Punishment vs Natural Consequences

This morning while I was watching some natural consequences in action I got to thinking about how people criticise those who don’t use punishment with their children. Usually saying things like, ‘kids need to learn consequences for their actions’.

This morning we were supposed to go on an excursion to the fire station with our homeschool co-op. The girls had been looking forward to it. When it was getting close to the time that we needed to leave however, they didn’t want to get ready. I asked them if they still wanted to go. They both said yes. So I told them the time we would need to leave by and that they needed to be dressed by then. They still didn’t get ready.

Punishment vs Natural Consequences

At this point I could have struggled with them, making them get ready, all of us ending up frustrated with each other. I could have threatened or bribed. I could have kept nagging them. And when eventually they still didn’t get ready and we were late I could have punished them to really ‘teach them a lesson’! None of this sounds appealing to me, does it to you? Actually, it sounds like a lot of hard work on my part.

Instead, I reminded them once more of the time we needed to leave by and added that it was up to them to get ready, but if we weren’t ready by that time we wouldn’t be able to go because we would be too late. They carried on doing what they were doing. I carried on biting my tongue. I actually would have somehow liked to make them see what they were missing out on and that they would regret it later! Instead I decided to let them make the decision themselves, as they are capable of doing, and also let them deal with the consequences of that decision.

Punishment vs Natural Consequences

As you may have guessed, we didn’t end up going. A little later in the day they mentioned that it was sad they didn’t go because they really wanted to see the fire trucks, but maybe next time they would. They seemed to accept that the decision had been theirs and not something I had imposed on them as a punishment for not getting ready, and therefore weren’t too phased about it.

As far as I can see, this morning is just one example of them learning that their actions have consequences. Real consequences. I don’t need to punish them to teach them that. Using natural consequences means still setting limits for behaviour, but the consequences always make sense, are fair, and are respectful.

Recently I’ve seen some punishment checklists circulating the internet where kids need to pick certain things to earn points as punishment for behaviour. The options are things like cleaning, cooking, emptying garbage, and I’ve even seen ‘write a nice letter to family’ or ‘eat a piece of fruit’! There were many comments of support for this way of ‘teaching’ children. Really? I am rather confused about how this teaches consequences for actions. I rather think it teaches that if you make a mistake someone will impose a random punishment on you, rather than what the real consequences of your actions might be and how to deal with them and make amends if necessary. And what effect does this have on the relationship between the child and the enforcer of these punishments? I can only imagine it breeds a lot of resentment and leads to being more careful not to get caught in the future! Not to mention all the time and effort it takes policing these punishments instead of moving forward.

Yes, I could have punished my children this morning for not listening, for not doing what I said, for making us late, for making us miss out all together! I could have shamed them and really tried to make them feel bad about something that obviously wasn’t that important to them. And I can just imagine how our day would have gone. But I didn’t need to do that. Instead, we got on with it. They made a choice, they dealt with the consequences of that choice (without me needing to say “I told you so!’), there was no arguing or fighting, I didn’t need to be the ‘bad guy’, and we had a really pleasant day together.

Punishment vs Natural Consequences

I don’t believe that using punishment is the only way or best way to teach children. Children don’t learn to make good choices by being told what to do and punished for their mistakes. They learn to make good choices by having practice in making choices, and then dealing with the consequences of those decisions. Life provides plenty of opportunities for that. And instead of being the law enforcer and punisher, you get to be the supporter and guide, and let’s be honest, isn’t that just a lot more fun?

73 thoughts on “Punishment vs Natural Consequences

  1. This is great but I have 1 question. How would you have dealt with it if 1 child had gotten ready and the other had not? My hubby and I are really trying to have a gentler approach to parenting then we have been using while still raising thoughtful, polite and gentle children.

    • This is a great post. Positive Discipline (Jane Nelson on Adler and Dreikurs) says, re: siblings to put them in the same boat (so that there is no rivalry created): so, in the initial conversation, it would be stated that both needed to be ready on time, then let the consequences fall where they may. And no “I told you sos” from the grownups! When there is a rule, the rule does the work, and the adult can just be empathetic. (For real.)

      Also, lovely graphics. I love them!

