Parenting Mistakes I Have Made (And Why Natural Consequences are the Key to Changing Your Child’s Behavior)

Posted July 30, 2009 by

I’ve had a lot of experience as a parent. In fact, you could say I’ve seen it all. I’ve been in a marriage where I had to be both mom and dad, I’ve been a single parent, a stay at home parent,  a stepparent,  a co-parent in a terrific marriage, and finally a parent who is learning how to step out of that role since my kids are 23, 25 and 26.

I know I made plenty of mistakes, but the problem is that often by the time you truly learn how to do a parenting thing well, it no longer applies because your son or daughter has passed that stage in their development — and as the parent, you now have to learn to deal with something else!

Here’s a good example. One of the things that used to drive me nuts was getting the kids on time to the dinner table. I would get very upset about this because I would spend time and energy preparing a nice home cooked meal. My repeated shouts for the kids to come down from their rooms would be in vain. Meanwhile, the food would be getting cold and I would be getting hot under the collar!

My wife Linda finally got it through my thick head to let the natural consequence of having to eat cold food or warm it up themselves be the lesson for not coming down when called.

With teenagers it is useful to ask yourself this question: Whose problem is this? Eating cold food was not my problem. The great thing about natural consequences is that they teach a direct lesson much more effectively than a parental lecture. If I forget to pay a bill on time there is a late fee. If losing the money is important to me, than I will make darn sure that I pay my bills on time.

Now, if someone else were to pay my late fees, then I would have no urgency about paying my bills on time. In the same way, it is far better for kids to develop independent habits as teenagers than to struggle with more serious consequences as young adults.

So here it is-my best advice for parents:

* Love your kids with all your heart

* Provide strict structure and discipline (I use the word strict because by today’s standards strict has de-evolved into reasonable rather than the excessive permissiveness that permeates our society.)

* Give them as much affection and time as you can

For parents of teen-agers, I’d like to say this: you will survive the teenage years — and the other side can really be wonderful as your kids take on their own independent lives. (We can all drink to that!)


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  1. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    To Sandra: You ask a really good question about appropriate consequences for your 19 year old. Sometimes it can be difficult to find these for your adult child, as you want to recognize that they are an adult, yet you also want to hold him accountable for his behavior. Consequences alone will not change his behavior, so we recommend having a problem solving conversation with him about how you expect him to be home before 3AM, and how is he going to change his behavior to meet that expectation. Suspending use of the car appears to be an appropriate consequence in this case, where he is not allowed to use the car until he can practice these new skills, and show that he can come home on time for curfew for 3 days in a row. As you stated you are new to the site, I recommend reading over these articles written by James Lehman which talk specifically about having adult children in your home:
    Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I
    Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home
    Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?
    Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

  2. Sandra (Edit) Report

    This website is all new to me, but I have a problem with a 19 yr. old who will not come in at curfew time. I’m not sure what would be a natural consequence? The use of the car is the only one have been able to think of at this point. I was hoping there would be some help out there from other parents of adult children. He sometimes comes in at 3 or 4 a.m. because he has no car to make it home in and must wait for a ride from friends. Any idea’s!

  3. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    Stacy: It sounds like you have been really trying hard to change things at home and that you’re feeling a bit confused. You ask some really complex questions here. It might be helpful for you to give the bonus audio lesson (The One Minute Transformation) another listen and really pay attention to the second tool on there—it will really help you manage the arguments more effectively. When giving consequences, it is very important that you are first having problem solving discussions (you can refer to lessons 3 and 6 for more info on this). If you are not focusing on teaching your daughter the skills she needs to change, you are just going to see the unwanted behaviors continue despite your best efforts with consequences. In all honesty, it’s very difficult to provide good, thorough help here because of the lack of information I get in a comment like this. It’s much more effective to work on the phone where we can get more information about what you have tried and how your daughter reacts to you. I strongly encourage you to call the Parental Support Line. We are here to help you apply the TT tools to your situation and it’s only $1 for your first 30 days of service. You can find our phone number in your workbook. We are available Monday through Friday from 9am until 10pm Eastern Standard Time. We look forward to hearing from you and coming up with solutions together

