What Are Natural Consequences? When and How to Use Them

A father punishes his son by taking his tablet off him for playing on it too long.

Tom Werner / Getty Images

Natural consequences help kids learn to make good choices. For instance, if a child is told to put away their sidewalk chalk but leaves it outside during a rainstorm, a natural consequence would be that it gets all wet (or it might get stolen). If a child is reminded to bring a sweater to school but doesn't, they might be chilly in their cold classrooms.

As a parent, it's tempting to just put away your child's chalk for them or rush in with the sweater. But if you do so, your child won't learn the powerful lessons that natural consequences can teach. While it can be tough to let your child make a poor choice and experience the results of their actions, allowing them to face the natural consequences gives them the needed knowledge and motivation to do better next time.  

The great thing about instilling natural consequences is you don't have to do much to let them work their magic. Instead, you basically just have to get out of the way and let your child experience the ramifications of their missteps—as long as it's safe to do so. Learn more about how to use natural consequences to manage and guide your child's behavior.

What Are Natural Consequences?

Essentially, natural consequences are simply what happens as a result of a person's actions, without any intervention by an outside party. In fact, the key to using natural consequences with kids is for the parent to step aside and allow their child to experience the effect of their what they've done or not done, says Aliza Pressman, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and psychologist at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City.

By not intervening when a child makes a misstep, the parent lets the child learn by doing, truly experiencing the fruits of their labors, explains Dr. Pressman. This may mean that they end up chilly, overtired, without their homework, late, or any number of other unpleasant things. They may feel disappointed or frustrated. They may fail a test or lose an item that they forgot at school. While it's hard to let your child feel these things, the point is for them to learn from these experiences.

Logical vs. Natural Consequences

It's important to distinguish between logical and natural consequences. "Sometimes consequences are provided intentionally by an adult in an effort to change behavior, such as when a teen stays out past curfew and the adult assigns a consequence that the teen is not allowed to drive for a week, says Caroline Fulton, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. This is a logical consequence: One that the parent puts in place.

"Natural consequences are things that happen automatically as a result of a child’s action or inaction without any purposeful behavior on the adult’s part," says Dr. Fulton. "If the natural consequence is unwanted or unpleasant, the child has the opportunity to learn from the experience and do things differently the next time to avoid the unpleasant experience."

Examples of Natural Consequences

Opportunities to use natural consequences abound. "For example, a preschooler who jumps in a puddle will feel cold and uncomfortable for the rest of the way home. A tween who is in charge of their own laundry won’t be able to participate in a game [if their uniform isn’t clean]. A teen who goes out with friends instead of studying for a test will naturally end up with a lower grade," says Dr. Fulton.

Other possibilities include that if your child stays up too late, they will be tired the next day. A child who is in charge of packing their lunch will be hungry if they only bring an apple or granola bar to school. "A child who leaves a toy outside won’t be able to play with it anymore if it is taken or broken," says Dr. Fulton. Additionally, if a child lies, they will lose trust or a privilege, such as if your child says they unloaded the dishwasher but didn't, they might not earn their allowance.

Benefits of Natural Consequences

There are tremendous benefits to using natural consequences with your children. First and foremost, this approach teaches your child responsibility, independence, and motivation.

Fosters Intrinsic Motivation

When parents routinely rush in to do things for their kids and/or "rescue" them from their actions (or inaction), they are robbed of developing motivation to take care of their own needs. "Natural consequences can help children to develop intrinsic motivation for behaving in adaptive ways," says Dr. Fulton. If they know you won't automatically fix it if they fail to do what is expected, they will become much more likely to do what needs to be done themself.

When a child finishes their book report because you hounded them to do it, that's external motivation. If they do it on their own because they want to get a good grade or for the satisfaction of getting their work done, that's intrinsic motivation. Natural consequences help to build this type of internal willpower that will serve kids well in the future, says Dr. Pressman.

If they don't put in the work, the natural consequence is feeling bad about turning in subpar work and getting a lower grade, results that may motivate them to do better next time. If you "fix it" for them by doing the report with (or for) them, they're robbed of this experience and they may not develop the intrinsic motivation to do their own work.

Develops Autonomy

Natural consequences help kids to become more independent and self-assured. "They help children to assume responsibility and to learn about how they can control outcomes through their own actions," explains Dr. Fulton. "After experiencing an unpleasant natural consequence the child can use the learned information the next time the situation occurs. Behavior may change once the child understands and experiences the unwanted outcome."

Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish between what your child should or should not do to become more independent. "As parents think about autonomy support, ask yourself, 'Are they capable of doing it themself?' If so, let them do it," says Dr. Pressman. And let them feel the ramifications if they don't do it (or do it the right way).

Teaches Cause and Effect

When you use natural consequences, the goal is not simply the discomfort the child may experience, but rather that they develop an understanding of cause and effect, can make predictions, and are able to understand their own ability to impact their environment, says Dr. Fulton. If you spare kids from experiencing natural consequences, as parents may feel compelled to do at times, they are robbed of making the connection between their actions and what happens due to their actions.

