My last blog post explained how we need to concentrate on nurture ahead of structure for our kids. However, structure is important. If our children don’t have a sense of strong structure in our family, they won’t have enough emotional security to grow and learn. Balancing that need to provide both nurture and structure has usually led me to the principle of letting my kids suffer the logical consequences of their decisions. That technique both keeps my fingerprints off the consequences and lets kids learn in the way that they learn best.
What is The Doctrine of Logical Consequences? The doctrine of logical consequences holds that children learn best from living with the natural consequences of their decisions. The best way to teach them is to step aside and let them work through the consequences of their decisions. Of course, we have to keep them safe — we don’t step aside when toddlers want to play in the traffic or teenagers want to take illegal drugs. But whenever we can, we let our kids deal with what happens after the decisions that they may.
Moreover, when we have to engineer consequences, we make them mimic real life as closely as possible. We also do more than wait for those occasions to arise. Whenever we can do so safely, we should actively engineer logical consequences.
Why Does It Work? It can be hard to motivate kids to develop good habits and follow house rules. The technique that is easiest for us, nagging and lecturing, only works (at best) for a short time. Our instinctive response to just lecture longer and louder doesn’t help and can make things worse. Until our kids’ brains fully develop (sometime in their early 20) they seem to be unable to process even our best advice. We think that we are being particularly eloquent; they hear the “wah-wah-wah” immortalized in Charlie Brown cartoons. So we have to turn to experience, which is the way that most human beings learn.
How Do We Use Logical Consequences? Once you start thinking in terms of logical consequences, you will discover all sorts of techniques. For example, with some kids I could connect allowances to school grades, not only motivating them to do homework, but also getting them used to the principle that their income is pegged to how hard they work. Other kids were not motivated by money, but we could limit their electronics for low grades, explaining that obviously they needed fewer distractions from homework.
Sometimes, all we have to do is stay out of the way. If a child waits until the last minute to do a science project, a bad grade may be a good lesson about the dangers of procrastination. Other times, we need to be more proactive. For example, if a teenager forgets to take the trash to the outside can, putting the bag in his room will be a better reminder than a lecture. As I explained more than once, I want to move the trash bag to a place that it doesn’t annoy me, but I don’t want to do their job for them.
What are the Limits on Logical Consequences? You always have to keep the consequences safe for the child. We want them to have a preview of the real world, not full exposure to all of the bad things that can happen to them. Part of keeping the preview safe is the need to pick your battles carefully. Your children may or not be able to deal with average child-level problems. You have to learn which issues to deal with today and which ones to deal with later — or never. For example, allowing an average child who forgets his lunch money to be hungry for a few hours will be a good lesson in planning ahead for his day. For a child who has experienced food insecurity, on the other hand, missing a meal can trigger all sorts of trauma. For that child, you will need to find other consequences.
What are the Benefits of Using Logical Consequences? I have seen many benefits from using logical consequences. First, those sort of results teach the child what to expect from the world when they are adults. Second, they get me out of the never-ending arguments. When I can just let events unfold without my fingerprints, it forces my child to look at the situation rather than blaming me. Finally, logical consequences are better at motivating children and helping them develop good habits better than any lecture we can give.
The next time you need to motivate your child to make a good decision, look long and hard at what would happen in the real world, figure out which of those consequences will motivate your child, and use your creativity to replicate them safely in your child’s life. I guarantee that you will be surprised at how well the technique works.