  4. Linda (Edit) Report

    Stacey, I’m Linda, Kemuel’s wife, I also blog for Empowering Parents, and he shared your post with me. 15-1/2 is a challenging age, and a good time to step back and be less and less of an “executive producer” in your child’s life. She can and will learn how to make what she wants to have happen in her life happen. You asked for guidelines for unacceptable behavior- certainly those would include disrespect, name-calling, smirking, eye-rolling, yelling, etc. (and of course any form of physical abuse, theft, violating your rules about using the house or the car, etc., but I assume we’re not talking about that, we’re talking more about that intangible “attitude.”) A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t do it to her, you shouldn’t accept her doing it to you. Taking a stand that helps your daughter to learn to deal with other human beings in a respectful way – even when she is frustrated or upset – is a wonderful gift to give your child. And now would be a great time to focus more on your own interests and needs- taking time for yourself, spending your money on yourself instead of your daughter, exercising, socializing, taking up a hobby, etc. The more you can involve yourself emotionally in your own life, the less you will feel so reactive to her button-pushing. Good luck!

  5. Stacy (Edit) Report

    I have completed the TT and the Consequences courses. They are great but I feel a bit over whelmed with how to figure out what to do and not do. My other issue is my daughters father and I are not together and haven’t been since she was 1. She primarily lives with me and even thought I set rules, he sets rules and we don’t always see eye to eye. She was diagnosed with ADHD in 3rd grade and we have been struggling ever since. She is now 15 1/2 and she still manages to push my buttons. I have taken away things that mean the most to her, but there are times when she just doesn’t seem to care. Im just trying to get thoughts from other parents about guidelines for unacceptable behavior and what the appropriate consequence? Also when do parents impose the consequence and what situation do you let the natural consequence happen. I am tired of the fighting and arguing and feeling like a complete failure as a parent. I know my daughter can succeed in life but I feel like I am not helping her achieve that. I know there are times when I am the over achiever parent, always trying to help her, make her feel better, etc. But I also know that is not always the best solution in helping her deal with the good and hard things in life. Any and all suggestions are extremely appreciated. Thank you so much.

  6. Kemuel (Edit) Report

    Eva, it’s hard to see your children fail. You can first try to talk to your child, talk to his friends’ parents, and talk to his teachers- has something changed in his life you don’t know about? Beyond addressing anything major that inquiry unearths, you then set consequences for failing your expectations about his school performance. The usual- taking away his access to the computer, time with friends, special trips, video games, etc. (See my wife’s recent EP post, “”Consequences Matter: What’s Your Child’s Lever? (The Right One Will Work Wonders!)”

    If you find the right lever, his performance will improve. But it may take playing a game of chicken and waiting it out while he tests to see if you really mean it. Obviously, his doing well is important to you (you mentioned feeling like a failure as a mother if he doesn’t do well- nothing could be further from the truth, this is his life and his performance, not yours), and he may sense that and try to run with it. Outlast him.

    Good luck, and please write back to let me know how it’s going!

  7. Eva Mims (Edit) Report

    I like Kemuel’s post about “Natural Consequences.” I believe in that too. However, I have a problem that I don’t think this method should be applied to.
    I have two children that are very intelligent. The problem I have is that lately my son is much unmotivated about school work and any activities other then electronics. My boy, almost 15, was in gifted programs and had a very promising future. For some reasons, not known to me, his grades became progressively worse. This year his grades were pretty much strait “F’s.”
    I don’t know how to motivate him back. I tried different things and it seems to make things worse. I don’t have the resources to send them to “Sylvan” or “Huntington” and feel like a failure as a mother.
    My husband believes that we should let them fail as natural consequences, but I don’t like this idea. I feel that this is not a good time to use natural consequences in which I too, believe as a discipline method.

  8. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor (Edit) Report

    Carold: You ask a really terrific question regarding parental authority. James Lehman talks about the three important parenting roles: Problem-Solving Role, Training and Coaching Role, and Limit-Setting Role. Kids need us to set limits on their behaviors because they do not have a good capacity to evaluate risk and do not have the life experience that you, the parents do. James recognizes that it can be difficult to maintain parental authority around teens because part of their developmental process is to become more independent of their parents. Despite that independent need, teens still need their parents to maintain appropriate authority in the home. In this case, you have your daughter’s input here but the final decision should be made by the parents. It sounds like you have some time to talk to your husband while your daughter heals. You might tell your daughter that, “I know you would like a decision right now, however, your father and I are still thinking about this. I know it’s hard, but please try and be a little patient.”

