The Truth of Consequences


When my husband and I changed the way we reacted to our children’s behavior, we found that the natural consequences of their actions taught them more than our scolding ever had.

“I’ve had it with these kids!” My hands shook as I filled the dishwasher. My husband stopped beside me on his way out the door. Planting a kiss on my lips, he nodded knowingly, shrugged, and hurried off to work. I turned again to the sink. I felt discouraged. In fact, we both felt overwhelmed by the ongoing challenge of appropriately disciplining our children. It seemed we were spending more time punishing than praising, more time chastising than commending. Parenting felt like a difficult game with complicated rules, and we were losing.

Like many parents, we struggled with discipline. We knew we yelled too quickly, threatened too often, and grounded too easily. At times not only our children seemed out of control but also our own responses. We needed to do something different.

After discussing our concerns with the children and with each other, we took our problem to Heavenly Father and asked to be led to information that would teach us to be better parents. We were astonished at the powerful answer that came: Change had to begin with us.

With that, my husband and I began studying the words of the prophets and reading self-help books on parenting. As we looked for answers we finally conceded that our problems stemmed mainly from two weak areas: lack of consistency and failure to reward appropriate behavior. But how could we discipline consistently when the misbehavior varied from child to child? from day to day? from hour to hour? And how could we reward good behavior when we focused primarily on what our children did wrong?

We came to value many precepts taught in the scriptures, including this verse: “Whom the Lord loveth he correcteth” (Prov. 3:12). Yes, we needed to “correct,” but how? As we studied further, we learned about applying natural or logical consequences, and we set a new goal to allow our children to experience the repercussions of their actions—good or bad.

Rewarding the Good

Rewarding good behavior sounded easy, but it required changing our outlook. At first we found a need to create opportunities to offer praise and give credit where it was due. Since everyone needs positive feedback, we became vigilant observers, alert to small acts of obedience and deeds of kindness, and we were lavish with our compliments.

We discovered that the younger children needed to see immediate results for their actions, and they soon began thriving on our renewed applause. The older ones sought our approval for their choices, our appreciation for their efforts, our admiration for their accomplishments. How had we missed this before?

To our amazement, we saw our children respond to our new emphasis with a desire to please us. Agreeing with the Psalmist that “praise is comely” (Ps. 147:1), we cheered them on.

New Ideas for Old Problems

Working on natural consequences as a form of discipline, however, involved a different tactic, a new mode of thinking. We began by reworking our house rules, making them simpler and easier to understand. The new rules, effective immediately, required cooperation and support from everyone. They included such things as treating each other with respect and treating others’ possessions with respect. We also eliminated the word punishment from our vocabulary and used consequence, result, or effect instead.

With rules in place, we also had to think of new, natural consequences when something went wrong. Each time a child broke a house rule, we attempted to find a repercussion appropriate to the action. As parents, we needed to slow down and learn to act instead of react to a situation. Knowing we had a plan helped us defuse our own short tempers, and this newfound skill allowed us to step back emotionally to review each circumstance and decide what to do.

Many solutions to poor behavior were easy to spot, especially with young children. A child who couldn’t sit still in a chair? She stood to eat her meal. Toys left scattered about the room? They were confiscated for a length of time. A son who tracked in mud? He wiped it up, learning in the process how long it took to mop an entire floor.

Discovering practical consequences for our older children was somewhat more complicated but inevitably effective. In a classic example of sibling rivalry, our 10-year-old son raced from the rear seat of the van to claim the empty front seat. In the process, his foot smashed a cake baked for a visiting teaching assignment. Consequence? He tended the other children while I baked a replacement, and he was banned from front seats for three months. Effective? Yes. While we wondered if we had been too hard on him, he admitted the consequence seemed fair.

Feelings of fairness, justness, and impartiality have appealed to us all and helped us continue applying natural or logical consequences. We better understood the scripture that says, “He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons” (Col. 3:25). When the children saw the unbiased, consequential result of their actions, they were willing to continue supporting the new rules. Now when we ground a teenager, we know it is appropriate to the behavior, and we don’t waste our breath on idle threats. Even better, my husband and I realized we didn’t need to yell—we needed to think first, then discuss behavior calmly.

Clear Calls on Cloudy Issues

Some behaviors such as name calling, hitting, and temper tantrums required creative thinking to find logical consequences. Some of our solutions sounded silly even to us. But they worked.

Impolite language violated a house rule. We responded, “If nothing sweet comes out of your mouth, nothing sweet goes in.” The consequence? No desserts or gum. The rudeness of one child toward another brought another consequence: “Since you can’t play nicely together, maybe you can work together.” The answer? Assigning a chore requiring cooperation. With a son on one side of a window and a daughter on the other, we watched the two stare each other down, then begin an ugly-face contest. Laughter followed as, teammates once again, they wiped away the dirt along with their bad feelings. Another favorite solution demanded that the offender serve the offended—literally—by taking over personal chores such as bed making.

At first tantrums stumped us. What was a natural consequence for losing your temper? In the past, we simply banned the children from the room or grounded them. With our new approach, however, we discovered a technique effective for any argument. “You wasted 30 minutes of my time and squandered 45 minutes of your dad’s time. Now you need to repay us.” The consequence? A list of jobs equal to the total length of tantrum time. We found it important that the chores be those parents normally did. Easy time-fillers negated the effect. Our children washed walls, cleaned baseboards, dusted bookshelves, and wiped down appliances.

Occasionally a behavior surfaced that defied an immediate, logical consequence. Then we found it best to pause, step back, and declare a time-out so we could act on rather than react to the situation. We freely admitted, “I don’t know what the answer is. We’ll discuss it in a while.” This allowed us as parents to prayerfully consider what should happen, and it also gave our children an opportunity to contemplate the problem too. Often a child would tell us what the natural result should be. We also learned the importance of remembering to follow through on a postponed discussion.

Smoother Sailing

Over a 10-year period, we worked as a couple and as a family to implement the technique of using natural or logical consequences. As we have done so, we have observed marked changes in our children’s attitudes and behaviors. Our family life flows more smoothly. Our children have come to understand an important principle: actions carry consequences which can be good or not, depending on the choices made. We have been grateful to Father in Heaven for helping us learn better ways to guide our children. Because of these changes, the difference in our home life today is tangible, even occasionally verging on the heavenly.

[photos] Photography by Matt Reier; posed by models

Carol McAdoo Rehme serves as Laurel adviser in the Loveland First Ward, Greeley Colorado Stake.