Let children learn through experiencing natural consequences

Research shows that such experiences teach practical lessons, and also help children develop a sense of responsibility and proficiency

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 10:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 4:54pm

Most parents want the best for their children and do all they can to make their children’s lives as easy and comfortable as possible. While all this comes from a place of love, it can sometimes mean a child misses out on the important lessons that experiencing natural consequences can teach them.

Natural consequences refer to the positive or negative effects that follow on from a child’s decision. They are not imposed by the parent; rather, the parent allows society, nature or other people to impose whatever consequences occur “naturally” as a result of the child’s behaviour – and do so without interfering. A simple example might be that of a child who refuses to eat a meal. If he is allowed to skip the meal, he then learns that his refusal to eat has left him feeling hungry.

Natural consequences should be allowed to take their course within a given context. They should be related to the situation; respectful – not causing any sort of humiliation or shame; and reasonable for the child’s age.

This is in contrast with logical consequences, which are set and imposed by the parent. Logical consequences come into play when there is a risk of danger to the child or when the child’s actions are affecting others. For example, a child might have her bike taken away if she continually rides in the street when instructed not to do so.

Logical consequences are often easier for parents to impose as they typically result from trying to stop a child engaging in cruel, destructive, dangerous or antisocial activities.

Allowing natural consequences to take their course can feel like a counter-intuitive parenting choice. Most parents would rather step in to save their child from a potentially negative experience. But such experiences can be valuable; they teach children that their choices come with consequences, which in turn encourages responsibility, forward planning, and self-sufficiency.

Research shows that natural consequences provide children with an essential and highly valuable learning experience. They lead to improved long-term internalisation and a better understanding of the difference between right and wrong, and work far better than anger and punishments. The latter work in the short term, but only because children comply with demands out of fear rather than because they have truly grasped the difference between right and wrong. Being hungry later in the evening because you didn’t eat your dinner is an easy lesson to understand.

Natural consequences can easily be matched to what is appropriate for any age group. With a toddler, a natural consequence may consist of letting a child get cold if she refuses to put on her jacket. An older child who doesn’t do his homework might go on to receive a bad grade or get into trouble with his teacher the next day. Teens and young adults may be asked to set an alarm ahead of certain activities. If they show up late, they must examine their own actions to discover the reason why.

These lessons also teach kids that their choices can have consequences that impact on others. For example, if a student decides not to do his part of a group project, his entire team earns a lower mark, leading to the boy likely having to bear the brunt of his teammates anger.

Sheltering children from natural consequences can also lead to undesirable outcomes when they reach adulthood. The increasing drop-out rates for young people in their first year of university is a trend which has, in part, been chalked up to students being ill-prepared for the responsibility and self-reliance that comes with leaving home. Once at university, students are responsible for their own time management, as well as for their own basic needs, like feeding themselves and keeping clean. After years of having all their meals prepared for them, their clothes laundered, and their bedrooms cleaned, many kids do not know how to be self-sufficient and organised. They become overwhelmed, and drop out.

Even more pernicious is that, when children are used to having their parents “fix” things for them, they may find themselves incapable of solving problems for themselves, and unable to deal with failure. Children must learn that there will not always be someone there to save the day for them, and that – ultimately – their choices and the way in which they live their lives are their own responsibility.

Natural consequences not only teach practical lessons, but also help children develop a sense of responsibility and proficiency. The more children learn about cause and effect, and their own role within that process, the better they come to understand how their choices can either empower them or put them in the dog house. This means that parents sometimes have to let their children fall in order for them to learn that doing so hurts – and to learn how to get back up again.