Craig called me one afternoon in a panic about his daughter's behavior. "She pitches a fit every time I tell her to do something that she doesn't want to do. If she is busy playing a game on the Wii console, she just ignores me until I turn off the console and then she screams so loudly that I just don't know what to do!"
I asked Craig what happens to Sydney when she acts that way. He asked me what I meant. I replied that I wondered if she had any consequences for her unacceptable behavior. The fact that he wasn't sure what I meant was a good indicator that he didn't have a real grasp of effective discipline using natural consequences.
The Concept of Natural ConsequencesIf you think about it, the world is full of natural consequences. For example, if a tiger in the jungle just sits around all day, chances are that he won't eat. If he doesn't eat, then he will grow weaker until he dies. But, however, if the tiger gets himself in gear, stalks his prey and then kills and eats, he will survive and even thrive.
All too often, as parents, we have a bias toward protecting our children from the natural consequences in the world around them. For example, if our teenage son doesn't get a summer job and earn money, we still pay for his school clothes and give him spending money. If our smaller child acts antisocially like Sydney did, she still gets to stay with other people and interact.
Our children have a hard time learning when we continue to protect them from natural consequences. Unfortunately, we probably won't be there when the children who don't learn from natural consequences have to face them and then lose a job, destroy a family or find themselves in other negative situations. They might end up wondering why someone "didn't bail them out" of their situation.
Teaching Through Natural ConsequencesSo, let's take Craig's scenario for a minute and try to apply the principle of natural consequences. When Craig approached Sydney to get her to take care of her assigned chore and she blew him off because her game was more important, Craig took a good first step by turning off the game console. But what he didn't do was to help her understand that the loss of her game was a natural consequence of her behavior.
"Sydney, you know that we have a rule in our family about not playing games until our chores are done. Chores are something we all have to do to keep our home liveable for all of us. If you learn that it is OK to skip a responsibility in order to do something fun, you will have a difficult life. So, let's go get that chore done now and then you can come back and play your game for a while."
If Sydney were to continue to throw her tantrum, Craig could gently pick her up and carry her to a time-out location and calmly say, "Sydney, when you are loud and angry, other people don't like to be around you. So, you can sit here in time out and then, when you are ready to act appropriately, you are welcome to come back out and we will get started on your chores."
The pattern here is to impose natural consequences based on the child's behavioral choices. And when a parent teaches what the behavior does in the real world, he helps a child learn to understand how the world works and prepares them for their later years.
For example, if a teenager is late coming home from an activity, is the natural consequence of that behavior that she should scrub all the floors in the house? Of course not; there is no link between the behavior and the consequence. But grounding might be an acceptable natural consequence. When a child violates a parent's trust, it takes some time to rebuild that trust. And while the rebuilding is going on, a parent can't trust a child to be away from home without them.
If a child is found texting while driving, a couple of good natural consequences might be the loss of a cell phone or placing a lock on text messages, or maybe the child should not be driving at all. Imposing those restrictions are natural consequences. Making the child cook dinner for a week is not quite as intuitive.
Consider these tips for helping children learn through natural consequences.
- Protect the child from physical harm. None of us want a child to learn that a stove burner is hot by letting the child touch the burner. Natural consequences that involve physical pain or danger are things parents should not use in teaching this principle.
- Don't just impose; teach. Too often, parents will simply impose a natural consequence without helping a child understand what is happening. Discipline moments are teaching moments and a father should not waste a good opportunity to teach a correct principle.
- Give warnings when possible. Part of a child learning about natural consequences is giving them a fair shot at behaving in a way to avoid the consequence entirely. For example, if toys are left all over the room, the first time a dad could say to a child, "Tara, let's go pick up the toys downstairs. If you leave your toys out, they might get broken or someone might step on them. When you clean up the toys, things go better here at home. If you don't, you might lose the chance to play with them for a few days to help you remember that it is important to clean up."