Unnatural consequences

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 22, 1997

(See also: my 2022 criticism of some things I said in this 1997 article.)

Most modern parenting books advocate using so-called ‘natural consequences’ to punish children, and devote much space to describing the relevant techniques. They don’t call it punishment – indeed the technique itself requires one to deny that it is punishment – but it is something unpleasant that the parent is to decide should happen to the child when the child’s behaviour deviates from the parent’s wishes. So anyone who uses language decently would call it punishment.

Why else would they need to write a hundred pages on the subject, giving instructions for how to ‘employ’ natural consequences? If they were indeed natural, there would be no need to explain in great detail how to ‘step back and allow the child to experience the natural consequences of his own actions’. Otherwise known as wilfully standing back to let the crap fall on the unfortunate child, in order to ‘teach the little blighter a lesson he richly deserves,’ if I may make their implicit reasoning explicit.

Instead of standing back to let the crap fall, or when that doesn’t work, positioning it above the child’s head too (yes, that is indeed what they are implicitly advocating), we should be looking out for such dangers, and giving the child the information and assistance he needs to avoid such unpleasant consequences.

But the main thing to remember about so-called ‘natural consequences’ is that they do not follow! For example, contrary to what it says in four parenting books I have read, it simply does not follow from the fact that a child wakes up ‘late,’ that the natural consequence of that is that he

  • Must walk to school, or
  • Must go to school in his night-clothes, or
  • Must miss school and suffer the resulting punishment meted out by school, or
  • Must go to school without any breakfast

(Interesting that the experts do not agree on what exactly the ‘natural consequence’ of ‘late’ waking is.)

The fact is, none of these alleged natural consequences follows necessarily from the so-called ‘late’ waking. Nature allows any number of things to happen, and none of them has this special status of being The Natural Consequence. Yet despite their differences, all the so-called ‘natural consequences’ advocated in these books have a number of features in common: they are to be chosen by the parent; they are to be unpleasant for the child; and they are to be set up in such a way as to delude the child into thinking that the parent is not the active agent in the matter. They are, therefore, a strategy for denying responsibility for pain for which the parent is in fact responsible.

So what can be called a ‘natural consequence’ reasonably?

Something that happens despite the parent’s real (non-coercive) attempts to prevent it.

For example, suppose Little Billy is in a nice restaurant with his mother, and he starts playing with the sugar lumps and the salt and pepper shakers. Suppose that Billy had specifically asked that they go to this particular restaurant, despite having full knowledge of the sort of behaviour that would be expected at this place, instead of to a more relaxed place where children are welcomed and not expected to ‘behave’. Suppose that Mum and Billy are being eyed disapprovingly by a rather snotty waiter, who is clearly of the opinion that children should never be permitted to enter ‘his’ establishment, let alone to have a bit of fun with a few sugar lumps.

Mum, who believes in taking children seriously rather than in using so-called ‘natural consequences’ to ‘teach’ her child things, will be giving Billy information (in a non-coercive, non-threatening way) about what might happen if he continues making salt piles and sugar-lump-castles. If Mum is the sort of person who feels uneasy in such a situation, perhaps because she dislikes confrontation, this is part of the information she will be giving Billy. Unless we tell children what we want and how we feel, they cannot possibly take our wishes into account. Mum will be assuming that Billy will want to take her embarrassment into account, and she will be conveying it accurately. She might be questioning whether her unease is really justified, and she might try to think her way out of such feelings, and she will probably be telling her child that her unease might not be reasonable, but she will not pretend to feel fine if she doesn’t.

Whether she feels uneasy or not, Mum will be giving Billy information, and (assuming that he is getting so much out of his activities that he wants to continue) making suggestions about what they might do in any particular eventuality. She might point out, for example, that the waiter appears to disapprove of Billy’s activities. She might warn Billy that the waiter might order them to leave, or that he might demand, as a condition of their staying, that Mum stop Billy’s activities, or that he might ask Billy to stop (though this last seems less likely). Mum might tell Billy that if the waiter says any of these things he might use a harsh tone of voice – or perhaps the waiter might just continue to give them the evil eye but not say anything. Or he might give up the evil eye stuff.

