You hear that 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 because they feel they always have to get their child to obey.
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 simply refuses.
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 can best be described as the logical outcome of a decision your child makes. These consequences can come from outside forces such as teachers or the police, but may also come from you setting limits on how much you will do for your child.
A benefit of natural consequences is that you don’t have to come up with them yourself. Instead, you’re allowing the “chips to fall where they may.” This can help your child to learn about what happens when he makes various choices on his own. It shows him that rules are here for a reason and going against them is unpleasant.
Natural consequences allow you to take this stance:
“This isn’t my problem. You’re the one who made the choice. What are you going to do differently next time?”
Here are 5 areas where you should let your child face natural consequences:
I’ve worked with many parents whose kids get into trouble at school. But instead of letting their child be accountable, they try to bail their kid out. Remember that 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 often incomplete. There is often much more going on that teachers see and hear that you don’t know about. Most of the time it’s harmless and there is no need to tell you and teachers know that all kids make mistakes.
When your child is given a consequence at school, there’s usually a very good reason for it. Let your child face these natural consequences such as missing recess, going to detention, or attending school on Saturday. If you try to bail your child out of trouble at school, you undermine the school’s authority. Your child gets the message that he doesn’t have to listen to his teachers and his behavior will likely worsen.
Finally, don’t punish your child further for actions that he is already facing consequences for at school. Let the school handle the school issues if they are doing so adequately.
In most cases, it’s effective to let your child be in control of her own space and her own belongings.
The natural consequence of a dirty room is that your child won’t be able to find things. Not wearing a coat to school in the winter? He will get cold. If your child brings his favorite toy to school (when you told him not to) and it gets lost or stolen, then his toy is gone. Lose or carelessly break your phone and you will be without a phone for a while. The options are plentiful here.
If you tell your child to put her dirty clothes in the laundry and she doesn’t, then they don’t get washed. 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. If she doesn’t do it, she doesn’t have clean clothes. The natural consequence is that she has no clean clothes.
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 don’t work, you don’t get paid and you can’t buy the things you want.
Related content: Free Downloadable Chore Charts
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.
Your child needs to learn to take responsibility for homework and grades. The natural consequences are plentiful here. He may get lectured by the teacher or he may have to stay in from recess to finish the homework. In some instances, he may not get to participate in school-sponsored activities. And, if it’s very serious, he might even have to repeat the grade or go to summer school.
This consequence may sound harsh. But, 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 and school altogether. It is appropriate to set up consequences to help ensure that your child does his homework, and I discuss this further below. But, natural consequences play an important role here as well.
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. If 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. If he speeds, he might get a ticket. Each of these actions has 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.
Natural consequences are important and you should not shield your child from them. But you still need to develop your own consequences for many behaviors. Does my child’s behavior present a serious safety concern? Is my child’s poor decision in this situation likely to have long-term negative or unhealthy consequences? Is my child being rude or verbally abusive towards me? In these cases, you do not want to wait for natural consequences to occur. Instead, you need to come up with effective consequences yourself to improve their behavior.
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 in a row.
After you’ve set up effective consequences and rewards, the rest is up to your child. She will 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 pot or experimenting with alcohol, the car can be off limits for a while. When 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.
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.
While it’s your responsibility to coach your child and point out the consequences of his choices, it’s up to your child to make the choices. And it’s up to your child to experience the outcome of those choices.
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 a child can have.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.