What Makes a Consequence Logical?

Ideas for Implementing Consequences in a Non-Punitive Matter.
By Kelly Bartlett, CPDPE

Throughout our endeavors in positive parenting, the terms “natural consequences” and “logical consequences” are frequently tossed around. It is helpful to understand the differences between natural consequences and logical consequences, as well as to understand when a response is punitive. Parenting with Positive Discipline means striving to use natural consequences before anything else; they are effective at giving children valuable learning experiences while also preserving the integrity of the parent-child relationship.

logical_consequences

The use of logical consequences is a popular parenting technique, but it can be risky. A logical consequence is supposed to be one that “fits” with the circumstances, however this leaves a lot of room for interpretation. What one parent may consider a logical consequence for misbehavior, another might find too punitive. When parents experience difficult behavior from children and their emotions are running strong, it becomes very easy to turn what is intended as a logical consequence into a punishment.

So what makes a consequence truly logical? As a general rule of thumb, if you have to think too hard about what to do to a child so that he learns a lesson, the logical consequence is most likely a punishment in disguise. To ensure that logical consequences don’t become punitive, first try to figure out what the natural consequence is. We can do this by taking ourselves out of the situation. “What would happen if I stepped out of this and let my child handle this problem?” Would there be a natural challenge she would have to deal with on her own? That might be a valuable learning experience for her.

Sometimes, though, a problem requires a parent’s involvement, in which case what we can do is to focus on solutions. Think of difficult behavior not as a lesson to be learned, but a problem to be solved. Consider, “What do we need to do to solve this problem?” rather than, “What do I need to do so that my child learns a lesson?”

When coming up with possible solutions to a problem, make sure that they follow the 4 Rs:

Related—the consequence must be related to the behavior.
A child tries out his new markers…directly on the kitchen floor. A related consequence is that he must wash the marker off the floor. An unrelated consequence would be if he were required to go sit in his room or had his dessert taken away for that evening.

Respectful—the consequence must be kindly enforced; no blame, shame, or pain.
Respectful: “Here’s a wet rag so that you can wipe the marker off the floor.”
Disrespectful: “Look what you did! I can’t believe you colored marker all over the floor, specifically when I told you not to! You better clean this mess up NOW.”

Reasonable—the consequence is in proportion to the problem.
Reasonable: The child needs to wash the marker off the floor.
Unreasonable: The child needs to wash the entire kitchen floor.

Revealed in advance—allow the child to know what will happen if a certain behavior occurs.
“Please keep the marker on the paper. You’ll have to clean up any marker that gets on the floor.”

Something else that helps keep a consequence from becoming punitive is to give a child choice in the matter, and to ask for their input in solving a problem. The choices a child is offered should always follow the 4 Rs above.
You can either get a spray bottle and a rag, or use a wet sponge. Which would you like to use to clean this? Do you have another idea for how you could clean this up? Would you like me to help by getting a wet towel for you?

When using positive discipline, we try for natural consequences first, and approach the use of logical consequences conscientiously. We can ensure that these “consequences” are truly relevant and respectful and not an arbitrary punishment in disguise by instead approaching them as solutions. Our relationships with our children will benefit from the kindness and firmness of this positive discipline style, as well as from the cooperation and respect we demonstrate to our kids.

 

Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and the author of “Encouraging Words for Kids. She blogs about her own endeavors in positive parenting at Parenting From Scratch.



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18 thoughts on “What Makes a Consequence Logical?

  1. It helps to ask yourself before even looking for a ‘consequence’ to the ‘problem’ if there really *is* a ‘problem.’ Often times a child’s behavior may rub you the wrong way, but it may not actually *be* ‘wrong.’ Re-frame the situation for yourself before you decide whether any consequence is really needed…

    And the truly natural consequences will just happen, without your needing to force them or even set them in motion. Action: Jumped in a mud puddle? Consequence: Yep, you’re wet and cold. That’s a natural consequence. Solution: dry off and change clothes. If you happened to do it in a parking lot, then the natural consequence may expand to include waiting until you get home to be able to change.

    But, GREAT article!! Just wanted to add my thoughts to it.

  2. Hi! We are at the stage where we are reevaluating how to help our children understand that their actions have consequences. Both are 4 and 6 year olds and would normally not do anything out of the ordinary (in short get them to too much trouble). They are also easy to talk to so we don’t have to resort to any “punishment”. However, they are now exhibiting that they are easy to copy what their friends are doing even though they were told not to. A good example was when we were at a friends house, they were told not to go to the attic because the cat was there and she is terrified of other people. Later on we found out they were in the attic (together with 2 other 4 year old friends) and to make matters worst they scattered the cat litter box thinking it was cat food (and by scattered it was all over the place so it was more or less like thrown around). As a consequences we took out their tv privileges for a week. This is their first time to be grounded and we are still reflecting if it is a good consequence or not. This is the first time that they displayed such disrespectful behavior and in our family we have always emphasized to them the importance of being respectful of one’s self, of others and the things around them.

