When I wrote about the benefits of adding logical consequences to our toolkit with our daughter, I was met with some resistance from people. Most of the resistance centered on the fact that people view logical consequences as punishment and children don’t learn from punishment. I disagree and I thought I’d share a bit more on how to implement a logical consequence, along with what it does and does not include.
Though this sounds obvious, you’d be amazed how many people think consequences are logical, when in fact they are not. Key to this point is that it has to follow from the action and be logical to the child. This means you have to put yourself in the mindset of a much younger person. We are able to see connections between a lot of things – including holding ideas over time – but younger children are incapable of that. This means that the consequence should (a) follow immediately and (b) be tied to the act at hand. In the example given in the benefits of logical consequences, if my daughter throws toys at anyone, we take the toy away until she’s ready to have it back (i.e., calmed down, discussed, and requested). This logically follows because she sees what hurt someone taken away – even she can understand that. If I were to take away dessert or bedtime story or bathtime or all toys, it wouldn’t follow and wouldn’t make sense to her as to why act A led to consequence X instead of consequence A.
Notably, when it is your child that is hitting (and they are old enough; we’ll discuss younger children hitting below), it is perfectly logical to remove them from the situation. In essence, they are like the toy. This does NOT mean a time-out, which is a forced time, but a removal from the situation either with you to calm down, or if they do not want to be with you (or you’re angry enough it’s better that you’re away too) than removed, but not forced to stay away, they should be able to choose when to return (choice will be discussed below).
This is where much of the contention comes from. In the example of throwing toys, people rightfully point out that children don’t have the self-regulation to always stop that (unless made to fear outcomes which none of us want). But that assumes the only lessons a child learns from behaviour and outcomes are to do with their own physiological growth. But here’s what gets ignored – I am also concerned with her learning perspective-taking, cultural expectations, and how to consider outcomes not just for the moment but for everyone (the whole do unto others as you would have done unto you idea, in a crude way to put it). It is my job to help her develop all of these aspects and sometimes that does mean imposition of something I have decided (just like society as she gets older).
In the case of the toys, she has to learn how her actions affect me and taking away the toy until she’s calm enough to play with it shows her how much that hurt me. Not that you don’t talk to the child too (this will come up shortly), but sometimes actions do speak louder than words; to realize that she has hurt someone so much that the toy has to go away highlights the severity of her actions, especially when we don’t take this act lightly. When the toy goes away, my daughter realizes she has truly hurt someone, something my actions and words were not conveying well enough before (and trust me, we worked it).
And because we spoke of what she would want to happen if someone did it to her, she’s learning that her behaviour doesn’t exist in a vacuum – that we as a society, a family, any group, set up rules we agree upon to help us function. Are some of them arbitrary? Yes, but they are set up by us all (and yes, a child should be involved in the discussion of consequences and have a say in what is chosen). As children get older, they should have even more say in the process and this early limited involvement should help assist children in understanding this process and to help them be honest about what is fair for a given action. And children do know when a consequence is too severe and too lenient for a given act. They grow up being aware of what kind of consequence they would want to see if someone hurt them, and by using that as a discussion platform, we as parents can help our children take the perspective of those who hurt them and come up with a fair idea of what to do (including making amends, which should not be forced, but come from the child).
So you have to make sure learning is going on. If you look at your consequence and find there’s absolutely nothing being taught, it’s not a logical consequence, but a punishment.
For any consequence to be logical and to teach, it has to be age-appropriate. This means that for younger children, often just helping them self-regulate is all that’s needed. For example, an 18-month old starts hitting, you should have a time-in period where you move away from the stimulus and cuddle and help your young one calm down. Remember that young children still rely heavily upon you for their physiological regulation. As children age, they become more capable of understanding the effects of their behaviours and other consequences (outside of just being removed) can be helpful in teaching the various aspects of socialization we are hopefully trying to teach. This is why we didn’t start removing toys from our daughter until she turned 3 and was showing the capacity to see that connection better. This didn’t mean we didn’t have to remove dangerous items from her before – quite the contrary – but we knew there was no learning going on and it was purely for safety.
