Everyone says you should let your child face natural consequences, but what exactly does this mean? Many parents struggle with this concept because they don’t fully understand what constitutes a “natural” consequence. And sometimes parents have difficulty relinquishing control of consequences because they feel they always have to get their child to obey, even if it means getting into a huge blowout.
Natural consequences allow you to take the stance of, “This isn’t my problem. You’re the one who made the choice. What are you going to do differently next time?”
I’ve talked to many parents who have structure and consequences in place for their child to motivate them to do their homework. Many refuse to accept that there is little else you can do to make your child do his homework if he doesn’t care about the consequences. There comes a point, though, where you have to let go and let your child feel the natural consequences of poor grades, such as failing, getting spoken to by the teacher, or even summer school. Believe me, I’m not advocating an uninvolved approach here—far from it. I’ll explain more about this later on.
Natural Consequences: Why Are They Important?
Natural consequences can best be described as the logical outcome of a decision your child makes. These consequences sometimes come from outside forces such as other adult influences such as teachers, but may also come from you setting limits on how much you will do for your child. One of the most notable benefits of letting your child face the natural consequences is you don’t have to come up with them yourself; rather, you’re allowing the chips to “fall where they may.” They also help your child to learn about what happens when he makes various choices on his own. It showshim that rules are here for a reason and going against them is unpleasant. Natural consequences allow you to take the stance of, “This isn’t my problem. You’re the one who made the choice. What are you going to do differently next time?”
Areas Where Natural Consequences Are Effective
1. Poor decisions at school: I’ve worked with many parents whose kids get into trouble at school for the way they acted, but instead of letting their child face the music, they try to bail their kid out. Parents, remember this: your child’s version of the story is not always the true version of what has happened. Your child will sometimes rearrange the facts to justify his poor choices—and omit information about his own behavior. When your child makes a poor choice at school, such as a lewd comment in the cafeteria or pushing a peer in the hallway, the information you get about the situation is probably just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more that goes on every day that teachers see and hear that you don’t know because most of the time it’s harmless and there is no need to tell you. And teachers know that all kids make mistakes and accept it as part of growing up. When your child is given a consequence at school, there’s more often than not a very good reason for it. It’s important that you let your child face these natural consequences such as missing recess, going to detention, or attending school on Saturday. If you try to get your child out of trouble at school, you undermine the school’s authority and your child gets the message that he doesn’t have to listen to his teachers, and behavior will likely worsen.
2. Personal space at home: In most cases, it’s effective to let your child be in control of her own space and her own belongings. If you tell your child that you will only wash the clothes she puts in the laundry each week, but she doesn’t put any in the hamper, the natural consequence is that you won’t wash them. You aren’t doing anything extra here or going out of your way to do something your child can do herself; you are simply washing what there is to wash. Another possibility here is that maybe she’ll have to do her own laundry. Another example: The natural consequence of a dirty room is that your child won’t be able to find things or she’ll step on something that hurts her foot. If your teen refuses to wear a coat in the winter, the natural consequence will be that she is cold. If your child brings his favorite new toy to school (when you told him not to) and it gets lost or stolen, that’s the natural consequence. If he had listened to you, he would still have those cool new Legos.
3. Household chores: The most common way for families to handle chores is to provide a small allowance. It works best to break the allowance down into a payment for each chore. When children don’t do the chores, they don’t get paid. It’s just like in the real world—if you and I don’t do our work, we don’t get paid either,and then we don’t have the money to buy the things we want or do the extra fun things we want to do. This can work for any child in grade school. With younger kids, you could do a token system or create a single behavior chart that will allow them to earn a reward every day or two, such as playing a game with Mom or watching a movie with Dad. Another system I love that works well with kids who leaves their things all over the place is the “Saturday Box.” Every night after bed, you pick up whatever your child left lying around the house and put it in the Saturday Box. And, as the name implies, she won’t get it back until Saturday. If one of those items happens to be her handheld game device for example, then you have a bonus natural consequence: she won’t get to play until Saturday. And that’s on her, not you, as long as you told her about the Saturday Box ahead of time.
4. Homework: Homework and school projects are another area where your child really needs to take responsibility for himself and earn his grades. The natural consequences are plentiful—he may get lectured by the teacher, he may have to stay in from recess to finish it, he may not get to participate in school-sponsored activities that have grade restrictions, and, if it’s very serious,he might even have to repeat the grade or go to summer school. I know this sounds harsh, but think of it this way: You aren’t going to follow your child around to his job when he grows up to make sure he does everything his boss wants him to do, right? That’s why it’s best for your child to learn now what happens when you don’t meet your responsibilities. (This is not to say that you ignore homework altogether—I will talk about when to step in and how to do it in just a few moments.)
5. Behavior in the community: We say this all the time here at Empowering Parents: no matter how much you would like to, you can’t control your child’s behavior outside your home. There may come a day when your child does something rude or obnoxious at a friend’s house; the natural consequence might be that he isn’t allowed over there for a while. Or, your teen might get caught speeding or walking around at night after the city curfew, actions whichalso have their own natural consequences. When misbehavior outside your home poses a safety risk, you certainly do want to impose some consequences of your own at home, of course, but that speeding ticket is a natural consequence for your child’s choice to speedwhile driving the car.
When Should You Give Your Child Consequences?
A good starting place here is this question: Is this a serious safety concern, or is my child’s poor decision in this situation likely to have long-term negative or unhealthy consequences? If the answer is “yes,” then you are going to want to set some clear standards and hold your child accountable in some way. For example, if your child’s grades are failing, you can establish a daily structure where he has no access to electronics or favorite toys from after school until the work is done. You could also try to add additional incentives for your child to follow this structure at least 3 or 4 days per week. This would allow him to earn a little something extra on the weekend, like extra time playing video games or a trip to the mall with you. (If you need more help giving your child effective consequences, James Lehman has a best-selling program called The Complete Guide to Consequences that can help you.)
After you’ve tried consequences and rewards, understand that the rest is in your child’s hands and he’ll choose whether to risk the natural consequences again or not.
Additionally, you must step in if there is a safety is a concern. If your child has been smoking weed or experimenting with alcohol, the car can be off limits for a while. If your child refuses to wear a helmet, the bike is locked up. If your child has shoplifted, he might lose the privilege of walking to the store on his own for a while. These are just a few of many possible examples.
With every child, it’s helpful for you to talk with him or her about their decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. Younger children will need you to offer them choices, while mid-elementary aged kids and up can make choices more independently, but discussion and coaching with all kids is helpful. When you talk, you can discuss your child’s reason for making a decision, what the outcome was, and what he could do differently next time. This will help him maximize the learning that comes from mistakes and give him the skills to avoid unpleasant consequences in the future—natural or otherwise.
The Real World Experience Kids Gain by Facing Consequences
While it’s your responsibility to coach your child and point out the consequences of his choices, your child learns best when given the opportunity to identify his choices, consider each choice, choose, and then experience the outcome. Even the best-behaved kids will make poor choices now and again. The hard truth is that decision-making is a skill your child needs to learn so he can function as an adult. Natural consequences are one of the best teachers (and aids) a parent can have in coaching their child about life in the real world learning to let your child experience these lessons is part of your job as a parent.
About Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former 1-on-1 Coaching advisor with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.