Truths About Consequences

Like many parents, ‘consequences’ is one of my buzzwords. I use it before Emmett behaves poorly. I use it while Emmett is behaving poorly. I use it after Emmett has behaved poorly. I use it with tedious regularity in an attempt to make him understand that some actions have negative outcomes and that those outcomes can’t be magically whooshed away with the wave of a hand.”  – Lynn Messina

While I appreciate Lynn Messina’s candidness in “Teaching And Learning The Meaning of Consequences” on the New York Times Motherlode blog, I am troubled by her misinformed (yet all too common) interpretations and uses of ‘consequences’. She mistakenly believes her kids need to be force-fed lessons on ethics and morals rather than trusting them to internalize her values organically as she patiently guides them toward appropriate behavior.

Throughout the article, Messina acknowledges the nagging sense she’s being hypocritical, that her strategies are back-firing and her messages getting muddled. She worries that “I’m teaching my son another lesson: how to bear a grudge.” No doubt, she’s right. The answer to her dilemma may lie in one simple truth: the attitudes and behaviors parents model will always (always, always) trump the lessons we aim to teach.

When navigating an area of parenting as tricky as discipline, it can help to routinely check in with ourselves with an important question: What are our ultimate parenting goals?

If our primary goal is an enduring bond with our kids, then repeated phrases like “make him understand”, “drum this concept into his head”, and even “get him to do such-and-such” are clear signs we’ve derailed. Starting from a place of manipulation is not a good strategy. It will continually undermine us, because it creates an “us against them” relationship with our children rather than the positive partnership kids need to be guided effectively.

Although consequences do play a meaningful role in respectful discipline (which I explain below), consequences don’t work when:

They are just a euphemism for punishments

Punishments may sometimes succeed in deterring undesirable behavior, though more often than not parents discover that punishments lead to many more punishments. Punishments are inadequate teachers because they don’t teach or model positive behavior.

They can also have unfortunate, unintended consequences. Punishments cause children to internalize shame and anger, create distance, isolation and mistrust. Severe or physical punishments can create fear, rage, helplessness and hopelessness.

Messina’s example: “He goes to bed badly; he loses his scooter.” And so begins her cycle of guilt. She continues: “Imposing a punishment hours and sometimes days after the offense has been committed feels petty. The anger is gone, the house is quiet, Emmett and I are getting along beautifully, and then, like an injured party nursing an old wound, I bring it back with a simple no: No, you can’t take your scooter. No, you can’t go to the park.”

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s fascinating studies on babies and morals show that even young infants have a basic understanding of fairness.  A respectful consequence will feel fair to our children (which isn’t to say they won’t object to it, they probably will, and that “disagreement” needs to be accepted and acknowledged.). When sincerity and fairness are sensed by our children, the trust between us remains intact, and often even strengthens.

Punishments feel petty because they are. Is this the aspect of our personality we want our children to emulate?

They are unrelated to the situation and/or given too long after the fact.

See the scooter example, above. One of the many inspiring things children do is live in the moment.  They’ve so moved on. And the younger the child, the sooner they’ve forgotten completely and can’t make the connection between their action and our consequence. So when we set limits about anything with our kids, we need to do it immediately and move on, too, without brooding, seething or grudges.

With a bit of forethought, we could have avoided or prevented the situation by creating a boundary or setting a limit

“Two-year-old Luka, still wobbly on uncertain toddler legs, launches himself at his 5-year-old brother, whose modern Lego masterpiece (four bedrooms, rooftop terrace, towering staircase to nowhere) he’d torn down a few hours before with gleeful abandon.

Emmett pulls away and chastises him for his enthusiastic affection. “No, Luka,” he says, “you’re still having consequences.”

Older children need to be able to protect their projects (on a high table, for example) from infants and toddlers, who are all about exploring and testing. It’s not fair to either child for parents to allow an incident like this to happen if it is possible to prevent it.

They include forced apologies or other inauthentic gestures

“Immediately, I step in to remind him that he’s already accepted Luka’s apology. It’s not gracious, I tell him, to make someone feel bad after you’ve forgiven him.” There are a lot of feelings being manipulated here. It sounds exhausting.

Forcing apologies and forgiveness or any other feeling teaches children many unproductive things: Don’t trust your true feelings; pretend to feel things to please adults; use “I’m sorry” as an excuse; be a phoney, etc.

Consequences are effective, respectful and relationship-building when they are:

1. Logical, reasonable, age-appropriate choices

“I can’t let you throw those blocks toward the window… You are having a hard time not throwing the blocks. You can throw them toward the rug or in the basket or I will need to put them away for now… Thank you for letting me know you need help. I’ll put the blocks away.”

2. Stated kindly and confidently (rather than as a threat), and then we let go and move on.

For most of us this means we must set the limit early, before we get too annoyed or angry.

3. Coupled with acknowledgements of our child’s point of view and feelings (no matter how unreasonable they might seem).

“You wanted to stay at the park, but you had a hard time not hitting your friends, so I said we had to go. I hear how upset you are.”

4. Consistent, predictable responses, elements of a routine that our child recognizes

“Are you finished eating? You are standing up and that tells me you’re done. Okay, you’re sitting back down for more, please don’t get up until you’re finished. Oh, now you’re up again, so I will put the food away. Thanks for letting me know you are done. …You’re upset that I put the food away. You didn’t want me to do that. I understand. We’ll be eating again soon.”

5. A genuine expression of our personal limits

Here’s where I disagree with some of my fellow gentle discipline advocates…

A parent from one of my classes (who could not be a more respectful, caring, and all-around wonderful mom) attended a lecture by a popular gentle parenting adviser as part of her book tour. This mom’s biggest challenge is setting limits confidently. She’s especially prone to self-doubt and guilt if the situation pertains to her personal limits or isn’t as clear-cut as a safety issue.

She asked the adviser about an experience she’d had while driving her six-year-old daughter to the home of a friend for a playdate. Her daughter became upset with her toddler brother and would not stop screaming. The mom tried patiently asking her to stop several times, but she continued. The mom was at the end of her rope. She asked this adviser if it was okay for her to tell her daughter that if she couldn’t stop yelling, they would be turning the car around and going back home. The adviser’s answer was no, because that was a parent-imposed consequence.