Included in this is that certain behaviours do not deserve a consequence. If a child is behaving in an age-appropriate way and there is no risk of harm to him/herself or others, why do we need to impose a consequence? You don’t. And respecting the developing child and his/her capabilities means realizing when a logical consequence is needed and when it is not appropriate (no matter how logical it is).
It Includes Discussion and Connection
If a consequence is not followed-up with time with your child to talk about what happened, why it happened, and to make sure they know they are loved and cared for regardless of any behaviour, it’s not going to work. Well, it may work in terms of changing behaviour, but you may have unintended consequences. This is why so many people instead focus solely on the discussion and emotional connection – it’s key to socialization. (I just disagree that it’s all there is to socialization.) Importantly, the timing of this is key. In the moment (and sometimes for a while after), the child remains in the state of “fight or flight” and they are unable to actually take in any information and no learning will occur through discussion. All parties must be calm. If your child has been removed, they have to have chosen to come back and if you are holding your child and helping to regulate them, you will need to see that your child has calmed down before proceeding.
What to discuss? First, you need to listen to your child and connect emotionally. Find out how your child feels. Your child may be upset by both whatever prompted the action (though sometimes it’s just done for play) and the consequence and it’s absolutely 100% okay to comfort them and let them know that you are there and love them. People often mistake love and care for permissiveness and they are worlds apart. If the consequence is in place, making sure your child knows s/he is loved regardless of the behaviour is key to helping them learn. Not offering that simply serves to shame them. Then you need to talk to your child about the reasons behind the behaviour – what drove it? This is critical if you hope to help your child learn alternate options and to plan moving forward (see the last point). Third, you need to make sure your child understands the logic of the consequence and explain why B follows A. Finally, you need to make whatever points you are trying to make about perspective-taking. This will probably include how the person who was hurt felt, or the possible natural consequences to the action that may be worse, and how the child would feel if it happened to them. This can be the springboard to talking about making amends and getting the child involved in discussion of the fairness of the consequence and what the child would want if roles were reversed.
It Includes Choice
Choice is key to the concept of making children responsible for their actions. Consequences happen, but when children are given the choice to try again, you tell them that you trust their judgment and give them the opportunity to explore their own emotions and learn to judge for themselves what they are capable of at a given moment. Now, sometimes younger children – when placing themselves in danger – will not get a second chance right away, it may be the next visit. A discussion BEFORE the visit is then in order to remind the child about safety and whether the child wants to try and be safe or to have an alternate plan.
In the case of older children, often after a discussion and some calm-down time, they may be ready to try again and we should allow them. Especially if we have spoken to them about the dangers. And of course, if they, for example, throw a toy at someone right away, it may be fair to say they need to wait a day because you simply can’t keep watching over them to keep them and others safe. But you must explain why the choice is no longer there for that day.
Notably, when choice is involved, it means that the child is aware of the consequence prior to the chance of them behaving in a way that would lead to the consequence. Coming up with a consequence, no matter how logical, when the child has no warning that this is even a possibility means the child has no choice in the matter and this is a problem. Clearly if it’s dangerous you act however you see fit to keep your child safe and have a discussion after, but if we’re not in the dangerous territory, the first act should lead to a discussion and a decision as a family on how to move forward. And then the child knows, though younger children (and some older) will need regular reminders of the consequences of certain actions.
It Leads to Planning by You
One of the most important things when you have logical consequences is to take all the information you gleaned from talking to your child, seeing their responses and reactions, gauging your own reactions and to plan accordingly for the future. If you notice that your child is getting upset close to bedtime, perhaps move bedtime up a bit. If your child tells you that they hit you because they want your attention, make it a priority to give them your attention more than you are. If they tell you brushing their teeth hurts, try a softer toothbrush. Learn the cause and see what can be done – by you or your child – to help prevent situations that may result in you having to use logical consequences.
Sometimes I think we forget about this aspect once we have a logical consequence, instead falling back on the consequence as the only thing we use to help teach. And that can’t be. Logical consequences are a part of our toolkit, not the entire thing. Relying on only one method to help teach and guide our children rarely works because children are so different and the reasons why they end up in certain situations vary so greatly and how we respond to different situations will vary greatly. All this is to say that we need to be sure that we really focus on making sure we use these experiences to learn as well – it’s not just for our children.