      • hi Kara,

        We wanted to do that but our friend (who owns the house) didn’t want the kids further involved in touching the cat litter. It was really gross to think about what they played with (all the poop and pee that was in the litter box)! We had to shower them immediately after going home. :/

        • Hi Lana, sometimes it can be tricky to balance the need for a consequence with what you can realistically do, especially given that you were at someone else’s home. One idea may be to make amends to that family, for example could the girls craft a cat toy, plant something to give them or making a picture for the family as an apology card so that they know they have reflected on their choices and that they now know what they chose was not alright? From an age and realistic expectations perhaps the attic was just really too much to resist their curiosity – perhaps the 6 year old knew it was wrong but was carried away in the excitement? When things like that happen (breaking a request at someone else’s home) it may be a good idea to have a meeting afterwards to reflect and help the children understand why the decision was not good so they may remember this the next time around and making amends can help make the experience really sink in but in positive-learning oriented way. I hope that helps!

  3. the way i see it, the mess is an issue but even more of an issue is the disregard of the cat who was afraid and the disrespect of the request. getting the kids to clean up the mess fails to address the lack of compassion involved in this event and deals with it on a very superficial level. i would be asking the kids to tell me how it might feel to be the cat and the owner and then reflecting on how they would feel in that situation

  4. What about when they flat out refuse? Miss Three, when asked to tidy or fix a mess she’s made (with my help of course) just says ‘No you do it’. If I insist she will run around the house pulling things out and throwing them around the place, kicking things over and generally making a bigger mess (there is nothing out to break thank goodness) until I stop asking her to help clean her mess. I can put her on the thinking chair but she has a meltdown and I can put her in her room but she throws objects and herself around for at least a half hour before calming down. I would love some tips and suggestions on how to manage this. I’ve tried holding her through a tantrum but it just protracts it. The best thing I’ve done so far is I put her in her room and tell her she can come out when she feels better/like helping.

    • Mandy – I wonder what would happen if instead of insisting you asked a few curiosity questions for example if it’s a bunch of books on the floor “how many of these books you think you can pick up?” or letting your daughter know what you WISH for “I wish you would help me pick up – I feel like the pile of books makes OUR house look messy.” Or if you need to set a firm limit “The mess needs to be cleaned up and THEN we can move onto to (insert whatever will come next in the day) AND throwing things will NOT making the cleaning up any faster.” Language that leads to cooperation like “LET’s clean up together” and “reach me one, I’ll reach you another one” or “first me, then you, then me, then you” can also help alot.

    • I think this can also be a good moment for connection and empathy. “It’s not fun to clean up sometimes, is it.” If she starts throwing more stuff around, “you must be very upset to be throwing these things. You are allowed to be upset, but I can’t let you throw things.” Sometimes children need our presence, but don’t want us to be too close. If she’s tantrumming and doesn’t want to be held, you can just stay in the room. You don’t need to say or do anything (because that does make it longer) but it shows her that you aren’t leaving her alone with her bigs scary feelings, nor are you afraid of them. Sometimes no matter what you do, a tantrum is going to happen. It’s not a bad thing, it helps clear the air. The tantrum may not even be about cleaning up -it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  5. Mandy, I’m inclined, based on your description of her behavior, to think she’s asking for firmer limits. Two of my fav resources for positive parenting (in addition to this site), that answer your questions directly, are handinhandparenting.org (search for articles on staylistening and limit setting) and janetlansbury.com. Both have excellent practical guidance on setting limits firmly and empathically.

  6. I read this article and comments and feel so encouraged, but then in a real situation I fail to think of a good consequence. My child is 6 and our biggest problem is when he is upset he speaks very disrespectly to us and throws a few really angry looks our way.

    I have tried talking it through with him by saying ‘wow, you are really angry about …..’. I have tried asking him kindly to calm down and then we can chat. I have tried ‘time outs’. I have tried a ‘consequence list’ (he has to go to the list and pick which he will do before he can move on). Etc, all work to a degree and possibly in the moment, but it is not changing the behavior and as had gets older, it is getting worse.

