As parents, when our children aren’t doing what we want them to, a common tactic is to take something away that is in our control — an ipad, a favorite tv show, or dessert. We are also quick to provide incentives to make our kids listen – If you get off the slide right now and get in the car, we will have a special snack. Why do we do it? We want our kids to listen to us. We are reaching for anything we can to bribe, encourage, or convince our kids to do what we want them to do.
But there’s another option that avoids taking things away or giving special treats, and teaches our kids an important life lesson — “natural consequences.” I have found that there are 3 primary scenarios where natural consequences can make a big difference:
- Misbehavior when making a request;
- Misbehavior for known rules; and
- Egregious behavior like hitting, kicking, and biting.
While there are common threads that weave through all three scenarios, they are worth discussing separately. The focus this week is on the first scenario which, for me, is the most frustrating — misbehavior when making a request.
I see natural consequences as teaching children about cause and effect. If you act a certain way, there is a corresponding effect or consequence. As adults, we encounter this all the time — not leaving on time and running late for a meeting, leaving cookies in the oven too long and burning them, or, more positively, putting food in the crock pot ahead of time and having dinner ready to go. We are constantly impacted by the negative or positive consequences of our actions and choices. In that vein, I’ve found that by teaching Keener about the consequences of his actions, I am helping him develop more ownership over his choices before he engages in the behavior.
A few months ago, I was pulling my hair out because it took Keener forever to get in the bath. I do bath time for Keener and Grace together, so once she’s in, I can’t leave her in the tub to go and chase him around. I also didn’t want to chase him. I know he is not always going to listen, but I expect him to listen the first time I give a direction. For this scenario when he was misbehaving when I was making a request, I used a natural consequence as part of a teaching moment. Here is what I said: You are using your time for books now by not coming to the bath. If you don’t come and get in the bath, we will not have time to read books. I’m going to ask you one more time to come get in the bath and I expect you to say, “yes Mama” and come.
Let me just say that as a teacher, I hate not having time for books. I don’t call it “taking away books” — I literally have trained myself to think of it in terms of natural consequences as opposed to taking things away from him. But there is a finite amount of time left before he has to go to bed, and he is choosing to spend that time playing in his room. If he does that, there will not be enough time left to also read books before bed.
Steps for Natural Consequences:
First, name the situation: You are using your time for books now by not coming to the bath.
Second, name the consequence: If you don’t come and get in the bath, we will not have time to read books. This gives the child the opportunity to decide his or her next move.
Third, be clear about what you expect: I’m going to ask you one more time to come get in the bath and I expect you to say “yes Mama” and come. This gives them a chance to change their behavior and know exactly the cause and effect of their action.
Fourth, follow through. It is essential and can be very difficult. After I gave him one last chance and he chose not to come to the bath, I had to follow through. Otherwise, it becomes an empty threat and he knows he will still get books even without listening – which is worse than where I started. If you do have to follow through with the natural consequence, provide comfort and a vote of confidence: I know you are really upset that you didn’t have time for books tonight. I’m upset as well. I know tomorrow night when mama asks you to get in the bath, you will say ‘yes Mama’ and come right away. To help calm him down once he realized he REALLY wasn’t getting any books that night, I made it very clear to him that I had confidence in him, that I knew he would listen tomorrow night, and that when he did, we would have time for books.
Lastly, set them up for success. The next night, I set him up to have time for his books. As we went up to take a bath I told him, Mama is going to ask you to get in the bath and when I do you say “yes Mama” and you come. I know we both want plenty of time for books after the bath and by coming when Mama calls you, we will have lots of time! That night, when I said it was time to get in the bath, he came running. We both got everything we wanted — he got his books, I got to read him books, and he listened the first time I asked him to get in the bath.
Our kids are going to make mistakes. They are not always going to make the right choice the first time, or even the second time. But it is our job to empower them with the skills they need to make better choices – choices that are going to keep them safe and enjoyable to be around.
Other examples of language to use for natural consequences:
Not putting toys away → when you don’t put your toys away, you will not be able to find them next time you want them which will be frustrating.
Not putting shoes on → We are going to be late for ____. Our friends/teacher/etc. are going to be worried and miss you, thinking you aren’t coming!
Spilling the dog food on the floor → When we spill Hank’s food, we have to clean it up. Grace may try to eat it because she doesn’t know better.