I’m not going to lie — hearing that drove me half-mad. Here is a mom who especially needs to be supported to set limits and stick up for herself and instead she is scolded for suggesting it.

Ironically, this adviser specializes in helping parents stop yelling, and yet she misses a crucial piece of the yelling puzzle: parents need all the encouragement in the world to take care of themselves, calmly, honestly, fairly, confidently, so that they don’t explode on their kids. They need permission to turn the car around, stop their children from taking out messy art supplies before they’ve helped clear up the previous ones, not go to the park when their child refuses to get dressed:

“You said you wanted to go to the park today, but we won’t have enough time unless you can get your clothes on. Shall I help you?”  Or, “I’m getting seriously tired, so please help me brush your teeth if you’d like a second book.” Or, “I see that you are very disappointed about missing the playdate, but you wouldn’t stop screaming and I honestly couldn’t take it anymore.”

The essential difference between consequences and punishments is our sincere and honest sharing. We can’t be gentle parents without taking care of our personal boundaries… and the consequences of that kind of modeling are all good.

I share a complete guide to respectful, effective discipline in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

(Photo by Ghislain Berger on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. We don’t always agree…..but this was right on.
    Another subject I haven’t seen you write about- lying.
    I did my thesis on the Evolution of Lying. Many parents have no idea why their children lie.
    Like so many other behaviors…….as you discussed,
    Parents brought on this behavior….just didn’t understand how they encouraged it to begin with.

    1. Melinda, I would love to read your thesis on lying, as I’m sure it is very interesting. I totally agree that children can EASILY learn this behavior from adults. I see almost all adults lie to children to coerce them into something. Nobody seems to be up front anymore, especially with children.

    2. Melinda, does your thesis have public access? Would you be willing to share a summary of your thesis on the evolution of lying? It sounds interesting.

      1. I completely agree with the concept of logical consequences and try my best with this. I have lots of trouble encouraging respectful language from my five year old. I try to keep both me and my partner aware of how we communicate, but my son is bringing home lots of words and phrases to test from school. I cannot allow some of this language, I cannot ignore it and allow him to continue it constantly, and I can’t always find logical consequences, seeming to always resort to screen time. I’ve read so many of your posts about setting limits but am feeling very stuck.

    3. Thanks for your comment, Melinda. I actually love hearing, “We don’t always agree…but…”, because it reminds me that we don’t have to agree on everything to gain insights from each other.

      Children usually lie because they’re afraid of punishments, right? And I suppose there’s modeling involved, too, like the focus on image over authenicity, etc. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      1. I see a phase when young children ‘lie’ – not telling deliberate untruth but expressing their creativity. This has a different flavour to the kind of lying which is a test or a copying of adult or older child behaviour, but can be no less challenging and frustrating for parents.

  2. LOVE this – especially the way you articulate parents’ rights to respect their own boundaries. Simply wonderful.

  3. On the plus side, many commenters on the NYT article (with varying levels of politeness) informed the author that she had missed the definition of consequences by a long shot.

    After having read your blog for almost as long as I’ve had my son, and immersing my self in a variety of other parenting resources that make some sense to me, I found I was genuinely shocked on reading that article. I forget that some people approach parenting without ever questioning the status quo of “bad” child = punishment.

    At my son’s first birthday a year ago, I overheard a conversation between two friends with older children. One was describing a bedtime conflict with his 4 year old daughter. “I tell her, I want to read you a story, but I don’t read stories to bad girls. You are being a bad girl tonight.” The other parent, of a 7 year old boy said, “Oh, I never say he’s bad. The ACTION is bad, the CHOICE is bad.” I remember thinking, what could a 4 or 7 year old do that’s bad? They do things that bother us, they do things that we can’t allow them to do… But that’s not BAD. It’s just being 4 (or 7). I kept my mouth shut though… they weren’t hearing each other, they certainly weren’t going to listen to the mother of a baby.

    1. Wish you’d spoken up, Meagan. Yes, I skimmed the comments and noted as you did that many corrected her. Honestly, I was genuinely shocked, too. Mostly because the Motherlode used to be such an intelligent and inspiring resource and, sadly, it’s gone downhill since Lisa Belkin left.

      1. When it comes to parenting, I try to stay out of conversations that can turn into “my way” vs ” your way.” What I WILL do is talk often about how and why we are raising our son in the way we are… And happily talk about some of the positive results we have seen in response. I think maybe people are more likely to think about an alternate idea if they hear it like that as opposed to an argument?

    2. I can relate to the frustration in hearing this conversation! This happens to me a lot. How many times I hear people mention the “terrible twos” when my son is testing or having strong feelings about something. I always try to respond something like, “it’s the ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ 2, I would worry if he WASN’t testing or having strong feelings.”

      1. Hello Janet, I am very touched by the way you teach parenting. I’m new to your blogsite & have been reading everything I can. In my heart & mind, I know this is the only way to raise a balanced & beautifully happy child, but I didn’t know that it actually existed professionally. I didn’t have children of my own, by choice, not having done anything more than babysittng growing up. When I married again at the age of 42, I became a step-mom of 2, ages 13 & 9. They were good kids, & their parents had an unpleasant divorce some years 4-5 years before I met them. Their mom used the term consequences, constantly, & they were in trouble, for whatever, a lot. When the oldest, my step daughter, had a son, I thought she would be more empathetic to her child, due to her upbringing. But, at 2yrs old, Daniel, said something she didn’t like, & she popped him in the mouth! Quick pop to the face! The shock on his little face broke my heart. But, he said whatever it was like 4 more times & she popped him again & again & again! I said later to her why did you hit him? She said it was to teach him, & I didn’t want him to say it anymore. I said, but, if he didn’t understand it the first time, why do it over & over again if it’s obvious he didn’t get it? I went on, no matter how many times you hit your child, he (sadly) will continue to love you. And, if I wanted to teach you something, but you didn’t get it, or I didn’t like what you said, can I hit you? Am I wrong here? My heart says that is not a proper consequence for his action. Her lack of respect & her new husband (who believes children are born evil) & her mother who I’ve watched shake my little grandson for not sharing in a perfect manner with me just blow my mind with their consequences. What is anyones opinion? What is going to happen to this little boy? They won’t let my husband & I see him anymore (since xmas 2012). We had him every weekend for 18 months, so we were close with our little man. Ok. 🙂

        1. So sorry to hear Kathy. That kind of thing is hard to watch and, of course, teriible for the little boy!

        2. Emma MacKenzie says:

          I’d call child protective services. In saying that, I live in a country where it is illegal to hit children.

