Natural Consequences: The Best Parenting Tool No One Uses
As a parent & teen coach, I see it all the time. Parents sitting in my office, desperate for the conflict with their child to stop and for their child to just — listen. Teens sitting in my office, shut down and apathetic, feeling like what is the point.
Both of them are justified in their feelings, and neither of them see that the answer to both of their problems is the same thing: autonomy.
Parents, without realizing, center themselves as the main source of negative interactions for our kids. They stand in front of all natural consequences in order to “protect” them, warning them of what would happen if they didn’t stand in front of those natural consequences. From what we’ve learned about Dr. John Gottman’s research on marriage, a relationship that experiences a greater than 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions isn’t very sustainable. But is it necessary for parents to place themselves in front of the natural consequences their child may face if they make a poor decision?
Short answer: no. Especially if you start early. The earlier you allow your child to experience negative consequences (like a bad grade on a test they didn’t prepare for, losing a friend because they wouldn’t share, or freezing their butt off on the hayride because they didn’t want to bring a jacket), the earlier they learn resiliency and how being human works. Until then, they’re just taking your word for it… and around puberty, your word is of increasingly less value.
Want to know what else happens when we let them experience natural consequences? We give them autonomy. Something children crave from the very beginning. Even anxious kids, in fact especially anxious kids. Anxiety is a fear of the loss of control, autonomy is control. Give kids autonomy, they begin to feel more in control.
I began to transition my son (now about to turn 14) to natural consequences about 4 years ago, when I realized everything I just said above. I stopped looking at grades, started allowing him to take bigger decisions (like where to go to school), and allowed him to choose his own friends and relationships. Grades dropped and bad decisions were made.
But this time I wasn’t there saying “I told you so”, I wasn’t yelling at him every day and he wasn’t yelling back. I was there for him, helping him pick up the pieces. I was able to be on the same side with him, facing the problem together. Watching him struggle was awful. I wanted to protect him. But I had to tell myself this is ultimately the best way to teach him to protect himself — something he’ll need to do often as an adult.
So, how is he now?
Thriving. It’s the best word I can think of. I am in awe of how wise he is, how well he makes decisions — lightyears ahead of where I was at his age. He still messes up here and there, but that’s just part of life. Overall, this kid is thriving.
And it’s not just him. I walk families through this transition week after week. I watch as parents look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest turning the grade notifications off. The ones who stick around, and trust me enough to try, see the results. I watch as withdrawn, apathetic kids start to open up again. A parent tells me how nice it was to hold their crying child in their arms, rather than screaming at them to leave them alone. The relationship slowly repairs and parents walk away with that sense of peace at home they’ve been searching for, and teens with that sense of purpose they’ve long been missing.
Please, let your child suffer natural consequences. Put you and your child on the same side, facing the problem together. Be the safe place to fall, not their main source for negative interactions. I promise it will be incredibly uncomfortable, consumingly terrifying, and unbelievably rewarding.