Logical Consequences

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This week, I had the great privilege of speaking about Respectful Parenting and Discipline to a wonderful collection of people at University of Dayton and group of about 75 or so parents and educators in the Indianapolis area (many thanks to the Indiana Council of Preschool Cooperatives and especially the Carmel Cooperative).  It was a couple of terrific evenings.  As I often warn audiences, I am a nut for this stuff–I could talk about it for weeks and be a happy camper.  There’s very little I get more animated or passionate about than having the opportunity to influence, even in one small way, the views of parents about “discipline” and respect for young children.

So, of course, when you’re a person (like I am) who lives to talk about this stuff (like I do), presentations get a little out of control.  They go long, there’s never enough time, we laugh, we get sidetracked, we come back, we dig in, we struggle.  All of that.  And we did all of that this week.  Inevitably, there is something missed.  And that something often seems to be the same something: Logical Consequences.

Oh, no, we talked about them.  Not enough.  But we talked about them.  But people always want more, or more clarification, or more examples.  (can’t say I blame them).  In Indiana, it was a man (a dad?) in the audience who brought us back and reminded me to say more about logical consequences (and presumedly, how they differ from natural consequences or illogical/random consequences or punishments).  I did–for a short time–but I suspect not enough.  There’s always something that gets short shrift when we have only two hours together.

I know this is something people really want to know.  So it seems like the time is ripe for us to talk more about it.

But before we do, we need to agree on a common language–something that is often lurking between the lines at presentations.   We also need to agree on or at least acknowledge the discomfort of ambiguity, especially because the answer to “what is the logical consequence for…” is usually “it depends.”  I know–helpful, right?

The thing is, it’s really important, when you’re trying to answer a question to the best of your ability, to understand exactly what question is being asked (this is true for answering children’s questions as well, by the way…always figure out or clarify what they’re asking before you respond!) So when someone says, as they did this week, “can you explain more about what logical consequences would be?”, there are (at least) five different possible meanings for that question:

  1. Could you give some examples of scenarios and the logical consequences that you would use?  (fair enough)
  2. Could you provide a list of logical consequences?  (like a list of possible punishments–spanking, time out, grounding, etc.)
  3. What is the logical consequence that would serve to “punish” them or make it clear that what they did was wrong or bad?
  4. Don’t we have to know the logical consequences ahead of time so we can let the children know what’s coming if they don’t comply or correct their behavior?
  5. I’m really trying to understand what you mean by logical consequences (as compared to natural consequences or illogical/random consequences), and if you gave some examples, it would help me to understand.

I cannot overstate how important it is to me to know which of these questions–or which combination of these questions–is really being asked.  And unpacking that to find out is a bit of a laborious and time-consuming process–sometimes involving uncomfortable introspection–which I think is often why it doesn’t quite get answered to some people’s satisfaction in workshops.   I so want to answer, and I often feel bad that I’m sending people away without the answers that they are seeking.  So let me try to address these five questions here, in the hope that that might move us a bit closer to the answers that people want. So here goes:

  1.  Could I give scenarios and the logical consequences that go with them?   Um… not so much.   I know that’s what you want, and I know how helpful it would be.  And I’m not just being difficult.  I promise. The thing is, the answer is always “it depends.”  It depends on the child–their temperament, their sensitivity, what else is going on (are they sick?  overtired?), their experience and history of punishment, their personality, the intention and background conditions that exist around what they did that you now feel you need a logical consequence for, and your comfort in the role of calm, confident leader.  It depends on where you are (at home?  in a store? at a park?  at a friend’s house?).  It depends on your emotional state–are you feeling like they need to be punished or “taught a lesson”?   Or are you focused on addressing the need that is being communicated via their behavior?  Are you stressed?  Feeling calm and patient?  Every one of these questions results in a different answer.  So you can see why it’s a little tough to give scenarios and the logical consequences that go with them–but at the same time, I want to be helpful, so I will do my best a little bit later on.
  2. Could I provide a list of logical consequences?  Um…not so much again.  (I know.  I’m so helpful.  🙂  )  Often the best answer I can give to this is that logical consequences just don’t exist on that plane.  There’s not a list to choose from, like you can choose from a list of what punishments you’re going to use.  There’s not a list because they’re not things you “do to” a child, and they’re not things that exist at all outside of the situation.  So my answer–that I give in workshops, and that I gave this week–is an intentionally ambiguous one: “A logical consequence is one that specifically addresses the behavior that you are responding to, in the context in which you are responding to it.”  Yes.  I know it’s vague.  This kind of parenting, this kind of discipline is not a cookie-cutter method.  It demands mindfulness and thoughtful decision making.  It requires your active engagement and your willingness to dive right into that ambiguity and think things through with all the information that you have about your child, yourself, and the situation.  I’m sorry it’s not simpler–I kinda wish it were.  But then it wouldn’t be authentic to the people and the situation, and then it wouldn’t work.
  3. What is the logical consequence for “x” that will send a clear message that their behavior was wrong or bad and that we are angry or upset about it?   Ah.  This is the one, my friends.  When I have had the luxury to really “unpack” and dig into what question is really being asked, this is the one that I often find lurking there under the surface.  Parents want to know what to do to make kids feel bad about what they did.  That’s what a punishment is.  That’s just not the way this works, even if it what we know best, perhaps from our own childhoods.  That’s not what a logical consequence is for.  A logical consequence is to help the child learn or be supported in the behavior that we want them to exhibit, not be punished or shamed or made to feel guilty or bad for the behavior that we don’t want them to do. It’s supposed to teach positive life skills-not “teach a lesson.”  Our goal, even in correcting behavior, is connection–making a child feel confident that they can handle it differently in the future, and that even if they don’t, we know that they’re learning.
  4. Don’t we have to know what the logical consequences are, say, for hitting, in advance so we can “warn” our children, i.e. “If you hit, this is what’s going to happen.”  Hmm.  Well….yes and no.  Frequently when we use that strategy, we are wielding it as a threat, as a way to get them to comply.  If that’s what you have in mind, something akin to “If you hit Mommy, you’re going to have to sit on the step,” then perhaps some clarification is in order.  Threats have no place in respectful discipline.  You do not need to hold a punishment over them–you want to teach them what to do when they feel angry or their body is out of control.
    On the other hand, if we are using a logical consequence as a way to calmly explain what will happen next, something like “I can’t let you hit me.  If you hit, I will get up and move,” that’s quite different (as long as it’s not said in a threatening tone.)  All you’re doing in that second case is letting them know, in a simple factual way, what will happen, allowing them to predict the future.  You’re not trying to get them to stop.  You’re just explaining your decisions to them.  You will notice that “I will get up and move” is the parent taking action themselves to prevent the behavior from reoccurring, not putting it on the child to harness self-control that they clearly do not possess (or they wouldn’t have hit in the first place.)  I’m hoping you see the difference.
  5. Can you give examples?  I just want to really try to understand what you mean.   Sure.  I can do that.  🙂