  4. Hi Janet. As with all your articles, this was very helpful. I’ve heard people say natural consequences are fine but others are not, but I’ve always had a hard time distinguishing between the two. I really like your explanation of how to set consequences effectively. I do have a question – if consequences are an expression of our own limits, does that mean they can change when you decide to set limits and consequences based on how you are feeling? For example, you talked about the screaming daughter on the way to visit her friend. If mom couldn’t take it and turned the car around that day, does that mean in every similar situation, she should stick to that limit? Or on a day that the daughter’s screaming wasn’t particularly bothering the mother, could she continue on to the friend’s without issue? That may be a bad example, I hope you understand my question.

    1. Hi Tanya! I think I understand, but I need a better example. 🙂 Generally, I don’t think there are “shoulds” about why we might need to set personal boundaries…and this belief stems from my basic trust in parents. This is also where the word ‘reasonable’ comes into the picture.

      But I’ve also seen bright parents not set limits about things that to me were common sense. For example, a friend (who also struggled with the idea of boundaries) let her 4 year old cut her own hair and also make such a mess in her playroom with toys and junk that you literally couldn’t walk through it. These things didn’t bother my friend, and I adore her, but her carelessness bordered on neglect, in my opinion.

      The key is to see limits as gifts. The child who misses the playdate because she wouldn’t stop screaming understands. I truly believe that. On some level, I believe she’s grateful for the limit and being spared the guilt and her mom’s anger. I have experienced this dynamic with my children, and my sense has been that they’ve always seen the fairness and been at least somewhat relieved underneath their anger. Usually they were tired and I sensed they didn’t really want to do whatever it was anyway.

      1. Thanks Janet. I do have an example. I left a career as an occupational therapist who worked in pediatrics for a number of years to stay at home with my daughter Ella, who just turned two in May and, I think because of my background, I an a huge believer in the benefits of providing sensory and creative play opportunities. These are often messy endeavors 🙂 Some days I don’t mind when the mess spreads beyond the blow up pool I use to keep it contained. Truly, it doesn’t bother me – she’s having fun, I’m enjoying watching her explore, it’s all fine. Other days, the mess becomes more of an issue for me – I feel annoyed, my cue to set a limit before I end up angry. My personal limit has changed – some days I have a lower tolerance for mess than others. I usually state a limit and, if she can’t stick to it, I end the activity. Is it fair to her that the point I feel I need to set the limit may change depending on my feelings? Would it confuse her that some days I let a reasonable amount of rice get on the floor and other days it has to stay in the pool?

        1. I think it’s wonderful that you consider a limit as soon as you begin to feel annoyed and then set it kindly. That is extremely important, and I don’t think you should question it too much, even if it isn’t always consistent. As much as possible, try to have the foresight to explain your expectations beforehand (i.e., “I’d like you to please keep the rice in the pool today”).

          I wonder if you become annoyed sometimes because you sense that her creative and exploratory play has veered into “testing” your limits for her. This is the healthy way toddlers “feel around” to find our boundaries. And your response sounds perfect: “I usually state a limit and, if she can’t stick to it, I end the activity.”

        2. Emily Jeanne says:

          I feel like, when you’re setting that limit, the limit is about her doing a thing that bothers you, rather than about making a mess. If you’re consistent about telling her to stop when you start to feel annoyed, you’re teaching her that she can trust you to tell her when she’s bothering you. As a counterexample, I learned that I CAN’T trust people to tell me when I’m bothering them, and it took forever to unlearn that. I thought everyone secretly hated me for the longest time, because my parents let me bother them until they couldn’t take it anymore, without giving me a chance to stop.

          tl;dr, reliable boundaries re: your feelings count as consistent, even if your feelings aren’t.

            1. Thanks so much! Janet, you’re right, there are times her creative play turns into boundary testing. I think I’m pretty good at telling when it does – Ella looks at me before doing something, and continues to look for my reaction. When it’s simply enthusiastic messy play gone wild, she’s more absorbed in it, and not looking to me at all.

              I’ve heard so much buzz about consistency, but I hadn’t considered that my annoyance level could actually be the constant. Thanks, thats a really helpful lens to view it through.

              1. Thanks, Tanya. Great point about the difference between a fully absorbed child and one who is gauging our response. Yes, that is a perfect indicator.

    2. I have the same question. My ability to tolerate a given behavior does vary a bit. I’m often torn between feeling like I should be consistent with limits (ie “no screaming in the car”) and feeling like that would a) force me to be stricter than I necessarily need to be (I can usually cope with happy screaming on the way to the pool when we’re all well-fed and well-rested) and b) not be a true reflection of interacting with human beings, all of whom have ups and downs throughout each day/week/month.

      I imagine it does depend a bit on the age of the child you’re dealing with, but what’s your general take on enforcing limits one day that we may not enforce on another day? (I’m not talking about basic health-and-safety rules here, more about the give-and-take of everyday life)

      1. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too, Janet. I recently gave birth to our third child and find that my patience and energy vary from day to day. Some days I can handle a messy art project, and some days I would end up yelling at my kids because of it. The same goes for other behaviors. Is it okay to enforce some limits some days and not others? I’m pretty consistent with rules and safety, but like the previous reader said, some things are easier to handle some days than others. The end goal is to be kind and respectful to my kids, and some days I’m more equipped to do this than others.

        1. Lindsey, my advice is to tune in to your needs and try not to offer what you can’t comfortably fulfill. It’s okay to say, “not today” to an art project. It’s okay to say, “Last time you didn’t clean it up yourself, so I really can’t”. It’s okay to tell your older ones, “I can’t help you with that for the next 15 minutes, because I’ll be feeding the baby.” Set these limits with confidence, be clear, accept the feelings that come at you in response without absorbing them (letting them rolllll off your back), and you will feel far less fragile and inconsistent.

      2. Ness, as I mentioned in my comment to Tanya (above), the key is to learn to sense when behaviors (like spontaneous joyful screaming or an authentic scream in response to something upsetting) veer into testing… We know our children, and this veering is usually pretty clear.

