In parts one and two of this series, we explored what discipline actually is, looked at your goal with discipline and how YOU fit into the subject. Now it is time to move on to figuring out how consequences fit into the entire discussion.
Consequences can be natural or well, not natural.
In order to better understand consequences, let’s look to the world of science and to Newton’s 3rd law.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we push a ball, it begins to roll. When we sit on a chair, our body pushes down on the chair while the chair is pushing back up at us. When our child behaves, we react (or hopefully, respond).
The first two are easy to understand and visualize. With the first two, the reaction is a natural consequence of the initial action.
The third one is where it gets a little bit tricky. When you throw human behavior into the equation, the neat little formula gets blurry.
Why is this third one so hard?
The reasons for this are many. As I explained in part 2 of my discipline series, what is going on inside of us (are we tired, stressed, feeling judged, triggered, etc.) has a great deal to do with what the “reaction” side of this equation will look like. Not only that, but our understanding of consequences and how to best allow them to play out with our child also has a huge impact.
When I was a younger parent, if my kids behaved well (like going pee on the potty), I put a sticker on their sticker chart. If they misbehaved (like not cleaning up their room), I took away a privilege like playing with friends, playing video games, etc. Why did I do this?
Because that was the generally accepted wisdom back then. So I did that.
Until I found a better way.
What did getting a sticker have to do with peeing on the potty?
What did losing video games or friend time have to do with cleaning their room?
But I didn’t see that at first. So I kept at it and kept at it. And parenting wore me down and drained me. It was not that much fun or enjoyable. I found myself in endless power struggles with my kids, particularly my oldest son.
The light-bulb moment
Eventually, with the help of my dear friend and mentor Dr. Shefali, I was able to understand the consequences (and thus discipline) in a completely new way. When we give un-natural consequences to our kids, it takes their focus away from what they are doing and places it outside of them and onto the reward or punishment. Now, instead of really focusing on their behavior and choices, they are focused on getting more of the good stuff (reward) or avoiding the bad stuff (consequence).
Human nature’s role
The problem here is it is our human nature to find ways to make ourselves more comfortable. It is just the way we are wired. We seek out things that make us more comfortable and avoid things that make us less.
We may hide our behavior to avoid punishment (aka lying). This external consequence does nothing to teach us what to do better next time. Rather it just reinforces our natural desire to avoid getting this consequence in the future. Whether we avoid it by doing better next time or just hiding it better next time.
We may also do more of what gets us what we want more of. In the example of going on the potty, we may sit on the potty 397 times a day. We hope to get that little sticker or candy or whatever it is. This behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with whether we actually have to go all 397 times. It is merely us looking for more of what makes us comfortable (i.e., the reward).
What IS a better way?
A better way is to bring Newton’s 3rd law into our parenting. To allow a natural reaction to our child’s action. Not one that we have artificially created.
That sounds perfectly reasonable, right? But I bet you are wondering how in the world you are actually supposed to do that?
Let’s look at a few examples:
On a positive note, imagine our child holds the door for the next person coming into a store and the person makes a big fuss over them. They thank them and tell them how kind and polite they are. Odds are at that our child feels proud of themselves and is more likely to hold the door again the next time.
One of my favorite examples that Dr. Shefali has used is when your child won’t turn their bedroom light off when they leave for school in the morning. You have nagged, yelled, threatened and punished (no screen time for a week!) to no avail. Your child still leaves the light on. In order to conserve energy, we need to turn off the light when we leave the room. Using natural consequences, it would be important for you to sit down with your child in a calm manner (NOT in the heat of the moment). Explain to your child why it is important to turn off the light when they leave the room.
If your child still leaves the light on when they leave the room, perhaps you remove the light from their room until they can better remember. Having a bedroom light is a responsibility. If they are not choosing to be responsible with the light, perhaps they are not ready to be responsible for the light. Of course, you would not use this example with a very young child. They are not developmentally ready to be able to do the right thing in this case.
Which is an important point.
Natural consequences have to be natural given the circumstances, including the child’s developmental level.
In the case of potty-training, if your child continues to not want to sit on the potty or doesn’t seem to get the idea of what the potty is for, or refuses to sit on the potty, rather than try to bribe them with external rewards, perhaps it is better to simply back off and wait a few more months and try again. Barring any underlying medical issue, if we can be patient enough to wait until a child decides they are ready to potty train, the whole process will go much quicker.
In the case of a child not wanting to clean up their room or put away their laundry, again depending on the developmental level of the child, if they are not ready to handle caring for their things, perhaps they are not ready to get new things (like clothes or toys, etc.).
With these examples, I hope I have given you some ideas of how you can begin shifting away from rewards and punishments. And rather, move towards allowing natural consequences to lead the way.
And when you allow natural consequences to talk, it is important to follow up with your child. Make sure they know or help them to figure out what they can do differently next time to make a better choice and thus, initiate a different (hopefully better) consequence.
I have created part 3 of my FREE series on discipline. Make sure you pick up your copy here.
What is your biggest discipline challenge right now?
Erin Taylor is a mom, parent coach, and author of Connection and Kindness: The Key to Changing the World through Parenting. Her podcast, Powerful Parenting for Today’s Kids is enjoyed by parents around the world. Erin was able to take the tragedy of the death of her infant daughter and turn it around to not only survive, but thrive, and help others to do the same. You can learn more about her at www.erin-taylor.com.
This article, How To Use Natural Consequences To Discipline Your Child, was originally published on Erin Taylor and is reposted here with express permission from the author. Permission to repost this article must come directly from the author.
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