Young children do need us to pay attention and do something about it when they’re out of control, or behaving in cruel, sneaky, destructive, dangerous, or antisocial ways. It’s our job as the adults in their lives to protect them from themselves when they’re engaging in behavior that will get them in trouble now, or in another context in their lives. But everything we know about child development suggests that angry punishments don’t work very well in the long run. You may get a child to comply for the moment, but it will come at the cost of their self-esteem or lead to simmering resentment. In the long run, this won’t go well for you or the child.
What are logical consequences?
Natural consequences—the painful results of one’s actions—are the best teachers of all. When a child refuses to wear a coat on a rainy day, the natural consequence of allowing the child to go out without a coat is that the child will get wet and uncomfortable. When it’s an option, a natural consequence is a great teaching tool. The child has no one but himself to blame for his misery, and will probably wear a coat next time it rains.
Logical consequences are also the result of a person’s actions but are imposed by someone else. In both cases, the child is experiencing some type of trouble because of their behavior. (In this article, I use the term “logical consequences” to include natural as well as logical consequences.)
Imposing logical consequences: What can you do when children are doing bad things?
What’s the best way to respond when toddlers and young children (up to age seven or so) are doing something they shouldn’t do? It depends on the nature of the child and the problem, of course, but here are some ideas for addressing misbehavior in toddlers and children under seven or eight:
Logical consequences: some examples
Four-year-old Sammy spills his milk, as he’s trying to pour it from one glass to another after you have asked him not to do that.
Do not ask Sammy why he’s so clumsy. Do not remind him you’d asked him not to pour from one glass to the other. Do not tell him he can’t have any more milk. Do not send him for a timeout.
Instead, say something like, “Whoops. What do we do next?”
He will almost certainly know that he needs to get a cloth and clean it up and probably won’t mind doing that if you treat him with good-natured respect. If he doesn’t know what to do next, it may be because you haven’t invested the time in teaching him.
Three-year-old Lauren hits her brother because he’s using the toy she wants to play with.
Do not hit Lauren or tell her to go to a timeout. Look at her as if you can’t quite believe she has done this, and say something like, “You know we don’t hit people in our family. What happens next?”
If little Lauren doesn’t seem to know she needs to apologize, help her get there. Do some role-playing with what an apology looks like, with you and Lauren taking turns playing the role of her and her brother. Once she has told him she’s sorry and told you that she knows she shouldn’t hit people, consider what else might be going on. Is she hungry, tired, thirsty, needing a snuggle? Use her behavior as a message to attend to what’s happening with her.
Six-year-old Polly has made a big mess. There are blocks and books and toys strewn all around the living room.
Don’t yell. Don’t tell Polly you’ve told her a million times she has to put her things away as she finishes using them. And don’t give her a timeout. More than anything, Polly needs a time-in right now.
Say something like, “My goodness. You have a big job ahead of you. You know what’s next, right?”
She may grumble but stay with her on this. She’s trying to tell you something with this mess, and you want to hear it. She may be feeling overwhelmed, worried, or something else. Ask her if she wants to clean it up by herself, or if she’d like some help. If she’s unwilling to start the clean-up, start it yourself, telling her what you’re doing, and asking for her help. “How about we start with the books? Let’s put them back in the bookcase.”
If she moves out of the room, let her know you need her to come back and do the clean-up. You might give her a few minutes grace period before you get her to bring her back, just to allow her to retain her self-respect.
If she still resists cleaning up, tell her that you’ll clean it all up, but that you’ll put everything into a box that she won’t have access to for a day or more (depending on the situation).
Why do logical consequences work?
What are the problems with logical consequences?
For more ideas about using logical consequences with children:
“Discipline Your Kids with Natural Consequences,” by Renée Sagiv Riebling
“Logical Consequences,” by Jane Nelsen
“Using Natural and Logical Consequences,” by Rose Allen
“Natural and logical consequences: How implementing them leads to better discipline in children” by Elizabeth Gutierrez
“10 Alternatives to Consequences,” by Laura Markham
“Timeouts: Good for Adults, Not for Kids,” by Dona Matthews