        Joyful screaming wouldn’t usually bother us (who doesn’t want their kids to feel joyful?), but tests push our annoyance buttons because they’re supposed to, so that we can give children the boundaries and help they want and need. When we ask our children to stop, but they continue on anyway, we can usually assume this is a test or call for help of some kind (i.e., “I’m too tired, have low blood sugar, need your attention”).

        But again, I must emphasize that tests are healthy and positive requests for clarity (they’re NOT being bad kids!), so we should respond in a positive, confident manner, way BEFORE we get angry.

        If is was happening at home, the personal limit might be eventually saying, “I need to move into another room, because the screaming is bothering me.” In the car it might be pulling over to see if the child could calm down, or turning the car around, if that was an option.

        Within reason, I think it’s positive for our children to learn that we are human, have moods, and that our tolerance for their behavior might vary. But I also believe that when children are clearly feeling for our boundaries, the kindest thing we can do is offer them, even if these boundaries seem to disappoint our child at that moment.

        1. I think it is also important when a limit is varying to be honest as to why it is changing. E.g. “Today I feel stressed about the mess of this activity so I need us to keep it tidy” or “I have a headache and feel tired, I need you to play quietly in the car today, when I feel better we can be louder”. I think expressing your own emotions honestly will model appropriate ways to deal with such feelings. This will hopefully show our children that they can also express their feelings – even when normally it is okay – “usually i like being tickled but today i don’t want that”

        2. “If is was happening at home, the personal limit might be eventually saying, “I need to move into another room, because the screaming is bothering me.””

          Hi Janet – This exact scenario occurred in my home the other day. My 6 year old was very upset about something and screaming right in my ear as I nursed my 1 year old. When she didn’t stop after I asked, I said if you continue screaming then I will need to leave the room. She did, and so I took my baby into a room where I could lock the door because I knew my 6 year old would just follow me in. Of course my six year old didn’t like this, and sat at the door screaming and crying and banging on it. Because I feared she may damage the door, I threatened (despite my pain in doing so) “If you keep banging the door, there will be no movie night.” She continued, so I took away movie night. This continued for a few more rounds of “If you keep banging the door, I’ll take away X.” After a few rounds, she did finally stop banging. I felt helpless in this moment to physically stop her from banging the door while also continue nursing my baby who I didn’t feel like should be punished for the other child’s behavior.

          In that moment, I felt like I needed to protect my baby from the up close screaming and allow her to continue nursing and so putting this barrier between us all felt like the only way to do it. But it also felt awful “locking” my child out who was having an emotional breakdown. I don’t want to send the message “I can’t handle you.”

  5. Such great points, Janet. I so agree on the taking care of ourselves as parents for our sake and that of our children. This doesn’t always come easy to me, and I have had to work long and hard to stop being the “rescuer” in relationships, ironically enough, it’s when I became a parent that I saw the crucial need to take care of myself and set boundaries, in order to have a strong, healthy bond with my son and model healthy relationships to others.

  6. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for another thoughtful blog, I really enjoy reading your blogs and get a huge amount out of them.

    I also struggle a bit with natural consequences. I get the bit about not having enough time for stories if my daughter won’t brush her teeth but other things are more challenging.

    Asha is just over two and is going through a stage of not wanting to leave places when its time to go home. I give her a five minute sign that we’ll need to leave soon and then a two minute sign. When she doesn’t want to leave (which is always at the moment), I say to her something like ‘I know you’re having heaps of fun here but its time to go home’ (I’ll be more specific depending on where we are e.g. ‘you don’t want to leave the zoo because you love watching the otters’). At this point she’ll usually run away from me. I end up chasing her and telling her I need to pick her up, which I do, and then she starts yelling at the top of her voice, actually screaming but without the tears – more of an attention thing rather than being upset. Sometimes I say, ‘gosh that’s high pitched’ in a neutral tone. This is happening all the time at the moment and its draining because I feel like I’m man-handling her out of places and I’m 6.5 months pregnant so its physically draining. Its making me not want to go out.

    I’m thinking I just need to ride out this phase which will pass at some point and that I don’t need a consequence – is that right?

    To put it more in context, she is testing boundaries all over the place which I recognise is a healthy sign of attachment. Its even hard to leave the house as it takes ages to get her dressed. My mum thinks I’m doing too much talking and that I just need to act faster but I don’t like the idea of ‘man-handling’. I’m just wondering what else you could suggest in these running away type scenarios…

    Thanks in advance,

    1. My son was 18-24 months old-ish when we got pregnant again. As the delivery date got nearer, he got much clingier. So in addition to the typical stuff, he was testing boundaries all over the place as well just to make sure he was loved (and still does, if he’s feeling like he’s not getting enough attention)

      I found choices helped. “Do you want to ride in the stroller or walk? Do you want to skip or hop?” Still, there were days where I’d just have to “manhandle” him a little. It’s so embarrassing when they’re screaming like that. I worry a little what other people are thinking but then I remind myself it doesn’t matter because my relationship with my child is more important.

      1. I want to add good luck! I too am amazed at how cruelly parents treat their kids sometimes with all the best intentions in the world. It makes me so sad. Reading these blogs and connecting with people like you really give me strength and inspiration. Take care!

    2. Hi Kate,

      Thanks for your kind words! My sense is that you are waiting much too long to “manhandle”, but I wouldn’t perceive this as manhandling! This is giving your daughter the love and help she needs. EXPECT that you will need to do more than talking for her to be able to follow your directions. Most two-year-olds need more. Gently and cheerfully scoop her up, knowing that this reassures her, reaffirms that you are her able mom and leader. You are working too hard to avoid a struggle (which would wear anyone out, pregnant or not), rather than embracing the opportunity to give your girl a helping hand.

      1. Thanks for your response Janet, I appreciate it. Yeah, maybe I am talking too much and I do need to act faster. I have to act really quickly when getting her out of the car otherwise she starts running in the opposite direction. Part of it is that she is just really enjoying running at the moment and runs everywhere. Its funny isn’t it that a big part of parenting is re-framing how we see things i.e. rather than seeing it as a struggle, it could be an opportunity to provide clear boundaries. I’ve also been thinking more pragmatically too – if she’s going to run into the school when I park on one side of the road, I’ll just park on the other. Sometimes we lose sight of the simple solutions that make life a little bit easier!

