Natural Consequences: Are They Really What We Think?

There is a difference between contrived and natural consequences and many people are teaching the wrong thing. Let's evaluate: are those really natural consequences?
There is a difference between contrived and natural consequences and many people are teaching the wrong thing. Let’s evaluate: are those really natural consequences?

There is a difference between contrived and natural consequences and many people are teaching the wrong thing. Let’s evaluate: are those really natural consequences?

Sydney is 6 and she loves to create. Her mode of choice last week was modeling clay. She was making cool things- flowers, Minecraft swords, cats, abstract designs. I love watching her work. Each move is intentional and thoughtful. She has a vision, and she figures out how to bring it to fruition.

She spends a good chunk of time on some of her designs- sometimes a design will take her two or three days to complete- no matter what materials she is using. We designate part of our dining room table for projects so that they can be left and come back to when inspiration strikes.

Sydney had been working intensely on a particular creation using clay last week. When I turned all the lights out before bed on Tuesday night, I noticed she had not covered her clay. When she woke on wednesday she would be so sad! Everything would have hardened before she had finished her project, and her clay would have been ruined.  All of that thought, exploration, and creativity would have evaporated in a moment!

As I covered her clay and works of art, I thought about the many advice columns I have read claiming that Sydney’s sadness in the morning would have been a “natural consequence”, and my heart sunk. I imagined Sydney’s face upon seeing the hardened clay. I thought of her seeking solace from me- her mother, only to be told “that’s what happens when we don’t take care of our things”, instead of receiving comfort and understanding.

Ugh.

Are Those Really Natural Consequences? By: Jennifer Andersen OurMuddyBoots.com
Are Those Really Natural Consequences? By: Jennifer Andersen OurMuddyBoots.com

Had I left the clay to harden overnight, it would not have been a natural consequence, it would have been a contrived consequence. It would have required me to override my natural instinct to be kind and help a fellow human, and opt instead to have my daughter “learn her lesson”.

Contrived vs. Natural Consequences: What’s the Difference?

In this case, a natural consequence would have been if I had not seen the uncovered clay before going to bed, and we woke up to it being hardened. It would have been a mistake- an accident. Just like we adults make all the time. We get wrapped up in a project, or distracted with other to-do’s and we leave something unattended.

Had Sydney’s clay been ruined, I would have felt so sad for her. Sydney’s things are important to her.  I would have given her a hug, and listened to her disappointment. Had the clay been ruined, I would have taken her for new clay to start over, if that was what she wanted. We have the financial means to do this, and just as my husband purchased a new computer keyboard when he spilled water on his, we would have replaced Sydney’s clay, so she could continue creating. She is a person, just like my husband.

Contrived consequences are frequently mislabeled in the parenting world as natural consequences.

“She’ll learn her lesson today when she doesn’t have a coat! It’s freezing out!”

“He’s going to learn his lesson today when is stomach is grumbling at gym class because he wouldn’t eat the breakfast I made for him.”

“She’ll learn to share when I take her toy away from her for a week!”

We hear these labeled as “natural consequences”, but they are not. They are acts of unkindness, really. They do teach a lesson, but it’s not the one parents think it is.

What is a Natural Consequence and What Does it Matter?

A natural consequence is something that happens naturally- without manipulation, intention, or thought. In the case of the clay, I would have had to consciously choose to leave Sydney’s clay to harden. That is not natural, it is contrived.

When we start to think of things in terms of contrived or natural, it changes our relationships with our children. Instead of masking yet more of our choices as teaching a valuable lesson– we can connect with our children. Instead of contriving situations for them to experience heartbreak, we can be there for them when it does actually happen (because we all know heartbreak and disappointment happen frequently throughout life no matter our age). Instead of our kids understanding that we are the ones who caused their disappointment, they will know that we are there to help them work through it, and strategize about how to avoid it happening again.

Once we commit to eliminating contrived consequences, it gives us room to see that there are plenty of disappointments and natural consequences that our children experience. It allows us to actually teach them a lesson: how to avoid it happening again, or how to handle disappointment and move forward.

Best of all, it lets our children know that we are there to help and guide them, and comfort them when needed.

What is an example of a contrived consequence that you have seen labeled as a natural consequence? Is this something you are just learning about or is it something you have understood for a while?

Did you enjoy exploring natural consequences? Click here to read “I Do Not Punish My Children. Ever. What Does that Look Like”

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4 Replies to “Natural Consequences: Are They Really What We Think?”

  1. I loved reading this. I struggle with this idea of “Natural Consequences” as well. Seems we apply that phrase to things that, like you said, aren’t always such a natural happening. Thank you!

  2. Oh my! Thank you for writing this article. I have a hard time making my child suffer for the sake of learning. Kindness is a much more important lesson to impart than disappointment. I believe that filling our children with love and kindness makes those natural disappointments easier to weather. When I have to find ways to ‘teach’ my children, I try to remember what the Hands Free Mama says, ‘only love today’.