"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
January 30, 2013
Natural Consequences
by Emily S. Jorgensen

There is a poster in my children’s school that quotes Margaret Mead, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

Discipline should be the same. We teach them the corresponding consequences of their available choices, and then let them decide what to choose. We don’t force them to choose what’s right, but we enforce the consequences of their choices.

Adults know that if we do certain things or make certain choices, we may have to face certain consequences: if we smoke, we can expect respiratory health problems; if we drive recklessly we can expect to get a ticket (if we are lucky) or get in an accident (if we are unlucky); if we want to earn money, we have to go to work.

If the main point of childhood is to be prepared for adulthood, then children need to learn that one-to-one relationship between their choices and the consequences that go with them.

Enter The Time-Out.

As corporeal punishment began to be viewed as somewhat barbaric, slews of parents turned to The Time-Out as the catch-all discipline technique. It teaches that when we make certain choices (say, hit our sister or scream at mommy), we lose freedom.

To be sure, this smacks of the real world. If an adult hits another adult, he may very well end up in jail.

However, loosing freedom is not the endgame of every poor choice. If an adult is impolite or inconsiderate to those around her, do we throw her in jail? Of course not.

What will likely happen to her? She won’t have many friends; she may find it difficult to find a job if she has a history of antagonizing past co-workers or bosses. These are the natural consequences to her behavior. If she is wise, she will eventually see this relationship between her choices and these consequences.

If one child is trying to get her way all the time in a playdate and refusing to take turns or share, what is the natural consequence to this poor behavior? Other children will not want to play with her.

So, do we put her in time-out to show her this? Or do we hope she will grow out of it? Do we think she will learn it naturally in the course of life?

Would you teach her to drive safely by making her sit by herself in a parked car? Or, letting her do whatever she wanted behind the wheel until she gets in an accident, and THEN teach her safe driving techniques?

The better discipline choice is to sit down with her and label for her what she is doing, “It looks to me like you were making all the choices in the game and not letting Sally have a turn. Is that true?” Then, identify the natural consequence of her choices for her, “Sally is not going to want to play this game with you if she is not having fun. I am sure she would like a turn.” And then, invite her to make a better choice, “Let’s go ask Sally if she wants a turn now.”

The Natural Consequences method, like most good parenting, takes more work. Casting a Time-Out blanket over all poor behavior is sure easier. Hoping the child will figure things out for herself by adding a “spend this time thinking about what you just did, missy!” when you park them on the time-out stool is not likely to teach her much.

Sometimes, using Natural Consequences means my husband and I turn to each other and whisper, “What do YOU think the natural consequence of this is?” because there are situations that we have never really thought through to a natural endgame.

And sometimes we tell our child, “OK you know you are in trouble, but we need to think a minute about what your punishment should be.” Making the punishment fit the crime takes a lot more thought than using one discipline technique.

When one of our children has done something to the other to cause them difficulty or extra work, the sentence for the offending child may be to help the victim do her chores; when a child fails to complete a job in the prescribed (generous) time period, she doesn’t get to go to the movies with the others. When a toy is being fought over, that toy gets put on the highest shelf for a while until the two children can work out how they will share it.

The natural consequence of sneaking candy from the candy jar is the jar goes away until you show you can be trusted again. The natural consequence for a tantrum is that you, for sure, will NOT be getting whatever it is you are tantruming about. (Yes, I just made up that verb.)

At the end of the day, we prepare our children best for adulthood by teaching them what consequences to expect from their choices in life, so they can make informed choices. They will still sometimes choose unwisely. But they will not choose ignorantly, if we have done our job.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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