Yesterday at our monthly play therapy appointment, my husband and I learned a parenting technique that many of our parent friends are probably already expert at - called Natural Consequences.
Its basic premise was new to us, although completely sensible.
Here is how we learned about it:
The therapist asked us to give her typical scenarios for how our children act out, and what we usually do as parents in those situations.
We were very open with her, and I was especially touched to see how humbly and honestly my husband approached the therapy session. "So here's an example," he confided. "This morning, while I was driving our boys to school, the older one was really harassing his little brother."
"How so?" she asked.
"Well, first off, he stole his brother's seatbelt while I was driving so that his brother was not properly belted into the carseat for the last two blocks of our drive. By the time I could pull over out of the line of traffic, we were already at the school. Then, as he was getting out of the car, he stepped ON his brother's hand - on purpose - and squished his little fingers."
"How did you react?"
"Well I was very frustrated with him. I took away his dessert."
"I think," replied the therapist kindly, "that dessert would be an appropriate thing to lose if one of your children was doing something inappropriate at the dinner table - say, throwing food. We (therapists) like to encourage the use of Natural Consequences. Choose a consequence that fits the actual problem that has occurred."
"Okay, then how *should* I have responded in that situation?"
"First off, in your mind what was the actual crime?"
"He hurt his brother. He disobeyed me while I was driving. He made the car unsafe for his family."
"Good. So, then the natural consequence to those things would be one that offers a solution to each of those problems. He hurt his brother... so perhaps a natural consequence would be asking him to do something kind or helpful for his brother. He didn't listen to you, so a natural consequence might be asking him to show that he knows how to listen to you... and in terms of safety, the natural consequence might be for him to do something positive to help make your home or car or family safer."
"Really?" frowned my bemused husband. "Won't he think that is sort of a treat? I think he would actually LOVE to be asked to do something nice for his brother, or to help our family. Isn't that like giving him a reward?"
"No, not if you think about it," she replied. "He took something away from your family unit -- time, energy, comfort -- and so the natural consequence for doing this would be to find him a way (or let him find a way) to give back positively to your family."
"Ok. Well... what would I say to him?"
"You could say, Son - you've hurt your brother and so it is your job to do something that will make him feel better this afternoon when you are home from school. Perhaps he could read his little brother a book."
"I don't know..." my husband responded. "I still feel like that would be rewarding him in some way."
"Well," I interjected... "Maybe it wouldn't be as much of a reward because it wasn't HIS idea to read to his brother, it was something he would have to do even if he didn't really want to do it. He would have to use his own time to give back, even if he'd rather do something else. Is that right?"
We decided to meditate on that idea and moved on to discussing other topics and strategies with the therapist. She was a true fount of information and gave us a lot to contemplate throughout the remainder of the session. I remain deeply grateful that we were lucky enough to find her with such ease. It is already clear that she is poised to do our family a world of good.
When we arrived home from the appointment I noticed right away how hard my husband was working to implement the strategies with our children that she had taught us in the session. He really made a special effort and I was both impressed and inspired to follow suit. We both really put our all into listening to them carefully, and repeating back to them what they had said to us so that they would know we were truly aware of their feelings.
After the kids went to bed, he and I discussed natural consequences and what a few of them might be for various common problems we face as parents.
Our eldest was feverish last evening and stayed home with me today to go to visit his pediatrician. He was just sick enough to feel lousy... but just healthy enough to be running around the house, silly and full of beans (then later, quite cranky). When I took him to the pediatrician at the end of the afternoon we learned that he has walking pneumonia, poor guy, which may explain a lot of his recent fussiness.
Unfortunately for me, that aforementioned cranky period in the early afternoon happened to coincide perfectly with the return of his little brother from preschool. Oh, joy.
Within moments of reunion, they were at it... squabbling and tattling. This time though, I was on top of things with a new strategy in my back pocket. It was time to implement some natural consequences.
"Mommmmeeeeee!" the little one called tearfully. "He pushed me off of my scooter and told me I can't ride it any more!"
Looking over at the big brother who was grinning sheepishly, standing on the scooter, I sighed internally.
"Honey, what is going on?" I asked.
"But I want to ride the scooter too!" he whined. "It's my scooter too."
"Wasn't your brother taking a turn first? Wouldn't it be more fair to take turns?"
"NO!!! I want to ride it by myself!!!"
His voice had grown loud, shrill and anxious.
Just when I was about to lecture him about having a tantrum, I remembered what to do.
"Little man," I addressed him gently, "You have taken your brother's scooter from him and made him feel very sad. The natural consequence to this action would be for you to figure out a way to make him feel happy. Can you do that?"
He scrunched up his face, but to my real surprise he did not cry or scream. "He can play with any of my toys..." he whimpered.
"What a GREAT idea!" I responded rapidly, before he could change his mind. Turning to the little brother: "Did you hear that? He said you could choose any of his toys to play with while he rides the scooter!"
The little one stopped crying. His pouty lip returned into its normal, non-pouting position. He lit up, a little. "Really?"
His older brother began to waffle. "Well, except for the ones I don't want you to play with..."
"No," I said calmly but firmly. "If you're going to play with his toy, it is fair that he can play with any of your toys. You were RIGHT honey! You came up with such a great solution to the problem! I am proud of you."
The little brother ventured into the house and returned with a huge smile on his face and his brother's Buzz Lightyear in his arms. "I'm going to play with BUZZ!" he shrieked gleefully.
"NOT MY BUZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!" cried the big brother. "I don't WANT him to play with my BUZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"Well honey," I reminded him softly, "You took the scooter that he was riding away from him and then you came up with the very smart solution to make him feel better by letting him play with one of your toys. You did a good job - see how happy you've made him?"