  7. I’ve learned something very recently. I, like I’m sure a lot of parents in today’s “information age” am an “overachiever.” I want to do what’s right at all times and never make any mistakes. This perfection sets me up for failure, especially when there are so many right and wrong things available now. You have your plethora of choices! I’ve found that if I set the bar low enough, I’m a much more relaxed, happy, and calm person. Things seems to get done in their own time. Children are who they are – this whole nature vs. nurture debate is just another piece of information to flub us up. If I step back and watch, things unfold as they should, and we’re all so much happier. Being happier as a mother = a happier, more relaxed family. Anxiety over whether I’m setting the right boundaries, not setting any, being too harsh – it’s all over-thinking. My son senses it, and responds accordingly – with anxiety of his own. This makes him test me more and more.

    But when you give yourself a Big Fat Break, all of the information above happens naturally…you don’t even have to think about it.

    1. I love this comment as much as I love the article! Thank you!

    2. Yes, Mazzy, you are so right that our “over-thinking” is sensed by our children and often creates anxiety!

  8. Love your blog and find much inspiration here. I have been thinking a lot about consequences. And reading a lot. I can’t ever find satifying answer to the question of what to do when you need to stop a behavior (preventing is good, but then it might happen anyway, no matter how hard to work on the proactive end). My near-5yo has been experiementing with language. Excuse the language, but she recently called her sister, and later that day, her dad a “b*tthole.” She is otherwise a play-by-the-rules gal. I can’t let it go. I’ve tried explaining how it’s rude and not ok. But her lack of impulse control takes over. I NEED to stop this. I will be mortified if her grandma hears this or is the object of the namecalling. And she will be the subject of too much behind-the-back talking if this happens. Daughters says it when mad. What’s the natural consequence? (have been reading up on teaching children to be respectful, but it’s a long process.) Thanks.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Rose! I would totally under-respond to the language. My sense is that you are giving the words way too much power. A brief, matter-of-fact, “I don’t like that expression” will work much better than making an issue out of this. A consequence will make your daughter’s little “experiment” into a major event. I wouldn’t do it.

    2. Hi Rose, You’re not alone here! My children have experimented with some colorful language too. The best way I’ve found to get the “bad” words to stop is to introduce some new ones. So when my child came home with a word I didn’t like, I responded with mock shock, “What did you say? Did you say snowball?! You didn’t? Oh good, THAT word is NOT allowed!” This gets the giggles going and all that lack of impulse control can take over as they say “snowball” repeatedly and I mock horror at their “awful” language. I beg and plead for them to stop and they get to keep going releasing a lot of tension through their laughter. We always end up feeling closer and the novelty of the other word loses its appeal (until the next one comes and we find a new replacement like cauliflower or holy guacamole!). Good luck!

  9. Stephanie says:

    Hi Janet. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months and find it refreshing and always pertinent. I have a 19 month old daughter and I find that your values, perspectives, and parenting practices really resonate with what makes sense and feels right to myself and my husband (and reading your articles keeps us in check!). I am also a licensed clinical social worker so I often think about how things may translate to children and families with a variety of challenges. For instance, would you ever recommend handling “consequences” differently for a child who may have experienced lots of instability/ inconsistencies in their environments or a child with developmental delays or attention issues? I always think that consequences in the moment and calm but authentic responses are best, however, do you think there is a place for more structured responses (such as a reward system) in certain situations?

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for your kind feedback about my blog. I’m so glad this approach resonates with you as it did and still does with me. My strong belief (which was also Magda Gerber’s) is that developmentally challenged children deserve the same level of respect as any other child. It may be even more important to take care to respect these children. So no, I would not use manipulative measures of any kind. I might offer even more “nesting”, which for me, means more hands-on help, taking children by the hand, carrying them away from difficult situations when they can’t come of their own volition, but always doing it lovingly and calmly.

  10. Hi Janet,

    Your blog has been such a huge help to me the last year as I’ve tried to figure out what exactly I believe about toddler discipline. You have really helped me put my thoughts into words!

    I have a question about how to implement “natural consequences” in a situation that has no obvious natural consequence, something that is a bit out of the ordinary, but that definitely needs to be understood as an unacceptable behavior. For example, if my two-year-old finds a coin while I’m in the bathroom and delightfully discovers that it will mark on the walls? This is a first time occurrence, and I will obviously hide all coins for the future, but how do I help him know that this is truly unacceptable? (The next time, he found the plug of something and marked the wall with that.) I understand the concept of completely childproofing an area and him having a place to play that does not tempt him to do things like this, but that’s not possible 100% of the time. Another one would be if he puts something in the toilet when I have my back turned. I can’t childproof our particular kind of toilet, and it was the first time it happened. My instinct is to use a very strong voice and words to “scare” him into not doing it again, but I know that this is not respectful or effective! It’s not like I can take away the toilet or the walls, as I would blocks that were being thrown. Thoughts?

    Also, I completely agree that forced apologies are wrong on so many levels. But how do I teach my son that the nice thing to do in that kind of situation would be to say “I’m sorry,” without asking him to actually do it? I *want* him to learn manners, even if I don’t force him to comply. Is this okay?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Thank you, Rachel!

      Children learn to apologize when they see this modeled and once they’ve developed empathy. The timing is a bit different for each child, but needs to be trusted, in my opinion. It is one of those buds that should not be forced open.

      Regarding the coin, how inventive! I would consider this a healthy, exploratory activity that is up to you to prevent. If you can’t, for one reason or another, simply remind him, matter-of-factly, “Oh, I don’t want you to play that way with coins” Or, “Please don’t put those things into the potty.” Then, drop it. The bathroom should probably have an outside lock, so that it can be kept off-limits.

    2. Perhaps offering things he can mark with – a big sheet of paper or cardboard, some play-dough or clay to imprint or a blackboard, may help. You can simply tell him that you do not want him to mark the walls, and remind him of the appropriate alternative. Good Luck!

  11. Thank you! So true. I was sitting here wondering why my methods of trying to get my 5yo daughter focused and ready in the mornings isn’t working and I realized how much I procrastinate, get sidetracked, check Facebook, read blogs, etc in thmornings when i should be getting ready, then leave everying for the lat minute. hmmm Maybe I need to work on myself some more. In my effort to want better for my kids I sometimes forget that I need improvement myself. My children never fail to teach me to look in the mirror.

