Quit the Nagging: Help Kids Learn Through Natural Consequences

How to help children learn responsibility for their own actions, sans yelling, grounding and other parental power plays.


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Tired of nagging, yelling and power struggles? It might be time for a new discipline approach. Natural consequences, part of the “positive discipline” movement that deemphasizes 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, such as a child refuses a coat, so he feels cold on his walk to school. These types of consequences can help children learn responsibility for their own actions, sans yelling, grounding and other parental power plays. Interested? Read on for age-by-age guidance.  


Ages 0-5

Time In

Time-out is a time-honored discipline method for tots dating back decades. Parents are often advised to correct bad behavior by dishing out one minute of time-out per year of age; so a 2-year-old who hits would get two minutes in a time-out chair. But does “time out” fit into a natural consequence model? Raelee Peirce, a certified Simplicity Parenting coach and instructor in Chapel Hill, says no.

“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 your child in corrective action like cleaning up a mess or apologizing to a friend they’ve hurt, and remove your child from the activity if needed, while staying close, says Peirce.

“Proximity to parents is important to children from 1-3 years old, as this can be a time of heightened separation anxiety.”


Ages 6-12

School Rules

Natural consequences can help kids learn to manage increasing academic workloads in grade school, but only if parents allow them 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 responsibly for completing and submitting her own work. Turning in an occasional late assignment or forgetting a project at home are minor setbacks with major learning value that can pay off down the road.


Ages 13-18

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. These measures may seem warranted, but they can backfire by reinforcing tension and distrust between parents and teens, Peirce says.

“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,” Peirce says. “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 — naturally.


Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and 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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