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Habits Q & A: Consequences

Today we want to dive into the questions we’ve received about habit training. The first question I want to cover is probably the one we hear most often:

Question: “I sometimes have a difficult time thinking of natural consequences for the habits that I would like to develop in my kids. Could you give us some tips on coming up with natural consequences and how to implement them?”

I mentioned in the previous habit-training post that Charlotte Mason gave three ways to motivate your child during habit training: encouragement, living examples, and consequences. If you haven’t already read that post, I encourage you to do that.

Today we want to focus on consequences. First, let’s clarify what is meant by “natural” consequences. There are really two types of consequences that Charlotte referred to in her writings: one type is natural consequences and the other is relative consequences. Here’s the difference: Natural consequences just happen without any management, without any input from the parent. For example, if you don’t brush your teeth, they will rot and fall out of your head—that’s a natural consequence. Natural consequences are powerful, but sometimes the natural consequence is not one we want our children to experience.

Charlotte wrote: 

“In many cases, the natural consequence of the child’s fault is precisely that which it is [the mother’s] business to avert, while, at the same time, she looks about for some consequence related to the fault which shall have an educative bearing on the child: for instance, if a boy neglects his studies, the natural consequences is that he remains ignorant; but to allow him to do so would be criminal neglect on the part of the parent.”

Home Education, p. 148

So in those cases we “look about for” or try to come up with related, or relative, consequences. Charlotte called them educative consequences; as in, they “educate.” Relative consequences are ones that the parent thoughtfully and intentionally gives to the child to help educate him in making good choices. That’s one of the big things with consequences: we’re trying to teach our children how to make wise choices.

When we’re thinking about consequences, there are some principles we need to keep in mind. One is how Charlotte described authority—that it is not manipulative, it is not revengeful, it doesn’t come down with a heavy hand. Charlotte cautioned against using a sledgehammer approach with our children and said that they aren’t very sympathetic with that approach, for good reason. So we need to remember that our place as an authority is to help them become the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. Our authority needs to be gracious, but we can still be firm and help our children learn. You may want to review the post on Authority and Obedience.

The second principle that we need to remember is that our children are persons. We treat them with respect. We’ve talked about respecting the child as a person. One way to respect your child is to give her a choice. When using consequences, it can be very effective to say, “Here are your two options. You choose which one.” And we’ll talk in a minute about what those options could be.

The third principle is that the consequence needs to be appropriate for that particular child. There’s a big difference between consequences and punishment. Consequences are used in order to help the child look forward and say, “Oh, this is what would work better in the future”—to learn how to make wise decisions on his own. Punishment usually looks backward and keeps the child focused on, “Don’t do that again.” Do you see the difference? And many times punishment looks the same for all the kids. It’s like, “Here’s the rule. Everybody gets the same punishment no matter what.” But we can tailor-make consequences to fit each child: her age, her emotional development, her sensitivities, her particular fears, her particular interests, her background. Maybe you have an adopted child or a child who has experienced trauma in the past. You need to take all of that into consideration when you’re dealing with consequences.

And then the last principle, and most important thing that Charlotte would encourage us to do, is to make sure, as much as we can, that the consequence is somehow related to the infraction, to the offense. That’s why we refer to them as relative consequences; they’re related to the behavior. So for example, if the child makes a mess, a punishment would be, “Go to your room and stay there”; but a consequence would be, “You need to clean it up.” So what we would do is give the child an option. We could say, “Would you like to clean this mess up by yourself, or would you like me to help you?” That would be for a young child or one who might not be able to clean it up all by herself. With that wording, the child knows that the cleaning up is not the option. The option is, “Do you want help with it or not?”

The trick is in thinking of appropriate, related, educative consequences. So I’ve tried to come up with some steps to help us walk through that process. Here are four steps that you can use to think of relative consequences.

Step One: Life Principle

First, look at what the child did and think about What is the life principle behind it? A life principle is a core truth that holds true throughout life, no matter how old you are.

Charlotte said that consequences “should be natural, or, at any rate, the relative consequences of conduct; should imitate, as nearly as may be without injury to the child, the treatment which such and such conduct deserves and receives in after life” (Home Education, p. 149).

For example, “If you make a mess, you clean it up.” Cleaning up your own mess is expected all through life, not just for children. Another life principle is if you dawdle and don’t get your work done, you usually lose an opportunity. If you dawdled and there was something good coming, if you don’t get your work done in time, you’re going to lose the opportunity to participate in that fun activity or you have to make up that time later. So if you have a child who is dawdling at his lessons, you might say, “We have five minutes left in this time slot for our lesson. Do you want to finish your work now, or do you want to finish it this afternoon during your free time?” Those are the two choices. Finishing the work is not up for grabs; that is going to happen. But the option is, “You can finish it now, or you can finish it during your free time.” So the child is giving up his free time.” Hopefully he will choose now and hunker down and get it done. But if not, we need to make sure that we have the courage to follow through on the other option.

