The Universe is a Great Teacher: How to Use Natural Consequences to Help Your Child Learn

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

The scene: Jamie, a fourth-grader, knows that he is responsible for remembering to put his lunch in his backpack for school.  He has forgotten it today for the umpteenth time, which his mom does not notice until the school bus is pulling away.  She sighs and puts the lunch in her car, again.  On her way to work, she stops at school and drops it off for Jamie, especially because she knows that he does not like the school menu for the day.

We’ve all been there.  Your child wants to do something or has forgotten to do something that you fear will result in unwanted consequences.  Your impulse is to assert your opinion, change the behavior, or otherwise involve yourself so your child does not have to suffer those undesirable outcomes.  It may be helping with last minute homework that the child knew needed to be done, bringing the winter clothes to the car that your child refused to take on a cold day, or contacting a teacher because you did not agree with a grade.  When this need to intervene becomes extreme, we call this parenting style helicopter parenting due to the image that it conjures of a parent hovering around the child ready to act the moment anything looks like it may go wrong.  Guess what?  We may be doing our child a disservice by stepping in.

In a 2010 study of 300 college freshmen conducted by Neil Montgomery and colleagues, they explored traits held by students who reported having helicopter parents (those that exhibit parenting behaviors that are viewed as overly involved or meddling) versus students who did not.  Yes, the study’s findings are preliminary and more research needs to be conducted in this area, but the results thus far are rather interesting.  While it is likely that helicopter parents mean to convey love and support of their children, their style of parenting may lead to unintended and costly effects.  For example, the study participants with helicopter parents were found to be more anxious, dependent, self-conscious, impulsive, and vulnerable than their peers without helicopter parents.  You may wonder where the balance is.  In other words, how do we develop self-sufficient, confident children without allowing them to fall too far into harm’s way?

Natural consequences are what happen when we allow our children to act and then see how the world responds.  For example, if a child does not wear matching clothes he may be made fun of at school.  If a child does not eat dinner she will be hungry when it’s time for bed.  I have always enjoyed using natural consequences as a teaching tool with my clients.  Sometimes, they were simply more willing to go and find out something for themselves than they were to listen to me offer my words of wisdom.  “Wow!  You decided it was worthwhile to throw a chair at the wall, causing property damage and now you have to pay for it with what little money you have left in your account?  Interesting decision.  Any take aways from that?”

Now that I am a parent, I can really attest that this stuff works.  For example, the other day my son decided to wear his favorite shoes on a muddy, wet playground.  He, of course, returned home with muddy, wet shoes.  They were so wet, in fact, that he was unable to wear them for the next three days.  When he inquired about them each morning, we took a look and saw that they weren’t dry enough yet, which he found to be very irritating.  The lesson: if you want to wear your favorite shoes every day, then it’s probably not a good idea to get them all wet and muddy.  Wear old shoes that you don’t care about instead when it comes to wet, muddy playgrounds.

I have several parameters for determining when it is a good idea to use natural consequences:

  1. It is never appropriate to allow your child to be put in true danger (e.g., seatbelts are non-negotiable).
  2. It is best to use natural consequences when you are not in a hurry.  It can take extra time to allow your child to manage a situation on his/her own and a time crunch can add extra stress to the situation.
  3. If something is extremely important to you, then it is not the time for natural consequences (e.g., going to a formal wedding in dirty overalls probably isn’t the way to learn about socially-appropriate attire).
  4. If you can afford to be flexible and you sense a good learning opportunity on the horizon (e.g., cutting an outing short when a child has refused to bring along mittens and the playground is cold), then that is the time to use natural consequences.

The primary goal of natural consequences is to allow our children to learn first-hand how to wisely navigate the world rather than feel the way the college freshmen in Montgomery’s study did.  The use of this method requires a lot of flexibility on the part of parents and the ability to let go of the need for our kids to be perfect or to never experience hurt.  Dr. Wendy Mogel has written a wonderful book on parenting based on her many years as a psychologist and educator.  It is called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and while it is based on Jewish teachings, one need not be Jewish in order to find some very valuable information.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

In it, she includes a chapter on natural consequences.  She states, “Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard.”  She goes on to say, “If parents rush in to rescue them from distress, children don’t get an opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.”  As much as we don’t want our children to have emotional and/or physical pain, it is part of life and they must learn how to manage it.

In using natural consequences, the sooner the better.  We want our children to start thinking ahead about potential consequences from a young age so they don’t find themselves in a truly terrible situation.  It takes a lot of practice to develop this type of thinking.  Parents can anticipate many bumps in the road along the way.  It is preferable to have these bumps be less costly and they usually are when kids are younger.  For example, it is less costly to learn the lesson of thinking ahead when rain boots are forgotten than it is to drive 90 miles an hour on a curvy road at night.  In other words, the potential for true danger generally increases with age as there is access to more and more of the world.

Let’s conclude with one last example by revisiting our opening scene.  Jamie forgets his lunch and his mom notices it as the school bus pulls away.  This time, she decides that it’s more important for Jamie to learn something from continually forgetting his lunch.  After all, how will he learn if she keeps delivering his lunch to him?  So she decides to leave it right where she found it and leaves for work.  It would be nice to not have to rush her commute in order to stop at the school.  Jamie calls her cell and tells her that he forgot his lunch.  His mother empathizes with him since she knows that he doesn’t like what is on the menu.  He asks her to bring his lunch to school.  She tells him that she must get to work instead and wishes him well for the day.  Infuriated, Jamie hangs up the phone.  Later that day, he gets an IOU from the cafeteria to purchase the school lunch and eats what little he likes.  He feels hungry and grumpy.  The next day, he remembers to take his lunch.

References:

Mogel, W. (2001).  The blessing of a skinned knee: Using Jewish teachings to raise self-reliant children. New York: Penguin Books.

Montgomery, N (2010, October 11). Parents Protecting Their Investments. The New York Times. Retrieved June 29, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/11/have-college-freshmen-changed/parents-protecting-their-investments