Using natural consequences in discipline means different things to different people. Some parents will say “…so I took away his computer time for the day; that was the natural consequence for him not listening to me.” But really, a natural consequence isn’t anything that you have to do to a child. If it’s truly natural, it just happens.
Like when you eat a lot of blackberries, you get a purple tongue!
Here is a less visual example of natural consequences that happened in our house the other day. I’ll just give you the shortened version of the “incident” that started everything: JJ got upset over some crackers.
Three crackers; very upset. Something told me his upset was partially about the crackers, but mostly about some other emotional stress that had been building up. Anyway, he screamed and carried on for a quite a while, and when no one was giving him crackers he started taking his frustrations out on us, yelling at us to “go away” and that he never wanted to see us again and other hurtful things.
Now, if I didn’t know differently, I might say his behavior was grounds for punishment. It certainly was unpleasant and inappropriate. But I knew he was angry and hurting. His brain chemistry needed time to restore and he needed to feel better, not worse.
That morning, John was particularly affected by JJ’s behavior and words. He needed some time to calm down and feel better himself, so he headed to Starbucks to read and have coffee for a Dad-time-out. It wasn’t a punitive action; John’s “lid” was still “flipped,” and he simply wasn’t ready to be calm with JJ yet.
So here are the consequences that ensued for JJ after he had calmed down and we had reconnected:
1. His breakfast, which had been sitting at the table during the cracker outburst, got cold.
2. When he didn’t want to eat cold oatmeal, he asked, “Can you make me something else?” At which point I kindly informed him that the kitchen was all cleaned up and dishes put away, and I needed to go get ready so I could be on time for my class. So, no, I would not be making any new food right now. I did offer to heat up his oatmeal in the microwave, but he declined and did not eat.
4. John was not back by the time I needed to leave for my yoga class, so JJ came with me. When I go to the gym on the weekends, JJ usually stays home with John so he doesn’t have to go to Kidsworld, but the timing just didn’t work out for that on this day.
5. JJ got hungry from not having any breakfast. He helped himself to an apple before lunch.
I think it’s important to note that while we were experiencing these natural consequences I did not “rub it in” (or I’ve heard it called “piggybacking”). That is, I did not tack on a “Well, it’s your own fault you know…If you hadn’t ___ , then this wouldn’t be happening right now.” I just let the consequences unfold as a natural reaction to the events that had occurred and empathized with JJ when I needed to.
A little later, John came home (feeling better than when he had left), I came home from yoga, and we continued our day like normal. We were also able to talk with JJ–calmly!–about the hurtful things that he had said and how they affected us.
As always, during incidents likes these I am constantly reflecting, wondering if we are handling things “the right way.” It’s so hard to know when you’re in the moment! The way that morning played out felt right to me. I think any additional consequences I might have administered on top of what had already occurred would have been punitive. As it happened, everyone got what they needed (feelings heard, empathy, time alone, yoga class) and any consequences that occurred were not imposed with malice, but were genuinely natural yet affective.