Following Through With Logical Consequences
You’ve created family rules. You’ve taught new skills and practiced them. But every child makes poor choices, tests limits, and even breaks those rules you’ve carefully established. Those mistakes or misbehaviors are a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning. As a parent, you have the opportunity to transform a poor choice into a teachable moment. In our own lives, when we race through a stop sign (whether it’s accidental or intentional running late for a meeting), we know the logical consequence may result in a warning or a ticket from a police officer. For your child, parents typically have to guide a child through a logical consequence to reflect on the poor choice, face their problem, take responsibility, and repair any harm done.
It is important for every child to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This kind of consequential thinking – “If I pinch my sister, she’ll cry and run to Mom and I’ll need to apologize” – is developed over time and requires a lot of practice. In fact, a teenager’s brain is reorganizing from their childhood magical thinking processes to thinking more rationally and logically. However, those higher order thinking skills are not fully formed until the early to mid-twenties. Your support and guidance as your child develops these critical life skills matters greatly.
This document focuses specifically on how you can teach your child responsible decision-making skills by following through with logical consequences that may occur from poor choices made. The following is divided into three parts. First, logical consequences are defined. Next, why becoming intentional about following through with logical consequences is not just important but essential is explored. And finally, examples of ways to support logical consequences are provided.
We don’t need to invent consequences for our children’s poor choices. They occur naturally. The key is to guide children to repair the harm they’ve caused.
Logical Consequences Defined
Logical consequences are the natural outcomes that result from a child’s actions with others or property. Following through on logical consequences means that the adult guides the child to take responsibility for any harm caused or damage done. The intent is to teach your child that every action has a reaction. Rules are created to keep people, places, and things safe and thriving. When rules are broken, there are natural outcomes that occur. A toy is broken or a child’s feelings are broken when their toy is snatched away. Sometimes, both physical objects and feelings are harmed. These present opportunities for teaching a child that they can take next steps to fix what’s broken and to heal what’s been hurt. With a parent’s ongoing commitment to following through on logical consequences, a child will learn to think through consequences before strengthening their ethical decision-making skills.
A national parent survey by Zero to Three, revealed that 57% of parents report they struggle to figure out the most effective way to discipline.1 What should parents do when children break important rules? Many parents feel that if they let go of punishments, their child will not understand the importance of their misbehavior. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. They may also feel a sense of misunderstanding or injustice. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt focuses on their relationship with you – not on the misbehavior that occurred. So, your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to impress altogether while feeling unsafe.
Though it may seem easier in the moment, taking away an electronic device or sending a child to their room (“grounding” them) often does not represent a naturally occurring consequence. One size does not fit all when teaching cause and effect. Each time a child breaks a rule, parents need to carefully consider: “What was harmed?” and “How can I help my child reflect on what was harmed and how they can help heal or repair what was harmed?” Involving your child in deciding what can be done and supporting them through the process of making what’s broken whole again (most especially, when it involves others’ hurt feelings) is key to helping them internalize responsible decision-making skills.
Each time a child makes a poor choice, it’s an opportunity to teach a vital life skill and cultivate a sense of responsibility.
Following Through on Logical Consequences Is Essential
In addition to developing physically, socially, and emotionally, children are also developing morally. They are increasing their awareness of how their actions impact others around them. Parents have an opportunity to strengthen the connection between children’s choices and their values by offering many limited, authentic choices and by proactively thinking through decisions together before making them to predict the impact on others. And, after poor choices are made, reflecting on the harm caused and what other options were possible can help a child understand the range of possibilities in their decision making. Small choices become a dress rehearsal for bigger moments in later years when peers will pressure teens to try breaking laws or taking safety risks.
But how does a parent distinguish between logical consequences and punishment? After all, if an electronic device has been abused by a child, then taking it away for a time may be a logical consequence. A first clue for a parent is to ask themself: “Are my reactions coming out of anger?” If we bring the attitude, “I’ll show them who’s boss here,” or “I’ll make sure they never do that again,” then those thoughts are stemming from anger. Because anger is coming from our primal, survival brain (the one that can only focus on fight or flight), we will likely not have the mental resources to help us think through a logical consequence. At that point, parents require their own time out to breathe, focus, and reflect on what makes the most sense when they return to the problem. In those quieting moments, parents can ask, “How can I help my child deal with their emotions first?” And then ask, “How can I guide my child to repair the harm that’s been caused?”
By supporting social, emotional, and ethical skill development by following through on logical consequences, you can directly impact your child’s decision-making skills and improve outcomes. Social, emotional, and ethical skill development results in a stronger work ethic, deeper family relationships, increased job performance, and improved health across the lifespan.
Ways to Support Logical Consequences
Using logical consequences as teaching opportunities for your child requires parents to learn new research-informed strategies. Children test our patience when they break rules and make poor decisions, and our reactions can be among our greatest parenting challenges. Practicing new strategies when small misbehaviors occur can help build our abilities and prepare us for the bigger challenges. Four strategies include: Dealing With Feelings First, Modeling the Skills, Focusing on Decision Making, and Intentionally Practicing.