Here’s another life principle example: if your child is misusing possessions or destroying property, a life principle of that action is that you lose that possession, you no longer have access to it, or you have to replace it. That’s just common sense in life no matter how old you are. So we can give the child one of those choices. Maybe the child won’t pick up his toys; they’re strewn all over and he hasn’t picked them up. You can calmly say something like, “You may either pick up your toys and put them away now, or I will pick them up and put them away where you will not have access to them.” Do you see how a life principle is applied? We need to think back to those life principles and give the child a choice to make a wise decision or to make a not-so-wise decision and experience the consequences of it, the related consequences.

Step Two: Negotiable Areas

So the first step is to think, “What is the core issue? What is that timeless principle that applies throughout life?” And then the second step is to figure out what you might be able to give options in. I call them the negotiables. It’s not hard. We can narrow it down by thinking through Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Usually the What and the Why are not negotiable; the What and the Why are the life principle in most cases. But that still leaves us Who, Where, When, and How as potential negotiables to think through. 

Think through the area of Who. In the example of the child who was supposed to clean up the mess he made, we were able to give him the options of “Are you going to clean it up by yourself, or would you like me to help you?” Who is involved in the consequence. Sometimes that can be a negotiable. Other times that won’t fit the situation. So think through, Can I give an option with Who?

Sometimes you can offer an option in the area of When. “Are you going to empty the trash now, or are you going to empty it tomorrow morning?” Emptying the trash is not the option. The What and the Why (because that’s your chore, that’s the habit) are not options. But you can give an option with When. Or as I mentioned earlier, “Are you going to finish your lesson during this time slot now, or are you going to do it this afternoon during your free time?” That’s a When option. 

And then Where might be another area in which you can offer options. I read about a father whose kids were picking at each other in the backseat of the car. (I know that never happens to us, right? Our kids never do that.) But this man’s kids were just going at it, and he was tired of listening to it. Now he had taught them how to resolve conflict, but they were just choosing not to. These were older children, probably 11 and 12. So he pulled the car over, and he said, “You two know how to resolve your conflicts. You can either resolve them quietly in the back seat now, or you can go stand on the sidewalk out there and do it, because I don’t want to listen to you guys bicker.” That’s a Where option. The kids were like, “It was your fault.” “No, it wasn’t. It was your fault.” And they kept going at it. So he said, “Fine. Go stand on the sidewalk right there where I can see you, but I don’t want to hear you. Go stand there, until you work out your differences. And I’ll wait here.” And he grabbed a book and started reading while he waited for them.

You might also use the area of Where to give options when the child has lost self-control and needs to regain his self-control. Maybe that child is pitching a fit or whining or whatever the self-control issue is. You can say something like, “You can either regain your self-control here, or you can go in your room and regain your self-control.” That’s another example of a Where option.

You can also do options with When. I’ve already mentioned taking out the trash (“You can do it now or you can do it tomorrow morning”) and finishing a school lesson (“now or during your free time this afternoon”). 

How can sometimes offer good options too. For example, “You were disrespectful to your sister. Are you going to apologize in person or by writing a letter to her? How are you going to apologize?” The apologizing is not up for grabs, but how you do it can be up for grabs. So just think through those Who, Where, When, and How, and see which of those areas might give you good, appropriate options so you can give the child two choices. 

Step Three: Options

Step number three, then, once you’ve identified the Who or the How or maybe it’s the When or the Where, which of those areas could be negotiable, now just brainstorm what those options might be. So if you decided, “I think When would work in this situation.” Okay, what two When options could you give? Or what two Where options could you give? And as you brainstorm, ask yourself two questions: “Am I willing for my child to choose either one of these options?” Don’t give him an option that you do not want him to pick. Of course, you want him to choose the wise option, but are you willing to see the other one through, to have the courage to make it happen, to actually have those kids get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk? Are you willing for that to happen? In other words, they’re going to see through a bluff, so don’t try to bluff your way through this. Are you willing? 

Charlotte recognized that sometimes it’s hard to carry through on giving the child the result of his choice. She said that using appropriate consequences “requires patient consideration and steady determination on the mother’s part. She must . . . brace herself to see her child suffer present loss for his lasting gain” (Home Education, p. 148).

But in addition to asking yourself “Am I willing?,” you must also ask yourself, “Am I able to make both options happen?” I remember reading about a mom—I think she’s my new hero. She had a child who would act up every time she went to the grocery store. He would start picking at the other kids and creating problems. She had talked to him about it, and he just kept doing it. So she sat down before the next trip and thought through, “What are my options here?” And she came up with an idea. So she called her friend and got an accomplice to help her carry this out. 

The next time she and the children went to the grocery store, the son started in picking at the others and causing issues. This time she was prepared. She looked at him and said, “You can either regain your self-control here or you can go do it in your room. Which would you prefer?” Now, can’t you just see the wheels turning in his head and the little grin on his face. He probably thought, “Yeah, right. You’re going to send me to my room now? Uh-huh. Sure.”

