Consequences can be an effective discipline tool when used mindfully and carefully. Sadly consequences can also be ineffective and even damaging, depending on how and when they are used. There also seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the use of consequences as a form of discipline. The largest source of confusion seems to be that of the difference between natural and logical consequences, something I hope to clear up in this post.
To understand more about the differences between different types of consequences and their appropriate usage, let’s look at the different types in turn:
Natural consequences happen immediately and automatically, with no parental involvement. These are the things that would happen naturally if you didn’t intervene. Some examples are:
- Child goes into garden without a raincoat – they get wet
- Child flushes a toy down the toilet – it gets ruined/lost
- Child chases a bee – it stings them
- Child doesn’t eat – they are hungry
- Child goes out without jumper – they get cold
- Child throws a ball at the TV – the TV breaks
- Child runs down a hill – they fall over
- Child touches fire – they get burned
Natural consequences can help to teach children, in fact they are probably the best form of consequence as a learning tool, however as you can see from the above list, some of them are dangerous and many aren’t age appropriate. You wouldn’t want your child to starve, or badly injure themselves!
You don’t decide to use natural consequences, they just are, but you probably decide to avoid some of them! You can use natural consequences from birth if they are age appropriate, however do not expect your child to learn from them very much if you use them under the age of three.
Remember, if you are trying to decide on an appropriate consequence it’s not natural! They are instant and automatic and require no parental involvement, be that decision making or enforcement.
Logical consequences are decided by the parent (and sometimes in conversation with the child too), they should have a direct relationship to the child’s actions and the link should be clear to all. They should always happen very shortly after the act, preferably immediately. Some examples of logical consequences include:
- Child scoots away from you quickly in town – scooter held by you
- Child brings mud into the house – they help you clean it up
- Child hits another child at playgroup – you go home
- Child empties water out of their cup – they get a closed beaker
- Child overstays curfew – they cannot go out tomorrow
Logical consequences can be an effective discipline method IF the child possesses a degree of logical thought. This is a fairly complex cognitive skill, which does not appear until around 5-8 years of age. Using logical consequences with a child who does not possess logical thought is often an ineffective punishment. Sometimes you will have to move the child or take things away from them for their safety and that of others, but you shouldn’t expect young children to understand the logic, or for your action to cease their behaviour.
Even when the child can think logically, it is likely the consequence will have to be repeated many times before the child’s behaviour changes on an (almost) permanent level. This repetition (or seeming lack of effect) isn’t an indication that the consequence isn’t working.
Illogical consequences are one of the mainstays of mainstream parenting. They are a poor form of discipline which teach the child very little. They could be considered to be punishments, and ineffective ones at that! These consequences often happen far too late after the event and the links are totally illogical and unrelated.
Some examples of illogical consequences are:
- Child is rude to you, so you cancel their birthday party
- Child breaks something, so they miss a playdate
- Child doesn’t eat dinner, so you tell them Santa won’t visit.
- Child doesn’t tidy their room, so they don’t get pocket money
- Child has a tantrum, so you take a photo to shame them on Facebook.
Illogical consequences are poorly thought out forms of punishment, they provide no learning opportunity for the child other than to create sides, them against their parents. This lack of empathy is likely to cause fractures to the relationship and may well make the child’s behaviour worse.
If you want to learn more about effective and gentle forms of discipline, my The Gentle Discipline Book covers consequences in depth as well as other effective and respectful forms of discipline.