How To Use Natural Consequences Instead of Pointless Punishment

One of the biggest misnomers for parents when they first encounter trust-based or connected parenting is that it seems like there are no consequences. It feels too permissive. This is actually the reason I tossed the Connected Child aside after reading it pre-placement. Honestly? It made me want to gag.

Then we attempted to parent a child from a hard place with traditional, cause-effect parenting. Guess who went to go dig that book out? You’ll do anything out of desperation, right?

I was shocked when the few tools we dabbled with worked. It didn’t take long before we were all in.

While there are still consequences in our house, we do our best to eliminate, what I’ll name for the sake of argument, punishments.

There are consequences in our house…just not punishments. #parentingwithconnection Click To Tweet

A [kon-si-kwens] is the effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier.[1]

If my child is mouthy or rude or makes some other myriad of poor choices, there will be a consequence. It may be a re-do or a time-in or a simple verbal correction. However, I won’t punish mouthiness by withholding an activity or privilege. The goal is to help our kids feel safe and develop better skills. A traditional punishment will put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound at best or further escalate a situation to violence and aggression at worst. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to be anywhere on that scale of “success.”

punishments aren't working

There are also what are often referred to as natural consequences. If you leave your iPod outside and it rains, it will get wet. It probably will also cease to function.

If my child has trouble with impulse control when playing with other children, he will not be allowed to play unsupervised with others.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about natural consequences with children from hard places:

  1. Fragility. It is not necessarily our job to protect our children from natural consequences. However, some children are more fragile than others. If you see a water bottle and a snack that is about to be left on the kitchen counter as you rush out the door, you may want to grab it if your child will rage because of a blood sugar crash. Going on a short errand and have a kid who will just be a little whiny and frustrated about it? Leave it.
  2. Drama. Dramatic threats of what will happen or “I told you so”’s, as tempting as they are, will cause dysregulation and disconnection. If you see a bike in the driveway or an electronic left out, try a question, “Johnny, why is the driveway not where we usually store bikes?” or “What might happen if…?” If you’re really good, use a playful voice! Similarly, if a child misses a beloved dance lesson because she was melting down and missed it, console her broken heart rather than coldly stating, “Well, I guess that’s what happens when you can’t pull yourself together.” Wait to debrief and rehearse what could’ve been done better after you reconnect and she calms down. You may even have to debrief days later.
  3. Stretching. “Well you were rude to me all afternoon and that wears me out. I’m pretty sure I don’t have the energy to take you to soccer practice. That’s just the natural consequence.” There may be some truth there, but your kid will see through it, and if we’re honest with ourselves it’s just a way to sneak in a punishment.

The real magic happens when there is a balance of high structure and high nurture in how you respond to any situation. The structure may be letting the iPod get wet, and the nurture may be validating your child’s feelings of how much it sucks to experience the natural consequences of irresponsibility.

Lastly, I’ll just speak a few words to those who are still gagging. You may need to go put on big person panties first.

Why do you think you feel the need to punish? It is wrapped up in how you were raised or what a portion of society has told you about what it looks like to raise children “properly?”

How do YOU feel when your child misbehaves? Fear? Embarrassment? Is your need to fix your child’s behavior through punishment more about easing your feelings of discomfort when the misbehavior happens?

Is punishment even working for you? Is it helping your child move toward healing and making better independent choices? Is it causing you to expend any less energy in the long term?

I know. Tough questions. I know them well because they run through my internal dialogue every day. I feel the pull to punish when I have to address the same thing for the 140 millionth time, but I know that it’s more for me and my big feelings than an actual solution.

You’re not alone.

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