Natural Consequences, Logical Consequences, Punishment – Which should we use?

One of my very good friends, Meg, invited three of us over for lunch. Then she explained to her four children that she’d be making their lunch at noon, and she expected them home from their friends’ houses on time because her friends were coming at 1:00. She even further explained that if the children were late, she wouldn’t be able to get their lunches, and they’d have to make their own. Meg had certainly given clear information and clear natural consequences.

At noon, three children presented themselves, but Scott, age 12, didn’t show. At 1:30, he arrived home and asked his mother for lunch, whereupon she left the luncheon table, telling her friends she’d be right back after she made a sandwich for her tardy son. WHOA. STOP. REWIND THAT SCENE.

What is the worst thing that could happen if she stayed at the table with her friends and told him to fix himself a sandwich? A messy kitchen? A less than completely nutritious lunch? Maybe a whiny son who helplessly keeps calling from the kitchen asking where everything is?

Remembering that there is always a learning goal, if we think in terms of that learning goal in this lesson, we see that the intended goal was “If Scott isn’t home, he’ll take the responsibility for making his own lunch so his mother can enjoy time with friends.” That objective quickly changed, becoming “If Scott isn’t home, he really doesn’t have any responsibility because he can count on his mother to give up her own needs and make his lunch.”

The most important ingredient for helping her son learn to take on his responsibility of respecting her needs is the consequence that follows. If the consequence is that Mom will do it, then he learns to ignore another’s needs. If, on the other hand, the consequence is uncomfortable or inconvenient, he will learn that taking expected responsibility is more favorable than not doing so.

Of course, having to make his own lunch can’t be described as actually uncomfortable, just perhaps inconvenient. This lesson may not have ended yet. What if, after the friends leave, Mom discovers a real mess in the kitchen? What is a real life natural consequence here? Obviously, it’s Scott’s having to clean the kitchen, but what if Scott has already left to spend the night with a friend? A perfect opportunity for Scott’s lesson to continue.

Meg can give him a choice to come home and clean up the kitchen now or to clean up the kitchen after dinner for the next couple of nights (assuming this is not his regular family job anyway). The point is that because he didn’t take responsibility for cleaning up in the first place – which leaves mom to do it – he will make it up by going above and beyond as a thank you to his mother for doing his job for him.

Why not a punishment? Let’s go back to our overall learning goal – to teach our children how to become responsible. When we issue a punishment, we change the learning to “teaching our children to do as they’re told.” When we institute natural and logical consequences, we’re teaching our children how to become responsible and we’re modeling skills needed for maintaining successful relationships. When Meg expects her son to make restitution, a skill recommended by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, (1980), for inconveniencing her, she’s providing the learning experience for him to practice some of the skills for maintaining a successful relationship – making amends and demonstrating thoughtfulness for others.

Let’s further examine the two types of consequences mentioned above; natural consequences and logical consequences. If our goal is to teach our children how to become responsible, we want to allow for natural consequences as a first outcome. When waiting for natural consequences takes more time than is developmentally appropriate, we may decide to incorporate logical consequences. Thinking back to Scott’s not returning for lunch, the natural consequence is that he prepares his own or goes without. The logical consequence of his leaving a messy kitchen is that he makes restitution.

When do you use natural versus logical consequences? Let’s say your second grader hasn’t completed his math homework this week, and it’s now Wednesday. The natural consequence is that he’ll probably get a low grade on Friday’s test. Do you allow him to wait for further natural consequences? Probably not at this age. A logical consequence is the appropriate step at this point. An example could be that he does his math homework every day with you until the next one or two test grades show he knows the work. Age, developmental readiness, and the type of situation are key in deciding which type of consequence is appropriate.


Faber,A & Mazlish, E.(1980). How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

New York, NY: Avon Books, Inc.


2 thoughts on “Natural Consequences, Logical Consequences, Punishment – Which should we use?

  1. Carol Middlebrook

    The emotional intent that is associated with the punishment is associated with anger. If a parent or teacher is angry, the child or student perceives this and responds in the same mode. Consequences are doled out without the subtext of anger and do not elicit hostility.
    As a teacher at the high school level, I instinctively knew the importance of neutralizing potential conflict by “laying my cards on the table” with respect to academics and behavior. I rarely had to address behavior. My final two years of teaching presented a challenge. Cellphones were permitted in the school all day long. Individual teachers were burdened with the discipline issues that ensued. Consequence for usage in class: Ms. M. snagged the phone, deposited it in her locked closet and student could reclaim it at the end of the day. Second offense: conference with parent and administrator. Student without cellphone until then.
    Since the kids “knew the score”, I rarely had to deal with confrontations.


  2. Creating Responsible Children & Adolescents - A Website for Parents & Teachers

    Very clear expectations and consequences that definitely relate to the infraction. Kids see this as fair, and as you bring out, are much less likely to feel angry.


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