Taking Children Seriously

Unnatural Consequences

From Taking Children Seriously 22

by Sarah Fitz-Claridge

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

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

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

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

(Interesting that the experts do not agree on what exactly the "natural consequence” of “late” waking is.)

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

So what reasonably be called a “natural consequence”?

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

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

Mum, a TCS parent rather than a believer in using so-called “natural consequences” to “teach” her child things, would be giving Billy information (in a non-coercive, non-threatening way) about what might happen if he were to continue to make salt piles and sugar-lump-castles. She would be giving him information, and (assuming that he is getting so much out of his activities that he wants to continue) making suggestions about what they might do in any particular eventuality. She might point out, for example, that the waiter appears to disapprove of Billy's activities, and she might suggest to Billy that the waiter might order them to leave, or he might demand, as a condition of their staying, that Mum stop Billy's activities, or possibly he might ask Billy to stop (though this last seems less likely), and that if he says any of these things he may or may not use a harsh tone of voice – or (Mum would say), the waiter might just continue to give them the evil eye but not say anything. Or he might give up the evil eye stuff. Or the manager might come over and comment on what a charming child Billy is and give him a giant box of sugar lumps to play with.

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

  1. how to lessen the risk of something unpleasant or embarrassing happening,

  2. what to do to minimise the chance that any unpleasantness on the part of the waiter or manager might affect Billy adversely.

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

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

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

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

But what if Mum had been able to disarm the waiter before Billy had even had the chance to notice his frowns? How would he learn anything then? Well, dear reader, there is a simple answer to that: Mum can simply mention her conversation with the waiter to Billy, explaining what she did and why it was necessary. And she would explain to Billy that in some restaurants, such-and-such behaviour is expected, and behaviours such as sugar-lump-castle-building and salt-pile-making are frowned upon. She could simply explain – give Billy access to her best theories about restaurants. Coercion adds nothing at all; it just spoils everything.

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

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