  12. Elanne Kresseer says:

    Another great post Janet. There are two things I see in what you are describing. The first is that we often encounter two viewpoints in parenting. On one end of the spectrum there is the view that the parents viewpoint trumps the childs. This is what I see in the above blog-post you’re writing about. When we manipulate our children, try to get them to do such-and-such, punish them through consequences that are unrelated to the interaction at hand we’re essentially telling our children that their thoughts, feelings and perspective don’t matter. On the other end of the spectrum is the opposite. The child’s viewpoint and needs trump those of the parent. In this case the parent is letting the child know that the parents needs don’t matter. Neither seems particularly healthy to me.

    This is where it gets tricky. Because to parent from a point of view that says that both viewpoints matter requires a parent to be awake to as many conditions as possible in a given situation and make choices from there. Which is the second thing I see in all this. We all want a philosophy to rely on. One that says “when child does this parent must do this.” Whether it’s that the parent must punish the child or that a parent must never set a parent-imposed consequence (I don’t agree with that term but since it’s the one the parenting adviser used I’m using it here) the idea is that if we just follow this formula we’ll get it right. The trouble is life and parenting don’t fit neatly into a philosophy.

    On another day that mom you described might find a different solution to her child yelling in the car — anything from pulling the car over to see if she could connect with her daughter and help her settle down to letting her yell for a bit because it wasn’t bothering her so much. But that doesn’t mean she must or should do this. On another day, maybe she’s tired, maybe she has a headache, or whatever the reason she just needs it to stop and if it can’t she makes a call that it’s time to go home. She let’s her child know that as a parent her needs matter too. In my opinion being able to listen to our children and listen to ourselves and make choices from there is the only road to an authentic relationship. It takes great courage and bravery to parent in this way, and for me involves making plenty of “mistakes.” It asks a little more of us, but the result is a parent child relationship that meets on equal and honest ground.

    1. Wow, so well said, really eloquent, Elanne. I may need to guest-post this!

  13. I read this with my husband. He thinks you are super cool.
    The only part I disagreed with is cancelling the play date. I know this is a touchy subject because I still remember when this happened to my best friend and I did not understand why I got a punishment. If the play date is off than an innocent child is deprived from something she/he has been preparing for. I think stopping the car until she stops screaming would have done the trick.

  14. Janet, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to handle 7 & 4 year olds who have a hard time winding down for bed in the summer when the sun is up so long. School is about to start and sleeping in is no longer an option. We’re trying to get them back into our normal routine instead of the summer one but I’m a little beside myself.
    The natural consequence of being tired isn’t helping them sleep earlier. I think it’s making them crazier! This is where “natural consequences get unclear for me. Being tired definitely affects my kids’ behaviors – as it does all of us. But I’m not sure how natural consequences help them to see they need to sleep earlier, despite my firmly stated expectation that they go to bed.

    1. Monna – children need help going to bed…the natural consequence of tiredness will create over-tiredness and make it harder for children to sleep well. So, start the bedtime routine EARLY and allow enough time for them to wind down. Be calm and confident about taking wonderful care of your children. Lights out is lights out.

  15. As always I love your thoughtful inputs. We have started giving natural consequences. When he throws his truck in anger, we take the truck away saying he is not using gentle hands and we will return it to him when he calms down or sometimes the next day when we see him really upset. This makes him more upset. What would be the best way to handle this situation? We set boundaries when we go to the backyard that he can definitely play with mud and rocks, but they cant come to the concrete and if he does we will take him inside. He looks at us and throws them in the concrete, we explain to him that he was warned not to do that and bring him in. The kicking and hitting begins and I start thinking what did we do wrong 🙁

    1. Hi Ashmom! 1. Acknowledge his feelings and desires, i.e., “you want to throw the truck, but that isn’t safe.” Then, if he continues, you might say, “You still want to throw the truck. I’m going to move it for now to keep you safe.”

      2. Rather than talking about “warnings”, etc., I would say, “thank you for letting me know you need to come inside,” because that is exactly what children are doing when they test these kinds of limits.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “we will return it to him when he calms down or sometimes the next day when we see him really upset. This makes him more upset.”

  16. I am a mom of a two year-old. I have a degree in ECE and have a mentor who has RIE training, and I’ve learned a lot from her. How do I gently encourage my other mom friends to try a different appraoch when they impose developmentally inappropriate consequences that clearly confuse their children? When I see this, I can tell that these moms have carefully devised a strategy they think is best for addressing an ongoing (but so normal) problem like toy snatching or hitting. I try to model with my own child, but I don’t want to give unsolicited advice or imply that they’re not good parents. I know I’m not perfect, myself!

  17. Love your blog! Wondering if you have taken a stand on spanking children?

  18. Stephanie says:

    My daughter is almost 18 months old, and since around the time he turned 12 months mealtime has become a challenge. She barely eats and is very small for her age. I’m desperately seeking your advice….as I need her to eat, yet, within a few bites she starts throwing her food on the floor. When I grab her hands and tell her this is not acceptable, she laughs and grabs even bigger handfuls and throws more food. The natural consequence would be to remove her from her high chair and she doesn’t eat, however I need her to eat! How best should we handle this daily situation? Wy does she do this….what kind of boundaries is she testing? She does the same thing with sensory bins….she throws the beans, rice, etc across the room.

  19. Hi

    Firstly I would just like to say thank you for your incredible advice and articles. I am so glad I found your website.

    I am wanting some advice on how to deal kindly with my 2 year olds tantrums. They dont happen often. For instance the other day he took his drum sticks and banged on the TV screen. I told him I would not let him hit the TV. This then turned into a game, where every time I turned around he would hit the screen. I then said I would have to take them away, he continued. I then took them away. He lay on the floor screaming and crying. I sat next to him and said I was there for him, but this seems like mixed signals for him. How do I deal with the lying on the floor crying tantrum kindly? Thank you

  20. Catherine says:

    I am so appreciative of your blog and book and all the wonderful information I now have access to. Thank you thank you thank you. My husband and I are struggling with finding an appropriate natural consequence to our daughter’s new habit of testing with unkind statements. Perhaps we made the initial mistake of overreacting to her statements (out of surprise) and this made them more of a “thing” than they would have been. The primary statements are “I will bite [you or another family member]” “I will eat [you or another family member]” or “I don’t like [you or another family member]. We have been trying to make ho hum statements such as “I don’t like when you say that. It sounds unkind.” and then move on but the statements keep coming. She says them at random times, typically when there isn’t any conflict and is otherwise very affectionate and loving. Any advice would be most appreciated!

