The Difference Between Natural Consequences and Parentally Controlled Boundaries.

DSC_0238-001Natural Consequences is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in parenting circles, but often the consequences the parents are describing are anything but natural.

There is some confusion over what constitutes a natural consequence and in this article I want to clear that confusion up, and then discuss why boundaries are different but still valid.

So what is a natural consequence?

The answer is very much within the phrase. It is something which naturally occurs based on the actions of the child. Let me give you some examples:

A child refuses to put his boots on to go out in the rain. He goes outside. He gets cold feet.

A child is climbing on a slippery surface and not watching her footing. She slips and falls. She hurts her arm.

A child won’t eat her lunch because she is distracted and playing. She feels hungry soon after.

A child is unkind to a playmate, hitting them or taking their toys. The other child begins to avoid them or refuse to play with them.

Now most parents will pre-empt these natural consequences and bring a snack, or a warm pair of shoes and socks for when the child discovers the negative consequence of their choices. This is when a conversation can be had about why it is a good idea to make particular choices in order to avoid discomfort later.

Here are some examples of things which are often confused or labelled as natural consequences but which are actually manufactured consequences.

A child throws a toy and the parent makes them sit in time out.

A child shouts at their parent and loses a possession as a consequence.

A child swears and is grounded.

These are not natural consequences. They are punishments thought up by the parent and if you really look at them, you will see that there is no link between the child’s actions and the consequence they are dealt.

What does this mean for discipling our children? Should we only be concerned about natural consequences and never step in with boundaries of our own?

In my opinion, no. Natural consequences are wonderful for teaching children about their needs, about making well thought out decisions and thinking of the consequences of their actions. But when it comes to these natural consequences, as parents we literally need to do nothing apart from know when to step back and let our children learn from their mistakes. We don’t need to think about the consequence other than to perhaps pack a snack or a coat for them when they need it, and we certainly don’t need to say I told you so. They learn that they made a the wrong choice naturally!

However, there are times when parent led boundaries do have a place. I believe children do best when given a lot of freedom to make their own choices. However, there are times when their actions are unacceptable and affect others in a negative way. For these times it is important to have firm boundaries in place. But in the same way a natural consequence has a logical outcome, so to should a boundary.

If I say to my child: “You didn’t leave the park when I asked, so now you get no TV time,” this makes no sense to a child. They live in the present. They can’t link the two separate things in their mind and they can’t take this lesson on to the future and remedy their behaviour.

If I say: “You hit your friend so now you can’t go swimming,” again, this is all wrong in their mind. Where do the two link? They do not.

Boundaries need to make sense for a child to get a grip of them.

Some examples are:

Boundary: We do not shout in the house.

“Please lower your voice or go outside. I will come with you, but you can’t use that voice in here.”

Boundary: We do not throw hard toys.

“Please choose something soft if you need to throw. If the bricks are irresistible to throw then I will have to put them away so you don’t hurt someone.”

Boundary: We do not colour on the wall.

“If you want to colour here is some paper.” Then, if the child continues to colour on the wall, the pens are put away until another time.

All of these boundaries flow, they make sense. The child can see a pattern to their actions and the consequences. It is important to remain open to your child and give them the chance to redeem themselves. It is no good saying: “You can never play with bricks because you always throw them,” as this gives them no chance to learn to play gently with them. Treat each incident separately, then move on.

If ever in doubt, just remember, natural consequences are what happen naturally as a direct result of a child’s actions. They can not be created by the parent.


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One thought on “The Difference Between Natural Consequences and Parentally Controlled Boundaries.”

  1. Absolutely well-written. I wrote nearly the same thing on my site a while back, just with not nearly so many excellent examples. It is definitely the easiest way to teach kids consequences of actions by allowing them to naturally play out (when appropriate). But that doesn’t mean you never set boundaries, otherwise your house would end up a pile of rubble.

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