Throughout this series we are discussing ways of disciplining children that are more in line with what God had in mind. All of the discipline strategies in this series are very effective when used consistently and in conjunction with each other. They are all biblically supported and sound. And none of these methods, when used properly and respectfully, will ever cause any harm to children. In this piece, we will look at how to set appropriate limits and boundaries for our children by which they can abide. We will see that allowing children simple choices and giving appropriate alternatives for inappropriate behaviors also help children comply with our limits and boundaries. Next, we will see why using encouragement with our children is better than using rewards and praise. Finally, we will discuss using natural and logical consequences with children. Consequences are not the same as punishment. And discipline should not be equated with punishment.
Setting Limits and Boundaries—“Three Basic Rules for Life.”
We all need limits and boundaries in our lives for without them life would be very chaotic. This is especially true for children as this world is too overwhelming for them to handle on their own. Children feel most secure when they know what the limits and boundaries are. In fact, young children will test limits and boundaries to make sure that the adults in their lives will enforce them. “Children need secure, loving boundaries in order to feel safe, just as adults need a house with strong walls and a roof to feel protected from the weather. Still, any self-respecting child will feel obliged to cruise up to the boundaries you’ve set and test them occasionally, just to make sure they’re firmly in place. He’s not deliberately trying to drive you insane; he’s either exploring at his age-appropriate level or learning about consistency and whether or not adults mean what they say (another version of trust)” (Nielsen, Erwin, & Duffy, 2007, p. 44). Toddlers are extremely good at testing limits and boundaries. Despite what many Christian “experts” may claim, toddlers are not being “evil” or “sinful” by testing limits. This is developmentally appropriate for young children to do. They are learning about their world by exploring limits and boundaries. “Toddlers test limits to find out about themselves and other people. By stopping children in a firm but respectful way when they push our limits, we’re helping them to figure out their world and to feel safe” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 18).
Sadly, many Christians see toddlers pushing and testing limits as sinful. They feel they toddlers’ wills must be broken or else there is no hope for them to grow up to be godly adults. As I have pointed out throughout all of my series, children do not intentionally sin as adults do. Yes, an 18-month-old will smile as he or she is reaching for a forbidden object, but this is how God created toddlers to behave during this particular developmental stage. They are making sure that we will hold firm to the limits and boundaries in a playful way. It is important that we Christians understand that while sin affects every part of our lives, that sin can also make us misunderstand our children’s intentions. As Nielsen, Erwin, and Duffy (2007) state:
“Adults mistakenly read motives—that is, intent—into children’s behavior that reflect adult thinking rather than childish thinking. Some act as though their child lies awake at night plotting ways to drive them crazy. Martha’s repeated warnings to her son not to touch things aren’t terribly effective; kind, firm action would be more helpful. Toddlers are highly impulsive little people, and the warnings are simply overpowered by the desire to touch, hold, and explore. A toddler straining over the edge of his stroller to touch a shiny cup on the store shelf does not intend to disobey. The fact that this cup is at the bottom of a highly breakable pyramid of cups has no special meaning for him. The colors on the cup attract his attention; he reaches for it and wants to examine it. He is a mad scientist using his hands, mouth, and imperfect coordination to determine the properties of the marvelous world around him. Your real tasks as a parent are prevention, vigilance—and very quick reflexes” (p. 45).
I love what one of my good friends always says. She points out that limits and boundaries should be firm yet stretchy so that when children run up against them, they give a little and are comfortable, but do not allow children to break through them nor do they cause pain for them.
When it comes to setting limits and boundaries for young children, there are three basic rules on which all boundaries and limits should be based. The first rule is respect for others. The second rule is respect for ourselves. The third rule is respect for property. And if we think about it, these three rules encompass much of what Christ said in His sermon on the mount. If you wish to add a fourth basic rule, we could say reverence of God. The reason why we should only have three or four basic rules on which to base limits and boundaries is that giving children too many rules to follow, especially at a young age, will only frustrate and overwhelm them. These basic rules are easy to understand and will make sense to children, though young children will require much guidance and reminders to help them comply with these.
It is important that while boundaries and limits are a bit flexible, that they are consistent and hold firm. Some parents may set boundaries and limits based on the three or four basic rules, but then they allow their children to break right through them. “As children grow, many parents fail them by not knowing how to maintain a consistent, reliable environment. During the toddler years, children ask, ‘How much of the world is mine to control? Where are my boundaries?’ Children find it frightening when parents fail to establish limits or are inconsistent in their enforcement and allow children too much control. Unconsciously, children reason, ‘If I’m the strongest person in my world, who’s going to watch out for me? Who’s going to protect me?’ So, insecurity sets in. And knowing that their skills are limited, children try to control their environment by acting out” (Kuzma, 2006, p. 157). Therefore, when we set a limit or boundary for our children, we must be able to enforce it consistently.
