Natural Consequences

Life is about challenges and overcoming them, don’t you agree?  From our first hours on the planet, we struggle to communicate our needs, we overcome challenges to learn to walk and run, and sometimes we fall.  Overcoming a challenge has a natural consequence:  success and/or learning.    Newton’s third law in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction [consequence], applies to life as well.  But its complicated.  Parents must decide when to let natural consequences teach and guide our children’s actions and when we need to impose ‘natural’ consequences ourselves.  Let’s be clear:  consequences are never meant to be a punishment, rather they are meant to model appropriate social behavior, to let our kiddos know when they are ‘off course,’ and to steer them back in a good direction.

A recent teacher’s blog (you might have heard about) coined the expression “lawnmower parents are the new helicopter parents.”  In her definition, these are parents who, in all good consciousness, want to ‘mow’ the path for their children, smoothing out rough patches and obstacles so their children don’t struggle.  But what’s wrong with obstacles?  Why not struggle?  I know you have experienced a parent who runs forgotten homework or lunch to school, that pick up after their child and clean their room, who blames a teacher or a coach when a child (or the parent) really is to blame, or a parent who cannot leave when their child cries at preschool.  This reminds me of a story of a man who was distressed watching a butterfly struggle to come out of its cocoon, so he cut the cocoon and ‘helped’ the butterfly out, only to watch the butterfly never fly and quickly die.  Butterflies struggle out of their cocoon to clean their wings so that they can fly.  Just like butterflies, there is a reason why children must struggle, so they too can fly!  Children learn through mistakes, challenges, and struggles – natural consequences –  to be self-reliant, analytical thinkers, to solve problems, and frankly, to be good adults.

Consequences are everywhere – for everything.   Consequences motivate us to do certain things a certain way, if only to avoid the consequences.  They are challenges and struggles but learning opportunities as well.  What does your child learn if you do their chores, where is the struggle?  Providing clear expectations and identifying consequences often helps, like, “Feel free to watch your favorite show after you have emptied and loaded the dishwasher.”   Imposed natural consequences look like, “Wow, your cell phone is getting in the way of you finishing your homework/chores etc.  I’ll keep it for you until you are finished to help you get done.”

Mowing a smooth, struggle-free path takes considerable parenting energy and time but doesn’t produce the results you are hoping.  Instead, letting kiddos be butterflies – struggling a bit to enter life – is a true gift a parent can give.


Dr. Susan Carter is a child psychologist, play therapist, and parent consultant in private practice in Kalamazoo, MI.