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The Problem-Solving Parent: Threat or Consequence - What's the Difference?
By Eleanor Reynolds, M.A.

Since Dreikurs first introduced consequences as a strategy for eliciting appropriate behavior from children, natural and logical consequences have become popular. Consequences allow children to change their own behavior by experiencing the results of their own actions. When this happens without adult intervention, we call it "Natural Consequences." A child slaps another child and receives a slap back, discovering that it hurts. A child trips over a toy and tends to be more careful next time. A child touches a hot stove and remembers not to touch it again.When we do intervene and devise ways for children to experience the results of their actions , we call this "Logical Consequences." An adult can change the entire experience of consequences from self-directed learning to adult-directed learning. To avoid this, we must understand the reasoning behind consequences and use them skillfully. Here are some examples that compare the appropriate use of consequences with what can happen if we fail to understand why and how to use consequences effectively.

A. Looks like your milk spilled; here’s the sponge.

B. Watch out. If you spill your milk, you’ll make a big mess.

A. If you’re finished with your toys, they get picked up.

B.Don’t dump out those toys or you’ll have to put them away.

A. When a kid kicks me, I put him down. Kicking hurts me.

B. The next time you kick me, you’ll end up in "time out."

A. After saying "throwing sand can hurt kids," several times, the teacher wordlessly removes Alison from the sandbox.

B. Alison, I warned you several times to stop throwing sand so stop it right now.

Consequences, not punishment. Dreikurs warns that we frequently use logical consequences inappropriately, either by implying, "I told you so," or as outright punishment. When this happens, the result can be resentment, rebellion, and hostility from the child. The effective use of consequences depends primarily on our attitude. It’s critical that we remain neutral, friendly, and uninvolved. Our tone of voice should indicate that the child’s actions and resulting consequences are the responsibility of the child. Our role is to be a bystander and resource. When kids are confronted by the consequences of their behavior, the experience should be one of learning, not punishment.

Problem-Solving includes five interchangeable strategies for setting limits and a last resort. Consequences is only one strategy. Be sure to use consequences only when this strategy best suits the situation. For example, we cannot use consequences when there is real danger to one or more children, but we can use them when the risk is minor. We cannot use consequences when the child would obviously not care about the result. If the child leaves a toy on the floor, he may not care that, "The room looks messy," or "someone might trip over it." When we attach our own feelings about the consequence, we’re accepting too much responsibility. As a reminder, here are all five limit-setting strategies (and a last resort) of Problem Solving. We’ll discuss all of them in subsequent issues:


I-Messages: It worries me to see you climbing on the table because you could fall off and get hurt.

Giving information: It’s time to get ready for lunch. The toys get put away.

Logical Consequences: Kids who have their shoes on can go outdoors. Kids who do not, will stay inside.

Contingencies: When your puzzle is put away, you can get another toy.

Making choices: You may be quiet indoors or be noisy outdoors. Which do you prefer?

Removing and sitting apart (a last resort): When you’re ready to play without hurting, you can play. It’s up to you to decide when to return.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at [email protected].