Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Natural and Logical Consequences

Natural consequences. Logical consequences. You hear about them all the time. What do they really mean, and what's the difference between them? I have lots of ideas about them, so it may take more than one post to get my thoughts across.

First, let's talk about what they don't mean. Most parents use the word "consequence" in a negative way, namely, to mean "punishment." A consequence isn't inherently negative, although most kids these days think of it that way. That's because what they hear is, "If you do that, Billy, there will be Consequences!!!" (Billy quivers as he thinks of what possible heinous punishment his mom is constructing in her mind.)

I hear this term thrown around all the time, in the grocery store, on the playground, even at friends' houses. 

But a consequence is merely something that happens as a result of something else happening. If an egg rolls off the edge of a table, it breaks (natural consequence) and you have to clean it up (logical consequence).

I have lots of ideas on punishment as well - mostly that I don't really believe in punishment per se, at least in the case of children learning to be adults. We used to do "time outs," just like we were told to do in all the parenting books (one minute per year, and all that), but what I found was that it simply didn't work for us. What I tell the kids all the time (ad nauseam, it seems) is that I want them to do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because I tell them to and not because they're afraid of getting caught doing the wrong thing. But before I traipse off down that diverging garden path, I'll postpone the discussion on punishment for a later post.

I could also talk a lot about our parenting strategies, but that would also be too long for this topic, so I'll just succinctly say that we tend not to have lots of hard and fast "rules," other than a few very basic ones: "Respect each other. Respect yourself. Respect our things." Except for some basic safety stuff, which mostly falls into one of those three respect rules, that's the extent of our rules. When we lay down the law that they can't do something ("stay out of the street") it's simply because of one of those rules and/or a safety issue. And we always have a reason for whatever that "rule" is, and we're happy to explain it to them.

So back to consequences. 

Let's look at natural consequences. These are the things that happen naturally, without mental intervention. If a child leaves her favorite toy on the floor, and the parent squashes it in the dark on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, naturally the toy will get broken: natural consequence. If a child leaves her favorite toy on the floor, and the parent squashes it while running to the ringing phone, naturally the toy will get broken with an added tasty natural consequence of the parent becoming irate. (Sometimes instinctive parental anger can be an awfully motivating natural consequence.) Toy left on floor = broken toy = no toy and mad mad mom.

Now logical consequences. Personally, I would get pretty miffed if someone gave me an arbitrary punishment for some mistake I'd made or something I'd done wrong. Say I accidentally spilled my glass of red wine on the carpet. I certainly didn't intend to do that, and it doesn't mean I'm a bad person who needs to be punished. The natural consequence is that I'll be pissed off, angry at myself, disappointed that there's now a great big ugly stain on the rug, and there's a great big ugly stain on the rug. The logical consequence is that I need to clean it up and QUICKLY! If I tended to spill my red wine on the carpet every other night, the logical consequence would be that I should either get a sippy cup (there's a whole 'nother use for all those sippy cups in the back of the cabinet, right?) or drink it in the kitchen. I'd be mighty miffed if my DH decided I needed a time out (especially if it was without the wine) or needed to go to my room.

(Besides, when most kids are sent to their room or given time out, they use that time to stew about how mad they are, how humiliated they feel, or how they'll get back at brother/sister/mother/father - not how they're going to make amends and do better next time. At least this is what my children tell me.)

The point is, if the consequence (again, just a result of something else happening) is unconnected to the "crime," then there's no mental connect between the deed and the time. So, if a kid is caught stealing and is forced to make his bed for a month as the "consequence," what does he learn from that? 

Here's the kind of thing I see all the time: Kid does something that Mom doesn't like. Let's say that Kid comes home with a D on his report card because he's not doing his homework. Mom takes one look and shouts, "I've told you a hundred times to do your homework! No iPod for a month!" Huh? Where's the connect between doing homework and no music? What the mom is doing is taking away something meaningful to the kid as punishment, not as a learning tool and not as a way to resolve the problem. In this case, the natural consequence of a bad grade may not happen soon enough to be of effect (i.e., a downward academic spiral and not getting into his college of choice may be years down the road, and thus too far to be of use to the parent). So that's when logical consequences come into play.

In this case, there might be a domino effect: Kid gets a D on his report card, Kid gets bumped out of honors class in that subject and into the regular class, Kid loses interest in subject and begins to see himself as a failure, and then Kid gives up and doesn't even want to try to get into a good college and settles for a party school. Obviously, this is a natural consequence that just won't work to keep Kid on track.

The logical consequence will take some thinking on Mom's part. What's keeping Kid from turning in the homework? She'll have to talk with Kid to see what the deal is. Is he doing the homework and not turning it in? Is he not doing it at all? If he's not doing it, why not? If it's that he's spending too much time with his friends hanging out at the mall, then there's your logical consequence (less mall time). If it's that it's too difficult, then there's your logical consequence (more study time or tutor). If he's on the phone with his girlfriend, then there's your logical consequence (restricted phone time or having the girlfriend come over and study together). 