Dealing With Feelings First
Often children misbehave because they are feeling hurt, rejected, frustrated, shameful, or angry. They are either seeking attention; want to gain power; to avoid failure; or they are seeking revenge in misguided ways. Or, they may simply be acting impulsively. Because these emotions may be heated and complex, it’s critical to deal with the upset – both yours and your child’s – first before attempting to solve any problems. Reacting quickly while upset can create more hurt and may result in words or actions that will later become regrets. Take the time needed to accept feelings – your own and your child’s – deal with them, and then, refocus on how you can respond to your child in healthy ways.
1. Model Self-Management Skills by Taking a Parent Time Out
Your child has pulled apart and destroyed a needlework project you’ve been working on for months. When you see the destroyed project, you feel the heat rise through your body. Your heart speeds up. Your breathing becomes short and rapid. You are furious. As your child walks into the room looking guilty, how does an emotionally intelligent parent react? In fact, an emotionally intelligent parent knows that any kind of reaction to the child in that moment will be fueled by anger and is likely not going to be the best choice. Instead, that parent might say “Mom needs a minute.” Or even without uttering a word, parents could go to a favorite chair, sit down, close their eyes, and simply breathe. Parents need not open their eyes to reenter the conversation until they have regained some focus and calm and are ready to reflect on the situation at hand. Some parents find it helpful to keep their eyes closed until they have thought through exactly what they’ll do and say that is healthy and constructive when responding to their child.
2. Guide Your Child to Calm Down
Saying to your child, “calm down” when they are genuinely upset does not do the trick. In fact, whatever you say in a heated moment might not be heard. That’s why it’s important to set up a plan in advance for calming down so that it’s at the ready when your child needs it most. Where does your child feel most comfortable? Is there a private spot they could set up with a favorite pillow, bear, notebook, or other comfort object? Can you practice deep breathing together at bedtime so that they know how it feels? Laying your hand on your heart can often become a cue to become intentional about slowing down the rapid beats. Practice moving to the calm down spot and go through the motions of what your child might do to feel better in that place. Can they hug their bear? Can they draw or write? Can they breathe deeply? Then, when your child is upset, you can gently remind, “What would help you feel better? Would your comfort spot help you?” Using this strategy will help your child begin to internalize self-management skills and take responsibility for their own process of calming down.
Be sure to supplement these strategies with Discipline for Skill Building.
Modeling the Skills
As parents, you are constantly modeling for your children. Sharing examples of when you make mistakes or poor choices can help children understand that it’s normal. You can also share how you fail and try again or work hard to mend relationships if you’ve hurt them. This means that as a parent, you don’t always have to get things right. Teaching children a sense of responsibility means admitting mistakes and being willing to recognize and apologize for the impact our actions have on others. We admit failure and are willing to apologize. Here are a few specific examples of how you can model the skills you want to teach.
1. Make amends.
So often when mistakes are made, feelings also get hurt. It’s critical that parents model the skill of repairing relationships. When you’ve argued or been upset with your child, they are hurting. How can you show them you love them no matter what? Whether it’s an apology, a sincere hug, or words of loving reassurance that you’ll always be there for them, how can you make amends in your relationship?
2. Fix what’s been broken together.
Whether it’s a lamp that’s been knocked to the floor by a rogue indoor ball, red punch spilled on the new ivory rug, or a precious necklace given to your child by Grandma that has broken apart, the stuff of our lives is vulnerable to children’s play. Things will break or be damaged. In the rush of our busy family lives, it’s easy for parents to sweep away the mess, throw away the broken dish, and mend the rip in our child’s jacket. But our attending to those damages on our own does not involve our children in taking responsibility for their actions, repairing the harm they’ve caused. Indeed, it may take more time in the short run to help your child glue the lamp back together, but those steps will lead to a child who understands how exactly to repair the harm they’ve caused.
Focusing on Decision Making
Although improved social and emotional skills develop healthier decision making, it is helpful for you to explicitly focus on how your child makes decisions. Get curious about the thinking process involved in your child’s decision making. Ask your child what the thought process was and whether the outcome was positive or negative. It can be as simple as asking, “What made you make that decision?” or “What were the considerations you took into account when you made that decision?” or “What were some of the consequences you thought about when you made that decision?” This will help highlight for you any gaps in their decision making, but more importantly, if you do this on a regular basis, it will increase the likelihood that your child will slow down and pay more attention to their decision making.
Following through on logical consequences does not always come easily. In high stress situations, it is tough to maintain self-awareness, manage heated emotions, and express empathy. Often the steps necessary to follow through on logical consequences take more time if there’s relationship or property mending to do as well as reflecting on choices and harm caused. Intentionally practicing calming down and returning to the problem generating ideas to make a next better choice can assist parents in aligning with their deepest values while assisting their child in internalizing responsible decision-making skills. The more these skills are practiced, the more natural they’ll feel and the greater likelihood that they will be accessible when needed, especially in high-stress situations. Intentional practice means being deliberate about trying a particular social and emotional skill you want to develop. Once you get better at this skill, try adding the next skill.
Following through on logical consequences is the process through which you can assist your child in acquiring essential life skills focused on knowing and caring for oneself and others, and achieving their goals and mending relationships when they make poor choices. These skills are developed over the lifespan from childhood into adulthood and are learned through dealing with feelings first, modeling, attending to decision making, and intentionally practicing. The skills built by following through on logical consequences are critical to success in life as these social and emotional skills are correlated with outcomes such as academic success and emotional wellbeing in childhood, healthier relationships, as well as improved work performance and higher pay in adulthood.