greg westfall/Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Greg Westfall/Flickr/Creative Commons

Many adults believe in punishment, whether it’s timeouts, spanking, or loss of privileges. “Kids need consequences for bad behavior,” parents often tell me.

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:

  1. Dial it down. Step back, take a deep breath, and rein in any impulses you might have to yell or punish.
  2. Don’t be a bully. Remember they are much smaller than you. As with any situation where one person has a lot more power or strength than another, your anger carries an implicit threat of violence. The evil monster in the fairy tales, that’s you.
  3. Stay present and connected. The last thing a young child needs when they’re out of control or misbehaving badly is to be banished from your presence. Timeouts may appear benign and useful, but they don’t work in the long run
  4. See it as a learning opportunity. Try to put the child’s bad behavior into positive perspective, as a great opportunity for you to help the child learn something. Sometimes the child—especially if they’re under four—is genuinely ignorant about the “badness” inherent in their actions. Sometimes all the child needs is a strong but loving conversation about why you don’t want them doing what they’re doing.
  5. Look for what else is wrong. Sometimes kids know exactly what they’re doing, and are trying to get you angry enough to pay attention. Whether the bad behavior is intentional or not (and it is hard to know someone else’s intentions with any certainty), bad behavior is always a message. The child has real needs that aren’t being met, and they don’t yet know how to communicate it so you will hear them. They might be needing some loving attention from you, something to eat or drink, sleep, exercise, fresh air, or quiet.
  6. Be private. Deal with the situation, but do it privately. Even young children feel humiliated when they’re publicly corrected or punished.
  7. Look for a logical consequence. When you think a consequence is required for the child to learn what you want them to, remember that children (like adults!) learn best when they feel respected, valued, and listened to.
  8. Think about the 3 R’s (plus H). Jane Nelsen suggests that consequences for misbehavior should be (a) Related to the behavior, (b) Respectfully administered (no blame, shame, or pain), (c) Reasonable relative to the crime, and (d) Helpful in moving the child toward better behavior.
  9. Ask the child for help. If you can’t think of a good logical consequence, ask the misbehaving child. Kids are almost always brilliant at thinking up appropriate consequences, although they can be a bit draconian. You may have to tone down their ideas before implementation.
  10. Move on. Once the child has done their time, you might ask (with a gentle smile) if they’ve learned anything from the experience, but don’t belabor it.

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?

  1. Obvious connection to the crime. The consequence provides an obvious result of their behavior. This is a much more effective way of showing a child why they should behave better than a punishment that has no connection to the crime.
  2. No humiliation. By focusing on the deed as bad, and not the perpetrator, logical consequences don’t shame or punish the child. With children—like most adults—humiliation is more likely to breed resentment and retaliation than learning.
  3. Encourages responsibility for behavior. Punishments, including timeouts, show that the adult is the boss, no matter what the adult might tell the child about reaping the punishment they earned. Logical consequences, on the other hand, show the child how to take responsibility for their behavior.
  4. Calm and connected. Unlike most punishments, including spanking and timeouts, logical consequences can be imposed in ways that make a child feel safe and secure.

What are the problems with logical consequences?

  1. Not always appropriate. They provide one way of handling misbehavior and aren’t always the best way. Sometimes a child needs only a hug and conversation about the behavior. Sometimes—with bigger or persistent problems—the child and parent need professional help.
  2. Imagination necessary. The adult has to be able to think up an appropriate logical consequence. If there isn’t an obvious one, the child can often help generate something good and inventive.
  3. Temptation to save the child. Depending on the consequence, the adult might have a hard time not saving the child from the consequence. For example, nobody wants to see a child get cold and wet because they refused to wear a raincoat.  
  4. Take time to sink in. Logical consequences don’t always work the first time. Over time, kids who experience logical consequences increasingly take responsibility for their actions, but they won’t get it all at once.

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

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