    • I did wonder if that might happen Frances and what I would do! I wouldn’t want the one who got ready to miss out. I think I would have just tried to explain to the other child and helped them get ready. I’m sure it would depend on their mood that day how that would have gone.

    • Curious to know what happens when the consequence of not going could offend or upset others (such as missing a play date at the last minute) or cost you significant money (such as missing a concert or specialist appointment)? I’m interested in this way of parenting but somehow I find it hard to comprehend how it works out in practice πŸ™‚

      • Hi Lauren, in that case I would just explain the reasons why we HAD to go, and then probably have to help them more to get ready. If they were upset about it I would probably just empathize but remain firm that we still had to go. It’s just that I wouldn’t do it in a punitive manner. No ‘get ready or else’. Just remain kind and understanding, but firm πŸ™‚

  2. My sons are 24 and 27 and that is definitely the way I disciplined them…there are lots of opportunities for them to learn their own consequences…I used to make them “watch” the clock and tell Mummy when it was time to drive them to school, got them to tell Mummy when it was time to do the laundry because the basket was full – all this seemed to make them more aware and share the responsibility of being a family. I still did the “checkmarks” on the fridge for good behavior …for example, tell someone something nice, put my dishes away, got dressed all by myself..etc etc and then they got to go to the dollar store at the end of the week.

    They were naughty lots of times, but I think if we as parents are calm then it helps tremendously.

  3. This is a great ‘natural consequence’. However what if you had to go food shopping, or you had an important appointment and they wouldn’t get ready, I have this problem a lot with my just turned 4 year old. Any recommendations thanks.

    • Make grocery shopping a game. Give your child their own shopping list – either written or pictures. Let them collect things in the basket or trolley that is on their list and let them pay, getting them to check the receipt and change. My boys loved this method.

      With more than one child, send them to fetch things around the shop. They seem to like the challenge of who can get back to you first.

  4. I have to say, that natural consequences are great. I try. I home school and my kids have not bothered to do the required work. Tey are 10 and 12. I got tired of the fighting and struggling . The consequence is of coure as I have explained, that when they re-enter school, they will be left back a year. Which is true, but this is a hard life altering consequence.

    • It’s hard for children to see delayed consequences yes. I’m not sure what to do there because we unschool. So we kind of have a different approach to the education side of things in that there is no work that they HAVE to do really.
      It sounds tricky Gailen xx

  5. This is wonderful in theory, and the way I parent much of the time (and ideally would be able to all of the time), but the problem is that there are many misbehaviors that just don’t seem to have natural consequences. What do I do when my daughter pulls our cat’s tail? Steals the cookies I’d baked for our neighbor? Refuses to help clean? You cite an example with an obvious natural consequence, but most are not nearly so straightforward and I really stretch to come up with consequences that are even loosely related. Any suggestions?

    • I find some of these situations really difficult, too. But remember that natural consequences don’t always have to be in the moment. For example, if your child steals cookies, perhaps the next time she asks for one, or for another treat, you can point out that she can’t have one because they are all gone because you had to give these to your neighbour instead of the other ones you baked. For pulling the cats tail, the next time she goes to play with the cat, you can say, ‘right now I can’t let you play with the cat because last time you pulled her tail and I am scared that she will scratch you. I love you and I don’t want to let you get hurt. When you show me that you can be gentle with the cat, you can play with her, that way I know that you will both be safe.’ When you are trying to think of something in the moment, you are still trying to look at it from an immediate punishment perspective. Natural consequences sometimes naturally occur at a later time in the day, but are still related to the earlier choice.

      For me, if one child had gotten ready and the other hadn’t, I would have put my other child’s clothes in a bag and gotten everyone in the car with one child not being ready. They would need to get dressed when we arrived. My children really don’t like going in the car in their pyjamas. It is a hard but natural consequence for them.

      I find that the hardest part of natural consequences is being truly empathetic when your child gets upset. For example, if your children cry because they missed out on the outing for not getting ready, and you also really wanted to go. I often find it hard to truly empathise through these emotions when in the back of my mind I can’t help but think, ‘all you needed to do was get dressed!!’ Unfortunately for me, my children don’t deal with missing out on things like a trip to a fire station with such a ‘maybe we can go next time’ attitude. But these experiences definitely help them with their choices next time.