    1. Hi Catherine! Thanks for your kind words. Regarding “I will eat you”, etc., I would do even less than you are doing, because you seem to have made this into a “thing”, as you say. I would say, “Hmmm…interesting. You sound upset.” Or, “creative choice!” (which it is, in my opinion…and rather amusing). And then leave it at that. This isn’t about consequences and her speech will never be in your control.

  21. Follow-up Question: What is a natural consequence when your child doesn’t want to get ready to go to school? Doesn’t want to go to bed? Essentially anything that your child has to do but doesn’t want to do.

    We offer a lot of “choices”, but my almost-three-year-old is very strong-willed and has been catching on to the whole “choices” thing. She says things like, “That’s not a choice!” to us lately. So, at some point, I’m just thinking — it’s not a choice. There are things that are just her responsibility. Anyway, any thoughts would be good.

  22. Yes! As we are respectful with our kids when they are emotional or overtired and having a hard time managing, it’s important to show them how they can be respectful to us when we are having a hard time, too. Thank you for highlighting this point when others may disagree.

  23. When we find ourselves using what our children care against them it is no longer about teaching a child right from wrong, it has become about using parental power over the child in order to get them to comply. To me this is punishment and its purpose is to shape the child’s behaviour and bring it into line with parental expectations. The intention may be good but the long term implications on the child’s development seldom are.

    Consequences have become an over-used euphemism for punishment and I think it may be because it sounds so much more purposeful and less harsh than the word punishment. Few parents feel good about publicly declaring that they ‘punish’ their children, but many feel supported by society when they share that they ‘consequence’ their children. This is a societal issue, parents are being mislead by prevailing misbeliefs that consequences will grow children up to behave ‘socially appropriately’. Urggg don’t even get me started on that term, I can’t stand it!

    A child’s system when experiencing punishment goes into a state of alarm. They cannot learn anything in that state and therefore the punishment doesn’t translate into learning. It may change the child’s behaviour, when they are in the presence of the parent…but it doesn’t mean that it changes their behaviour when that are not at risk of being caught and then punished.

    My hope is that children grow up to do the right thing when parents are not looking, that’s true growth. It comes from feeling safe in the parent-child relationship. It grows over time as children are helped to manage their big emotions and when they cross boundaries and make mistakes they are helped to work through them rather than be shamed or punished because of them. It’s totally doable, we just need to find others (like Janet!) to show us the way back to doing what we know feels right. <3

    1. Elizabeth says:

      I do agree with you. But I continue to have MAJOR struggles with my 5 yo. I have always tried the “gentle” approach first, eg if you throw the blocks, we are going to have to put them away, etc. But what do you do when the child then hits you? And screams, and carries on, takes them back down, etc. Most of the time I am supportive and explain that he’s having big feelings, he can play with something else but the blocks are done, be safe with our bodies, etc. but it starts to feel like I’m a doormat and he isn’t listening anyway. He has a 1 yo brother who he is the SWEETEST with…. until he’s not. He will squeeze him just a little harder than is comfortable. Fine, but when I try to calmly say “softer” or any other shaping, I think he gets embarrassed but instead of dealing with that, he turns to anger. And once that wall is put up, there is no breaking through. He is a super challenging kid, and has been since he was a baby. Sometimes I get lost with all of the gentle approaches because seriously nothing works. Am I supposed to just keep trying and maybe something is sticking even if it’s not showing?

      1. I just left a comment as I am having this same problem, I really need help with this too X

  24. Can you please help guide me on how to help my almost 5 year old and 2 1/2 year old go to sleep at the same time in their shared room. Prior to our current attempts, we would put the younger one to sleep in the pack n play in our room and then move her to her crib later on after she feel asleep. However, she is almost too big for her pack n play and so we have been trying to get them to sleep at the same time. Also, we used to put the younger to bed first, let her get to sleep, and then the older would go to bed. That doesn’t work well thou because it takes her too long to get to sleep and keeps the older one up too late. Any suggestions would be wonderful! Thanks!

  25. great text. thank you !
    i love the book by kim john payne the soul of discipline that talks about 0-7 years old kids need parents to be a governor, 7-14 the kids need their parents to be a gardener and 14 to 21 they need a guide.
    so i totally agree with you that it’s OK for the mom to drive back home and set her personnal limits. the young child NEEDS, desperately needs, an adult that drives the ship and knows, calmly and confidently what boundaries are.
    thank you for this text

  26. Thank you for this piece! I completely agree about logical consequences and follow through. I’m having a hard time in instances when there is no logical consequence I can think of, OR I am unable to flow through with the logical consequence. This is particularly relevant to when I am nursing my youngest (9mo), and my toddler (2yrs and 9mo) deliberately makes a lot of noise to distract him (bangs on the piano, comes right next to me and shouts, etc.). While I completely understand and am sympathetic to her pleas for attention, my little one can’t properly nurse! Ive tried acknowledging her feelings, talking to her about it at other times, telling her she needs to play quietly, reassuring her that I can play with her when I’m done feeding her brother… but when she doesn’t stop, I feel like I am stuck!) Any ideas how to deal with this?? My toddler is usually so independent!

  27. Elizabeth says:

    As is often the case, you seem to know what I need you to write about! I’m a homeschooling mom and I read a lot of books about unschooling, a philosophy which I love but which also encompasses many styles of parenting, including some in which the parent doesn’t really impose any rules other than basic safety (no bedtime, no cleaning up required, etc). I’ve been struggling with whether I am imposing too many limits on my children (or simply missing out on learning opportunities) by saying no to messy art projects at times, having a set bedtime, etc…and here is your lovely post, reminding me that it’s ok to take care of myself; it’s a gift to my kids if I take care of myself, and I’m not a bad parent for needing things to be semi-tidy, most of the time. Thank you. Your writing is always a breath of fresh air in the realm of parenting advice. Also, as I’ve never really commented before, I want to add that my journey with RIE for the past 5 years (and counting!) has profoundly changed my life and my view of my children, myself, and my fellow human beings. Thank you for your work.

