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10 Ways to Parent with Natural Consequences

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There’s a parenting cheat code we don’t often talk about…

We don’t always have to bear the burden of coming up with consequences. Natural consequences already exist.

All we have to do is explain the parameters, set up the guard rails, and let our children make their choices and face their consequences – without punitive measures.

Burning your hand on a hot stove, for example, is a natural consequence. As parents, we don’t want our children to get burned. (And for the record, natural consequences should only be used when safe.

But natural consequences occur without parental interference…

And sometimes the best thing we can do for our children is to step aside. 

Jane Nelson, an early-adopter of the natural consequences method, laid down the three Rs: 

  • Related to the behavior – for example, denying your child dinner because they abused their toy isn’t related. Taking the toy away is. 
  • Respectful to your child – for example, calling your child a disappointment because they didn’t do well on a test they didn’t study for isn’t respectful. Asking them what would help them do better next time is respectful. 
  • Reasonable in relation to the infraction – for example, taking away screen time for a month after your child refused to turn the TV at the agreed-upon time isn’t reasonable. But telling them they won’t have any TV time tomorrow is. 

You can’t go outside without hat/gloves/coat/sunscreen!

(*You know best. If it’s cold enough that they’ll get frostbite or hypothermia, or hot enough that they’ll get sun poisoning, use your judgment.)

Instead, what happens if they go outside without the thing you had gotten yourself into a state making sure they had?

They’ll be cold, hot, uncomfortable – and next time, they’ll have the memory of this experience to guide them.*

*Kids as young as three can understand cause and effect. Again, you know your child best, but that’s a neurological capability available to most three-year-olds. 

If you don’t go to bed now, you’re going to be in big trouble/fail your test tomorrow/be cranky all day/have a hard time waking up!

Sure, all of that is true. 

You know that because you’ve gone to bed too late before and made your life much harder the next day. If you feel that natural consequences would be appropriate for the developmental stage of your children (for example, a 15-year-old is more likely to understand that lesson than a 7-year-old), try letting them set their own bedtime!*

*When kids are too young to understand that the reason they feel tired is that they stayed up too late (you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to explain this to them), natural consequences won’t work. You’ll just have to remind them that we all need to rest our bodies even if we’re not sleeping

Don’t put that drink on the edge of the table or it’ll fall/put a lid on this before it goes in the fridge/you’re going to spill that

Ever feel like a broken record? Or like if you weren’t there, everything would fall into chaos?

Here’s a tip: Let the drink spill. Let the food fall. And when it does, you can say: Oh look! The drink spilled. When we make messes, that’s okay. We just have to clean them up and think about what we can do to prevent them later. 

Messes have no moral value and accidents will always happen. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to avoid them; but when they happen, encourage your kids to fix what’s been done in a respectful way. (Amend to your child’s developmental stage, certainly.)

Don’t spend all of your allowance/birthday money/lawn-mowing money at once! 

You know what you’re saying makes sense. As a person who was once a kid and as an adult who still makes money mistakes, you know how much it stinks to spend all of your money and find you need or want it later. 

If your child won’t take your word for it, let them learn! Feel free to support them when they feel sad about not being able to take part in the next activity that costs money, but let them learn the lesson. (Read: don’t replenish the money they spent.)

Tip: Give your children choices.

Rather than asking what they would like to drink, give them choices that don’t include what you don’t want them to drink – like soda, sugary fruit drinks, or milkshakes. Rather than asking your child when they want to leave a party, let them know what their options are – now, in thirty minutes, or in an hour. 

This helps to engage them in the flow of their lives so that orders aren’t passed down from the top but are agreed upon between family members!

Tip: Connect privileges with control.

Help your children to understand that having nice things and doing what we want is a privilege. Earning that privilege can be linked to tasks that benefit the whole family collective. 

For example, TV time can be enjoyed only when homework is complete, toys are away, and laundry is in the laundry basket. Or toys can be played with, only if they’re put away every night. That way, if the tasks linked to the privilege are left uncompleted, they know that they are in control of being able to enjoy the privilege. 

Tip: Stay consistent with your boundaries.

Children are living the process of becoming fully-formed people. They’re experiencing separating themselves from you and independently moving through the world. It’s natural that they should push back, test you, see what they can get away with.

It’s our job as parents to decide what matters the most to us and not to waver. 

Is your kid going to miss the new episode of the show that all of their friends love because they didn’t complete the chores? They may just have to miss it. Are they not going to be able to wear their favorite dress because they didn’t bring their laundry downstairs on the day you do laundry? They’ll have to decide on a different outfit.

Bonus Tip: Make sure you encourage the behavior you want to see!

This may feel obvious, but for many frustrated parents, it can feel very tempting to say things like…

Why can’t you ALWAYS do this?

I wish you’d been like this at the party last week!

Wow, what’s gotten into you? You NEVER help me with the dishes!

But this can not only feel discouraging, but it also reinforces the idea that your kid isn’t usually good. Instead, when you witness the behavior you want to see, show gratitude and kindness. 

They’ll remember it. 

We know we just threw a lot at you…

But here’s the thing to remember. Tips, guidelines, and care-informed methods are wonderful and we should all hear as many as we can. But day-to-day, the struggle can be real.

It’s okay not to parent perfectly with natural consequences all the time – you’re a person as well as a parent. 

Some days, you can give 100%. Some days you may only be able to give 10%. We live in a world that greatly disservices parents and does its best to turn kids into distraction machines fueled by endless want. 

Doing your best IS enough!

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