By Tracy G. Cassels
I’m a big fan of natural consequences. But sometimes natural just doesn’t do it – like when my daughter decides to throw her toys at me – sure, she sees me sad and I will not play with her, but that doesn’t quite seem to curb it, especially when she’s angry and threw it in order to hurt me. Now before anyone goes calling her a brat, let me remind you she’s 3 and that this is incredibly normal behaviour for a 3 year old, and although we don’t spank her or send her to a corner or room, we also don’t “let it slide”. And here are where logical consequences come into play.
First, let’s define a logical consequence: It is one which makes sense as a consequence given the particular action. So in the case of my daughter throwing her toys, for us, we simply take that toy away for a period of time. If she can’t play gently with the toy, the toy goes away. It’s logical. However, if we decided instead to not read a story at bedtime as a consequence it wouldn’t be so logical because how would she make the connection between an action while playing during the day, and our taking something away at night? She wouldn’t and the point of helping her learn would fail. This checklist from Education.com should help:
Why does this logic matter? Well, from the point of view of the child, it helps them internalize the rules and morals that we are attempting to teach them. Research has shown that when a consequence “fits the crime” (so to speak), children learn more and develop a greater moral orientation than when punishments or consequences seem illogical (e.g.). This shouldn’t be surprising as children are not the best at abstract thought and thus consequences that make sense are ones they can follow (and also why natural consequences work so well for many behaviours that parents find problematic – they are inherently logical). Additionally, they are also ones that may be easier to keep in mind, which is what we hope they remember when playing (because, yes, you should always make sure your child knows the consequence ahead of time).
The second benefit is that it provides the child with choices. Rudolf Dreikus was one of the main proponents of logical consequences in the classroom and gives these examples of how it works in that environment:
Max is a second grader who for a couple of weeks was constantly out of his seat, leaning on his desk, and doing his work from a half-standing position. His teacher finally asked him whether he preferred to stand or sit while doing his work. Max said that he would prefer to stand. The teacher explained to him that he would no longer need a seat and that his chair could be used somewhere else in the school. Max’s chair was immediately removed, and he had to stand up for the rest of the day. The following day, at the beginning of the period, Max was asked whether he preferred to stand or sit for the day. He said that he preferred to sit. His chair was replaced. Max no longer tried to do his schoolwork from a half-standing position.
One day a group of junior high school students seemed particularly restless. Several students were talking rather belligerently and interrupted the teacher’s lesson repeatedly. Finally, the exasperated teacher informed the students that she would be in her office at the back of the classroom reading, and that when they were ready to have her teach, they could come get her. The teacher was fearful as she started reading her book, but in a few minutes two serious-faced youngsters came in and said, “We’re ready now—if you will come and teach us.” After this incident, whenever the class became unruly and the teacher appeared annoyed, someone would say, “Be careful, or we’ll lose our teacher again.”
The importance of choice can never be understated. Forcing behaviour will not instill in children the self-motivation we hope for. But when they know the logical consequence, they can make a choice for themselves when they are ready. Like Max in the example above, my daughter is asked if she wants her toy that was taken away or if she thinks she’ll throw it again. Her choice. And she knows what will happen if she does throw it (or another) again. Do I expect her to never throw a toy again? Absolutely not, but at least I know she’s learning to make the choices herself, and with time and maturity, the choice not to throw it at someone will become easier. Sometimes this is the hardest part because we so badly want a specific behaviour right now. But that’s our problem to work on, not our child’s, and often our kids will surprise us, even if it takes a bit of patience on our behalf.
[Some might argue that taking away the toy is still forcing my child to do something because she behaved in a way *I* didn't like. True, I don't like having wooden blocks thrown at me and nor do other people. In this sense, some may view it as punishment doled out with an iron fist. However, if she does that to another child she'll likely end up with the blocks thrown back at her or hit or kicked (all natural consequences). I'm clearly not going there, and we found that taking the offending toy away has helped her with her self-regulation and she does seem to now think about these things before acting. I also want to add that of course we will ALWAYS include in this time to connect and talk about why the behaviours are happening and as she gets older, she will partake in the discussion about what logical consequences should be - in fact, she had a bit of a say in this one as well (as in we spoke about what she would want to happen to someone who did the same to her but her first response was to hurt them so we scaled back). That is critical to socialization and to learning and if a child is too young to take part in the conversation at any level, they are too young for logical consequences as a learning technique, but of course, you may still use them just learning probably won't be part of it or at least not much. However, if you feel that anytime you impose anything non-natural on a child that it is wrong and they are not learning, that's okay. I just beg to differ.]