He said, “I want to go to my room.” She said, “Okay.” She picked up her phone, dialed a number, and said, “Come and get him.” That’s all she said. Now you could see the kid starting to panic. He’s probably thinking, ”Did she just call the police? Who is this? Who’s coming to get me?” The mom kindly yet firmly escorted him out to the entrance of the grocery store. Her friend, her accomplice, had been waiting in the parking lot. She pulled up in front of the door,  and escorted the son into the van, to his home, and into his room. Then she stayed with him until the mom got home from the grocery store. 

Now, for some kids that would have been enough. It would’ve been, “Okay, I see Mom means business,” and that would have been that. But this son needed a little bit more. He was thinking, “Hey, I got my way. I don’t have to go to the grocery store anymore.”

But Mom had thought of another option just in case. (And this is where I think she deserves a trophy.) After she thanked her friend and got the groceries put away, she went into her son’s room and they talked about what happened. But the son was still taking the easy way out and hadn’t learned the life principle. So she said, “Now, how do you intend to pay your babysitter?” 

Brilliant.

She was giving him an option: “How do you intend to do this?” It’s a life principle: if you use someone’s services, you need to pay them for it. The son had used the friend’s services. He didn’t have to use those services, but he chose to. So he needs to figure out how he’s going to pay her. 

So as you think through potential options, always ask yourself those two questions: Am I willing and am I able?

Step Four: Wording

Then the fourth step is to figure out how you’re going to word it. You want to clearly present what is not an option—the life principle—and what are the child’s choices, using a firm yet kind voice. You could say, “You may apologize in person or in writing. Which do you choose?” If the child is dawdling, you can say, “Feel free to . . .” whatever the fun experience is—“Feel free to join us for the movie after you have finished washing the dishes” or whatever the chore or work at hand is.

Another possible wording would be “How do you intend to . . .?” I read about a son who was playing with his father’s fountain pen. It was a very expensive pen and his father’s favorite, and the child broke it. This was an older child who had some money from allowances. And so the father talked with him about using other people’s property. There’s the timeless principle: If you destroy or misplace other people’s property, you need to replace it. So the father said, “Now, how do you intend to replace my pen?” They’re going to work through it together, but the son is going to learn such valuable lessons by thinking through that question and making it happen. It’s a related consequence, an educative consequence.

So those are the four steps that I’ve come up with so far in thinking through relative, or related, consequences: (1) figure out what that core issue is, the life principle; (2)  determine the best negotiable—usually the Who, When, Where, or How; (3) brainstorm options in that negotiable area; and (4) decide how you’re going to word it. 

Yes, walking through those four steps is going to take some time and thought. You may not be able to come up with good related consequences immediately on the spot. But you can think ahead a bit. What are some recurring struggles that you’re facing? Take a few minutes to think and pray about each one, and hopefully, these four steps will help you land on a relative consequence that will be appropriate and educative as you help your child form good habits for life.

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5 Responses to “Habits Q & A: Consequences”

  1. Dianah February 9, 2022 at 6:40 pm #

    This was so timely for us thank you Sonya. I really appreciate your blog posts!

  2. Mandy May 7, 2022 at 8:14 pm #

    Thoughts on consequences for teaching the habit of obedience? I’ve been doing my best to incorporate natural consequences, but there seems to be a threshold of where obedience has to be taught directly and not just on the basis of educative consequences that result. To me that feels like leaving the decision to obey up to them, if they’re willing to experience the resulting consequence. I’m not sure if this makes sense? My mind goes to spanking, but would love if there’s another way.

    • Tamara Bell May 9, 2022 at 1:29 pm #

      Hi Mandy. Spanking, would be a punishment (looking back and trying to teach them that they had better not do “that” again) rather than a consequence. Occasionally, the line between consequence and punishment may seem blurred however consequences are established. Yes, the goal is that your children will choose to obey, just as we choose to obey God. Consequences can vary greatly. There was once a mother I knew who had a child that made the choice not to obey. This mother had planned a park outing with her children. Because she could not trust this particular child to obey the rules of the park (and Mother), the child’s consequence was that he had to sit on the bench next to his Mother for the entire outing. Now, she had established that particular consequence prior to the start of the day and she discussed it with her son before he had the opportunity to obey or disobey. The little boy did not enjoy his time on the bench while everyone else ran, played, and laughed. It had a lasting effect on him. The key is to determine each child’s ability and needs. What may be a sufficient consequence for one, may not have an effect on the next child. In so many ways, our children working through the act of obedience is a direct reflection of our lives and in some ways mirrors our daily choosing to obey God or our choosing to not obey Him.

  3. Brooke May 23, 2022 at 2:00 am #

    What do you do if the child doesn’t choose either of the consequences. Such as “would you rather apologize in person or in a letter?” And the child responds with “neither, I’m not apologizing.”

    • Sonya Shafer May 23, 2022 at 9:25 pm #

      One way to handle a child’s refusing to choose is to have a standing rule that no choice = parent’s choice. If the child doesn’t choose, the parent gets to make the choice.

      If the child refuses to apologize at all, it seems there may be a heart issue that needs to be dealt with. Try listening with empathy and invite the child to explain what he is thinking and feeling. Ideally, you might gently guide him to listen with empathy to the person he wronged and realize what that person is thinking and feeling too.

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