Tine, a mother of two young children conveyed to me in an electronic message on June 14, 2012 how she found out first hand that young children desire boundaries. She writes concerning her daughter:
“I took her out on a hot day, to the fruit shop. She wanted an icypole, a fair enough request, so we went to the milkbar first. Then the icypole had to be eaten at the park across the road, and no amount of talking, telling her it was dangerous to cross the road there, not safe to sit in front of the milkbar refusing to get in the car, had any effect. I lost patience, and in the end gave up, got ‘T’ back out of the car, put him in the Ergo and walked them across the road to the park.
She played. For hours. It got late and the fruit shop would soon close. I gave her some lead – ins, ‘One more play on the castle then we are going to the fruit shop,’ ‘the fruit shop is going to close so we have to go now…’ Eventually she came. And walked at a snail’s pace, examining every flower and stone.
Then she started down a slope toward a steep drop to the golf course. ’Stop,’ I said,’ that’s dangerous!’ ’Time to go to the fruit shop you can walk or I can carry you.’ She looked at me, a clear challenge, and took off to the drop. That was my limit. With ‘T’ in the ergo on my front, I picked her up with her screeching, wailing and kicking violently. Sweat running down my face, I carried her under my arm, ‘T’ quite amused, ‘F’ practicing her possessed banshee impersonation.
I walked the half-kilometer or so to the fruit shop like this, stopping to unpeel her fingers from a fence we passed. At the fruit shop I offered her a plant, but the protests continued. I gave her a basket and asked her to help, but the tantrum shifted to the corner of the shop. I started collecting fruit. Suddenly she stopped. A little voice, ‘shall we get some lemons Mummy?’ YES! Get a thousand lemons! The relief! We shopped in quiet co-operation, and I never felt the need to say a word more about it.
Her relationship with me shifted then, vastly for the better. I had to carry her off with me on two other occasions, but the protesting was mild and very token. I think the trick is simply to know your child. She was pushing me to set a boundary for her and when I did, in a way that was utterly free of blame or castigation and that was a natural consequence of the situation, she seemed to feel relieved and could relax. Our relationship rebuilt after that, and she has no more intense or frequent tantrums now that most 3-year-olds do.”
Another thing that we must remember when setting limits and boundaries with our children is to make sure the limits and boundaries are logical and reasonable. If the limit does not make any sense to the child, he or she is more likely to fight the limit. Most children will comply with limits and boundaries if they know there is a good reason for them. Many parents feel that they don’t have to give a reason for a limit. And we have all heard the “Because I said so” line from either our own parents or others’ parents. I remember getting so angry as a child whenever my parents said, “Because I said so” to me. It didn’t make me want to comply with them at all. Most children feel this way. They truly want to know the reason for the limit that is being imposed on them. I believe mutual respect dictates that we supply even the youngest child with a simple reason for a limit. An example would be “Please walk in the house so you don’t trip and fall.” Dr. Kuzma (2006) explains, “Whether or not children keep the rules has a lot to do with how reasonable they are and whether or not the rules can be remembered. Reasonable rules are almost always principle-based. Although young children may not always understand why rules are important, it’s important to tell them. For example, ‘It’s important to keep your room clean because being organized and having everything in its place is a valuable lesson to help you be successful in whatever you do.’ Or, ‘When you put your toys back where they belong, you can always find them’” (p. 372). Not only do providing simple, logical reasons make it more likely that children will comply with our limits and boundaries, but so does telling them what to do instead of telling them what not to do. For example, saying, “Be gentle with your baby brother,” is often more effective than saying, “Don’t hit.” Another example is saying, “Walking feet,” instead of saying, “Don’t run.” Parents say “No” and “Don’t” and “Stop” so often to their young children that the children begin to tune their parents out. Tine has two young children and has found this to be very true. On June 14, 2012, Tine conveyed the following to me in an electronic message:
“I noticed at one point when she was about 2 that I was saying no no no no all day, and as soon as I made an effort to change that she responded by being more easy to be around. The other day I was at the playground with the kids, and chatted to a grandmother who was there with her two grandkids, a girl of 2 and a boy the same age as ‘F.’ She was a kind woman and clearly adored her grandchildren, but I noticed that everything was ‘no’ or ‘don’t.’ ‘F’ and the little boy ran off to the cricket nets, now closed off for winter. Grandma shouted, ‘No, ‘A,’ no! Don’t go in there! No!’ ‘A’ continued on his merry way through a gap in the fence and straight into the nets. I called out, ‘Stop ‘F’!’ and she did immediately (because I only use ‘stop’ when it’s important), then I walked over to her and explained that there’s broken glass in there so it’s not safe to go in. She didn’t. If I have to say ‘no’ or ‘don’t,’ I try to always say what I do want her to do instead. On that occasion I said, ‘let’s go back to the playground’ and all of us did.”
