Thursday, May 21, 2009

Natural and Logical Consequences: The Dreaded Four Year Old

I'm finally getting to the promised topic of consequences with the four year old. Sorry for the delay!

Any time the subject of natural or logical consequences comes up, I hear a lot of comments like this:

"I tried it, and it didn't work for my kids."
"My kids are so argumentative. It's just easier to lay down the law."
"My daughter just talked and negotiated too much. She just needs to do what I say because I'm the mother."
"All my kids understand is authority."
"I agree in theory, but I can't pull it off in practice."
"Every time my child and I begin discussing choices, the conversation derails and quickly devolves into 'Do it my way or else!'" 

The. Four. Year. Old.


The age of endless questions. This age seems to be really tough to get through for attachment parents and for parents trying to follow natural and logical consequences. Let's take a quick look at some of the reasons that parents give up, shall we?:

"But I don't want to ..." 
"But what about ...?"
"But I like this better!"
"Why not?"
"But that's not the way to do it!"
"But my teacher/Janie/the dog does it this way!"
"Why can't I ...?"

Endless questions. Endless negotiations. Endless talking. Endless discussion. On and on and on. The four year old seems to want to negotiate everything

Obviously, I'm no expert, and my kids aren't perfect. But I've been through the formidable fours three times, and I've spent my share of time at the mediation table.

Let's just take a look at a few real-life examples of situations where four year olds seem to get the upper hand with a few (or maybe a bunch of) well-placed whines.

--Getting ready to leave the house for school or some event.
Four year olds have amazing stamina. They can seemingly negotiate for hours on end while dancing from foot to foot and rolling around on their heads. Some of the most, ahem, amusing times is when they're delaying to get out of the house - sometimes even when they're going to places they want to go to. 

I got so tired of nagging and nagging them to be ready to leave the house on time. My solution was to pick some event they wanted to go to but that I didn't care about (say, yet another birthday party) and choose for that one to be the "learning experience." I'd say something like, "We need to leave at 4:00 to be at the birthday party on time. It's 2:00 now. I'll give you a thirty-minute warning, but I won't be bugging you over and over to get ready. In order for us to go to the party, these things have to be done [wrap present, get dressed, etc.]. Do you think you'll be able to be ready?" Sure, Mom, I'll be ready. Yeah, right. At 3:30 (after watching said kid goof off and completely forget about the time ticking by), I'd say, "It's 3:30. We need to leave in thirty minutes to be at the party on time. Will you be ready?" This either causes a mind state of panic or an apathetic "Sure, Mom" - and sometimes panic followed by lethargy if said kid gets distracted. At 4:00 I'd say, "It's 4:00. We need to leave now in order to be at the party on time." Then I'd step back as said kid goes into Tasmanian Devil mode, swirling around trying to get everything done that needed to be done. Being late to a party he was really looking forward to was consequence enough. It didn't take any extra punishment from me.

If it was an event where we needed to be on time or else we'd miss it entirely (e.g., seeing a movie), then, hey, we'd miss it. 

With my older kids, I'd take it a step further. After all, no one is reminding me every five minutes of my own appointments, and I have to remember all of theirs as well. So I'd put all the responsibility on them. I'd give them half-hour reminders and maybe fifteen-minutes reminders if they're busy doing schoolwork or are otherwise occupied, but I don't lay out every little thing that needs to be done. Giving them the responsibility for their own successes has created some, say, learning opportunities (see, for instance, my post on procrastination). 

Of course, I wasn't okay with letting one kid drag out getting out of the house, making a sibling late to his/her event. That shows total disrespect, even if it is a cry for attention or a ploy for power. I would state it just like that, "I know it must feel powerful for you to make G late for his soccer game by not being ready, but that's not fair to him, and he has a responsibility to his team. In our family, we do our best to respect each other. If you're still in your underwear when it's time to leave, then you'll have to go in your underwear." (And yes, this type of thing has happened on occasion.)

--Brushing teeth. (Egad. The dreaded toothbrush.)
This seems to be a problem for lots of kids. Some parents don't seem to care that much, but H and I did. I grew up in a time when kids simply didn't brush their teeth, at least not until their permanent teeth came in. I have the fillings to prove that that strategy wasn't the best one.

There are lots of techniques to get kids to brush their teeth (or allow their parents to do it for them), but here we're talking about the natural/logical consequences approach. What worked for me recently - and I wish I'd thought of this when my kids were younger - was simply to open my mouth and show them my fillings. Somehow kids seem to acquire the fear of getting fillings through the ether; maybe it's all those board books intending to "help" get through the dentist's visit. T took one look at the inside of my mouth, silently walked into the bathroom, eyes wide, and began brushing.

