How to Use Natural Consequences as a Discipline Tool

Natural consequences are one of the most effective discipline strategies.
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Rather than prevent your child from making a mistake, sometimes it's helpful to let him make a poor choice. The natural consequence that follows can be a very effective teacher.

Examples of Natural Consequences

You don't have to instill natural consequences. Instead, you basically have to get out of the way and let your child experience the ramifications of his mistakes. Here are a few examples of natural consequences that could be effective:

  • Allow a 10-year-old to go outside without a hat on a chilly day (as long as it is not dangerously cold). The natural consequence is that he’ll feel cold.
  • Allow a 15-year-old to set his own bedtime. The natural consequence of staying up too late is that he’ll feel tired the next morning.
  • Allow a 9-year-old to leave one of his toys outside on the lawn. The natural consequence of his lack of responsibility is that his toy may be ruined by the sun or the rain.
  • Allow a 12-year-old to spend his money as soon as he earns it. The natural consequence is that he'll run out of money and won't be able to participate in another activity.
  • Allow a 7-year-old child to cheat at a game with his brother. The natural consequence is that his brother won’t play with him anymore.

What Natural Consequences Teach

Overprotective parents spare kids from all natural consequences. Unfortunately, their kids often lack a clear understanding of the reasons behind their parents' rules.

They never learn how to bounce back from failure or how to recover from mistakes because their parents prevented them from making poor choices.

Rather than learning, "I should wear a jacket because it's cold outside," a child may conclude, "I have to wear a jacket because my mom makes me." Without an opportunity to experience real-world consequences, kids don't always understand the reasons behind their parents' rules.

Natural consequences prepare children for adulthood by helping them think about the potential consequences of their choices. Natural consequences teach healthy decision making skills and help parents avoid power struggles.

When to Use Natural Consequences

Use natural consequences in moderation. Carefully consider how a natural consequence will impact your child and contribute to his overall learning experience. Sometimes, taking away privileges or placing a child in time-out are more effective.

Natural consequences do not work well on younger children. Preschoolers and young elementary school children lack the ability to understand that the consequence is a direct result of their behavior.

If you let a 4-year-old choose his own bedtime, he likely won't know he's tired because he stayed up too late. Unless he understands cause and effect, he isn't likely to choose an earlier bedtime in the future.

Make sure your child is able to recognize the connection and then apply that lesson to his future behavior.

Most teenagers should be able to see how their behavior led to a consequence.

When to Avoid Natural Consequences

Natural consequences should only be used when it is safe to do so. Don’t allow your child to touch a hot stove to 'teach him a lesson.' He could get seriously injured. 

When there's a potential safety issue, intervene before your child makes a mistake. Explain why his behavior is unacceptable and when necessary, follow through with a logical consequence. 

Natural consequences should be used to teach children to make better choices in the future, not to make them suffer for the mistakes they already made. So before you allow natural consequences to happen, make sure your child will be able to safely learn a life lesson.

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