Using Natural Consequences

I’m often asked about appropriate consequences for difficult behaviours. But in many cases, effective consequences require you to do nothing at all. For instance, if your child doesn’t do her homework, she’ll get a bad grade for missing an assignment. That’s the consequence. If your preschooler refuses to wear mittens outside, he might get cold hands. Rather than attempting to change your child’s course, you can choose to let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.

As with many things in parenting, this can be emotionally challenging. After all, you don’t want your child to get a bad grade! Or you may feel like you’re not doing your job if you let the school’s consequence be enough. You want your son to have warm hands, and you may feel like a bad parent if he’s not dressed “properly”.

Here are some ways to make natural consequences work for you:

  1. Stay on the lookout for natural consequences. They are all around us. If you are accustomed to giving consequences for certain behaviors, you might not recognize the potential effectiveness of a natural consequence.
  2. Don’t save your child from a natural consequence. If you can stand it! Understandably, many parents have a hard time watching their child experience the physical or psychological discomfort that can be such a powerful learning experience. But your child learns best if she experiences the entire scenario: her choice and the consequence that follows. You can certainly give your child a warning, but if she decides to ignore your advice, allow the consequence to happen without intervening. Of course parents need to intervene if you think there’s serious risk or danger involved.
  3. Recognize when a natural consequence is enough. If your child rides his bike too fast and he falls, that may be sufficient. Shaken up and scraped, he probably learned his lesson and will change his behavior next time. An additional consequence isn’t necessary.
  4. Watch for changing behaviour…or not. Observe what happens the next time your child repeats the behavior. Did they learn from their previous experience? If you see change, wonderful. If not, evaluate whether you need to intervene and give another consequence.

Natural consequences are very powerful learning opportunities. They can foster self-reliance and growth. Knowing when and how to let them work for you and your child involves some letting go, allowing your child to experience the consequence when appropriate, and looking for signs of change.