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Letting Them Learn by Natural Consequences

It would be great if we could just tell our kids “That’s not a good idea,” and have that be the end of it. As every parent knows, however, there are some lessons people seem to need to learn for themselves. In the case of the hot stove, for example, discomfort is the teacher and the natural consequence.

Natural consequences can be one of the most effective shapers of human behavior. But sometimes they are unsafe, and, at other times, they may be ineffective or even reinforce the negative behavior (such as getting away with shoplifting). So when is it best to let natural consequences take effect, and when ought we to step in and protect our kids or enforce another sort of consequence? Here are some things to consider and try:

For parents with babies and children up to 5 years of age:

A natural consequence should always be safe. A child should not, for example, be allowed to climb up a large bookcase, because serious injury may be the natural consequence. In contrast, playing with a toy in a way that was not intended may lead to breaking the toy, a logical outcome that becomes a powerful teaching tool (unless, of course, you replace the toy).

For parents with children ages 6-9:

Natural consequences should be immediate. Children should feel hungry after refusing to join the family for dinner. (Note that going hungry will only be an effective consequence if you do not “rescue” your child by providing food later.)

Natural consequences should bother your child. A messy room may not serve as a useful natural consequence, but not having clean clothes to wear when dirty clothes weren’t placed in the laundry may be a very effective natural consequence of your child’s actions (or inaction).

For parents with children ages 10-15

Sometimes you need to be patient to allow a natural consequence to work. If it’s 8 p.m. and your child is having a meltdown over not being able watch a movie past 9 p.m. on a school night, you may have to endure an hour of arguing before the consequence of not being able to watch anything can take effect.

Natural consequences should not harm others. If your child is being a bully, there’s a chance she or he will face retaliation as a natural consequence (and even be hurt). In the meantime, a victim is already being persecuted. In cases like this, parents need to step in immediately and enforce logical and intentional consequences linked to the bullying in order to end it and prevent further negative behavior. Consult with school officials as appropriate.

While it can be difficult to see your child in serious trouble, it’s okay and sometimes even best to let the law do its job in cases of curfew violation, underage drinking and illegal drug use, or other unlawful behavior.

For parents with children ages 16-18

Natural consequences tend to be harsher as teens grow older. When they let homework slide, lower grades are a natural result. Teens who treat friends unkindly face the loss of friendships, another natural consequence of their actions. Car accidents may lead to increased insurance premiums or loss of driving privileges.

Parents must decide when a teen’s welfare or the welfare of others is seriously endangered, and take action. If your child is engaging in risky behaviors of any sort, it’s time to intervene, monitor behavior closely, and perhaps seek professional support.

Illegal behavior in the teen years can lead to serious trouble in the future. Don’t bail your children out—sometimes allowing children to face official consequences is the best help you can give them. However, be available to support them through their ordeal. They’ll remember your presence in years to come.

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