Obviously, Tine’s daughter knew to listen to her mom because she doesn’t constantly hear “No,” “Don’t,” and “Stop” all the time. Even if we have no choice but to phrase something negatively, it is very important to follow it with something positive that they can do. For example, say, “You may not draw on the wall, but you may draw on this piece of paper.” This sets an appropriate limit while telling the child what he or she can do. It is frustrating for children if all they hear is what they can’t do without ever hearing what they can do. Adults tend to assume that young children will know what is appropriate after being told what is inappropriate, but this just isn’t the case as they are only beginning to learn how to navigate their world. As I discussed in Part 2 of this series, just as they need appropriate ways to act out their negative feelings, they also need appropriate behaviors to replace the inappropriate ones.
Some Christian “experts” often teach parents that first time obedience should always be expected from children beginning at young ages. First time obedience is when children obey the first time a command is given. While this may sound like a wonderful thing, it is completely developmentally inappropriate to expect children to be obedient the first time. What these Christians do not understand is that young children’s brains take longer to process things, especially when children are engrossed in an activity—which is a good thing. For example, it can take infants and toddlers up to 25 seconds to process new stimuli—including verbalizations (Greenwald, 2008). This is called Tarry Time. It is important to give children time to process what we are saying to them. And, often, it is necessary to repeat what we have said to them. This is perfectly normal and okay. Dr. Kuzma (2006) gives the perfect example of using what she calls “The Broken Record Strategy” with her 2-year-old grandson:
“I used a modified broken record strategy with my two-year-old grandchild and was surprised how successful it was. He wasn’t trying to divert my attention with questions; he was ignoring my requests. Here’s what happened. Levi had found a lollipop that I thought was hidden. He was sucking on it by the time I noticed. I knew if I took it away too quickly I was facing a possible tantrum. Instead, I waited a few minutes until it was nap time and I could offer a good reason to give it up. I held him on my lap with a plastic cup in one hand. ‘Levi,’ I said cheerfully. ‘It’s time for a nap. Please put your lollipop in the cup.’ He sat there as if he didn’t hear me. ‘Levi, it’s nap time. Please put the lollipop in the cup so you don’t get the blanket sticky.’ He sat there. ‘Levi, put the lollipop in the cup. I’ll put the cup right here beside the bed. It will be here when you wake up.’ And without a protest, he took the lollipop out of his mouth and put it in the cup. If only it were always that easy” (p. 357).
She allowed her grandson time to process her request, gave him a good reason for the limit, and reassured him that the lollipop would still be there when he woke up. This allowed him to eventually willingly comply with her. “Parents of young children need to remember not to push for compliance too quickly, or they may end up getting increased resistance unnecessarily” (Kuzma, 2006, p. 357). People who say that they have children who obey the first time are not aware of the harm that must be done in order to force children to obey the first time all the time. As scientific research has shown, children are incapable of this without brain damage being done to them in order to get them to always obey the first time. Now, I understand that there are times when we need our children to comply with us immediately. When this is necessary, we should simply tell our children that this is something we must do right now. Older children will usually know from our tone of voice that they need to comply right away. But, for a younger child, be prepared to help them comply. They don’t mean to disobey; it is just very difficult for most young children to make transitions quickly. Also, giving children lead times will help make it easier for them to comply. Say, for example, “In five minutes it will be time to clean up and get ready for bed.” Be sure to get on the child’s level and say this. In fact, getting on children’s level whenever a limit or boundary is being set will help the child feel respected, making compliance and cooperation more likely.
Giving simple choices when setting limits and boundaries when possible aids in getting young children to comply. Toddlers need to feel as if they have some control over their world. Simple choices allow us to do this without giving them too much control. “Of course, it’s important to set limits. At the same time, offering choices wherever possible within these limits gives even very young children the feeling that they have control” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 4-5). I used this with what most Christians would call a “strong-willed” toddler with which I once worked. She was happily playing in the sensory table with sand when she began throwing sand out of the table. I told her to keep the sand in the table so no one would trip on it. She threw more sand out of the table, and once again I told her she needed to keep the sand in the table. This time she looked me in the eye, testing me, she threw a small amount of sand out of the table a third time. “E,” I said, “you know better. Either you keep the sand in the table or you will need to choose another activity.” She stared at me for a moment and then she chose to go play somewhere else. She wanted to make sure I would stand firm in the limit that I was giving her, and allowing her to choose between complying or playing somewhere else ultimately helped her to control her behavior. It worked many times after that as well.
