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 these punishments may work in the short term, these parenting practices are problematic.
In the short term, my kids may panic when I yell and threaten the loss of dessert and do everything to ensure they get ice cream.
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, a six-year study showed that mothers who were 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. Children are resilient and parents are human and will make mistakes. What it does mean is that parents who favour the use of force and threats risk impeding moral development.
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 next week, 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.
But 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 can have detrimental implications for children (and their parents too).
For one, it models aggressive behaviour and can hurt the relationship between the parent and child. As previously mentioned, research shows children tend to resent overly strict parents. On top of that, the quality of the parent-child relationship is related to how likely children are to display aggressive behaviour, have mental health disorders, and resist peer pressure.
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 but to teach children to embody their values and become well-adjusted members of society.
Research on adolescent outcomes shows that parents who focused on being calm during conflict, reframing difficult behaviour, and problem-solving had teenagers who showed fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties. In contrast, inconsistent, overly strict, or permissive parents are more likely to have children who engage in risky and/or aggressive behaviours.
Research: Parents need to approach difficult behaviour calmly and with respect for the child.
Based on these extensive findings the most effective discipline for children involves:
- setting clear rules and expectations
- perspective-taking – specifically listening to everyone’s side and understanding how everyone feels
- problem-solving when everyone is calm
- using courteous language
- using disciplinary tactics that would be appropriate for the child to emulate themselves – no hitting, shouting, shaming, or negative character attributions
Not all consequences are created equally.
Though it is beneficial for parents to drop threats and force, children need to understand the consequences of their actions. Research shows there are two more effective ways of approaching consequences for kids – they are natural or logical.
Natural consequences stem directly from a child’s behaviour. This means the 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.
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, they need to wash 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.
To execute logical consequences, it helps to pause, breathe and reflect.
It is pertinent to answer the following questions:
- What is going on?
- What happened leading up to this?
- How is everyone feeling?
Often the last question needs to be answered first.
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.”
The truth is, I was about to come unhinged. Traffic is triggering enough without children misbehaving.
I put my hazard lights on and started deep breathing.
It took about a minute, but the screaming stopped.
It was clear what was going on.
I knew they were overstimulated and probably a bit tired too.
“I get it. It’s been a long day and we’ve had a lot of fun. Hitting traffic is no fun for anyone.” It felt like a win…
But that’s when I realized the mess the snappers had left. When my kids opened their boxes, little bits of sawdust flew all over the back seats.
As I made my way back onto the highway, I told them, “Before dinner tonight, you both have to vacuum up the mess you made.”
There was a little protest, but they agreed.
There are times when we can problem-solve in a more Socratic way. For example, maybe they think of ways to say sorry to a friend or fix a broken toy. But in this instance, I chose to direct them to what needed to be done.
The rest of the way home, they were mostly peaceful. And by dinner, they had cleaned out the car.
A final note about consequences for kids
Though this particular instance ended well, the truth is, allowing for natural consequences and executing logical ones takes patience and practice. I don’t get it right all the time or even close to all of the time. But my goal for myself is similar to the goal I have for my kids: when we make mistakes or lapses in judgment, we pause, reset, and get back on track.
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