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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Father talking to teen son

Letting Your Child Learn Natural Consequences

Want a well-behaved child? Want to raise a teen who can head off to college and succeed on their own? Sure, we all do. And I know a terrific tip to help you raise just that kind of kid. Let them learn the “natural consequences” of their behaviors.

Natural consequences are unplanned results of a child’s actions that occur if a parent doesn’t control the outcome. Dr. Jane Nelsen, who conveys much wisdom in her Positive Discipline book, explains them this way:

A natural consequence is anything that happens naturally, with no adult interference. When you stand in the rain, you get wet. When you don’t eat, you get hungry. When you forget your coat, you get cold.

If parents let these consequences unfold without intervening to prevent unpleasant results, kids can learn. They learn that coats are needed in cold weather to stay warm, and lunches help them get through the day so they’re not hungry and grumpy.

Let’s look at lunches a bit further. Kid’s forget to bring their lunches – or lunch money – to school all the time, right? If our schedule allows, should we jump in the car and bring their forgotten lunches or money? Sure, maybe once. But if you do, then also take the time to explain to your kiddo that, in the future, remembering lunch or money is their job. The next time they forget (because there will be a next time!), don’t deliver it.

No child will starve without one lunch and the lesson from the natural consequence of being hungry is a powerful one. I know this isn’t easy to put into action. It can feel like you’re being unnecessarily tough!

My first kiddo forgot all kinds of things he should have been responsible for – until I got a bit tougher. I started cracking down when he called me from baseball practice one day (he was in 6th grade) and said he’d forgotten his cleats. It wasn’t the first time, but I got back in my car with the cleats and headed to the baseball park.

Halfway there I started wondering if what I was doing was actually helping him? No – it really wasn’t a help in the long run to have his mom bring him his cleats (or lunch or homework). What would be helpful is to let him learn the consequences of not having the cleats, such as having a mad coach or sitting on the bench. So I turned around and drove back home.

If you end up using this approach, keep in mind there may be times when it isn’t appropriate:

  • Don’t use it if the consequences put your child or others in danger, or can cause long-term harm.
  • Don’t use it if the consequences aren’t something a child yet understands or cares about. For example, not brushing teeth won’t just cause short-term bad breath (that a young child likely isn’t concerned about) but can also cause tooth decay, tooth infections, and harm to permanent teeth.

When you let natural consequences unfold, you should then support your child through the results.

Here’s how:

  • Skip the scolding or the “I told you so’s.” It won’t help teach them.
  • Express empathy: You could say, “That felt bad to be stuck at practice without cleats.” “You were hungry.” “That was embarrassing.” Or “You’re worried your homework is late now?”
  • Help them recover and plan ahead by asking questions, such as: “Would you like to make a snack now?” “How can you remember your cleats next time?

These lessons came up again recently in my house. My younger child didn’t set his alarm correctly and overslept for an early morning team event. He was crushed and his disappointment was hard to watch.

This week, when he had an early practice, he carefully set and checked his alarm without my prompting. The next morning, he was up and out the door by 5:30 a.m. – without any help from me! As he left, I was thinking about who had learned the lesson? Perhaps, it was really me that learned to let go, step back, and let my child learn to fly on his own. But geesh, it was hard.

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