While giving simple choices when possible is always a good thing, sometimes parents give limits in question form, thus, giving the child the impression that the limit or boundary is a choice when it really is not. An example of this is asking the child, “Do you want to get ready for bed now?” The child is likely to answer, “No!” Since getting ready for bed is not a choice, it is better to say, “It’s time to get ready for bed. Do you want to walk or hop to the bathroom?” Van der Zande (2011) states, “To toddlers, these polite ‘fake’ questions can be confusing and upsetting. If we ask a happily playing toddler, ‘Are you ready to take your nap now?’ she’s sure to yell, ‘No!’ If we’re not sure a child will cooperate, we sometimes soften our statements by adding, ‘Okay?’ as in ‘I’m going to leave now. Okay?’ By making this a question, we give the child a choice we really didn’t mean to offer. It’s possible to say something clearly and still give a choice; for example, ‘It’s time for you to take a nap now. Do you want to bring the book with you or leave it here?’” (p. 6). When we do give a simple choice, we need to remember, as with compliance with a request, to allow children time to process and decide. “Just like adults, young children may need a moment to make up their minds. It’s important, when offering a choice, to give a child a chance to think. If the child has trouble making a decision, we can repeat the choices. ‘Do you want to wear your sweater or your jacket?’ If the child can’t decide after a reasonable period of time, it’s time to take charge: ‘I’ll help you choose so we can leave. Here’s your jacket’” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 6-7).
God gives us obeyable limits to keep us safe and healthy. But none of His limits are arbitrary or difficult to follow thanks to what Christ did for us on the cross. And God will always help us obey Him when we ask. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 11:30: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Also, 1 Corinthians 10:13 states, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” These verses from Matthew and 1 Corinthians mean that God never places unnecessary limits and boundaries on us. He is our Perfect Father, and does not want to frustrate us. He, in fact, will help carry some of our loads if we allow Him to do so. This is how we ought to be with our children when setting limits and boundaries for them. As Dr. Kuzma (2006) states, “Your goal as a strong, gentle parent is to have your children obey you because they love you, not because they fear you. You can’t have limits without love or love without limits! God set the standard: ‘For whom the LORD loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights’ (Proverbs 3:12, NKJV)” (p. 331).
Finally, when it comes to setting limits and boundaries with children, it is important to allow children to appropriately voice their objections even if we can’t negotiate on a limit or boundary. As I wrote in Part 2 of this series, we must hear children’s negative feelings and validate them. God does this for us. He listens to us and validates us even though He may not change His mind. He wants us to test the spirits to make sure it is really Him speaking to us (1 John 4:1-3). We need to follow God’s example and do the same for our children. “Thoughtful, respectful, cooperative — Yes, absolutely. Kids grow up that way when we listen to their thoughts, treat them with respect, and invite cooperation by working together on solutions” (Markham, 2012, http://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=775b94b440ad73397931a9ad7&id=eaa90025f5).
How do we respond when our children comply with us? In the next section we will see why encouragement and affirmations are better than praise and rewards.
Encouragement vs. Praises—“Do Not Love the Praises of Men.”
Many Christian “experts” in child rearing teach parents to use praise and rewards with their children for “good” behavior. But using praise and rewards with children constantly for “good” behavior actually gives children the wrong message. While the Bible does say that believers that do their best to do God’s Will on Earth will receive a reward in Heaven, the Bible also says not to love the praises of men (John 12:43). When it comes to life on Earth, God’s Word says we are not to do things out of needing people’s approval. We are to be humble in all that we do as Galatians 1:10 states, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” The apostle Paul clearly understood that in order to truly serve Christ, he could no longer be concerned with pleasing other people.
Now, it is completely natural for children to want to please their parents, and this is a good thing. However, we often hear very well-meaning parents say to their children, “Good girl or boy!” Or, “Good job!” The problem with these types of statements is that they are actually degrading to children as they are not animals, but little people. An occasional “good job” is okay, but when people use these types of statements with children, it usually means that they are pleased with something that they did. It sends the message to children that they are only “good” when they are pleasing their parents. But what about when children are having a bad day or aren’t happy? Are they still “good” then? I believe children are always “good” even if they are doing something “bad.” Also, many people commonly ask new parents if they have a “good” baby. Aren’t all babies “good?” Yes, some children are easy while others are difficult, but all children are good. After God created man and woman in His Image, He blessed them and looking at all that He had created, Genesis 1:31 states, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Since we are all made in God’s Image, God thinks we are good despite our tendencies to sin. If He did not believe we were good, He would not love us so unconditionally, and would not have come to Earth as Jesus Christ in order to suffer and die for our sins so that we may be saved.