      • Consequences are the way we discipline as well. And I was surprised one day when my daughter got into candy we were saving as a treat and ate it without asking. I didn’t shake her at all but later when we didn’t have the great she felt terrible and told me she wished so much she would have waited. I was empathetic and told her sometimes it’s hard to wait and it’s a skill like everything. That next time she needed a sweet treat and was tempted she could get me and we would find something else to satisfy her. I’ve never had a repeat and the drawer of goodies is freely accesable to her. I think k it comes down to trust. Yes, we have had can’t miss things and then we have to get in the car. But if child is chasing and resistant maybe they forget favorite dolly or toy for the car. And of course it’s not always perfect. But parents saying my kid would never go for (I have a friend that spanks and says this)…. I really don’t believe it. Give it an extended time period test, and tell the kids what you are doing.

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  7. A really good piece. I really try to parent this way. However, in this type of circumstance, when the children realised it was too late they would have made my life hellish for a long time after with their screaming and crying because they did not end up going!! How do I get past that? Were your girls completely ok with the consequence or did they go mental too as mine would? Advice please!!

    • They were completely ok with it this time Anna but that’s by no means the case every time! I would just empathise with them and help them deal with it. This is the learning part! Instead of saying ‘oh well, it’s your fault’ etc etc and making it into a punishment, just say things like ‘it’s hard when you miss out on things, maybe next time we can try again’ etc.

  8. I can tell you a consequence for imposing punishments – when my daughter gets angry, she starts imposing punishments on *us*. “You are being naughty, I’m going to get something of yours and wreck it.” She is equating being angry and frustrated with another person with being able to inflict pain on them.

    We are only a small way into this parenting journey but our very emotional, verbal and explosive girl is teaching us all about it. Bribes and punishments are the old school way that you fall back on (depending on how you were raised, of course). They just don’t work with her. The only effective way to work with her is emotion coaching (“I can see you’re looking frustrated”) and asking her to work out a solution. “We need to leave for the fire station in 10 minutes and you’re not dressed. Could you think of a solution to this?”

    I have a feeling deep inside that her intense emotions and stubborn strength are going to work out well for her. I hope everyone learns to appreciate it though . . .

  9. I’ve been reading up more on gentle parenting lately, so I found this very interesting.
    I have some questions though, most of which have already been asked by other commenters. So, I’ll just ask one πŸ˜‰ :

    I am totally with you when you say that natural consequences are more helpful and valuable than other forms of (quite random) “punishment.”
    However, I wonder if young children can really make decisions about how to spend their time, simply because they don’t have a clear concept of “time” yet (which makes it hard to imagine how long it takes to put on your shoes and get someplace) or they have not learned good time management skills yet, for example.
    In other words: while I think it’s great to trust your kids to be able to make certain decisions, and in most situations parents SHOULD trust that their kids know what they are doing, I’m not sure if it’s always fair to expect so much of them, and if we are, in fact, asking them to make a decision they can’t really make. Of course, the extent to which they can make decisions also depends on the child, since each develops at their own pace….I’m just thinking about what the average 3-5 year-old can and cannot do. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  10. We live on the other side of the world, but I feel like we could totally be friends! I don’t understand all these complicated punishment/reward systems. And so often the prize is something like screen time or sweets. And… what kind of message is that?!

    It’s really difficult to keep your cool in times like these and I’ve definitely flown off the handle when my son refused to get ready, but we have to remember the bigger picture. Thanks for that reminder πŸ™‚

  11. I agree in some part, but what if the behaviour doesn’t have a consequence for the child? For example rude behaviour-in that case a parent imposed consequence is required.

  12. I prefer to discipline by natural consequences too – actually that makes it sound too much like I’ve chosen an approach. It simply is the only way that makes sense to me. Punishment didn’t work for me when I was a child. If I can’t find the natural negative consequence for something I’m telling my boys not to do, it makes me pause and think about WHY I’m telling them not to do it. After all, if there isn’t an obvious downside to it, then it makes sense that they’d resist following my instructions. Sometimes it is a consequence that they aren’t mature enough to understand, but I think that comes down to trust – if they know that most of the time you can explain why they shouldn’t do something, they are more likely to believe you when you say that it’s not a good idea.