Mum will be telling the child what the likely possibilities are, to ensure that Billy does not get a nasty surprise. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the manager might come over and comment on what a charming child Billy is and give him a giant box of sugar lumps to play with. Such things do happen in real life, as many a parent taking their children seriously can tell you. How other people feel about a child playing with sugar lumps depends to a surprisingly large extent on whether or not he and his parent seem relaxed and happy rather than on the verge of making a loud and fraught scene. Worth bearing in mind!

Assuming Billy continued playing with the sugar lumps, Mum will be thinking about

  1. whether what Billy is doing might adversely affect anyone else (e.g., other diners, or the owner of the restaurant) – we want to do the right thing
  2. how to lessen the risk of something unpleasant or embarrassing happening; 
  3. what to do to minimise the chance that any unpleasantness on the part of the waiter or manager might affect Billy adversely.

For example, could Mum disarm the waiter by briefly engaging him in friendly conversation? Or could she have a quiet word with the waiter to change his perception of the situation (to give him a reason not to disapprove of the child’s activities)?

If those and any other attempts to lessen the risk of something unpleasant or embarrassing happening fail, and indeed while she is thinking up and making such attempts, she will be talking to Billy about the situation and in no way making him feel bad about it. If the waiter seems to be behaving unreasonably, Mum might, for example, whisper something to Billy about what an idiot the waiter is, and they might make quiet little jokes about the waiter – in order to assure Billy that the waiter’s completely unreasonable disapproval does not matter a jot, and should not be distressing.

In any event, Mum will be thinking about how to help Billy interpret the waiter’s disapproval in a non-distressing, non-coerced way. Unlike mainstream parents, she will not be buying in to the waiter’s view of the situation. That is what would cause distress for the child. The waiter’s own attempts to intimidate the child are much less likely to harm the child, because the child is not in a relationship with the waiter, and there is no significant moral issue at stake between the child and the restaurant. The child need have no particular wish not to displease him if he is being unreasonable. So Mum is likely to make as light of the situation as she can, helping Billy to see the funny side of it, and she will probably suggest that they go to another restaurant (a really super restaurant from Billy’s point of view) and she will then be pointing out happily that they will now have been to two restaurants instead of one, and perhaps she might tell Billy about meals in which the diners take their aperitifs at one place, their soup at another, their hors d’œuvres at a third restaurant, their entrees at a fourth, and so on.

The point is, what Mum will not be doing is sitting back and letting the crap fall on Billy, to teach him table etiquette, and then telling him that it is his own fault and nothing to do with her! She will be going to great lengths to help him to interpret the affair in a positive way. She will know that Billy is now perfectly well aware that playing with the salt and sugar lumps is frowned upon in some restaurants, and that intentionally distressing him will not add to his knowledge.

But what if Mum was able to disarm the waiter with a friendly conversation, and perhaps a tip, before Billy had even had the chance to notice his intimidating frowns? How would he learn anything then?, you might ask.

Mum can simply mention her conversation with the waiter to Billy, explaining what she did and why it was necessary. And she can explain to Billy that in some restaurants, such-and-such behaviour is expected, and behaviours such as sugar-lump-castle-building and salt-pile-making are frowned upon. She can (and should) simply explain all this – give Billy access to her best theories about restaurants. He needs to know these things. But coercion adds nothing at all; it just spoils everything. Hurting children doesn’t teach them anything good.

So where, in such situations, is there a real natural consequence – that is to say, an unpleasant consequence we might reasonably call ‘natural’? The answer is that if, given all Mum’s efforts, the waiter were to ask them to leave the restaurant, that might reasonably be called a natural consequence. In other words, a Taking Children Seriously natural consequence would be an unfortunate consequence that occurs despite the best efforts to prevent it. No good can come of it – at least, no more than from any other disaster – and it is something that we should try absolutely to avoid.

See also: my 2022 criticism of some things I said in the above 1997 article.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘Unnatural consequences’, Taking Children Seriously 22, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 12-13, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/unnatural-consequences/