May 1, 2003

Truth About Consequences: Letting Children Learn from Reality

by Linda Anderson Krech

"If we allow a child to experience the consequence of his acts, we provide an honest and real learning situation." Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D.

There we were -- my four year old daughter and I, along with her twin friends and their mom, waiting with antsy anticipation for the small-town extravaganza parade to begin in Vermont's sweet little town of Bristol. We had arrived at the town green an hour early due to a misprint in the local newspaper calendar and had spent about 45 minutes swinging, sliding, and spinning around the gazebo and playground. Energy was high, spirits were even higher, and all was well until . . . my daughter began the look-at-what-a-brat-I-can-be performance. It was a sudden and unexpected turn of events, prompted by I know not what. There she stood, with both hands on her hips, stamping the ground repeatedly and yelling out her orders. For about three weeks prior to this Chani had, on occasion, been using her feet to get her point across, stamping her opposition in a supermarket and a few times at home. She knew that we found it rude and that we did not approve of this behavior. "Feet are for walking, not talking," we reminded her. She needed to use her words instead.

And on this particular day I was crystal clear about what I needed to do and I did it almost perfectly, if I do say so myself. I very calmly and gently asked her to start getting her things together. I told her that we were going to be leaving. I told our friends that we were going to be leaving, and that I would explain why another time, and that I hoped they enjoyed the parade. My daughter was stunned and began pleading and crying. Without telling her why we were leaving she said, "I promise I won't stamp my feet anymore. Can't I just try again? We didn't get to see the parade . . . " And I picked her up very gently, gave her a kiss, and did not engage in any discussion of the event. Instead, as we began walking away, I chatted with her about everything else. I pointed out the old canon that sits at the edge of the town green, and began wondering out loud about how many children have probably climbed on top and sat there with their moms and dads. I pointed out a passing dog and asked her if she knew what kind of dog it was.

And by the time we got out of the town green, Chani was no longer crying, in fact she was speaking quite normally with me about other things. We had a pleasant ride home, never mentioning the incident. And she has not, at least so far, stamped her foot in defiance again.

This is an example of a logical consequence. If Chani does not behave well around other people, if she is rude or demanding for example, she will not be allowed to remain in their company. To remain with others would be disruptive and would reinforce for her that such behavior is acceptable. The most effective response is action, not words. Although our minds may quickly come up with a stream of clear and well-targeted words, the most effective response is to keep them to ourselves and to act instead. Not in addition to, but instead. At the moment of conflict, no benefit can be gained from engaging in verbal communication. Before or after the conflict, yes. But not during.

And the behavior, to be most effective, needs to be done quickly and kindly. While punishment is often done with the goal of creating discomfort and some level of suffering or deprivation, logical consequences are not. They are designed to intervene in the existing behavior pattern and disrupt that, not the person. The effectiveness of the consequence in the above example was probably enhanced by the fact that Chani's suffering was only momentary. She got the point loud and clear, much louder than if I had yelled it in her ear, much clearer than if I had spelled it out and repeated it again and again.

Responding with a logical consequence at the moment of misbehavior can be very challenging. First of all, there simply may not be a logical consequence that can be applied for a particular situation. And even if there is, it may be very difficult to think of it on such short notice. It takes practice and it's not easy. But neither is disciplining a child with ineffective strategies, which do little to influence misbehavior and may actually encourage it. A logical consequence must be related to the problematic behavior. Punishments may not be related (you lose your allowance if you don't clean up your toys), but logical consequences must be (your toys are put in storage for a while if you don't clean them up). The difference is an important one.

The other challenging aspect of working with logical consequences is controlling your own speech and behavior at a time when you may be extremely frustrated, impatient and/or angry. The key here is remembering that your child is a separate person and needs to be recognized as such. He or she has the right, and actually the responsibility, to make independent decisions. That is how children learn about life. They explore, test, challenge, and investigate through direct experience. And our job is to provide consistent and clear feedback that guides them in the direction that we, as parents, believe to be most healthy, safe and productive. They do what they do. We do what we do. And a power struggle need not ensue. Just a response, done with kindness and respect for their learning process. We need to be on their side when they misbehave even more than when they are doing well in our eyes. Rather than responding with an "I'll show you!" attitude, you can provide a sympathetic response which can even be verbalized at the time "I'm sorry that you can't stay with us now at the dinner table. Please come back and join us as soon as you're ready!"

Logical consequence differ from a "time-out". In a time-out there is usually a specified period of time that the child would spend alone, before rejoining the group. A logical consequence would only separate the child until he or she was ready to rejoin the group, the sooner the better! You will miss your child. Make this known. And also communicate through your demeanor that your child will be greeted warmly rather than with rancor or tension upon his or her return.

Natural consequences are a bit simpler. When instituting a natural consequence, you are simply allowing reality to take its course and are not intervening to protect the child from the impact of his or her decisions. We went canoeing the other day and Chani did not take her shoes with her. She loves being barefoot and decided that she didn't need shoes, despite our encouragement to take them. While in the canoe she was quite happy with her bare little feet, but then we found an island that we wanted to explore. First she commented enthusiastically about this opportunity to walk barefoot, but soon thereafter she had to carefully find her way around a mine field of duck poop and then walk through a trail in the woods that was riddled with twigs and pebbles. As she walked over roots and rocks, she asked repeatedly to be carried. A natural consequence of deciding to leave her shoes home is that she needed to walk barefoot with us, even while uncomfortable, even while promising that she will take her shoes from now on.

It is very easy to get seduced by such promises and to eliminate the natural consequence, assuming the child has learned their lesson. But we all learn much better from actions rather than words. Natural consequences allow the child to experience the impact of their decision, which will help them when facing a similar decision in the future.

Linda Anderson Krech is social worker, staff member of the ToDo Institute and co-author of The Concise, Little Guide to Getting Things Done. She is one of the founders of the Working with Challenging Children model which incorporates principles of Japanese Psychology (Morita and Naikan) along with methods developed by psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs.

Posted on May 1, 2003 6:04 PM

My child is very inteligent but since 2004 his marks dropped rapidly. He has a concentration problem and cuts out after a few minutes, then according to the psychiatrist, he doesn't know where he is. It all takes a few seconds. Now she refered him to a nearologist for an eeg. If it isn't positive and all is o.k., how should I deal with the concentration proplem. Should I consider Ritalin. My husband is against it but he is not that involved when it comes to education

Posted by: Engela on June 3, 2005 12:47 PM

I have a child whom seems to lack concentration
Maybe,Please tell me the difference on how to know the difference between petimal seizures or a attention problem.

Posted by: Rachael Nelson on June 15, 2004 5:32 AM

I feel what you are saying is correct but when i ask my child to go to his room till he is ready to appoligise he gets so upset it almost makes him self sick and now i am having trouble putting him to bed because he thinks that he is in trouble because he has to go to his room. What should I do?

Posted by: Amanda on October 30, 2003 3:24 AM
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