    • Jamie, do you feel that his anger is not acceptable? sometimes children (adults too) just really need to have a moment to feel that anger, upset, frustration etc…it doesn’t mean we have to accept rude behavior, so we need to learn to limit the behavior and accept, validate feelings. It sounds like you are already trying to validate “you are really angry…” but after you validate that, can you add something like “I will give you a while to cool off, come find me when you want to talk in a respectful way?” A consequence for feeling angry can (not always) but can make a child feel like it’s wrong to be angry. Boys especially will then internalize that anger and let it burst out in worse ways…. What specifics of the behavior do you want to change (those looks, could just be used as a clue right? can you try to not see it as a personal attack but rather a sign that anger is in the air? “Ok, i’m sensing you are really angry, i’ll give you some space….do you want to take some time to cool off, can i offer you a hug…can we start over….” and so on. so limit the behavior, accept the feelings…hope that is helpful.

  7. Our child is now 15. We have used positive parenting techniques since he was 6 (when we got custody of him from an emotionally and physically abusive situation) but the inappropriate behaviors are not better, but worse since he is much larger and can hurt much more. Any suggestions for an aggressive teen boy with a trauma history being raised by a physically fragile couple in their 70s?

    • Beverly, I am sorry you are in what sounds like a very challenging situation. It is never alright for a child to hurt their parents. What kind of a support network do you have as a foster or adoptive family? Do you have a case worker, a pediatrician, parenting classes that can give you one on one support? A child with trauma history stands to benefit greatly by being followed by a counselor or mental health professional so they can work on that trauma. Some ideas for reflection, do you have a calm down rule at home? house rules? Does your child help at the house with chores, responsibilities, cooking, cleaning? Do you find your limits are being set clearly? Has the child had social – emotional coaching or learned skills about managing his anger, like breathing, verbalizing? It sounds like you care a great deal for this child and I encourage you to reach out to someone like a coach or counselor if you find that the aggression is creating a difficult family dynamic.

  8. There’s great theory in this article, but it’s seriously lacking examples. People can’t put the concepts into practice without a clear understanding of consequences IN REAL LIFE. It’s hard enough to remain calm in the moment that your child smacks her sister in the head, much less being collected enough to immediately think of a logical consequence. Please give us many scenarios with their natural consequences and an appropriate parental response, so that we can build our toolboxes before we’re caught in the heat of the moment. Thank you!

    • Hi Elif…here are a few examples of consequences

      A child refuses to wear a rain jacket outside… … the child gets wet.
      A child throws a toy on the ground and it breaks… … the child cannot play with the broken toy any longer.
      A child spills his or her drink… … the child is asked to help to clean it up.
      A child leaves toy in the rain… …the child needs to wait until it is dry to play with it again.
      A child doesn’t put his clothes in the hamper in time for the regular washing….the child has to do his own load of laundry.

      Consequences however are only one tool for parents. As you mentioned hitting, typically there really ins’t a “logical” consequence for hitting, other than the sibling that was hurt being upset/mad/refusing to play with the one that did the hitting. While that is the actual consequence, it’s usually not enough to help a child learn socially acceptable ways of dealing with anger and frustration. When children hit often, what they really need to learn are conflict resolution and calming skills. So a logical consequence a parent might introduce here is using a calm down bag or corner. You might like this post on how to create a calm down corner

  9. Would appreciate recommendations how to link consequences. My 2 year old threw a bowl of Cheerios on the floor. Natural consequence was to clean them up, but while she cried not wanting to tidy up, she kept wanting to nurse. True natural consequence of holding back nursing until she picked up the Cheerios?
    Appreciate insights.

    • Hi Ruth,
      It can be tricky with a two year old in the situation that you mentioned. The natural consequence of throwing her cheerios on the floor would be to be without a snack/breakfast…the logical, connected consequence is to help her clean it up. I say help her because at age 2 cleaning up a spill like this while hungry may seem overwhelming, and modeling and working together is more likely to motivate your 2 year old. In your shoes I would have probably said “well, it looks like you are not hungry for cheerios, LET’s clean these away, I’ll take these three, can you hand me over those three?” If my child refused, I would keep cleaning it up, if in a good mood and not in a hurry i might make funny sounds as I drop each cheerio in the bowl and invite her one more time. The other option is to delay the clean up, nurse and invite her to clean up afterwards, but really follow through making sure she is part of the clean up process. Nursing is not only nutrition but also comfort, so the dynamic there is unique. In our home though, when children throw food (or did when little) i let them know “i see you are not hungry anymore, let’s clean this away”, it can be helpful to reduce serving sizes too if throwing is constant. hope that helps.

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