Now, some may be reading this and saying, “But only God is truly good!” Yes, you are right. While we may be good in God’s Eyes, God is the only One that is truly good and worthy of praise. We see this in Matthew 19:16-30 a rich man ask Jesus what good thing he must do to get eternal life. “’Why do you ask me about what is good?’” Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments’” (Matthew 19:17). What Jesus is saying here is that only God is good, and nothing that man does can ever earn him eternal life. We receive eternal life only by the grace of God when we repent. Eternal life cannot be earned. God gives us His love, grace, and mercy unconditionally even though we sin against Him all the time. He does not wait for us to perform before He blesses us. Therefore, we should not tell our children that they are “good” only when they please us. And since God is the only One worthy of praise, we should not get in the habit of praising our children for every little thing that they do. They should know that they are loved and good in our eyes no matter what, just as God does with us. Lutton (2001) states, “If we withhold our love when our children do something that doesn’t please us, they will see God as withholding His love and they will fear losing their salvation. If you have either of these views of God yourself I encourage you to read His Word and see that He is a God who loves us sacrificially and unconditionally and ‘when we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13)” (p. 37).
Another thing that we do when we provide children with a lot of praises and rewards when they perform how we want them to is that we teach them to do things just to get the praises and rewards. Since God is concerned with our hearts and motives for why we do things, He does not want us to obey Him just to get a reward. He also does not want us to obey Him out of fear. We need to teach our children to do things because it’s right, not out of fear or the desire for praise and reward. Look what Jesus says about the Pharisees in John 12:42-43: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” They wanted human approval more than they wanted God’s approval. Also, God does not want us to compare ourselves with others (Galatians 6:4), and I believe too much praise and reward in childhood can lead people to compare themselves and what they have with others. Giving children a lot of praise and reward is not biblical.
So, if we are not supposed to praise each other, but instead, encourage one another, you may be asking, “Why do so many Christian ‘experts’ on child rearing teach parents to give children praise and rewards?” It goes back to them using Behaviorism which I explained in great detail in Part 6 of my series entitled “The Christian History of Spanking.” Behaviorism uses positive and negative reinforcements to control children’s behavior. If we give a child or an animal positive reinforcement through the use of praise and reward, then it is more likely that the child or animal will continue doing a desired behavior. Therefore, these Christian “experts” of child rearing have somehow turned an outdated branch of Psychology into something they claim as biblically supported child rearing.
Now that we know why we shouldn’t use much praise and reward with our children, let’s discuss using encouragement and affirmations with them. Encouragement and affirmations focus on the child’s actions rather than using global comments and labels about the child. For example, if your child picks up the blocks, instead of saying, “Good boy/girl,” or “Good job,” say, “Thank you for picking up your blocks! That was very helpful!” Another example is if your child draws a picture, say, for example, “Wow! You used a lot of bright colors!” Tine does this with her daughter. In an electronic message dated June 14, 2012, Tine writes:
“I have always been always concerned about the effect of language on children, and naming what she’s doing rather than saying ‘good girl’ (she’s not a dog!) seems to really have been effective. She’s great at picking up on things she does well now, and lately in others too. This evening she wanted to hop in the bath with ‘T,’ so I said, ‘Could you please put your clothes in the laundry basket?’ She said, ‘You asked really nicely, Mum’ and put them in the basket! She also says things like ‘’T’s’ doing some really good jumping’ which I find very encouraging!”
Research has proven that the use of encouragement and affirmations is better for children than praise. Carol Dweck from Stanford University has been studying children’s coping and resilience mechanisms for 40 years. The last 14 years she has focused on her suspicions as to what may be causing children to become less resilient in recent years. She believes that praise is the culprit. Her latest research study entitled “Parent Praise” is a longitudinal study where researchers observed and coded parental praise of children between the ages of 14 to 38 months. They checked back in with the children when they were seven to eight-years-old to see how the praise had affected them. This study found that what Dweck calls “process praise” is much better for children than person based praise.
“’The parents who gave more process-praise had children who believe their intelligence and social qualities could be developed and they were more eager for challenges,’ Dr. Dweck told me.
