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Positive Discipline: Improving Behavior with Natural Consequences

Read on for age-by-age guidance on putting natural consequences to work for your family - naturally.

Tired of nagging, yelling and power struggles? It may be time for a new discipline approach. Natural consequences - part of the ‘positive discipline’ movement that eschews threats, withholding privileges and other punitive discipline measures - can help promote cooperation and build accountability. A natural consequence is one that happens as a result of a child’s own actions, without the parent’s involvement: A child refuses a coat, so they feel cold on their walk to school. Experts say these types of consequences can help children learn responsibility for their own actions, sans yelling, grounding and other parental power plays. Interested?

Early Years: Newborn to 5


‘Time-out’ is a time-honored discipline method for tots dating back decades. Parents are often advised to correct misbehavior by dishing out one minute of time-out per year of age; so a two-year-old who hits a sibling would get two minutes in a time-out chair. But does ‘time-out’ fit into a natural consequence model? Nope, says Chapel Hill parenting coach Raelee Peirce, a certified Simplicity Parenting coach and instructor. “Time-out is not developmentally-appropriate for this age. It may increase tension between the parent and the child.” Parents can still guide behavior and learning without resorting to time-out, she says. When a toddler is destructive or uncooperative, remain calm to model self-control, aid the child in corrective action - like cleaning up a mess or apologizing to a friend they’ve hurt - and remove the child from the activity if needed, while staying close, says Peirce. “Proximity to parents is important to children from one to three years old, as this can be a time of heightened separation anxiety.”

Elementary Years: 6 to 12

School rules

Natural consequences can help kids learn to manage increasing academic workloads in grade school - but only if parents allow the consequences to play out. There’s a strong temptation for parents to hover and micromanage kids’ schoolwork, particularly during the elementary years when kids are still learning to manage it themselves. But doing so can rob children of the chance to learn responsibility and self-motivation early on in their academic career, says parenting and relationship expert Thomas Gagliano, bestselling author of The Problem Was Me. “Parents need to understand that they can’t control their children’s behavior,” he says. “Rather, they need to supply their children with the tools to control their own behavior.” For schoolwork, that could mean hanging a large calendar with schoolwork deadlines where your child can see it and creating space and time for daily schoolwork, then allowing your child to take responsibility for completing and submitting their own work. Turning in an occasional late assignment or forgetting a project at home are minor setbacks with major learning value that will pay off down the road, when academic stakes are higher.

Teen Years: 13 to 18

Respect and connect

During the teen years, teen-parent tensions can flare up, leading parents to resort to sweeping disciplinary action: Grounding, removing driving privileges and/or taking a teen’s phone away. These measures may seem warranted, but they can backfire, says Raelee Peirce, by reinforcing tension and distrust between parents and teens. “Teens have limited big-picture capabilities, so mistakes are unavoidable. Asserting your contrived power by wielding a big sword of control will only stir tensions in your relationship and erode at your foundation of trust.” A better approach to guiding teen growth: Tune in to their problems. “The optimal approach to parenting teens is to stay connected,” says Peirce. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Listen to a favorite song they have with them; tune into their favorite radio station when they ride with you; text with them.” Teens who feel connected to their parents are more likely to seek out your support and less likely to lash out, prompting fewer struggles and a bond that’s naturally strong.

Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist, and a mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.



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