How Children Learn from Natural Consequences (And The Surprising Ways Parents Can Help)

Life Parenting

When I published a recent post on why conditional parenting isn’t healthy for the parent-child relationship, I wasn’t expecting the overwhelming response to the term ‘consequences’.

In modern parenting, consequences seem to have taken on multiple forms so it can be confusing to understand why certain ‘consequences’ can be damaging for kids, while others can be immensely beneficial.

So, let’s look at some definitions.

Consequences are defined as “a result or effect of an action or condition.”

Punishment is defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.”

But, consequences aren’t punishment, right? It depends on the type of consequences we’re talking about.

We tend to use language to sanitize questionable practices. So we say spanking instead of hitting. We say time out instead of love withdrawal. And we have started saying consequences instead of punishment.

The word consequences may sound less offensive and more intellectual, but it is punishment reimagined for a more politically correct era.

And no matter which word we use to describe our actions, our children’s experience remains the same.

Punishment is a behaviour modification tool that isn’t designed to get to the root of the unmet need, nor teach the unlearned skill.

But there is one exception: natural consequences. Natural consequences are the only type of consequence we experience in our family. I say ‘experience’ instead of ‘use’ because I have no power over natural consequences, they happen as a part of normal day-to-day life. Here’s an example….

How we learn from experiencing natural consequences

My son and I are about to walk to the park. I can see that it’s lightly raining outside. My rational adult brain with years of experience with weather, tells me to wear a rain jacket. After all, the rain may get heavier. Or, then again, it may pass.

My decision is YES for the rain jacket. My five-year-old son decides otherwise.

His live-in-the-present-moment, black-and-white, inexperienced brain tells him he doesn’t want to wear a rain jacket. He’s “Canadian,” he tells me, “he can handle a little rain”. Ok, I say. I don’t force him to wear a rain jacket. His body. His choice.

So, I wear my jacket and slip his jacket into my backpack. We walk to the park. The rain gets heavier. He starts to feel cold. I say nothing.

“Mum,” he says, “I feel cold now. I want to keep playing but I need my rainjacket”

“I brought it for your bud, here you go,” I reply.

“Oh thanks, mum, I didn’t think I needed it, but I did, thank you so much for bringing it for me!”

“No worries bud, I’m your Mum, that’s my job, to look out for you.”

I resist repeating the phrases I’ve heard too many times like “I told you so” or “Didn’t I tell you….” or “Mum always knows best” or “Next time, you should….”

Because the lesson I want to teach is not that adults know better than kids. Not that he has to follow my lead blindly. Not that he has zero say over his body.

I also didn’t intentionally leave the rain jacket at home knowing he’d get wet so that I could (ab)use the natural consequence to really “teach” the lesson by either getting wet or needing to come home and miss the playtime.

I see this as my job as a parent. My child is five. All he thinks about is play. All he wants to do is be in the present moment. That’s his job – to be a kid.

So, the natural consequence is to get wet.

And the lessons we can take from that natural consequence are diverse and many.

One lesson is to look for patterns so that we can make predictions and be prepared. How can he do that if he’s always dry? He can’t. So, he got wet and learned he needed a jacket.

What if I’d forced him to wear the jacket before leaving home? All he’d learn is that he can’t make good decisions, that Mum knows best and I have the final say. And perhaps that I am a bit of a ….bully.

What if I’d intentionally left the jacket at home while standing there wearing mine? And all he’d learn is that I didn’t care enough about him to bring his rain jacket. That I cared more about “teaching him a lesson” than I did about him.

Do I expect him to take a jacket next time? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? Not really. Some lessons he picks up immediately, while others take years to learn. And that’s ok. Childhood isn’t an emergency, and neither is the lesson.

Maybe if neither of us had rain jackets we’d have danced in the rain and come home to a warm bubble bath together or maybe we’d have camped out under a tree until the rain passed, while finding bugs and telling stories.

Would I take the same approach to wearing a helmet while riding a bike? Of course not. That’s all about setting boundaries and holding limits (a topic for another blog post).

I also don’t want to condition my son to be as over-prepared as I often am – after all, nine times out of ten I bring a rain jacket and don’t need it.

Maybe he’ll grow into a more carefree person than me. Maybe he’ll teach me to relax a little more.

And maybe some lessons aren’t apparent in the moment. Because, days later, as we were hopping in the car as a family, it was lightly raining outside again. I had my jacket and my son’s jacket under my arm. “Dad,” my son said, “do you have your jacket? Let me get it for you! You don’t want to get wet.”

And so the lesson was bigger than a little rain. My son learned that we look out for those we love. He learned that we can be each other’s safety nets. He internalised the lesson. He learned that it feels good to have others to rely on. He learned that we’re in this together; that interdependence trumps independence and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It reminds me that when we focus only on the destination, we miss the side trails, we miss the greater lessons the organic process of life and natural learning can bring.