In her previous research, she’s showed that praising children for their intelligence or abilities often undermines motivation and hurts performance. Kids who are told they are smart care more about performance goals and less about learning. Kids praised for their efforts believe that trying hard, not being smart, matters. These kids are ‘resilient’ and take more risks” (Anderson, 2011, http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/27/too-much-praise-is-no-good-for-toddlers/).
Obviously, we need to be encouraging and affirming our children from birth onward. But does this mean we can never celebrate their milestones and accomplishments? Of course, it doesn’t. The Bible encourages rejoicing with each other. Rejoicing is different than praise. For example, your baby has begun to crawl or walk for the first time. It is perfectly okay to say, “Yay! You’re walking!” Or, if your toddler uses the toilet, to say, “Yay! You went potty!” And by all means, feel free to do the “Potty Dance” with your child. Life with children is full of happy, joyful moments, so celebrate each and every one of them with your children. Just remember to praise God for them instead of your children. And, in those quiet or difficult moments, remember to tell your children how much you love them and that you are proud that they are your children. “Try to use more affirmative words in talking with your toddler and fewer negative words” (Sears & Sears, 1997, p. 345).
Finally, as I previously said, God doesn’t wait for us to perform in a way that pleases Him before He blesses us. Look at what Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” His mercies and blessings are new every morning before we even do anything. Give your children blessings when they are least expecting it because you love them. If your child has been wanting a new book, surprise him or her with it just because you love him or her. Don’t make special outings and gifts hinged on their behavior. This is a great way to show our children that we love them and enjoy doing things for them on occasion just because. On a side note, as children get older and are able to take on the responsibility of doing chores and yard work, it is perfectly acceptable to give them an allowance. This teaches older children about responsibility and about being good stewards of their money.
There are consequences for everything we do. Children must learn this through natural and logical consequences.
Using Natural and Logical Consequences–“Every Behavior has a Consequence.”
All behavior has consequences. Some are positive and others are negative. Most of these consequences happen naturally, and are never meant as punishment. As with discipline, many people equate consequences with punishments. But consequences are meant to teach us and help us grow instead of just merely stopping behaviors as with punishment. Punishment involves intentionally inflicting pain on the child. Consequences do not involve intentionally inflicting pain on children. And consequences are directly related to the child’s behavior whereas punishment is not. Gerber (1998) states, “Try to provide natural consequences, which relate to what the child did, rather than punitive ones, which are either unrelated or too harsh. An example is saying calmly to your toddler, ‘You didn’t get ready to go to the park. You didn’t come when I called you, so today we’re not going.’” (p. 212).
After all, God disciplines us by allowing natural consequences to happen to us to guide us back to the narrow road. Many people believe God punishes His people, but when we look at the Bible as a whole, we see that what people see as punishment is really God using natural consequences. And some of this has to do with God’s ultimate Plan for us. Take Moses for example. In Numbers 20:8, God instructs Moses to speak to a rock in order to make water spring forth from it. But Moses was fed up with all the grumblings from the people, and in fact did not fully trust God at this point, so Moses hit the rock twice to make water spring forth from the rock (Numbers 20:11). This was in direct disobedience to God. So, God gave Moses a natural consequence. “But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them’” (Numbers 20:12). Now, most people would say that God “punished” Moses, especially since the English Bible does use the word “punish,” but as with the rod verses, I do not believe the word, “punish” meant to the Old Testament writers the same as it does for us. But when we look at what Deuteronomy 34:1-5 says, we see that Moses was allowed to climb a beautiful mountain that over looked the Promised Land and see it. He died on that mountain after 120 years of life. And the second that Moses died, he went to Heaven. I would not call that punishment. Yes, I’m sure Moses was very disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land after everything he had been through, but he did not lose access to the ultimate Promised Land—Heaven. Heaven is more glorious than any of us can imagine. Much more so than the Earthly Promised Land.
And going back to some consequences being a part of God’s ultimate Plan for His people, as we continue on with the story after Moses died, we see that God intended for Joshua and Caleb to be the ones strong enough to win the victories that allowed God’s people to enter the Promised Land. We see throughout the Bible that every good person that God used for His Plan, except for Jesus (Who is God), sinned and had natural consequences occur due to their sin. David lost his child after sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 12:1-24). David fasted and pleaded with God while the infant was sick and dying, but as soon as his son died, David got up, consecrated himself, and praised the Lord. Why? Because David knew his son was in Heaven and he would see him again someday (2 Samuel 12:23). Then God allowed David and Bathsheba to have Solomon. Therefore, using natural consequences with children that do not sin as much as adults do is biblically supported discipline.
