Understanding How to Use Natural Consequences vs. Logical Consequences vs. Punishment

There are thousands of parenting books out there, and sometimes it seems like they each coin their own terms just for the sake of being unique and trendy. But do they actually mean anything different from one another? Here is a clear explanation of three common terms associated with discipline:

Natural Consequences – Just as the term says, these are consequences that occur naturally in a cause-effect relationship. For example, if your child forgets to bring his musical instrument or baseball gear to school, he is not going to be able to participate in those events during the school day. If your daughter uses up all of her allotted cell phone minutes during the first week of the month, she will not have any minutes left for the remainder of the month. If your son doesn’t want to eat anything that’s on the menu for dinner at your house and chooses to stay in his room, he will miss out on eating a meal. If your daughter doesn’t remember to remind you that she wanted her favorite jeans washed before going out with her friends on Saturday, she will have to choose something else to wear. There is no reason for you to exacerbate the situation by saying, “I told you so,” and you should definitely not get into the habit of rescuing your child from experiencing such consequences. The only time these consequences are not okay is if they could cause physical harm (i.e. running into the street might cause you to be hit by a car), are so far in the future your child does not care to make a connection (i.e. not doing homework in 6th grade means you may not get into college), or if others are more affected by the consequences than your child (i.e. continuing to borrow and lose their sibling’s toys at the park).

Logical Consequences – These are consequences created and imposed by you that are associated with the poor choice or behavior. For example, “Because you lied to me about staying up late to watch TV when the babysitter was here, you will not be allowed to watch TV for the next three days,” or “You will use your allowance money to buy your sister a new sweater because you wore hers without her permission and ripped it,” or “If you continue to ignore my instructions to pick up your toys, the next time I have to do this I will remove $1 from your allowance for every toy I have to pick up.” They should follow an expected and logical progression, and you may even choose to have your child help you come up with the consequence for a poor choice to help them better remember and understand what is expected the next time. Expect your child to test limits several times, and offer the opportunity for them to try the plan again a few times if needed. Remain calm in your tone and body language, and stay consistent. Remember to choose only consequences that you are able to live with and follow through on consistently – do not use something like, “If you do not take the dirty dishes out of your room and put them in the sink, you will have to live with the smell in your room and we will not use any dishes to eat off of at mealtime.”

Punishment – This is typically imposed during moments of extreme frustration or anger with your child’s behavior. It does not follow a logical or natural progression, it is frequently extreme in regards to the amount of time or specific punishment, and it is often meant to upset your child into empathizing with your frustration by causing them to experience their own frustration. For example, “You are grounded for three months because you lied when you told me you had finished your homework yesterday!” or “Since you don’t listen when I tell you to pick up your toys, you don’t get dessert or TV time for the next week!” Punishment is typically the least effective form of discipline, because it does not teach children about realistic consequences for poor choices and behavior, and often turns into a competition or power struggle between parents and kids. Oftentimes, kids (especially teens!) may think that if the punishment is extreme, they might as well engage in other “bad” behaviors to actually “deserve” what is happening as a consequence.
Hopefully, this gives you a better sense of these three terms and how these types of discipline can most effectively be used to manage your kids’ behaviors!


Next Week’s Blog: What Part do Choices Play in Discipline?

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.