A friend asked recently for an example of a natural consequence, so I shared one that had occurred just that morning in my own life. My older daughter, dawdling endlessly, was just about to make us late for school. As the absolute last minute approached, I told my daughter that if she wasn’t able to walk out the door in 2 minutes, the natural consequence would be that I wouldn’t be able to walk her to her classroom, as she prefers. (The back door that we use to get to the classroom is further away, and gets locked a few minutes before the tardy bell.)
This was a decent example of a natural consequence: waste time now, lose options later. In theory, by identifying a likely outcome for my daughter in advance, I was helping her to understand the potential consequences of her actions, and motivating her to make different choices.
But, I added, I didn’t feel that good about it.
My daughter was very upset at the prospect of this possible outcome, and the remaining minutes we had together that morning were fraught with drama and upset. Yes, she got out the door on time, but at what cost? I’m pretty sure she didn’t learn anything—although I stayed calm, the (natural) consequence was so big in her eyes that she pretty much came unglued.
My friend asked me: “What do you wish you had done instead?”
Wow, what a good question! After thinking about it for a bit, here are some options:
- Wake up earlier. It takes time to handle behavior problems, and when you run low on time, you also run low on options.
- Slow down and be late. (see above) The idea of being late to school makes me very uncomfortable, but one tardy one time might have been a better outcome than the upset.
- Intervene earlier. I could have put down whatever I was doing, gone to my daughter’s bedroom, and done a little light-hearted micro-managing. I could have playfully put her clothes/shoes/etc on for her. She would have loved it, loved the attention, loved being ‘babied,’ and it probably would have gotten her out the door in time.
- Plan ahead. This was a Monday, and the first day of the week (especially after a long weekend) is often the hardest for kids. They aren’t ready to give up the fun, the parent attention, the relaxation of the weekend any more than we are! I could have seen this coming, and made sure that we all went to bed a little early, with tomorrow’s clothes laid out, lunch packed, breakfast set out, etc. Mornings are always better when I do this prep.
- Understand her. Identify the root cause or causes for her dawdling. Does she want to avoid school? Is she physically tired? Does she need a longer/better transition from home-days to school-days? Is her proverbial cup empty? Does she need of a ‘dose’ of attention/fun/love? Once I identify these causes, addressing them is a wonderfully effective way to prevent future incidences.
- Understand me. Besides the never-ending ‘on the fly’ nature of parenting, what kept me from choosing some of the above options in the moment? Do I need a little self-care? Is something coming between me and enough sleep and the time/space to prepare for our routines?
Numbers 1-4 are basically shaping the environment to accommodate or better manage her needs. These are great tools to have in your toolbox, and frankly, that’s about the best I can do at 7:35 in the morning. Numbers 5 & 6, however, are the black belts of parenting—the kind of responses that allow for an ever deepening relationship between parent and child. Understanding your child, understanding yourself, and acting from that understanding—this is where the rich, cooperative, connected, and mutually respectful relationship that we all want to have with our children begins. So, if this appeals to you, let this percolate in your mind for a while. Look for a moment this week when you can pull those tools out, and see where it takes you.