First a few guidelines:

  • A logical consequence is NOT a punishment.  It is not to make the child feel bad or guilty–those things increase the behavior you don’t want.  It is not to make the child “think about what they’ve done,” because that’s a myth, at least for young children, but mostly for older ones, too.   They’re not over there thinking about what they’ve done.  News flash:  You can’t make someone think about something by telling them to.  Your preschooler is over there in the time out chair thinking about where that transformer is that they can’t find–and your older child is sitting there thinking about, well, whatever they want to think about, though what they’re going to do to make your life more miserable is potentially high on that list.  You cannot control someone else’s brain.   A logical consequence is not to give you a break because their behavior is making you crazy.  Taking care of your emotions is your job, not your child’s job. If you need a break, take one–walk into your room or the bathroom and close the door and scream into a pillow or a towel or mutter to yourself that you wish you had never had children and swear under your breath to your heart’s content–it has nothing to do with your child.  All behavior is communication.  Logical consequences are about helping children meet whatever need they have without harming others or themselves, about supporting and building the development of self-control.
  • A logical consequence should be directly related to the behavior that you are trying to correct.  Sending a child to their room for throwing a toy truck is not a logical consequence (at least not at the outset).  Putting the toy truck away is a logical consequence.  Taking away TV for a day because a child calls you a name is not a logical consequence–it makes no sense.  Taking away TV if they refuse to turn it off when asked or agreed upon, that would be logical, but even then, it is not a punishment, it is a support that respects their self-control and regulation abilities.  You are acknowledging that they don’t have that level of self-control, and as result, maybe it’s better for now that they not be put in a position that they can’t handle.

What’s that you say?  That doesn’t feel punitive enough for you?  You feel like they need to learn that throwing is wrong?  You need to teach them that?  I get it.  We feel responsible.  Taking our responsibilities as parents seriously is a very good thing.  Let me assure you:  your two year old is not sitting there carefully thinking through and weighing the merits and risks of throwing the toy at your head.  If they were, they would not throw it, because, logically and emotionally, your children do not want to hurt you.  They throw it because they have developmentally immature impulse control–this is something that will change automatically with maturation.  They throw it because they are frustrated, and that’s what young children do when they are frustrated. Or maybe they are throwing it because throwing is fun.

If they were throwing it because they thought it was the right thing to do, it would be our job to help them learn that it is not the right thing to do.  But if they’re throwing it because they have poor impulse control, it is our job to to scaffold their development of impulse control by helping them to interrupt the action (which gives them time to begin to learn to think and plan, something that they will not do well for a long time yet) and by removing objects that might hurt someone or get broken.  This is a logical response because it is directly related to the reason for the behavior, and it supports them in learning the skills that will increasingly take shape as they mature.  If they throw it because they’re frustrated, it is our job to show them compassion and help them to learn what they can do when they are frustrated, not what they cannot do.  And if they throw because it’s fun, it is our job to let them know that there’s nothing wrong with throwing, and give them things they can throw, so they can begin to learn to slow down with their impulses and choose their actions and materials.