  28. Yesterday, as I took a walk for 30 min with my husband, and Nana was home watching the boys (11, 6) we came home to a WWIII situation. Very unlike them, the 6 year old pestered the 11 year old. 11 year old asked for space, went to his room to close the door. 6 year old started bugging him through the door. 6 year old pretended to walk away then got a little stick and scared him at the door. 11 year old responded by getting a nerf gun and chasing him back to his room. In his room 11 year old destroyed one of 6 year old favorite big creations. Then 11 year old apologized and 6 year old ‘accepted apology’. We came home and 6 year old burst out into tears. Nana was obvlivious to the whole thing. I asked them what happened together, said the older one made a good choice by asking for space but should have gotten Nana for help when 6 year old wouldn’t honor his boundaries. Also said 6 year old should get Nana if he doesn’t know what to do when sent away from older brothers room. I was just really disappointed and it seemed like it got so escalated. I even worried would 11 year old hurt 6 year old physically if he was capable of destroying his lego village. Took away the ice-cream they thought they were having. 6 year old cried himself to sleep, 11 year old apologized and game him a new lego from his collection. Part of my thinks this kind of bickering is ‘normal’ but not for our house. Wondering if regression is due to quarantine and feeling guilty that I have not done a good job. Any tips to how to handle it better? I tried to ask their sides of the story, alternate options of what they could do, build empathy by explaining the others situation and remind them of the good choices they had made (more the 11 than 6 year old).

  29. Thank you so much for this it’s so nice to get this reassurance, what my issue is and delete not know where I am is after you have stopped something or taken it away for whatever reason it may be, they wasn’t playing nicely etc. Is what then, as my three year old son does not ever except it, he goes into an awful screaming tantrum and this is what I don’t know what to manage, any advice on this would be greatly appreciated as I am really not sure where to go and these tantrum are affecting my one year old daughter also and upsetting for everyone xx

  30. Hi Janet,

    I always love your podcast and reading your articles. Can you help on what is appropriate for my almost 3 year old to keep her in her toddler bed? I’ve tried multiple times, picking her up gently and confidently and saying “we need to stay in our bed” or “I can see you are having a hard time, I’ll put you back in your bed”. I try reasoning that she needs her rest for all the fun we want to have. These do not seem to work. What else can I do? I don’t want to pull the punishment card? But I’m at a loss. I read last night on another blog…Give them two chances and remind them each time if you get out, you have one more chance but then no TV tomorrow. Ok last chance, you chose. You can get out but then no tv. It sounds like this is not something you recommend. Your help past what I’m saying would be so helpful! Thank you!

  31. Lynda Adams says:

    Inspiring article, I would love to be this parent but I’m afraid I’ve fallen into awful habits. My 5, nearly 4 and 1.5 year old boys exhaust me emotionally and mentally. My 4 year old gers very aggressive and will flip out , destroy things, attack me very often if he is redirected, told no, or put into a time out/time-in. It’s awful, I don’t respond well to it sometimes and feel extremely defeated. Sometimes I end up spanking and I never saw myself as THAT parent , so I end up crying and holding them and apologizing and steeping in my own self loathing. My 5 year old has special needs so playdates, camps, sitters are more challenging. I wish I could implement these techniques, I really do but I feel like I’m so burnt out….how do parents improve from this emotional exhaustion and become better?

  32. Anne Cutler says:

    Hi Janet – I’m a longtime fan and first time commenter! I generally feel quite skilled at setting boundaries, having read your book “No Bad Kids” when my first daughter was just entering the toddler years and taking it to hear immediately. I can almost always set boundaries respectfully, calmly, all while acknowledging feelings and being honest about my personal limits. However, as she gets older (she’s 5 now) I am finding a few new situations where I cannot come up with a logical and related consequence that is a part of our routine.

    Example: she will “intentionally” scream to wake the baby up or prevent me from getting the baby to bed. I use the quotes because I know she loves the baby and does not want to cause the baby distress, and instead is actually communicating her normal feelings around the huge changes of having a new baby requiring our attention, etc. Ideally we address these feelings with some more quality time, and we are working on it, but we’re human and don’t have infinite time to always do this. So… the screaming and waking up will happen. And there is no logical/related consequence that is a part of our routine (which I suppose is considered a “natural consequence, though I wasn’t able to see your mention of that word). If I lock the door she bangs on it which is just as bad. I am often on my own in these situations, so nobody can even hold her and keep her away from us when I’m putting her down. And sometimes we literally cannot hold her and keep her away from the baby’s room – she’s strong!!

    I’d also love to hear your response about finding a “natural” consequence for not staying in bed at bedtime, as requested by Tina.

    And even if you find a “natural” consequence for my example, as you have for others’ examples, I’m sure there is at least one situation that doesn’t have “natural” consequence. Please advise on what to do when this actually happens.

  33. Katherine says:

    Hi Janet,
    I just read your article Sassy, Bossy, Back talk and then this one. I’ve tried to follow many of your principles in raising my 2.5 boy and 5 year old girl, but I’m struggling with a new one. I’m three months into a new job that has me working from home. I’m so blessed to have both of our grandmother’s taking care of my kids while I work. However, for better or worse, I now have a lot more insight as to how things go through the day, as I can hear many of the exchanges through the home office door. Sometimes, the way my children talk to their grandmas (in particular, my mother in law) when they’re testing limits and not getting their way. (ie. “Shut up, Grandma!”, etc.). It’s so hard to listen to, but I’m reluctant to intervene, and “reward” the behavior by coming out of the office and being available to them. Do you have any suggestions as to how to think about or address this? Like you said in one of the comments, I agree that for me the “goal is to be the person my child feels safe discharging feelings with, confiding in, etc. So, it’s important to me to hold a nonjudgmental, open space for my child to err with me.”, but I feel like it’s a lot to ask the grandmas to hold the same space. I’d appreciate any thoughts that you have on this. I was lucky enough to get to see you speak live in Marin in October, and it was so wonderful! Thank you!

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