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The real truth about natural consequences

Natural consequences might mean letting a beloved toy get stolen to teach a lesson
Natural consequences might mean letting a beloved toy get stolen to teach a lessonmorgueFile Free License

The idea of "natural consequences" is very big with parents these days. The theory is that children will learn to do the right thing if they live through the real consequences of their actions.

For instance:

  • Your child insists she doesn't want to wear a sweater. Instead of arguing over it, you let her go without and she gets cold.
  • Your son keeps forgetting things like permission slips for school. Instead of bringing the next forgotten slip up to the school, you stay home and he misses out on a fun field trip.
  • Your daughter leaves a favorite toy outside and it gets ruined or stolen.

The basic idea is that your children will learn to listen to you next time, remember things they're supposed to, and otherwise change their actions in order to avoid unpleasantness in the future.

Besides the fact that natural consequences can lead to children dealing with completely unnecessary suffering in the name of "learning lessons," there's another glaring problem with the idea.

Most of the time parents use them, "natural consequences" is just a nice catch phrase for sugar-coated, plain old punishment.

Take the woman who posted the following on a parenting bulletin board:

My three year old refuses to make her bed. What natural consequences can I use to make her do it?

Well lady, the real natural consequence of not making your bed is you have a messy bed!

Instead of trying to think up some dire, make believe consequence to befall your little one, how about making it with her in a fun way each morning and establishing a routine for her?

As parents, we have the opportunity every day to use situations like these to teach our kids and advocate for them. We can bring a sweater with us in case our child changes her mind. We can help brainstorm about ways to remember to bring permission slips. We can put up friendly reminder signs about putting bikes in safe places. We can help our children learn without the suffering (as much as possible).

It is also worth noting that we adults rarely learn from natural consequences.

Think about it...

We eat junk and don't exercise, so we get sick and gain excess weight.

Natural consequence, right? But instead of eating right and starting to exercise, we look for some pill, herb or procedure to fix us-- and we continue to eat junk and skip exercising.

We spend too much money living above our means, so we end up in debt.

Do we change our lifestyle and learn to live frugally? Sometimes. But many people get another credit card, look for a second job, beg money off the folks, play the lottery and avoid answering the phone. We keep right on doing whatever is causing the trouble, and just try to find a way to change the results.

So much for natural consequences.

That said, there are natural consequences every day for us based on how we're parenting...

  • We don't give our little ones enough time and attention, and they become clingy.
  • We're cranky and say no all the time, and we end up with cranky kids who say no all the time.
  • We haven't been loving and attentive enough of our children so they (depending on their age and personality) cry, misbehave, whine or pull away.

And instead of realizing it's all a practical reaction to us, we scold, yell, nag, pull away and punish-- making the cycle that much worse.

Our relationships with our kids are reflections on what we're doing-- or not doing-- with them.

If your children's behavior has you contemplating putting your head in the blender lately, there's something going on. Get the root of that and the natural consequence is happier kids and parents.

That's a lesson worth learning.

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This article is updated from an earlier version posted in my Mankato attachment parenting column here on examiner.

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