  • Not all behavior needs an imposed consequence. This work of respectful parenting and discipline is not a algebraic formula. Behavior + consequence ≠ good parenting.   Some behaviors need a solution. Some behaviors need compassion. Some behaviors need playfulness.  Some behaviors need nothing more than for you to put your phone down.  Some behaviors need to be largely ignored (because the reaction is reinforcing).  Some behaviors just are–we all have bad days.

But oh, yeah, you wanted a list.   Okay. I’ll give you a list. But you have to make me a promise. You have to promise me that you won’t take this list and post it on your refrigerator to remind you or your child or both that “this” is the consequence for “that.” These are possibilities and ideas. They’re not necessarily the right ones for you, your family, or your child. You need to weigh them, decide if they work for you, or if they feel authentic to you—because without authenticity, they’ll fall flat anyway. They have to sound like you, they have to make sense to you, you have to be convinced. I can’t decide those things for you. Nobody said it was going to be easy. So…pinky swear? Great.

Hitting or Biting

  • Being “shadowed” for awhile (having an adult sit right next to you or be close whlle you are playing so that they can catch/block the hit or bite before it is completed.)
  • Having your hands or arms held firmly (nor aggressively or tightly) or your body held at a distance for a short time in order to drive home the verbal limit.
  • Playing in a separated playspace in which you cannot reach your sibling or friend that you were hitting or biting.
  • Being given things that you can hit (a pillow, a couch cushion, a bed) or bite (a teething or biting toy, a piece of cloth, any chewable toy.)
  • Having the person you are hitting or biting move away from you (disconnection).
  • If hitting or biting is chronic or takes place in the context of a tantrum, spending time in a space that is separate from “the action”, ideally with a parent.

Throwing Food or Toys

  • Being offered things that are acceptable to throw.
  • Increased opportunities for more vigorous physical activity.
  • Having food or toys removed from the playspace (not in a punitive fashion, but in a matter of fact way).
  • Having a routine or activity be over.

Running Away on the Sidewalk or in Stores

  • Being required to hold hands at all times for a while.
  • Being required to sit in a stroller in certain settings.
  • Being required to ride in the cart in certain settings.
  • Losing some independence in outside activities
  • Having some outings cancelled or returning home immediately

Pushing the baby over

  • If it’s once, no consequence, just a clear limit set.
  • Closer supervision, adult’s hand or body there to block.
  • When not being supervised, limited or no access to the baby (if the behavior is chronic), i.e. separate playspaces.
  • More opportunity for one-on-one time with the parent
  • More opportunity to express negative emotions about the baby with the parent.

Taking toys from other at the park.

  • Often no consequence needed.  First choice is that the kids work it out themselves.  If that isn’t feasible, clear limit setting.
  • If repetitive or difficult to stop, closer supervision, adult’s hand or body there to block, with verbal reminder of “turns.”
  • If it seems out of control, moving to another section of the park to play or going home.  This is not a punishment–“that’s it, we have to go home” or “if you take kids toys, you can’t be at the park”–it’s responsive, a recognition that it’s too hard for them to be at the park or play near others right now.

Saying “bad” words or “I hate you.”

  • Most of the time this does not need a consequence.  By far the best strategy is to ignore it and not have much emotion about it.  So, I guess the logical consequence is having very little effect.

Tantrums

  • Tantrums do not need a consequence.  Tantrums are a neurobiological overload, too many cylinders firing at once.  Their brains and their bodies are out of control.  It is developmentally normal.  Our job is to give them room and privacy to allow that to pass, with loving support.

Making a shift to respectful discipline is not mostly about learning a technique or method or a “what to do.  It is a mind shift, a heart shift.  It is a decision to shift the entire frame or lens through which you view your children.  It is an invitation to abandon the idea of behaviors as “good” or “bad” and adopt the idea of behaviors as communication and adaptive.  It is a way of seeing your child and choosing cooperation over obedience.

“He’s been just awful lately and I don’t know what do with him” becomes “He’s been having such a hard time lately, and I don’t know how to best help him.”

“You’re being really difficult” becomes “What’s going on?  How can I help?”

“She’s so rude to people!” becomes “Social situations are hard for her right now.”

“He’s selfish and demanding” becomes “He’s needing something, and I need to figure out what that is” or “He’s just egocentric in the normal way that preschoolers are supposed to be.”

“She’s a nightmare when she doesn’t get what she wants the second she wants it” becomes “She’s struggling with impulse control”

Respectful discipline (and parenting)  is not a method or a set of instructions.  It is a decision to see our children as full human beings, with rights to bad days, bad moods, frustrations, emotions, and mistakes.  It is a commitment to making responsive rather than punitive decisions.  It is a decision to see ourselves as resources and guides, not wardens.  It is a shift to a whole new world view about children, about waking up with a new way of viewing children and their behaviors.  Understanding and implementing logical consequences comes naturally with practice and improves intuitively as you embrace the perspective.

When you take a deep breath and make that shift–I invite you to join me and others, we are here to support you, you won’t be alone, I promise–you won’t need a list.  You will meet your children where they are, understanding they are small people with immature brains who have much learning ahead of them, and you will respond with what is most helpful and supportive to them.  You will.  You can.  It will be worth it.

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