Frequently, the kid has the answer to what logical consequence will actually make a difference in stopping an undesirable behavior. I remember a few years ago when we first got a video game console. G was obsessing over it, wanting to spend every waking moment on it. I really hate being the police about stuff like that, so I talked to him. He decided that he would play only on the weekends, because he didn't want to become addicted. Now that doesn't mean that he cheerfully put away the controller when his time was up, but when I reminded him of his decision and how it seemed to be the best option, it made all the difference.

Often, natural and logical consequences go hand in hand. I remember once a couple of years ago that S became hooked on a certain ham from the deli at our local grocery store. It wasn't cheap, but it was produced locally and wasn't pumped full of chemicals, so I was willing to buy it for her. I'd just bought a pound ($10.00) and she'd made herself lunch with it. We had to leave the house immediately after lunch, and she was responsible for cleaning up after herself. You guessed it ... she left the ham on the counter and the dog ate it. (We pride ourselves on feeding our dogs well. Yeah, right.)

So she got both a natural and logical consequence. Natural: no ham for lunch the next day or any day until I went back to the grocery store the following week. Logical: she had to pay for the ham that was lost out of her own allowance (about $8.00 worth). This amounted to about two weeks' worth of her allowance. A hard lesson for a young child, but one she didn't forget. And it was hard for me to watch.

Certainly, we didn't spring this on her suddenly. We'd all talked about what would happen if this scenario occurred again (as it already had occurred a couple of times in the recent past). She hadn't been the only one not taking care of their after-lunch detritus, and it ended up being a lesson for G as well.

I guess the difference I see between traditional discipline (i.e., punishment) and natural/logical consequences is this: is your goal to help your kids succeed in the long run by learning about what works and what doesn't - which sometimes means failing in a huge way - or is it to punish them for their "bad" behavior and expect them to do "good" as the alternative? The floggings will continue until morale improves. And - and this is an important "and" - do you want your kids to do the right thing because they know that it's the right thing (even if it's not the easy thing) or do you want them to do the right thing because you told them to do it and because they're afraid of getting caught? I'm too lazy to be the police as well as the mom.

I guess it's also the difference between parent-as-authority and parent-as-life-facilitator. It takes a lot of work to facilitate learning rather than just teaching what you think they should know - it takes a ton of thinking - but the long-term results are dramatic.

I believe in giving kids tools for success, not setting them up for failure.

For one of my favorite stories on natural consequences, check in tomorrow. (For those of you who know me, don't bother ... you've heard it all before.)


  1. I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but you seem to know exactly what I'm going through.

    My life (at least the past few years) has been a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of my parenting approaches, especially in the area of "consequences".

    You have come out and said what I've been feeling for so many years - I don't want to be the police!

    All I can say is we're still working on it and it's great exercise for my creativity muscle.

  2. Thanks for this post. I feel like I understand logical/natural consequences in theory, but it gets muddied up in the practice. In particular, the discussion that surrounds it (with my nearly 4 yr old) seems to go off the rails. Calmly informing her, say, "if you refuse to get dressed, you won't be able to go to school today" quickly devolves into what feels a lot more like "you better do what I say or else!" -- Perhaps the key is not to get caught up in all the debate (and negotiation)? State the expectation then let it be up to them to follow through or not?

  3. Camille, During our children's school days, I took a class called "No more threats, no more bribes." Made less sense then, than it does now. I took it at "For Kids' Sake." WIll try to summarize what I learnt... --Deepa

  4. Kristy, you bring up a great scenario, one that I want to talk more about. I'll post about it tomorrow. This kind of scenario is SO common and the back-and-forth debate seems to be SO endless ... that's when many parents throw in the towel. I think if parents can get through this age/stage, it's a lot easier.

    Era, I agree about the creativity muscles. What a way to put it.

    Deepa, I think I took that class too. (I took a lot of them. LOL) I'd be interested in hearing what your thoughts are.

  5. this is a great post--i can't wait to hear more! sometimes i find it hard to think of what the logical consequence should be--for example, with my 4 and a half year old and trying to brush his teeth in the evenings. obviously, i don't want to go with the natural consequence here (and i have some confusion about when they can brush unassisted, though the dentist just recommended about age 6)--but we seem to be running out of ways to get cooperation...

  6. I really have been needing to read all this again. Sigh. Halloween candy. What's a fair way to deal with it, and also use it as an opportunity to teach self-control and honesty??

  7. For the 4 year old that won't get dressed, I know of one parent who talked with the preschool ahead of time and when jr. would not get dressed loaded him into the car in his pajamas (along with school clothes in a bag) and took him to school that way. He was mortified and it never was a problem again.