If a child doesn't set their alarm, they will be late. If they don't call their friend back, they may end up without any social activities that weekend. As a result, they'll see that they have the agency to impact what happens in their life—negatively and positively. Additionally, instead of the child doing something (say putting on a coat) because their parent tells them to, they learn to do it because of the desired result (not being chilly when it's cold outside).

Cultivates Resilience

When kids are allowed to have natural consequences for their actions, they may be likely to have some adverse experiences, says Dr. Pressman. However, the plus side is that they get the chance to grow and learn from these situations. As a result, you can help them work on their coping skills, problem-solving skills, and resilience.

For example, if they forgot to go to their best friend's birthday party or to bring a birthday present, those missteps may impact the friendship. However, by offering support, you can guide them on how to repair the friendship—and how to do better next time. They will need to cope with a friend being upset with them or with the disappointment of missing a social event.

If they miss the deadline for signing up for a school club, they may miss out on that opportunity. Living with the consequences of their actions helps to motivate them to be more responsible and proactive next time. This gives them the chance to cope with a manageable disappointment and/or to take action to rectify the situation, says Dr. Pressman. This type of experience may cultivate resilience that they can draw from when other unfortunate things happen down the road.

When to Use Natural Consequences

Opportunities for natural consequences come up often, just be sure to only use them when it's safe and developmentally appropriate. Often, they work best with older children, but can also be effective with younger kids as long as doing so is safe and they are old enough to understand the impact of their choices, says Dr. Pressman.

"If you find yourself tempted to intervene on something your child is responsible for or to stop them from doing something, it might be a good time to consider what the natural consequence would be if you didn’t act. If the result is unpleasant, but not harmful or dangerous, it is likely an opportunity for the child to experience and learn from a natural consequence," says Dr. Fulton.

For example, if a child is making toast but forgets to pull it out of the toaster or leaves it in too long, they may end up eating cool toast that the butter won't melt into or burnt toast. If they make their cereal but don't eat it right away, it will get soggy. If they don't get up on time in the morning, they may not be rushed to take a shower and make breakfast. These are times when natural consequences are appropriate.

It's important to skip any "I told you so's" when using natural consequences. "Natural consequences will be most effective when the adult allows it to happen without adding insult or judgment. Parents are often tempted to say something to the effect of, 'See?' or 'Look what you did.' Instead, it’s most helpful to be nonchalant but empathic in responding," says Dr. Fulton.

When to Avoid Natural Consequences

While natural consequences can provide powerful learning opportunities, there are times when they shouldn't be used. In particular, they aren't appropriate when safety is an issue or for babies or very young children who aren't mature enough to understand or make these decisions for themselves, says Dr. Pressman.

Consider how a natural consequence will impact your child and contribute to their overall learning experience. If it doesn't seem appropriate or safe, try another discipline strategy. Sometimes, taking away privileges or placing a child in time-out is more effective.

Natural consequences do not work well on younger children. For the most part, toddlers and preschoolers lack the ability to understand that the consequence is a direct result of their behavior.

For example, if you let a 4-year-old choose their own bedtime, they likely won't know they're tired because they stayed up too late. Unless they understand cause and effect, they aren't likely to choose an earlier bedtime in the future on their own. Make sure your child is able to recognize the connection and then apply that lesson to their future behavior. Most tweens and teenagers should be able to see how their behavior led to a consequence.

Make Sure It's Safe

Natural consequences should only be used when it is safe to do so. Clearly, babies and young children need their parents to take care of their personal needs and can't be expected to take on any responsibilities before they're developmentally ready, such as avoiding having an accident before they are fully toilet trained.

Don’t allow your child to use a kitchen knife unsupervised to "teach them a lesson." They could get seriously injured. Instead, when there's a potential safety issue or something that could cause a problem bigger than they should be responsible for, intervene before your child makes a mistake. Explain why this behavior is unacceptable and when necessary, follow through with a logical consequence. 

For example, if a child is responsible for walking or feeding their dog but doesn't follow through, you'll need to step in to make sure the dog gets the care they need. So, instead of a natural consequence (that the dog goes hungry or goes to the bathroom in the house), choose another method to teach your child the ramifications of their choice. For example, they might have to skip playing at the park or lose screen time.

However, also consider if the chore or task is developmentally appropriate for your child or if they might need some extra support to be ready to take it on, says Dr. Pressman. "If can almost do it, then provide the scaffolding they need." This adaptable approach allows you to still support their autonomy while also developing any skills they need to work on.

Ultimately, natural consequences should be used to teach children to make better choices in the future, not to make them suffer for their mistakes. So, before you allow natural consequences to happen, make sure your child will be able to safely learn from their actions.

"Natural consequences should never be used when there is a safety concern of any kind," says Dr. Fulton.

A Word From Verywell

Using natural consequences is an effective way to manage your child's behavior while also teaching them important life lessons. The key is to make sure the consequence is safe and appropriate for your child to experience. Only use them in situations that don't put your child at risk. When they're safe, natural consequences provide tremendous opportunities for developing motivation, responsibility, problem-solving skills, and autonomy.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to shape and manage your young child's behavior.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC's Developmental Milestones.

Additional Reading

By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.

Originally written by Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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