  9. carold (Edit) Report

    I understand and agree entirely on consequences…but my question is at what point do you let them entirely responsible for the consequences? My daughter is 12 years old and was injured in a gymnastics accident…told by the dr. that she has to be off for 3 mos. and he’ll then re-assess her. She is adamant that she wants to do it after the dr. gives her the clearance…but as a parent, I’m scared to death to let her go back out there. I don’t feel that she can make such a decision at her age that, if it happened again, could mean a wheelchair for the rest of her life. My husband feels we shouldn’t hold her back from it if she is released by the doctors to do it again. Any insight would be appreciated.

  10. Ann Marie (Edit) Report

    One more thing….they will rebel agains the rules you set down especially if you have not done it before. I took every suggestion that James made, from shutting off the cell phone, to actually unplugging the computer keyboard, and leaving her clothesbasket out on the sidewalk on a cold night. It nearly killed me to do this, but I believed in James who talked about the consequence menu. I told my husband to take her out in the car and not come home until she was agreeable about how to live here. It was freezing cold that night, he took her to my mother in law’s. Her house is a disaster to live in. So….that worked for a while. She tried again,and every time I would tell her to find her own place to live. She did not want to get kicked out and would back down. Calling the police is a life saver if you have to do it…that’s what we pay taxes for. Spending a night in jail is not appealing to them. They realize what they have at home is pretty good. Have a backbone….it’s hard but is effective. I slapped her once at 15 and my husband slapped her once at 16. They should not learn that violence is the only way……it did make an impression on her but the tools were better. My husband thought TT was mean and abusive……now he sure likes the peace and quiet. Please spend the money. It is worth it.

  11. Ann Marie (Edit) Report

    I did not know my daughter had ADHD until she was 15. The schools did not help me. I saw her grades dropping and her personality changing, so I took matters into my own hands. Since she was angry and down on herself since her schoolwork became poor (she did well until the work got so challenging that it was noticeable) I sent away for TT. I was absolutley desperate. I got started late, about 16 1/2. Now, she just turned 18 in July and will begin college Sept. 1st. We still have our moments but she knows what’s up if she its, throws household items, breaks things, she even punched holes in three doors. She didn’t like her curfew. Some friends had no curfew, others had strict ones. We fell in the middle. Her whole life she had everything she wanted, my husband doted on her and spent money on every toy she asked for. She began to run the whole household and we realized we had created a monster by never saying “no” and never forcing her to do chores when she complained. She had no consequences as a little girl, so no surprise that she grew up to be the type of teen she is/was. Things are better now, but I don’t live with rose colored glasses on. We have had to call the police, take care keys away, and leave cold food on the table. All of those things. Believe me, I never thought I would live through using the tools but they do work. I am glad I caught this on time and heard James on the radio before I was taken to a hospital. Natural consequences are getting D’s and F’s for not doing homework, not getting into first choice of college, police pulling you over if speeding ,losing license. Friends dropping you for lying about staying at their homes when you were not there. Begin the process, and natural consequences of society will do the rest Begin when they are little. I wish I had these tools a long time ago, but it’s never too late.

  12. Kemuel Ronis (Edit) Report

    You are absolutely correct! Also what constitutes dangerous consequences changes as your children grow up. (Running out into the street/drinking and driving)

    Your daughter is going to have to set some strict guidelines for her 9 year old. Being loving to ones children often involves saying no. Lindsey has to make it clear that she has responsibilities above and beyond her daughter’s moment by moment needs- A nine year old has enough knowledge to understand explanations and rules.

    Thanks for the tip!
    Whenever possible, natural consequences are the best course of action and effective because that is how the real world works-

  13. shacmeyer (Edit) Report

    Great advice! A number of years ago, I attended a parenting workshop on Natural Consequences, based on the books by Dr. Anthony Wolf. Natural consequences work wonders!

  14. jmsmzrz (Edit) Report

    My daughter Lindsy is overwelmed with her 2 year old boy, Logan and 9 month old girl, Alexis. The older one, is clinging and overbearing. She can not find time to do anything for herself…

  15. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Kemuel, Welcome to the EP Parent Blogger Team! I love how you and your wife used natural consequences at dinner time — very wise. Also, the question, “Whose problem is this?” is an excellent one to ask, especially with older kids. Looking to hearing more from you in the EP blog!



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