Monday, November 1, 2010

Crime, Punishment, and "Natural" Consequences

I’ve read a number of parenting articles, books, and so forth that recommend “natural” consequences for children’s misbehavior whenever possible. Advocates suggest that it’s best for children to understand that their failings have real consequences—not just punishments made up by their parents. Your job as a parent is, thus, to avoid “inventing” consequences, and allow your child to learn (reasonably) from what happens naturally when she makes a mistake or chooses unwisely. So…if your child insists that she doesn’t want t o wear a coat outside, go ahead and let her go out without it. She’ll learn when she gets cold, the idea goes. It makes a lot of sense to me in general. The more a child becomes aware that her actions change outcomes, the more likely she is to adjust her behavior when she discovers that it results in an unpleasant reality. If a behavior is truly dangerous (i.e. crossing a street without looking), then you should—ahem, naturally—intervene. But otherwise, try to allow natural consequences to take effect. Wherever possible, disciplinary measures should be natural. So if your child breaks a window, rather than sentencing him to his room for a week, he should try to earn money to pay for it; try to apologize to the people whose property he damaged, etc.

But…(See--it’s not only our children who raise objections!)

The difficulty I have is in fully understanding and applying this theory to complex, everyday reality. I will allow my kids not to wear a jacket if they don’t want to—though I will generally warn them that I think it’s a bad idea, since it may get chillier later in the day. Likewise, if they take excessive (but not insane) risks on the playground, I’ll let them. But often, letting nature take its course is a complex arena—and one that always entails rather significant intervention from yours truly.

Take the other day. My eldest child (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty), came home without her reading anthology. An anthology which, among other things, includes a glossary in the back. She had to write the definitions of a series of words. But, sans glossary, that was a bit tricky to do. Undaunted for once, I reminded said child that she had a dictionary she could use. She got it right out and started looking. Only, she doesn’t know how to use a dictionary, and I had forgotten how many steps there are to using one. Fortunately, there were only about 5 words, but they took what seemed like a lifetime, after reviewing alphabetical order, the use of guide words at the top of the page and so forth. While this may be encouraging her to understand the natural consequences of her actions, it seemed to place more of the burden on me than many other scenarios. This is fine if it’s actually helpful to her in the long run, but it reminds me of how complicated it is to understand what “natural” is—let alone what it means in practice (a theme which is frighteningly close to my dissertation topic….)


  1. Using natural consequences isn't a way around the work of parenting, but it shifts the work so that kids have to take ownership of the problems they've created. I'd much rather invest my parenting time teaching my kids how to solve problems *without the mom lecture*, because as soon as they hear a Rant coming, they jump to the conclusion that the problem is Mom.

    Plus, natural consequences helps kids take responsibility for their decisions, and to realize that there's more to life than asking themselves, "Do I want to do this?" Often the better question is "Is this the right/good/wise thing to do?"

  2. I think the best thing to do is review the absurd with your children. I think they're ready.

    Radical freedom, total responsibility in an indifferent universe. That'll teach 'em to wear their jackets.

    If the universe cared about us, every day would be sunny with a high of 75.