Research has shown certain consequences for kids undermine the goal of raising good children. However, natural and logical consequences are invaluable ways to teach children. Learn more below.
First, there was a pop! Then a snap! My ears were already ringing from screaming and now it sounded like a cap gun was going off around me.
Making matters worse is that I was driving in terrible traffic.
I white-knuckled the steering wheel and impelled myself to take deep breaths.
We had just had one of the best days and now my children were acting out.
My brother had sent a text asking us to come downtown. With no plans for the day, we were in! We met him walking his dogs along the seawall. For the next while, we meandered between the city’s skyscrapers and the ocean soaking up the sun.
That’s when my kids spotted rainbow-painted aqua busses going from the seawall to various tourist locations in the city.
In minutes, we had piled two dogs, a stroller and three kids into the water taxi and off to a peninsula filled with artisan kid stores, a farmer’s market, and a waterpark.
After eating their fill of cheese and pepperoni pizza, my brother took the kids to a magic shop filled with rubber dog poop and faux candy. Out they came clutching brown paper bags, beaming.
Then, we headed to the splash pad to ride the free water slide. The day was what the best memories are made of.
For the next hour or so, my two oldest kids mounted the wet wooden staircase to slide as much as their hearts’ desired.
That’s when it hit me…
Though the day could not have been better, my timing was less than perfect. If we didn’t leave then, we would hit the worst of rush hour traffic.
Despite our scramble back to the aqua bus, making the uphill climb to my brother’s apartment at record speed, by the time my children and I hit the highway, we were hit by a wall of gridlock.
That’s when my two older children started roughhousing and squealing at decibel levels that left my ears ringing.
Then, I heard a pop.
Then another pop followed by maniacal laughter. It turns out that at the magic shop, they bought Snappers – little paper tricks that sound like a cap gun when you throw them. And they were doing just that – they were throwing them everywhere.
In the past, I might have yelled at my kids to be quiet.
In fact, at that moment everything in me wanted to scream. Had I not been deep breathing, I likely would have yelled and threatened some sort of arbitrary consequence like, “If you don’t quiet down right now, there will be no dessert!”
For the longest time, I didn’t know how to execute discipline any better. So, there were times my emotions got the best of me.
But I’m slowly learning to change my ways because, the truth is, this approach isn’t all that great.
The research about arbitrary consequences and yelling is clear. Though they may work in the short term, these parenting practices are problematic.
In the short term, my yelling or threats of losing ice cream or grounding them from playing with their friends may work. My children will respond to my anger and will do whatever it takes not to lose that privilege.
Over the long term, however, research shows this quick fix falls apart.
In an analysis of studies on moral development, researchers found that parents who overpower, are negative, prone to conflict and/or sarcastic with their children have children with less mature moral reasoning. Additionally, in a six-year study, researchers found that mothers who tended to be angry and generally used physical or verbal pressure on their children had children showed less internalized moral reasoning, less mature moral cognitions and poorer behaviour.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that if a child is forced or a parent is angry that the child’s moral development will be impacted. It does mean that parents who favour the use of force and anger risk impacting their children’s moral development.
Applied to me this means that the more I threaten to take away dessert from my children or tell them the neighbourhood kids can’t come over and play for the weekend, the more I will need to use threats like this in the future.
On top of this, research shows that children of more punitive mothers were more resentful and were more likely to reject her rules in the future.
Sadly, arbitrary punishments are easier to use than other forms of discipline.
Threatening, scolding, or grounding are more of a one-size-fits-all approach. They use fear instead of problem-solving and logic.
Naturally, taking the time to figure out the source of the behaviour, addressing it calmly and problem-solving takes more effort than responding out of anger. Because of this, it can be challenging to let go of what feels like a quick fix to a problem to forms of discipline that take perspective, patience, and practice. Additionally, it can feel almost instinctive to use arbitrary punishments. It’s how so many of us were raised and often it’s what society expects of us: to come up with some sort of awful deterrent so an undesirable behaviour never happens again.
But the truth is these punishments have detrimental implications for children (and their parents too).
For one, it models aggressive behaviour and hurts the relationship between the parent and child. It is important to note that this doesn’t mean a parent should avoid punishing their child for fear the child will no longer be their friend. The goal of parenting is not to be a child’s best friend. However, the purpose of parenting is to teach children to embody their values and become well-adjusted members of society.