  13. I have a question on this as well…
    I enjoy your blog and we are homeschoolers and often have get-togethers like this with our homeschool co-op. My question was what do you do if you had signed up for this event and you couldn’t just not show up? We often sign up for things with limited spots, and they would be really angry if we took spots and then didn’t show up?
    Or like a doctor appointment, or something like that??

    • It’s hard for things like that! I really feel like though when the relationship changes from one of control and punishment to working together then these times go more smoothly. If they have the freedom to make decisions where they can I find that when I have to tell them that we really need to do something they realise that it must be important and cooperate.

      • Makes sense. I have never felt good w/ the punishment of removing them from you (time-out) or taking things away (they have many things, what does one thing really matter?) I do get frustrated when I try to be a gentle parent, sometimes it seems being gentle makes me feel passive, and I’m trying to figure that out so they don’t completely take advantage of me! πŸ™‚ For the most part it goes well though!

  14. A lovely example of natural consequences. How empowering it must be for your children to understand that they are the ones responsible for their choices in life.

  15. This is a perfect example of ‘natural consequences’.

    I find that you can’t always allow natural consequences… sometimes you don’t have time, or the option for other choices… but the more you do allow it when you can, the more your kids will learn, personally, and the easier it is to deal with times when you don’t have so much leeway.

  16. We use different techniques depending on the situation, and I think this case was a great example for natural discipline. Occasionally I also explain an (artificially imposed) negative consequence, and then let my child decide what they want to do. If they chose the negative consequence, then it’s applied as though it was a natural consequence (without any shaming or I Told You So’s) and somehow I manage to find a balance between being an enforcer and being a supporter.

    My husband doesn’t like it so much. He always asks why I sit back and ‘let the train wreck happen’.

  17. Great article. We homeschool as well, and I also get frustrated with mine not being prepared at times (other times they’re running around helping ME get out the door!). My biggest issue with these kind of things is that I feel like they are a commitment made to other people…how do you convey that? I guess I want mine to have an understanding of the value of others’ time…and of that sense of sticking by your word (there was a commitment made to attend something and an expectation that you’ll be there because you said you would, etc).

    I really really struggle with age appropriate expectations, and also with keeping the faith/trust that their character will turn out just fine. It’s very hard for me to let things go ‘their way’ and not feel like it’s this huge slippery slope to them just not making effort.

    I love the concepts of this…I get hung up on the reality. I try pretty hard to let them be as in charge of their lives as possible, but things like cleaning up, doing things we don’t want to, and boring rote tasks…are just a part of life. My eldest (9 this month) especially really struggles with these concepts and I’m not always sure that I’m helping her with reality by letting her make up her own mind as far as completing them.

  18. Loved your post. I also home school my kids, started following your blog, and began blogging myself at Marriage, Motherhood and More: The Stuff They Never Tell You. Your blog is the kind of honest, thought- provoking information that our society desperately needs. I think my kids are older than yours, but that is exactly the way I would have handled that situation. You did a great job, Mom.

  19. This kind of feels like tomato/to-mah-to to me. Most people I know would do the same thing and call it the punishment.

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  22. Great post. I think I will try to adopt this style of parenting for a while and see what happens. It will definitely help me not to get so stressed with my 4 year old and hopefully encourage some responsibility in him. Did you start with this style from a young age?

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  25. I did this with my children one time (although I can’t say I didn’t nag the whole time). We were going to go to the zoo. But in the process I realized that they were just as happy staying at home. I was trying to so something fun and entertain them and they were already so entertained that they didn’t want to get ready. I realized that I was the one that really wanted to go and they were just as happy staying at home. Sometimes they are so overscheduled and in the car constantly that they don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t remember them ever showing remorse for not getting ready that day. When I realized they were happy at home, I just let it go and stopped the nagging.

    My toddler gets really upset when we drive past our house or neighborhood or when we stop at home just to pick something up for a second. He wants to be at home.

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