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Four Keys to Making Consequences Work

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


A lot of parents tell me they’ve tried using logical consequences to manage children’s behavior but with not-very-good results. They can’t figure out why this supposedly fool-proof method doesn’t work for them. Usually it’s because they’re not using it correctly.

Logical consequences was popularized by psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs in the 1940’s and 50’s. Dreikurs’ most famous book on child guidance, Children: The Challenge, emphasized developing children’s self-discipline and self-control in a supportive parenting environment. According to Dreikurs, logical consequences allow children to learn to limit themselves without putting parents in a controlling role.

So why do many parents struggle to make this work? It’s because they have trouble letting the Universe be their child’s teacher.

Logical consequences is effective because it’s impersonal. Nobody inflicts punishment or teaches anybody a lesson. In fact, in a logical consequences situation, the parent can sympathize with the child and share in her disappointment in how things worked out. The parent is not the disciplinarian. But giving up this role is hard for many moms and dads.

Here are four principles to keep in mind that will make logical consequences work better for you.

1. The consequences have to be logical. They have to arise from the situation and not be something created by the parent. So a logical consequence of leaving your jacket out in the rain is that you have to wear a wet jacket (or no jacket). It’s not a logical consequence if leaving your jacket out in the rain results in no dessert tonight.

Parents get frustrated here because if their child has another jacket to wear the consequence doesn’t bite hard enough to suit the adult. But if leaving a jacket out is no big deal, then it’s no big deal. That’s logical.

2. The consequences have to be immediate.  Especially for young children, who have such an imperfect understanding of time, an effective consequence has to activate the moment a mistake was made. Throwing a block at the wall leaves a mark, which the child must work to fix – now. Staying home on Saturday from a planned trip to the zoo in order to fix the mark on the wall is not immediate and so seems disconnected from the act of throwing a block.

Parents delay consequences because stopping everything to let the consequence have its effect is often inconvenient. But teaching children is always inconvenient. It would be so much easier if they already knew everything!

3. The consequences have to be neutral. Consequences are not good or bad, they just are. Trying to make them worse or more dramatic than they have to be inserts into the experience a parent’s wish to punish. But once you take sides, you’re lost. This is not logical consequences then but just an elaborate method of exerting control.

Staying neutral in the matter of consequences is not easy for most parents, who are afraid that their child is “missing the point.” But again, if you have to jack up the consequence in order to make it more noticeable, then maybe the whole thing was no big deal to begin with.

4. Your role as a parent is one of lending sympathy. If your best friend left the top of her convertible down and then it rained and ruined the upholstery, you wouldn’t say “I told you so! I told you to watch the Weather Channel!” No, you would say how awful that was and wonder along with her how much it will cost to fix things and where she might find a good person to do the work. Your role with your child in a logical consequences situation is exactly the same.

If you have to be “right” and point out how you could see this coming but your child was too thoughtless and pig-headed to listen, then your problem is not one of discipline but a problem of good manners. Be nicer!

You might see now where you’ve been applying logical consequences in ways that pretty much guaranteed failure. You might also understand that this technique is really a way of seeing yourself and your child. It’s a valuable method that leads to good child outcomes. But for most parents, it’s not easy.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.