"But is he going to play with my Buzz for SIXTY MILLION YEARS??????"
"No honey. He'll just play with it while you are on his scooter, because that is fair."
He looked left and right, then crumpled onto the pavement and began to sob. Big fat, crocodile tears. (We now know they were also Walking Pneumonia Feeling Lousy tears.) "BUT I DON'T WANT HIM TO PLAY WITH MY BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!" He lay on the sidewalk sobbing, bike helmet still on his head.
A little voice rang out. "Bwova?" It was their toddler sister - who worships her oldest brother - peeking her head out of the back door to see what all the hullabaloo was about. "Bwova eees saaadddd." (Brother? Brother is sad.)
"Oooooooh, oooooooh, po bwova." (Oh, oh, poor brother.) She scampered down the stairs and ran over to her brother, laying on the ground. She kissed his bike helmet, and then tried to get close to him to give him a hug on the ground. Finally she flung her little body onto his back and cuddled him. "Bwova, bwova." (Brother, brother.)
My younger son and I watched this heartwarming scene unfold. "Oh mommy," he said to me. "That is so sweet. She is being really nice to our brother." He put down the Buzz Lightyear doll and walked down the stairs and onto the pavement where his brother was still laying and sister was still trying to hug him. He went to the opposite side of his big brother and kissed him on the bike helmet too, then lay down on the ground and hugged him from the other side.
Amazed by the interaction taking place in front of me, my mother's heart turned to complete and total mush.
For a moment the three of them huddled there in a dogpile on the pavement of our driveway, his two little siblings - so often the targets of his rage - hugging and loving him back to happiness. Then spontaneously, they each got up and wandered off to do other things. Little sister decided to come and get her own bike helmet. Little brother came back to pick up Buzz Lightyear off the steps.
I watched my eldest son as he sat up, dusted himself off, and then stood up.
"How are you doing?" I asked.
"Ok I guess," he said, "I still don't feel that well."
"I'm sure you don't, honey. I'm so sorry. We'll see the doctor in an hour," I consoled him. "Honey did you see how nice that was? Your sister and brother were trying hard to make you feel better!"
He lit up a little. "I didn't SEE it, mommy!"
"Well, that is because you were laying on the ground... but I saw it, and it was adorable! Could you tell that your sister was trying to give you hugs and kisses to make you feel better?"
"I just felt something very heavy on my back," he said - but he was smiling widely.
"That heavy something was your sister!" I laughed. "She really loves you honey. So does your brother. We all do."
He brushed himself off a bit more, and then unlatched his helmet. "I'm done riding his scooter now," he said. "I'm tired mommy. I think I'll go rest on the couch. My brother can ride the scooter now if he wants to."
"That's really great. Thank you, I'll tell him!"
And that was it. The entire thing.
What would normally have ended with frustration, fighting between my sons or a 'time-out' for one or both of them turned into this really unexpected, beautiful moment between my three children where they spontaneously loved each other and treated each other with kindness - completely unaided by me.
I have rarely witnessed a display like this from any of them toward one another. In fact, I am emotional just writing about it. My children have good hearts! They are kind. I could cry from the overwhelming joy (and relief) of it all.
After only one day, I am completely sold on the theory of Natural Consequences. I used it thoughtfully and consistently all day and all night - even when they got tired and began to make poor choices again.
Every time an infraction occurred I asked out loud, calmly, "I wonder what the natural consequence for this would be?" and then I thought it through and gave them the reasoning for my consequence.
When the little son lied about eating his lunch and put his sandwich on his sister's plate, I decided that the natural consequences for those actions (lying, wasting food) would be to (a) Tell the truth about what happened to both his daddy and his grandmother; and (b) To eat that food for his next snack or meal.
Carefully I wrapped up his plate and let him go about his merry way, after explaining the consequence.
"We don't have a lot of extra money for food," I explained to him, "And you have wasted food here, so the natural consequence would simply be to have you eat it later in the day when you feel hungry." I offered to sautee his sandwich for his dinner, if that might be tastier. "BUT I DON'T LIKE IT!! I DON'T WANT IT!!!"
"I'm sure you don't and I'm sorry about that," I said kneeling at his eye level. "I hear you telling me that you don't like your sandwich and you don't want to eat it. But you did ask me to make it, and you told me what to put on the sandwich. So, the natural consequence of your action will be to eat it later for dinner or a snack, whichever comes first."
Long story short, about an hour later he came to me and said, "Mommy, I am hungry now. Can you please cook my sandwich?" Pleased and secretly amazed, I watched him scarf down the entire thing as we drove his brother to the doctor's office.
Natural Consequences seemed too easy, too generous when we first heard about it yesterday. My husband and I weren't sure how it would teach our children to make better choices in the future without giving some kind of minor punishment. The more I use this strategy though, the more I realize that it makes a ton of sense... not just to me, but to our kids as well. They can see its logic, so they are calmly following its guidelines. It is a disciplinary plan that treats children with respect.
I'm sure we'll have to refine and hone our co-parenting skills when it comes to using this (and other strategies). That said, I feel so hopeful, so encouraged. As it turns out, simple changes to our parenting style may just make all the difference in the world for the overall health and happiness of our family unit.
Babies don't come with instruction manuals and we've been winging it together for the past six years, doing the best that we knew how... trying to avoid the footsteps of our own parents who raised us in a day and age when spanking was common and I even got my mouth washed out with soap for sassing back. Those things won't work in today's world, nor would I wish to settle for hitting or hurting my children in order to try to teach them self discipline and respect for others.
It's really a joy and a blessing to learn from an educated, modern parent/therapist who knows the ropes, and can give us a hand when we're falling down. Things are really looking up!