Over the next few weeks I hope to address these questions by sharing 5 effective discipline strategies for young children with you.
Last time, we looked at why Time Out may not be the most effective discipline strategy. Today, we’ll look at one alternative to Time Out: Natural Consequences.
Alternatives to Time Out: Natural Consequences
The idea behind Natural Consequences is to let kids learn from the results of their own actions. When parents thoughtfully get out of the way and let nature take it’s course, kids experience consequences that are directly and clearly related to their behavior.
When I say “get out of the way” I mean clearly stating a rule or giving a direction and then letting things go. No nagging, no arguing, no threats. After you’ve done your job of setting a limit you hand over responsibility to your child.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Say you’ve asked your 7-year-old to sort his laundry before laundry day. He doesn’t, which results in his favorite sweatshirt still being dirty on the day he just had to wear it. When you respectfully decline his request to do an extra load of laundry and assure him that you’ll wash whatever laundry is ready to go on the next laundry day, he runs to his room and slams the door.
Or imagine your preschooler doesn’t like the lunch you’ve prepared. She runs from the table, refusing to eat a bite. You calmly put the plate away. When she comes back hungry in an hour and asks for a bowl of cereal you gently decline saying, “You must be hungry because you skipped lunch. It’ll be snack time soon. I’m sure you can wait until then.”
These are both examples of children learning through Natural Consequences. Note that there was no nagging to sort laundry or hauling a screaming child back to the table. There were no Time Outs or other punishments. However, each child faced a consequence directly related to their behavior.
Lessons like these are really powerful for kids. Rather than learning to follow rules and directions “Because Mom said so,” they learn exactly why Mom is asking them eat or do chores. Kids who learn the “why” are less likely to repeat challenging behaviors.
Kids also learn that they are responsible for their actions and the outcomes of those actions. This lesson will serve your kids well when one day you aren’t there to remind, punish, rescue or coerce.
While all this learning is going on, Mom and Dad benefit, too. No more reminding a thousand times to sort the laundry or forcing a squirmy Preschooler to sit at the table until she’s cleaned her plate. No more frustrating micromanaging.
So, all I need to do is sit back and let my child learn through experience while I sip a well earned glass of wine?
Well… maybe it’s not quite that easy.
How to Use Natural Consequences
Before we choose to allow children to experience a Natural Consequence, we need to consider a few things.
Safety & Aftermath
Before using Natural Consequences, ask yourself:
- Will the consequence be safe for my child?
- Am I willing to deal with the aftermath right now?
Say your toddler is about to run into the street after being told to stay on the sidewalk. You can’t let him experience the Natural Consequence of being hit by a car. When safety is a concern, Natural Consequences aren’t an option.
Dealing with the aftermath, however, will depend on you. Say your out on a walk with your preschooler and she’s relentlessly begging to puddle stomp. You point out that she’s wearing sneakers that aren’t waterproof, that it’s chilly and that you have a long walk back home. She insists she’s OK with that.
Is teaching your daughter about the discomforts of cold, wet shoes worth dragging a soggy, whining child all the way home?
There may be days when the answer is, “Yep. I’m tired of her begging to puddle stomp when we aren’t prepared for it.” If so, puddle stomping, engage!
If the answer is,”I’m going to pull my hair out if I have to do any more laundry today,” then save that lesson for another time.
“I Told You So”
OK, you’ve chosen a safe time to use Natural Consequences and you’re willing to deal with the aftermath. Here comes the hard part.
You can’t say “I told you so.”
You can’t even imply “I told you so.”
Ok, you can turn away and whisper it to yourself, but don’t let it show in your eyes.
Seriously though, for this to work, your child must feel supported in his learning, in his recovery and in his continued exploration of the world.
We all learn through life experiences. We all make mistakes. We can all think of a time when we didn’t listen to reason or advice and suffered the consequences.
If your child is unhappy about what happened, gently help her make the connection. Say something like, “It seems like you are really uncomfortable in your wet shoes. I’ll get you a towel when we get home and help you dry your feet.”
Next time she begs to puddle stomp in sneakers (if there is one) gently remind her that last time she was really uncomfortable on the walk home. Help her make the connection in a respectful way that doesn’t leave her feeling ashamed or defensive.
Let’s look at one more example. Say your 5-year-old refuses to put on his coat, even though it’s a cool 35° outside. You could argue, try to reason or insist your child sit down in Time Out until he’s ready to put on his coat. Or you could say, “Ok. I’ll bring it along just in case. Let’s go.”
As you go about your business, the cold will slowly seep in and that coat will look more and more inviting. Eventually, he’ll probably choose to put it on, both doing what you wanted him to do in the first place and learning why we put on our coats when it’s cold outside.
But here’s the thing, if he senses an “I told you so” coming, you can bet he’ll wait longer to give in. I know kids stubborn enough they might never give in, just to save face.
To use Natural Consequences effectively, it needs to seem like no big thing. Don’t want to wear a coat? No biggie. Don’t want to eat lunch? OK.
You know that your son will be safe in cold weather for a little while. Your daughter wont starve in the 3 hours between lunch and afternoon snack time. So relax. Let it go. Let nature do some teaching for you.
This all sounds pretty great, right? Easier on parents, teaches clear life lessons and discourages repeat unwanted behaviors.
Using Natural Consequences can be powerful and effective, but they aren’t always an option. What if our kids are being unsafe? Or we aren’t willing to face the Natural Consequences of our child’s actions?
Next time we’ll look at another way to deal with challenging behaviors: Redirection.