Natural and Logical Consequences in Early Childhood
Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Giving kids consequences for misbehaviors typically comes pretty naturally to parents. However, deciding what consequences are appropriate can be a more difficult decision. Creating fair, age-appropriate consequences that actually teach a lesson rather than just causing discomfort can take some creativity and thought. However, creativity and thought are precisely two states of mind that people have difficulty entering into while they are upset or angry. For this reason, it is better for parents to think up consequences in advance, before misbehaviors occur, rather than to try to do it when upset.
Effective consequences will tend to be ones that naturally follow from the misbehavior, or which are logically related to the misbehavior. Naturally or logically connected consequences mimic the way consequences actually work in the real world, and therefore make intuitive sense to children.
True natural consequences are automatic and unpleasant outcomes that happen as a direct result of kids' choices. Parents don't have to brainstorm these consequences; they just happen. For example, when older children regularly leave their bicycle outside it may be stolen, hit by an adult driving down the highway, or get rusty from the rain. As a result, children lose the ability to ride their bikes because they are ruined or lost. Children will then learn to take care of their bicycles and their property. Being exposed to natural consequences of misbehaviors (rather than being protected from them) helps children to learn how to think through on their own what the consequences of their actions are likely to be. This is the major love-motivated purpose of disciplining children in the first place; so that they will grow up to be self-guiding, effective adults.
Natural consequences can be effective teachers; however, natural consequences can also be incredibly dangerous! It is more important to keep children safe from harm than to teach them lessons. Parents should always evaluate the possible outcomes of allowing a natural consequence to happen. For example, letting a child get hit by a car when he runs out into the street is never an acceptable type of natural consequence (even though it is likely to teach surviving children to stay on the sidewalk in the future). Obviously, running in the street is a very extreme example, but parents need to keep kids' safety in mind even when consequences are less deadly.
Logical consequences are artificial (not direct or automatic, but rather, imposed) consequences that parents create and enforce in order to teach children important lessons about choices and behaviors. Logical consequences work best when they are announced in advance of misbehavior, and positioned to occur as a direct outcome of misbehavior. In the example presented earlier in this article concerning Joy and her dolls, Joy's choice to leave her dolls on the floor has as a logical consequence, that she loses the privilege to play with her dolls. Joy is told that this outcome will happen in advance of her decision, and then cannot be surprised when that consequence actually occurs.
Often, removing a privilege connected with misbehavior can be a powerful consequence. Being able to indulge in privileges is rewarding and pleasant for children. It is aversive for children to not be able to engage in their favorite privileges. Children remember the unpleasantness of the consequence, and their desire to not experience this unpleasantness again reinforces them to make the right choice in the future. For instance, when a young child refuses to eat any vegetables at dinner, a logical consequence can be that she doesn't get the special dessert treat Mom baked that day.
Whether using a natural or logical consequence, parents should simply and briefly explain the consequence to their kids and not allow themselves to get drawn into an argument or debate. Should children not respond to the parents' communication of consequences and mend their ways, parents must follow through and deliver the consequences all of the time. If parents forget, back down, or don't follow through with the consequence as promised even just a few times, children will learn that consequences aren't real (or at least, can be manipulated) and this knowledge will double their efforts to misbehave again in the future (because they will think they can get away with it).