Dear Dr. Sherri,
We have gone to great lengths to deal with our children’s behavior. We have read everything and also seen professionals and have really gotten nowhere on this. My main question involves natural consequences. We have heard this and read about this over and over again and have tried to use it, but have really found ourselves very limited with this. Are we just missing the boat or do you believe natural consequences work? Sign us…Pooped Parents in Palatine.
For the last couple decades or so, there has been a lot of advice given about natural consequences or logical consequences. These are consequences that apply logically or naturally to the situation. For example, the logical or natural consequence of breaking your toy is that you don’t get to play with that toy anymore. Many people believe these to be the only consequences that work. I disagree wholeheartedly based on the fact that natural consequences are not always effective and cannot always be waited for or risked. For example, the natural consequence of running in the street is getting hit by a car. Now, anyone in his or her right mind knows that this is ridiculous. No parent is going to risk their child getting hit by a car for the purpose of learning not to run in the street. What about the child who wants to touch the hot stove? Are we going to let the child do this, based on the fact that it's a natural consequence to get burned, when we touch a hot stove? Of course not! Any responsible parent will try very hard not to have their child do this, or even come close. Let's look at one that isn't so crisis oriented. What about the child who is always late in the morning. This is the child who won't get out of bed when you ask. You need to be at work at a certain time and every morning is the same battle. You yell, you scream, you rant, you rave and still the child resists. Now, what is the natural consequence for this? If you went by the letter of natural consequences, it would be that the child would have to get him or herself to school or miss school. There are several problems with this. First, most kids I know would relish the thought of a parent leaving without them. In their minds, they can stay home and watch their favorite shows. Who needs school anyway, right? The other problem with this is a safety issue. If you leave your child to walk to school alone, it can be a safety problem. I know many parents who battle with their children to get going because they do not want the child walking alone! In this situation, the natural consequences do not seem to work. The only one who seems to be getting the consequence is the parent.
So, once you've thought about the natural consequence to a behavior and cannot find one that fits in a safe and consistent way, what are you left with? Many people out there will tell you that if it's not "natural consequences" there will be no learning for the child. Again, I say, "hogwash!" Consequences, whether logical, natural or not, work if you use them appropriately, consistently and you mean business! My feeling is that there are several things that make consequences work.
First, you have to know what is meaningful to the child. This is the most natural and logical thing I can think of, when it comes to consequences. What is going to effect this child? What means something to him or her? If it means something, it will get through! Second, consequences need to be appropriate. They need to make sense. They need to not be violent. Beating on your child teaches nothing but violence. Teaching them that bad decisions lose things that are meaningful to them, makes sense. This is something that they need to learn for later life too. All of us live in an adult world where good decisions are rewarded and bad ones are punished. Additionally, many times as adults we lose things when we aren’t responsible. Right?
Be careful about only withdrawing privileges though. Most kids have something else to play with when something gets taken away. If this is the case, that child is feeling no punishment and behavior will not change. I cannot go into specific punishments in the scope of a blog post, because one size does not fit all, but rest assured, I haven’t met the kid I can’t turn yet. Powerful consequences do the trick, trust me on that!
Also, be careful not to fall into the trap many parents fall into: saying it and not following through. You get all big and blustery and take the thing away only to forget or get busy and the child gets it back sooner than he or she should. Nothing learned except that mommy or daddy will eventually forget so the odds are in favor of the behavior continuing.
With our example of our child who won’t get up on time, who is it that’s feeling the consequence? The parent is the person who is feeling the brunt of the consequence. The parent gets bent out of shape and has to be late to work. This is the only natural consequence that comes out of this situation. The child feels nothing from this situation, except power. Our children need to be ready for the real world and if they don't learn it at home, where are they going to learn it?
So, when natural or logical consequences don't fit, make sure you use some appropriate consequence. If you're not sure of what works, ask your child. Children tell me what works with them, more than any other source. Ask them what they own that they like. You can also ask what activities they like the best. Make sure to ask these questions when you're not in the heat of battle with them. At a calm and cool time, interview your child and find out what will work. Remember, though, finding out what works and then not using it, does nothing for anyone. Don't feel bad doing this! You aren't being sneaky. You aren't being nasty. You're simply being methodical about finding out and using what will work quickly and effectively. This way is better for your child and you.
Consequences don't need to necessarily be natural. If they're appropriate, thought out ahead of time, methodically decided upon and then implemented without hesitation, they will work. If your child has to do some sort of cleaning work after school as long as each minute he was late that morning, he’ll think about being on time next time. Natural? Definitely not! Does it work? Every time I’ve suggested it, it sure does! I can guarantee you that your child will do everything in his or her power to get you to back off of your punishment decision. Don't get shaken by this. If your consequence is appropriate but firm, and not abusive, you aren't doing anything wrong. You're teaching your child what is acceptable and unacceptable for now and for later life as well. After all, isn't this a parent's job? Best of luck with this and remember to set up a time with me if you need extra support. Take care!
Dr. Sherri Singer, Psy.D. is a Child and Family Psychologist and Parent Coach helping parents to help their kids avoid behavior problems, physical behavior, school and homework problems and symptoms without medication while developing fast processing speed, multi-tasking and memory skills. She provides low fee Skype online sessions and telephone coaching from anywhere in the USA and 24/7 online video behavior and processing skill classes for parents. Contact her at http://www.happyfamilysite.com/