So, I try my best not to helicopter, to not prevent natural consequences from unfolding. To be his safety net without suffocating his need for exploration and adventure. I stand in awe as he learns life’s lessons and I try my best to fill in the gaps, to hand him the missing puzzle pieces when he needs them. I practice silence, I bite my lip, I pause. This is the art of parenthood – learning how to find the thin line of too much and not enough and then dancing on it. Some days I nail it, other days I mess up. Some days I’m the teacher, most days I’m the student. And that’s ok because our kids need connection, not perfection. They need guides, not puppet masters. And isn’t parenting so much more fun that way anyway?

Does this approach to natural consequences resonate with you? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    July 31, 2019
    MagicalTulipx

    And the penny drops!

    I’ve been wondering where I’ve been doing wrong with my 9yo.

    Reading this article I’ve realised that I’m not doing natural consequences right. I’ve been trying to implement them but nothing ever sits right. When I got to the part that you packed the jacket for him, in case, it really hit me that I’ve not been being my daughters net. I’ve been more “you chose to leave it home” than “I’ve got your back, here, you go. I’m Mum, I’ve got you!”

    It seems so obvious but in nothing I’ve read about natural consequences has it explained that to me.

    I’m going to start being a better parent for her, well try to be, now I know wheee I am going wrong.

    Excellent. Thank you so much for writing this! Huge love from here.

  • Avatar
    July 31, 2019
    Lea

    Yes! This totally resonates with me. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ways of natural parenting. The more I read your posts, the more I feel like, “yes! this!” This is what I have been feeling / knowing deep down inside but didn’t have the words to explain it to others or even myself when I’m stuck in choosing between what feels right or what I often see done “conventionally” in society. Love love your posts and please keep sharing!!

  • Avatar
    August 07, 2019
    Kayleen

    Aww what a wonderful post! All your blogs bring tears to my eyes because they are so true and beautiful! Your voice is so unique out of all the other parenting garbage out there. Thank you so much for writing.

    We just moved to Ireland and it’s very cool in the summer. The other day we went to the weekly farmer’s market and it was sunny so I didn’t bring any sweater. Sure enough it got cloudy and I was freezing. I told myself I’ll never leave the house again here without a sweater. 32 years old and I’m still learning this lesson! No one yelled at me or said I told you so. I love this reminder that this is how our children should learn too.

  • Avatar
    August 26, 2019
    Rosey

    Thank you for this article , I appreciate it . I value what you said . I have been making mistakes , and now you have given me tools to use to be better , I know it is never too late , I always have my child’s back and she knows it . I shower her with love , But i do feel like i mould her and protect her a lot kinda how i was raised . Time for change and thank you for your article it has helped me .

  • Avatar
    August 26, 2019
    Linda

    Thank you for another defining post.

    Having recently read an account on a positive parenting blog where the mother gives the daughter a lesson through natural consequences, it is quite evident the difference between your example where you compassionately provide your son with a safety net so he doesn’t need to suffer in order to learn a simple lesson.

    In contrast, the other example came across to me as lacking that compassion when the mother sends the daughter to school hungry because she didn’t prep herself in time for departure. The mother could have easily packed breakfast-to-go for her to eat whilst traveling as a safety net, without interfering with the lesson learned.

    Thank you once again for showing that it is possible to tread that thin line of “just right” (the Goldilocks balance) when parenting and helping guide others to find that compassionate medium too.

  • Avatar
    August 26, 2019
    Dieta

    That’s all about setting boundaries and holding limits (a topic for another blog post)” <– please write this blog post soon!

  • Avatar
    August 26, 2019
    Jessica Powers

    Thank you for this post. I’ve taken to consciously pointing out the positive consequences of things that happen through our day. Part of it was to give my daughter the meaning of the word in its sense. Part of it was to remind me too! It’s kept me better balanced, and therefore both of us.

  • Avatar
    August 26, 2019
    Felicia Stubbert

    Love this post. I’m curious, when you mention you would handle the situation different if your son didn’t want to wear his bike helmet – could you elaborate on this example? While we can easily understand the rain coat example – what about trickier situations that are important for your child’s safety – or safety of the family pet cause the child is rough, pulling tails; or safety of another child, in the case of you child hitting or biting another child.

    • Avatar
      August 26, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Felicia and that’s all about boundaries and limit setting in the case of safety or of keeping other people, pets or property safe. I mentioned in the post that I’ll be writing a post on boundaries soon so look out for that one – if you’re on my email list you’ll be the first to see it.

  • Avatar
    September 16, 2019
    Rachael Ann Haddan

    Wonderful article!

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