As I said, natural consequences happen naturally as an effect of a behavior. For example, if a child spills something, it must be cleaned up. Or, if a child won’t wear shoes outside, his or her feet will get cold and/or wet. If children hit someone, the person reacts in pain. If a child doesn’t speak nicely, he or she won’t get what he or she wants. If the child cleans up, he or she will have more time to listen to his or her favorite bedtime story. This is every day life, and learning about cause and effect. “By using cause/consequence your child learns to be in charge of the consequences of his actions. His confidence is enhanced as he begins to take responsibility. During and after the consequence, let your child know that you are still on his side and still love him. Then forget about it. Don’t remind your child of what he did” (Gerber, 1998, p. 212).
Magda Gerber tells a story of how a mother used natural consequences with her toddler in Your Self-Confident Baby. Gerber (1998) states:
“A mother told me her son went through a stage where he enjoyed ripping apart any book she gave him, even the heavy cardboard variety. The mother told her son that because he ripped up his books (the cause), she was taking them away from him (the consequence). She gave her son magazines to rip apart. Toddlers love pulling things apart, and especially the sound of paper tearing. After this, the mother told me, her child stopped ripping up his books because he wanted them back” (p. 212).
This is a great example because not only was he given a natural consequence, but his mom also gave him an appropriate alternative to fulfill his need for ripping things. Helping children learn is the whole point of using all of these positive discipline, or grace-based discipline, techniques that this series describes. As Lutton (2001) states (GBD stands for grace-based discipline):
“Unless there is imminent danger involved, the GBD parent does not feel threatened by allowing their child to suffer natural consequences. This is different from imposing punishment (the response inflicted by an authoritarian parent who is disobeyed). If a child dawdles and is late for a birthday party and misses the cake, they miss the cake. If a child wants to see a movie but spends the money on a toy, they do not get to see the movie. The child may not like the consequences, but the GBD parent knows that the child must understand there are consequences to actions” (p. 64-65).
Now, I need to point out again that infants and toddlers learn through repetition. So, even though we may set a limit, validate their feelings, model appropriate behavior, give consequences, and provide appropriate alternatives, sometimes a young toddler will get something in their heads that they really want to do because it is very interesting to them such as play with an electric cord that cannot be fully out of their reach. Sadly, this is when most hand slapping occurs as parents become frustrated that their very young child keeps going back to the forbidden object. But, we know from the series, “The Effects of Spanking,” that all hitting and punishment is harmful. And infants and toddlers cannot understand being slapped or swatted. When your child is determined to do something that he or she shouldn’t, remember that the child is not disobeying you on purpose. The forbidden object may be so interesting to the child that he or she cannot help but be drawn to it. This is a brain problem, not a defiance problem. You need to help your child redirect his or her brain on to something that is acceptable. First, if you can block the forbidden object off from your child, do so. If not, calmly state, “The cord isn’t for you. It’s dangerous. You may play with your blocks instead.” As you are saying this, you need to be moving your child away from the forbidden object to the appropriate activity. Get your child engaged in the activity. If he or she starts to look or head toward the forbidden object again, calmly but firmly remind him or her that the object is not for him or her and redirect again. You may have to do this several times, but eventually the child will learn that the object is not for him or her. If the child gets upset, validate his or her feelings. And use time-in to help soothe the child. (See Part 2 of this series for more info on time-in). Whatever you do, do not slap or yell at your child. It will only scare him or her. Pray for patience as you keep calmly redirecting your child. We must constantly guide children on to the correct path just as God does with us. “Life is a big field and non-believers are free to play anywhere in the field that they choose. God’s children, believers, are instructed to stick to the path and continue moving forward. What is the path? Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Moving forward on the path is becoming more Christ-like. The path has definite boundaries within which there is much freedom” (Lutton, 2001, p. 65-66). I like how Lutton goes on to explain how God helps us grow and remain on the right path towards Him. Lutton (2001) explains:
“Paul discusses the development of believers as compared to the development of an infant maturing to adulthood (1 Peter 2. 1-3). When a person becomes a new believer he is a baby in Christ. They are allowed to walk anywhere on the path and be safe. They are the ones who are giddy at recently having found God and He is gentle in teaching them the perimeters of the path. Often, even when they wander off the path, God blocks the consequences and quickly restores them to the path. This is where believers identify the unsafe practices of their life before Christ and deal with getting on the path. As the believer matures there will be times where they must follow a certain portion of the path to be safe. At those times, the Holy Spirit walks beside them to help them maneuver that portion of the path. Sometimes the believer will stop to rest in the grass. There may be consequences for this if they stay too long, but God will allow them to make this choice. There is freedom on the path. God is also a good God and will encourage the believer to not stay sitting too long because there is a place they are going and they need to get there. It is as the believer matures that God teaches them a more structured walk” (p. 67-68).
