All too many parents struggle with discipline. They will often complain that they have trouble making their rules stick, and busy themselves with searching for the “magic” that will make the process of discipline work. They may search for a list of punishments that they can whip out at a moment’s notice in the hope that that would get the children to listen. Unfortunately, despite ads and claims to the contrary, there is no magic. However, there are normal course of event happenings that can bring about long-term results: we call them natural consequences.
A natural consequence is just what is sounds like: the expected result of our actions. If we forget to take our umbrella, our clothing gets ruined; if our daughter does not clean up her room, she can’t find her stuff. If we don’t turn in work reports, we may be docked in pay or even lose our jobs; if our son does not do his homework, he may get a poor grade or fail.
For so many of our children’s misdeeds, there is a natural consequence that occurs on its own without any intervention by the parent. So, for example, if our teen is late to school, he will be called to task–unless we cover for him with a note. Because the consequences fall without any action on our part, learning occurs naturally without the parent being “the bad one.” The beauty of natural consequences is that they work–and without any negative impact on the parent-child relationship! But parents, take heed: When emloying natural consequences, parents need to steel themselves to refrain from rescuing their children, in order that they may learn from their experience.
Learning cause and effect is a critical life skill. It teaches appropriate behavior and fosters responsibility. One of the best ways to learn about cause and effect is by letting things happen, i.e. allowing for natural consequences.
Unlike natural consequences, punishment not only does not work, but also wreaks havoc on the parent-child relationship. Punishment is ineffective because it does not teach the child to avoid the “crime,” but rather, to avoid the punishment. The child reasons–very logically, I might add–that if I lose dessert because of two stolen cookies, the next time I steal cookies I will make very, very sure not to get caught. In addition, punishment often breeds resentment, not remorse; the child is more apt to resent his mother for taking away dessert than to regret his theft. And, most regrettably, punishment allows the child to feel vindicated: he has paid for his crime, the slate is clean, and he and his mom are now “even.” Such thinking does not encourage honest reflection and remorse.
Sometimes we are at a loss with our children because, though we do not want to punish, there is no natural consequence for their behavior. In cases like these–and there are many–we want to be prepared by arming ourselves with logical consequences. A logical consequence is one that makes sense in the context of the behavior, as opposed to an illogical one which feels more like a punishment. Because the logical consequence has a rational connection to the child’s action, it makes sense to the child and is an effective way to reinforce discipline.
Here are some examples of logical consequences:
Child violates bedtime. The next night he has an even earlier bedtime to make up for missed sleep.
Child does a project but refuses to put away art supplies. Next time [only once!], the art supplies are not available to him.
Child nags and pesters Mom all day. Remove the child to his room, or failing that, have Mom remove herself to some other area of the home, because people like to spend time with people who are pleasant.
Siblings fight long and hard while playing a game. Separate the two children, remove the game, and do not let them enjoy each other’s company until they work things out.
Illogical consequences are those that have no connection between the crime and the consequence. That would include the ubiquitous “You’re grounded!” ”You’re not going to Disneyland!” and “I won’t buy you the new bike I promised!” These kind of illogical threats are a lose-lose proposition: If we don’t carry them out–and most parents don’t because the threats are like killing an ant with a sledgehammer–our words become meaningless and a joke. If we do carry them out, we are way over-disciplining, i.e. actually going after that ant with the sledgehammer. Either way, the parent emerges from this fracas looking either like a fool or an ogre.
Preparing Our Reactions:
It is important to note here that as our children grow up and mature they are more and more removed from our discipline and control. For teens–because we can inspire them, but not control– we need to rely on natural consequences and our earlier training (if we weren’t effective when the child was six, we certainly won’t be now!). The good news is, though, that now that our child is an almost-adult, we can also accomplish a great deal by talking/discussing/negotiating in a mutually respectful manner.
In short, we do need to be prepared–if only to give ourselves the courage of our convictions and forestall inappropriate reactions on our part. What we want to prepare, though, is not punishment, but an awareness of the natural and logical consequences for the child’s behavior. And if you’re thinking that such preparation take lots of hard work, you are certainly right! As in any major endeavor, being an effective, proactive parent takes lots of thought, effort, and energy. The results, however, are so worth it: a better behaved child with a good relationship with his parents. So give these ideas some thought; your children will thank you for it… one day!
Dr. Sara Teichman,a psychotherapist formerly of Los Angeles/ Beverly Hills, has relocated to Lakewood, New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.