The 'Natural Consequences' Parenting Strategy Is What Works For My Spirited Child
My daughter’s screams reached a fever pitch level. She’d been out on her bicycle every single day since our self-quarantine started, and she didn’t want to stop now. As giant blobs of rain smacked the ground and the wind knocked our outdoor chairs over, I shook my head and shrugged. “It’s probably too slippery for the bike today, bug.” Tears began to stream down her face, and she pleaded with me to let her take a quick spin on her wheels.
I knew this kid was not going to back down from her mission. I quickly weighed the actual chances of her getting seriously hurt in my mind, which felt minimal at best considering her circumstances. She had a (properly fitted) child-sized helmet and some handy-dandy training wheels resting on the back of her bike, and she already knew not to go too far. My daughter hates being wet and cold, so I didn’t expect this to last long. She was also so damn determined to see her “can I realistically bike ride in the rain?” investigation through.
I knew that the pain of battling against my four-year-old to go back inside would far outweigh the temporary discomfort of her getting wet or slipping a little on her bike. I sighed deeply, calmly giving her the heads up about what may happen when she started pedaling in the rain. Then I begrudgingly stuck her pint-sized helmet on. I was in the middle of providing my kid with the golden opportunity to explore some real-life natural consequences to her actions, and she was more than ready for them.
Roughly five minutes went by, and my daughter’s giant-ass smile faded as she reluctantly started dragging her bicycle back to our driveway. She was pissed as hell, sopping wet, and looked like a deflated football player after losing the Superbowl. My little girl couldn’t manage to ride without slipping off of her seat and pedals. She only got about a half a block down the sidewalk before realizing that the weather had won the battle. As she walked up to me, a few more tears rolled down her determined cheeks. I gently knelt down and hugged her for a while. “It was too wet to ride,” she cried into my arms.
I didn’t say “I told you so” — just replied, “I know, bug. I’m sorry it’s too rainy to bike today.”
While this may seem like just your average day of parenting, for me it felt like a humbling victory. I had successfully allowed my strong-willed daughter to take a calculated risk, explained the natural consequences that could happen if it didn’t go according to her plan, and was able to sit with her through some uncomfortable emotions when it didn’t. My little girl moved on quickly from this moment, found another activity that interested her, and the remainder of the day was awesome.
To say my kid is a “spirited child” would be the understatement of the century. She’s a hot-blooded Scorpio with an overwhelmingly vivacious nature. This child has been sprinting since the minute she learned how to walk, her curiosity knows no bounds, and you will regret the day you ever tried to force her into doing anything.
I knew before entering motherhood that I didn’t want to discipline my kids in the traditional sense. I had never personally been a big fan of time-outs or punishments, and the idea of spanking them sent shivers down my spine from years of enduring physical abuse as a child. I definitely wanted to help my kids find their natural place in the world, learn how to be kind, and feel connected to themselves and others as they grew up. I also wanted to allow them to exist as the unique, full-bodied human beings they are, even after I realized that my daughter’s indomitable spirit was working on overdrive.
I was introduced to the work of Janet Lansbury by a compassionate mom friend who had witnessed a particularly vulnerable moment I encountered with my daughter, and the parenting expert hooked me from the very beginning. She’s a Magda Gerber student and talks a lot about allowing children to experience the natural consequences of life, rather than pressure them into a way of behaving that helps them conform to our demands. Her responsive, child-led approach immediately spoke to my mama bear heart. Thanks to Lansbury, I’ve figured out a sustainable way to encourage my daughter to naturally trust herself while also guiding her to properly focus the wild enthusiasm that leaks out of her at all times.
A lot of what the mom and author teaches parents centers around our young kids, but I honestly think it’s equally as powerful for those raising adolescents and teens.
“A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behavior, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out,” Lansbury writes in a blog post on her website. “If a child throws food, his or her mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we don’t go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. The child may still react negatively to the consequence, but he does not feel manipulated or shamed.”
Since I’ve adopted the “natural consequences” mode of parenting, my child has discovered a whole lot about cause and effect. She knows that if she runs around without a coat on in the winter (which happens often), she may become too cold to keep playing outside. She understands that once she eats the final popsicle out of the pack, there will be no more. She’s realized by now that if she hugs her little brother too tight, he will most likely scream at her to stop. She’s also learned the hard way that we won’t be able to go places like the playground or a store if she’s struggling with listening to me at home. Most importantly, I provide explanations to help her get the “why” of everything that happens without the detrimental side of effect of having her light dimmed in the process.
As challenging and all-consuming as it can feel at times, I’ve found that parenting in this way has resulted in a little girl who shamelessly continues to dream big, cares deeply about others, and courageously picks herself up anytime she falls down. She’s able to articulate her feelings to me, bravely tells me the truth at times when it’s much easier to lie, and figures out creative solutions to just about any problem. Basically, my kid has figured out how to lovingly, independently, and wholeheartedly dance with life through the natural ebbs and flows she experiences on a daily basis.
Do I always manage to stick to the “natural consequences” roadmap? Of course not. I’m a human being just like my daughter, and I remind her of this often. On the most exhausting of days, I’ve been known to impulsively blurt out “I’m throwing out all of your toys!” or argue with my kid over why she won’t just listen to me for the sake of listening. I also use common sense and don’t take natural consequences to the extreme levels of permitting her to jump off a roof just to see what will happen or run into the street and play chicken with the cars.
To me, this parenting style is simply a compass that always guides me back home to what really matters. I would never want to sacrifice my child’s basic sense of safety or trust, so ensuring that she gets the lesson instinctively and within the bounds of what feels secure allows her to see me as a dependable anchor in the choppy waters of her day.
I also find that coupling these natural consequences with a loving touch goes leaps and bounds with my daughter. In her moments of heartbreak after she has has fearlessly trial and error-ed, I gently lower myself down to her level, offer her connection, and empathetically communicate with her. I acknowledge her feelings, explain whatever natural boundary is needing attention, and lovingly hold her chaotic emotions as she processes the information.
Every time I take this approach with my daughter, I remember Lansbury’s poignant words. “Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit,” she writes. “A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment.”
I know that she’s referring to kids here, but that last sentence speaks to me even now as an adult. I don’t know a single person who enjoys being shamed, physically violated, or made to feel unnecessarily scared if they screw up. To the contrary, I think many of us wish we could experience the world with a deep faith in knowing that no matter how something goes, we are safe to feel all our feels. Because of this, I treat my little girl the way I hope to be treated after making a mistake or experiencing a setback. If I’m not comfortable with someone enacting undue harshness toward me, I’m certainly not on board with doing that to my child.
Raising my daughter with natural consequences has taught me so many things. Most importantly, I’ve learned that children can stumble without needing to have their noses rubbed in the mess. They can cultivate their intuition and also balance that with the needs of others. And we can certainly all benefit from allowing life to teach our kids as much as we do.
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