Talking about and using rewards and consequences is such a big part of my job, and for good reason! Consequences and rewards are some of the best ways to motivate a change in behavior. However, consequences aren’t always “handed out” by parents, sometimes they just happen… and it’s called a natural consequence. A natural consequence is something that “naturally” happens as a result of someone’s behavior. And I said “someone” rather than specifying children because, guess what?! Natural consequences happen to adults too.
A few “adult” examples:
- I forgot to take my trash out last week. The natural consequence? My garage smells because I have week-old diaper trash that has to wait to go out.
- I chose not to workout for a month. The natural consequence? Well, there are a few, but for starters I gained a few pounds.
- I forget to take my umbrella to work on a rainy day. The natural consequence? I got wet on my walk to the car after work.
What these consequences have in common is that nobody else interfered or made them happen… they happened naturally as a result of what I did.
So now for a few “kid” examples:
- My child chooses to run through the house (despite a “no running” rule) and falls down – that’s a natural consequence.
- My child refuses to eat what I’ve made for lunch The natural consequence? They’re probably going to be hungry while waiting for their next meal/snack.
- My child refuses to brush their teeth and gets a cavity.
- My kiddo doesn’t clean their room and it starts to smell.
- My child doesn’t pick up their dirty clothes, so they don’t get washed and he doesn’t have clean clothes to wear to school.
Natural consequences can be really powerful, depending on the situation and the person. So many times children see their parents as “bad guys” for “giving” them a consequence, but with a natural consequence, the parent has nothing to do with it. Instead, the consequence is what naturally happened as a result of what the child did (or didn’t) do. Because of this, many kids feel a bigger sense of responsibility (rather than just blaming mom and dad for the “punishment”) for their actions. And THAT can be very powerful.
When dealing with natural consequences, parents should try very hard not to rescue their child from the consequences (unless they are in danger, of course). If you remind your child to take their umbrella and they forget, don’t make an extra trip to bring it to them. If your child is refusing to pick up their dirty clothes, don’t go do it for them, even though you know they wore their last clean pair of pants to school today. If your child refuses to eat a reasonable meal for lunch and you don’t normally give a snack before dinner, don’t bail them out of their hunger (the natural consequence) by giving an extra snack.
While you don’t want to rescue your kiddo from a natural consequence, it’s still appropriate to comfort them and empathize. But do so in a way that doesn’t take the responsibility away from them and do so in a way that isn’t “rubbing it in.” If you child refuses lunch and is hungry before dinner, avoid saying something like “bet you wish you’d eaten lunch now, huh?” That would be “rubbing it in.” Also avoid saying something like, “hopefully you’ll like what I make for dinner better.” That could send the message that it’s your fault because your kiddo didn’t like their cooking. Instead, trying something like, “it must be uncomfortable to be so hungry after choosing not to eat your lunch.” Then you can possibly remind them how long it is until the next meal and suggest they find something to do to distract from their hunger.
One last point is to consider whether or not you would like the natural consequence to replace any other consequence your child would normally earn. You can take into account the severity of the natural consequence before deciding if you want to also give out an additional one for the behavior. If your child doesn’t seem phased by the natural consequence, then you might want to consider using one for their negative behavior. However, if they are really affected by the natural consequence, you might decide that’s enough of a deterrent. There’s really no wrong or right answer here, so just use your best judgment.
Natural consequences can be really inconvenient and frustrating, but sometimes they really “do the trick” in motivating kids (and adults!) to change their behavior.