What happens if you put your hand on a hot stove?
What happens if you forget to pay your credit card bill?
What might happen if you never exercise and only eat junk food?
What might happen if you drive too fast?
Or run down the stairs with your shoes untied?
Or show up to work two hours late?
The outcomes in each of these cases are highly predictable. These outcomes are natural consequences, no more surprising than what happens when you let go of a ball and gravity pulls it to the ground. If a child neglects to do his chores, or if student neglects to study for a test, outcomes ought to follow in much the same way. These choices should also result in natural consequences.
Natural consequences are very different from punishments, though they may look the same from the outside. When a child doesn’t do his chores, privileges can suddenly disappear. No one has to get mad about it. Parents don’t even have to explain why the privileges are gone. This forces the child to think about what he has and has not done, and figure out for himself how the world works. Eventually, the child will either figure it out and fix the situation by doing his chores, or he’ll ask you why his video games and phone are nowhere to be found, which opens the door for a nice conversation about responsibility.
The most important component of natural consequences is the lack of emotion on the part of the parent. A car doesn’t get mad at you for failing to maintain it; it just stops working. A houseplant doesn’t berate you for being lazy for not watering it; it just withers. Getting worked up over something your child has done or failed to do isn’t very helpful or instructive. The consequences you create for your children when they’re irresponsible aren’t meant to be punitive or cruel. They are fair and proportional, just like the laws of nature.
Natural consequences are also very consistent. Toddlers spend a lot of time manipulating physical objects – pushing, throwing, dropping, pulling, tearing, lifting – because they’re trying to figure out how the physical world works. Older children and teenagers are more concerned with figuring out how the social world works, and natural consequences are great ways for them to learn. They’re constantly testing and probing to find out where the boundaries are. And just as a fork dropped by a toddler will always have the same result, your response to a teenager’s misbehavior should be consistent. If the boundaries keep changing, they’ll have to keep testing. If the boundaries never change – if you’ve firmly established them – then the teenager can stop testing.
Another key component of natural consequences is simply allowing them to happen. That means don’t rescue your children from the outcomes that are supposed to result from their behavior. If that means they skin their knees, fine. If that means they fail a class, fine. The pain of these experiences will make the lessons stick. Sometimes learning is painful, and kids almost never internalize the lessons of their mistakes when you rescue them from the consequences. Let come what may and resist the urge to overparent.
There’s also a positive version of natural consequences. Just as poor outcomes result naturally from unwise choices, positive outcomes naturally arise from good choices. When you turn in all your homework and study for tests, you tend to get higher grades. When you do all your chores and you’re nice to your sister, your privileges tend to expand. Likewise, when you exercise and eat well, you tend to get healthier.
True, some people get lucky and succeed in spite of their bad decisions. And some people do everything right and still suffer bad outcomes. But most of the time, whether your choices are good or bad, the universe will serve up exactly those consequences that come naturally.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.