Because of this, it’s actually better to avoid arbitrary consequences because coercive parenting is associated with more behavioural and social difficulties in children as they age. In contrast, research has found that parents who focused on being calm during conflict, reframed difficult behaviour, and engaged in problem-solving had teenagers who showed fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties.
Parents need to approach difficult behaviour calmly and with respect for the child.
Research shows the most effective discipline for children involves the use of:
- clear rules and expectations
- perspective-taking – specifically listening to everyone’s side and understanding how everyone feels
- problem-solving when everyone is calm
- courteous language
- disciplinary tactics that would be appropriate for the child to emulate themselves – no hitting, shouting, shaming, or negative character attributions
Sometimes consequences either result from the child’s behaviour or are needed to both teach the child and resolve the issue at hand.
Though it is beneficial for parents to drop forceful forms of discipline, it is nevertheless important for children to understand the consequences of their actions. Research points to two main ways children can face consequences in a way that doesn’t impact the parent-child relationship in the same way that arbitrary ones do – these are consequences that are natural or logical.
Natural consequences stem directly from a child’s behaviour. Therefore parents do not impose or reinforce them in any way.
Some examples of natural consequences include:
- When children don’t want to wear their jackets, they get wet or cold. I often tell my kids to stand outside for a while and make a decision.
- Not taking care of belongings and either losing them or them breaking. Recently, we were away at a family wedding. When we were leaving, my daughter decided not to follow my suggestion of going through the hotel room to make sure she had her toys. Though I did a thorough check under the beds and in drawers, I didn’t know she had wrapped her LOL dolls in a hotel towel in the bathroom. As a result, she lost all of her favourite dolls. (I did call lost and found but they never showed up.) Instead of replacing them, as she asked, we are encouraging her to save money to replace them.
- Engaging in behaviour that will likely get someone hurt. For example, there are times when my children are roughhousing and the play is getting too rough. If I tell them to find something else to do or change the way they’re playing and someone gets hurt, that’s a natural consequence
Unlike natural consequences, parents impose logical consequences.
While arbitrary consequences may take a one-size-fits-all approach, logical ones are directly tied to the child’s behaviour, take into account the child’s perspective, and are proportionate to what has happened.
They are beneficial because they give the child the chance to understand what happens when he doesn’t behave in a way that is safe or appropriate. The parent doesn’t make attributions about the child’s character. As such, they separate the child from her action.
Before using logical consequences, it is important to take note of the state of the child. If a child’s basic needs are met and the child is calm, logical consequences may make sense to rectify the situation and stop future the behaviour from happening again.
The consequences, which must be natural and logical to the disurbance of order, are self-evident and, therefore, come into play only as long as the child disregards order. It is order and reality by itself, not the arbitraty power of the adult which brings about the unpleasant consequence.
In a literary review on logical consequences, there are two examples used to illustrate the quote above. To highlight arbitrary consequences, the author gives the example of a child hitting his sibling and losing screen time. This isn’t related to what the child has done and is related to arbitrary power. In contrast, a logical consequence is if, when a young girl plays in the front yard she runs into the street, she is told to only play in the backyard.
Some other examples of logical consequences include:
- When a child has coloured on walls, washing the marker off the walls.
- Paying for an item the child has broken with allowance money or fixing that item.
- Losing the use of scissors temporarily if they are using them in an unsafe way.
- Going to their bedroom to calm down after an argument with a sibling before returning to problem-solve or communicate calmly.
- Not being allowed to play with friends until all chores are done.
- Or, delaying anything fun until homework is done, rooms are clean, and everyone is listening.
The day we hit traffic and my children’s behaviour deteriorated, I pulled to the side of the road and turned on my hazard lights. “I cannot drive safely with people screaming. I will wait as long as it takes for everyone to be calm.”
It took about a minute, but the screaming stopped.
But that’s when I realized the mess the Snapper had left. When my kids opened them, little bits of sawdust exploded and landed all over the back seats. “Before dinner tonight, you both have to vacuum up the mess you made.”
There was a little protest, but eventually, they agreed.
The rest of the way home, they were mostly peaceful. And by dinner, they had cleaned out the car.
The truth is, executing logical consequences or allowing for natural consequences takes patience, and practice and the results aren’t immediate. Even though I got this discipline right, there are many days I struggle, get upset, and parent without intention. But the good news is even the best parents don’t get it right the majority of the time. What sets them apart is their tendency to re-focus, apologize where need be, and try again. So when I get off track, I remind myself of this. And I try and remember that the more children are parented with intention, the easier it will get and the more likely my children will do well.
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