Using Natural Consequences to Raise Responsible Kids

We want the best for our kids and do just about anything in our power to see them happy and successful. Trouble is, our instinct to protect our kids sometimes backfires – especially when that means protecting them from the natural consequences of their actions by continually rescuing our kids. If we never let them learn from their mistakes through their consequences, we’re robbing them of simple experiences that teach responsibility.

Stepping in and acting like a hero – while it feels great at times – isn’t productive for anyone. It puts stress and strain on you, adding to your already endless to-do list. Meanwhile, your child learns to depend on you to always pick up the pieces rather than to be responsible for their own behaviors. Rescuing kids from the natural consequences of their actions does nothing to help teach them cause and effect. But we can help them learn problem-solving by not solving their problems.

A Day in the Life

Imagine this: Your ten-year old slept through the snooze button again and the carpool will be here in 15 minutes. There’s no way he will make it so you offer to drive him to school. Pulling up to the curb at school, he realizes he left his soccer cleats at home. No problem, you’ll go home on your lunch hour and pick up the cleats and drop them off at school. After picking him up at practice, you remind him (again!) to start his science project once home. At dinnertime, he turns his nose up at the baked chicken and veggies and refuses to eat. He walks to the pantry to get some cereal but you can’t let your child eat cereal for dinner, so you offer to make him some mac-n-cheese, which he accepts while your dinner gets cold. Does any of this sound familiar?

Flag on the Play

Our intentions are good. We don’t want them to suffer the embarrassment of not being able to practice without cleats or to get called out by their teacher. But when constant rescuing becomes habit and our kids come to expect it, it becomes a problem. Actions have consequences. Simple as that. If we sleep late, we miss the carpool. If we don’t manage our time wisely, we turn in a late science project. Teaching our kids about consequences now, when the stakes are low is better than having them learn the hard way when they’re adults.

The Playbook

The great thing about teaching consequences is that you don’t have to dream up a punishment. Most situations have a natural consequence built in. You really don’t have to do anything - and the situation unravels naturally without any action on your part. For example, when we neglect to put gas in the car, we run out during our drive home. Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios:

  • Your thirteen-year-old daughter is busily preparing to meet her friends at the skate park. It’s a warm day, so you remind her to bring a water bottle. She’s busy texting and looking for her favorite headband so she mutters, “Sure,” and heads back to her room to get her headband. You’re worried about dehydration so you fill up a water bottle and stick it in her backpack by the door. Of course, it gets warm and she reaches into the backpack to find the drink you gave her. Will she remember a water bottle next time?
  • Your daughter is busily preparing to meet her friends at the skate park. You know it’s going to be a warm day so you ask if there is a water fountain at the park or if she should bring a water bottle. She’s busy texting her friends, firming up plans and mutters, “Maybe, I don’t know.” Sure enough, it gets warm and she gets thirsty. No water bottle in the backpack means a long walk to the water fountains near the restrooms. After multiple trips, do you think she will remember a water bottle next time?

Your child will learn better from experiencing the results of her action (or inaction). This will help her to prepare more thoroughly for other activities in her future because you’re not coming in to rescue her.

Age Appropriate

Kids brains aren’t as developed as an adult’s and they can’t always make the action-consequence connection. So pick your battles. A kindergartener probably isn’t going to remember a one-time permission slip for an upcoming field trip but remembering his lunchbox and backpack daily is something he can master. Younger children will have an especially tough time when consequences appear long after the action occurs. 

You can expect elementary and middle school aged kids to be responsible for their own personal hygiene, school work, and chores. You can teach an eight-year old how to keep a checklist of items they’ll need each day on a dry erase board and have confidence your high school senior will pack the right stuff for a weekend ski trip. This is the time to help your kids make those action-consequence connections. All these practices at a young age will teach lessons we can’t when we resolve to nagging or rescuing.

Time Out

There will be exceptions when natural consequences just seem unfair or cruel. For example, let’s say your daughter wakes up late and in a mad dash to get to school, forgets her history report she has been diligently working on for a week. When you peeked in her bedroom last night, you saw her studying for her for a big trig test today. Given her excellent history for good grades and study habits, she was probably just overtired and overwhelmed so when she texts from school, you offer to take the report to her. Use your common sense when resorting to natural consequences: sometimes kids do need rescuing as a simple act of kindness and compassion.

Additionally, while natural consequences are great for teaching simple lessons, they should NOT be used when the outcome can be morally, physically, or emotionally damaging to themselves or other people. You do still need to teach values and codes of conduct, of course. For example, if your child is engaging in inappropriate online behavior or driving recklessly, that is not the time to sit back and wait for natural consequences to kick in. You will need to step in, enforce appropriate punishments and open up conversations about the dangers of their behavior.

The Back-Up Plan

In some cases, natural consequences just don’t work. For example, if your child thinks the natural consequence is no big deal (think a messy room from not picking up toys), is too abstract or not imminent enough (tooth decay as a result of refusing to brush their teeth), or it’s worth the action (being tired at school from staying up too late). In those cases, you will need to step in with a different discipline approach that involves punishments that are related to the action, while still respectful and reasonable. For example, if your child refuses to brush their teeth, you can explain that you’ll have to suspend all sweet treats until your child shows they’re mature enough to clean their teeth of harmful sugars. 

Will you take a break from rescuing your kids this week and let them learn from the consequences of their actions? Let us know how it goes!

Tags : relationships   discipline   

Elodie Nilsson
I really need to practice being more hands-off in some situations.