--Leaving toys scattered on the floor.
This is a toughie, because the natural consequences can be excruciating for a young child. That consequence, obviously, is that the toy gets stepped on and broken. And since the toys that are usually strewn about are the favorite ones, having a much-loved toy get smashed can be devastating (albeit a powerful lesson).

However, this is sporadic at best and in no way a dependable outcome. Instead, I'd start with explaining that toys can get stepped on and broken (fat lot of good that discussion will do ya', if your kids are anything like mine). If you want to push the concept of the natural consequence, you could accidentally-on-purpose step on a less-than-favorite-but-somewhat-desired toy, thereby showing the natural consequence without having your child scarred and explaining to his therapist in twenty years that "Mom murdered my Freddie the Fire Truck." (My oldest sister still has vivid recollections [waking nightmares?] of my mom burning her stick horse - my mom had no idea that my sis even cared about it since she hadn't used it in years, and it was in tatters.)

If that doesn't work, you can always move to other, more extreme measures ... the logical consequence. This might take several forms:
"I'm afraid I'm going to sprain my ankle if I step on your toys, so I'm going to put them away where they'll be safe and I won't have to worry about stepping on them."
"With your toys strewn about, I worry that somebody will be hurt if they trip on them. Would you like to put them away, or would you like me to find a safer home for them?"
A bit harsher: "If you don't wish to take care of your toys, maybe we should give them to a child who doesn't have any who can take care of them."
And the kicker ... "I get really angry when I trip over your toys again and again. I don't like being angry, so we need to come up with a solution on how to keep them off of the floor."

One thing I can say that is important with logical consequences is to include your kid in the process as much as possible. Because logical consequences are contrived rather than natural, it just makes sense for the child to be involved. Besides, I've found that things work out so much better if the kid is invested in some way.

Four year olds really want to be heard. They need to be included in the decisions and the discussions. Get your kid to give you all her ideas on what might happen in a given situation. Maybe the natural consequence is something she can live with (missing the first half hour of the birthday party). If not, then have her come up with a solution. If she can't, then offer some.

One of the key components to this type of parenting is not to make the consequence a punishment. I once knew a guy who had been in hard-core jail for a period of months. When he came out, he said that the other inmates weren't learning anything from their incarceration except how to be better criminals. That really hit home with me. I don't want my kids to use their punishment as a way to think of ways to get back at me or to figure out how better to get away with the "crime." 

No matter what consequence you end up with, it needs to make sense. It has to make sense to you and the child. Also, what another mom said to me is right on target: the key is not to get caught up in all the debate - state the expectation and then let it be up to them to follow through or not. If they choose a certain behavior, knowing what that consequence is, then so be it. They will only learn by failures, not by successes.

Do all of these ideas work every time? Of course not, just like the fact that I'm not always able to pass up that extra piece of chocolate cake, even though I know the natural consequence is that I'll be cursing it in 12 hours - and if I do it often enough I won't be able to fit into even my fat clothes. And we adults don't always learn from natural consequences, do we? (Just ask anyone who's gotten two tickets for speeding.) And sometimes it takes a number of times to finally "get it." (Just ask anyone who's gotten a bunch of tickets for speeding.)

For more of my ideas on natural and logical consequences, you can see this post, or you can see this post for a specific example when S was six years old.

Remember, nothing works for every person or every kid or every family. Each one needs to find his or her own way. By giving examples of what we've done in our family, I might come across like I think I'm some kind of expert, and nothing could be farther from the truth [even if I end up sounding like it sometimes]. 


  1. I just realized something. My 8-yr old is really 4 years old. Slearly we've not mastered this whatsoever! He LOVES school, HATES going late, but will get distracted every step of the way every morning.

  2. One thing that worked for me when the kids were little and would not sit in high chairs like human beings at a restaurant, was to just take them out and sit while others were eating. I hated it and my food got cold but after that first time I've never had a problem with any of them.

    The biggest challenge to this approach, just like you said, is when it puts an innocent party at a disadvantage.

  3. Wow, how did you know what some of our toughest challenges are? Do you secretly tape us? Or are you telling me this is all universal? :-)

    I'm finding it funny that one of your ads at the moment is for teeth whitening!

  4. "I'm finding it funny that one of your ads at the moment is for teeth whitening!"

    But look closely! I certainly won't use that product if my teeth look like those in the "After" picture! LOL

  5. you're going to get bonus points with the orthodontist for the toothbrushing section of this post! :)

    i always enjoy reading these posts and realizing i am not alone on the universe of the small child....