There are two kinds of natural consequences:
- Something that happens on its own without any intervention from anyone else
- A synthetic situation that is created to model what could have happened
Something That Happens On It’s Own
Let’s say your child waits until the last minute to complete a school project. You know he’s going to be embarrassed; his teacher is going to be disappointed in him, and he’s going to get a bad grade. You have a choice: you can either do the project for (ahem…I mean WITH) him or you can let him face the music for not getting it done or not doing it as well as he would have wanted to. The latter is a natural consequence.
Here’s another one–your preschooler is running in the playground. You’ve asked him to please walk, but he continues to run. A natural consequence may occur if he falls and skins his knee. It becomes a teaching tool when you talk about it and tell him that the reason you want him to walk is so that he doesn’t trip and get hurt.
Something You Create to Model a Potential Situation
The parent-created natural consequence usually speeds up time to model a potential result. For example, your daughter leaves her iPod on the floor at youth group where it could get lost or broken. You create a model of what could have happened by taking away the iPod for a period of time to demonstrate losing it for good had it been broken or stolen.
Here’s another one — your son is mistreating his sister. You’ve talked to him about it, but he continues to treat her badly. You explain that when people act that way, other people don’t want to be around them, and the long-term result could be a lonely one. To model this, you have him spend the evening in his room while the family watches a movie. Be sure to let him know that you’re very sad because you love spending time with him, but that his bad choices will often affect other people negatively too.
Be careful when choosing time periods for man-made natural consequences. You want it to be long enough to teach a lesson but not so long that the child loses hope. If you find yourself wanting to increase the length of time for multiple offenses, you may instead consider revoking the item or privilege all together, until the child is ready to be more responsible.
Bear in mind that if you take something away indefinitely, you must fully explain what the child must do prove that she is ready to be trusted with it again. Give her small opportunities to practice being responsible. It will build her confidence and help you monitor her progress.
A Word of Caution
If you choose a natural consequence, make sure you’re not really being motivated by revenge. If you find yourself thinking (or even saying), “Oh yeah? Well, I’ll show you how it feels!” It’s not a natural consequence; it’s revenge.
Our goal is not to be our kid’s punisher or jailer, it’s to be their coach, mentor, teacher. We are training their minds and hearts.
Be very gentle with natural consequences. Don’t say, “Well, that’s what you get for running.” This tool requires us to show tremendous compassion. Couch every natural consequence in lots of conversation, and let them know that you believe in them and you believe they are going to make a different choice next time.
Come back tomorrow. We’re going to talk about how negative reinforcement is not all bad.