One of the tenets of Positive Discipline is to practice providing natural consequences for children “misbehaving.” A natural consequence is anything that happens as the result of an action or inaction. For example, if it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella, you get wet. When you don’t eat, you get hungry. When you don’t tend to the grass, weeds will grow. It simply happens.

There are also natural consequences to good behavior too. If you give someone flowers, they will likely feel happy. If your child helps a friend, they can feel proud of themselves.

Adults often use consequences to change a child’s behavior; although consequences that do not relate to the misbehavior are punishment. (Learn more about punishment vs. discipline.) However, natural consequences of a child’s choice to “misbehave” are more effective in developing a child’s ability to change their future behavior. Take a look at the examples below:

“If you hit your brother, you won’t be able to go to the park later.”  =punishment, consequence is not related to the action

“If you hit your brother, you are choosing to use unkind hands and will play alone until you are ready to be gentle.”  =natural consequence, the effect is related to the action

Teaching Behavior as a Choice

As adults, our behavior is a choice. For young children, their brains are still developing the self-control and emotional intelligence needed to regulate themselves. In order to teach the child the effects of their behavior, caregivers can introduce the idea that behavior is a choice by using natural consequences. This removes the responsibility from the adult to be the “bad guy.”

*It important to note, consequences should only be used for repeated behaviors, not the first time it happens. It’s unreasonable to give a consequence when the child didn’t previously know what was expected. The first time the behavior occurs, we teach and guide the child to a more acceptable, alternative behavior. The next time the behavior happens, we can assume the child consciously chose it knowing the consequences.

  1. Use words that teach the child their behavior is a choice.

“You can choose to be gentle or you can choose to play alone for a while.”

Often, our children feel justified in their misbehavior because they feel like YOU did this to them. Caregivers can remove themselves from the situation by letting the child know they control their actions and their behavior affects others. It’s easier to brush off the “meanest mommy in the world!” award when you gently remind your child they had a choice.

  1. Remain calm

“Your actions tell me you are choosing not to listen. Throwing rocks is unsafe. I will not let you hurt others. You can sit by me until you are ready to make a new choice.” 

State what the child did calmly, and provide a short, clear reason why it is unacceptable. Then, move on. When we meet a child’s anger with our aggression, it only fuels the fire. The problem is the behavior, not the child. Remember, a child is still developing their emotional intelligence and experiencing big feelings. Their behavior is not a direct attack on us or our parenting–We shouldn’t take it personally.

  1. Be reasonable

“You chose not to use gentle hands with your books. I will put them away and you can try again later.”

Putting a two-year-old in time out for ripping books will leave you frustrated when it happens again. However, reminding the child to use gentle hands and only leaving board books out for the remainder of the day may be a more appropriate natural consequence.

  1. Don’t keep it a secret.

“If you choose not to follow this, the consequence will be…”

Children should know the consequence before it happens. Give the child the power and responsibility to choose their own “destiny,” or consequence.

  1. Avoid lecturing

“I told you so” vs. “I know you will make a different choice next time.”

It’s easy to scold children by saying “I told you that would happen!” or lecture with “Remember, we talked about this? You had the choice. You chose wrong.” However, these statements add more blame, shame, and pain on top of the natural consequence happening. Natural consequences are directly related to the behavior, and build intrinsic motivation for the child to make their own choices without our judgement imposed.

  1. Show empathy and validate feelings

“I know that makes you sad. I love you, and I’m am sure you can try again later.”

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for a caregiver to see their child upset and jump in to fix it. However, allowing your child to feel disappointed, angry, sad, etc is extremely important for their emotional development. It’s a natural response to a natural consequence. We can show compassion and understanding without removing the effects of their behavior.

  1. Comfort, but don’t rescue

“I’m sorry you forgot your shoes for P.E. and have to sit out today. When you get home, we can work on a plan to help you remember next time.”

I know, you could just swing by the school and drop some shoes off, but then the child knows he can depend on you to save the day! Again, it’s so hard for caregivers to see their child be upset, fail, or make “poor” choices, and we often can’t help but overprotect and rescue in those situations. You may even feel inclined to step in to avoid the whining or your own feelings of guilt. However, one of the most positive things you can do is to help your children become capable and independent. Natural consequences are the way! Next time, the child will feel proud of themselves for problem-solving on their own.

  1. Follow through with confidence

“If you don’t act right, we are leaving the party!” (Are you really prepared to leave the party?)

This one requires planning ahead what you’re going to say. If you give a consequence, you better be ready to follow through. We have responsibility to establish rules and limits, but the child has opportunity to choose her actions. When children make poor choices – which happens because they are still developing –then we must follow through! The discipline must be taken seriously. If you aren’t willing to really follow through, then it should not be offered as a consequence.

Bonus-For older children, have the child repeat it back.

“Just so we’ve on the same page, tell me what I expect and what is the consequence?”

Older, verbal children can be encouraged to repeat back the expectation and consequence. This creates a verbal agreement on both sides. Again, removing the responsibility from the parent and giving the child the power to choose their behavior.

 When NOT to Use Natural Consequences

Natural consequences help children learn responsibility and independence; however, there are times when it is not appropriate to use:

More Resources:

Check out our whole series on Communicating with Connection!

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