4 to understand.
If you can shorten the logic to one or two sentences, maybe it could still be helpful on a 2-3 year old.
For example, I tell my daughter “You have to sit in the car seat because it keeps you safe.” At 2 years old, I’m not sure if she fully understands what I mean, so I usually pair this with another parenting hack.
For example, “You have to sit in the car seat because it keeps you safe. But the car seat makes you tall enough to see out the window! What animals can you see? I see a cow!”
- When a child wants to do something unsafe or illegal
Sometimes, a child wants to try out something that isn’t safe, like not wearing a seat belt. Of course, we can verbally explain natural consequences to help him decide to buckle up, but we would never want to let a child actually experiment with unsafe actions just to learn the natural consequences for himself.
Same goes for unsafe sex, dressing inappropriately for weather, playing with knives, trying drugs, etc.
Sometimes the consequences are just not worth trying out. And a child’s safety is always most important!
Give natural consequences a try, and let me know what you think!
Let life be the bad guy for once. Turns out, life is a pretty good teacher anyways!
Please comment below- When have you used natural consequences to teach your kids?
Please share with any parent who is trying to teach their kids!
Subscribe to my email list for weekly updates in the world of parenting!