There’s also an additional benefit to the use of logical consequences that our family just happened upon: We no longer need to feel frustrated, helpless, or angry (which was rare, but did happen). When we were only focusing on natural consequences, we had times when we got angry and annoyed if the behaviour continued . You see, our natural consequence was that we don’t play if she is hitting/throwing/etc. (because who wants to do that?) and we’d talk to her about why she was acting this way, how we could help, why her actions hurt, what she could hit (the bed or sofa or pillows), and then redirect. But sometimes that really didn’t help her and we’d get incredibly annoyed by it. It usually led to yelling – arguably, this was a natural consequence (others would yell too in the real world), but not one I wanted for my daughter. That was not what we wanted, but it’s hard to stay calm when you’ve just been belted in the face with a toy for the second time and you don’t have a set reaction that makes sense outside of walking away which is often more of a punishment to us as we’re trying to enjoy ourselves where we are.
Once we all decided upon and spoke about the logical consequences though, we could stay calm. The first time she hit me with a toy hockey stick it hurt, but I wasn’t angry (I never am the first time though). I went to take the hockey stick – which she did hold on to for dear life at first – and reminded her of the consequence. After we spoke about it, she let go of the stick, I put it on top of the bookshelf and faced my now deeply upset daughter. Seeing as she’d had her consequence, I could also now focus on comforting her and the emotional connection that has always been a part of our experience.
[As an aside, I know some people will think you shouldn’t comfort a child who’s “misbehaved” but I completely, totally disagree. When you have a logical consequence that is what happens and they don’t need punishments on top of that. And taking love away? Never. In fact, this is arguably the most important part of the socialization process.]
I held her and told her I understood that she was upset but that this is what happens when we use our toys to hurt other people. I reminded her she was allowed to be angry at people and feel how she felt, but that we have to find a better way to express it. She cried and then calmed down, then tried to get chairs to get her stick, but we knew she couldn’t reach (which led to a few more tears and a bit more comfort). We reminded her she’d get the choice to have it back the next day (and we have since decided to let her have her toys back when she asks and is ready for them, after we’ve talked, because we realized keeping it away long *is* punishment pure and simple). Play continued and she went to bed happy, cuddling with mom, and a clear sense of what to expect. The next day I offered her the hockey stick back asking if she wanted it and would not hit people with it. She said yes and when I gave it to her I got a very honest, “Thank you Mommy.”
It was a completely different scenario than we had encountered before. Allowing us to stay calm and offer comfort while also helping our daughter learn what happens when she hurts people was invaluable to us as a family. Some people may choose to stick with natural consequences only and if it works for your family, wonderful! But for some of us, we need more because all the emotional connection in the world ain’t working. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the completely normal nature of the behaviour, but rather that we pick consequences that are in line with that. We don’t “punish”, but make sure that whatever happens logically follows the initial act and we leave these for times when people may really get hurt; that the “natural” consequence outside our home could be much worse.
Of course, there will be acts that will only require natural consequences. For example, as much as I may think my daughter needs to wear a coat, if she refuses, that’s on her. She’ll either get cold or she won’t and if she’s cold she’ll ask for her coat. What good does having a logical consequence there do? I don’t wear a coat when I’m warm so why should she? And sometimes preventative acts will be best. For example, when offering my daughter food, making sure her options are healthy ones (most of the time!) so she can choose her food without me having to worry she’s going to focus solely on candy and crap. But sometimes, just sometimes, we need logical consequences too, and they can be hugely beneficial for all involved.
It’s all about your toolkit and far too often I hear of parents hesitant to use logical consequences because they fear it isn’t “gentle” or is more “punishment”. It’s not. And if you’re like our family, it can be even more gentle than sticking with what’s natural.
[Image Credit: Lipstick and Politics]
 Kohlberg L. The development of children’s orientations toward a moral order. Vita Humana 1963; 6: 11-33.
 Dreikurs R, Grey L. Logical Consequences. Dutton Books, 1990.