God understands us developmentally and knows that if He pushes us before we are ready that it will only discourage us. We must keep this in mind as we guide our children. This is why using natural consequences with children, especially young children, is best. However, as children become school age and older, we may need to use logical consequences in addition to the natural ones. Logical consequences work similar to natural consequences in that they relate to children’s behaviors and are not meant to be punitive. For example, if the child refuses to turn off the TV to do his or her homework, he or she won’t finish his or her homework in time and will get a lower grade. And since TV is interfering with homework, he or she may not be able to watch as much TV for a while. If a child lies about where he or she went with his or her friends, then he or she won’t be able to go out with friends alone until he or she wins back our trust. “The beauty of using natural and logical consequences is that children seldom shout, ‘Unfair!’ They begin to learn that the consequence fits the act, and they must suffer the results” (Kuzma, 2006, p. 392). One thing I must caution with using logical consequences with children is that it is very easy to use them to punish children. Again, the idea behind logical consequences is not to punish our children. They are to continue helping our children to take responsibility for their actions, to help produce godly sorrow in them instead of worldly sorrow. (See Parts 3 & 4 of “The Effects of Spanking” for more information about godly sorrow versus worldly sorrow). As I have already pointed out, consequences should never be equated with punishments. Kuzma (2006) states, “Some parents say, ’I use consequences all the time. If my child breaks a window, I spank him. If he gets into a fight, I spank him. If he spills his milk, I spank him.’ These are parent-imposed consequences, but they are not logical consequences related to a child’s specific behavior. Remember, the closer the consequence fits the ‘crime,’ the more effective it will be” (p. 392). Punishment, especially physical punishment, is never logical or natural for children at any age. A good way to check to see if you are using a consequence against your child is to ask yourself, “Am I trying to intentionally inflict pain on my child or help him?” Yes, a consequence may not be pleasant, but if it’s intended to hurt, then it is punishment and should not be used. As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, when explaining to children why what they did was wrong or inappropriate, never label them as “bad” or say what they did was “bad” because as with praise, we do not want children believing that they are “bad” every time they make mistakes. Discipline should make children ultimately come away feeling refreshed and positive, not sad, angry, or fearful.
Finally, if you tell your child a natural or logical consequence will happen if he or she does something and your child comes to you to tell you the truth about what he or she did, be sure to thank your child for being honest. And while you will still need to apply the consequence, make sure you always do so in a way that encourages the child to continue telling the truth. We must always let children know that we will never punish or judge them for coming to us when they make mistakes. We are here to help and to guide them.
We have discussed setting and enforcing appropriate limits in this piece. When children have appropriate boundaries, they feel safe and secure. Natural and logical consequences, when consistently used, also help make children feel secure and empower them to start taking responsibility for their actions. Affirmations and encouragement teach children that they are valuable as humans. Praise and rewards actually teach children that they are only “good” when others are please with them. It is important to remember that God disciplines us using similar techniques in this series. “Jesus had to actively shepherd his disciples through good times and bad. He was there for them, whether they were tired, angry, frightened, or sad. We who seek to raise our children as Jesus would must be there for them, whether they’re making our day or breaking our heart. When we meet our children’s many needs—even when some parents would back away or call it quits—we are, Jesus taught, caring for God as well” (Whitehurst, 2003, p. 185). Wise words by which we all should live.
Anderson, J. (2011). Too much praise is no good for toddlers. http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/27/too-much-praise-is-no-good-for-toddlers/
Gerber, M. & Johnson, A. (1998). Your self-confident baby. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Greenwald, D. (Spring 2008). Using (tarry) time wisely. Educaring, 18(3), 2, 9.
Kuzma, K. (2006). The first 7 years. West Frankfort, IL: Three Angels Broadcasting Network.
Lutton, C. (2001). Biblical parenting. Salt Lake City, UT: Millennial Mind Publishing.
Markham, L. (2012). Do you want to raise an obedient child? http://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=775b94b440ad73397931a9ad7&id=eaa90025f5
Nelsen, J., Erwin, C., & Duffy, R. A. (2007). Positive discipline: The first three years. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Sears, W. & Sears, M. (1997). The complete book of Christian parenting and child care. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Van der Zande, I. (2011). 1, 2, 3… The toddler years. Santa Cruz, CA: Santa Cruz Toddler Center.
Whitehurst, T. (2003). How would Jesus raise your child? Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Rewell.
Discipline without Harm by Steph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.whynottrainachild.com.