Cause and effect is the idea that something happens as a consequence of something else. For example, if I drop a glass, the glass smashes as a consequence of me dropping it.
So why am I talking about it on a parenting blog? Well recently, I saw a Facebook meme which proudly brandished the statement,
“In our house, we don’t do punishments,
we don’t do humiliation,
and we don’t do consequences.” [emphasis added]
That was a bit of a shock – as a gentle parenting mama, I totally agree with not punishing or humiliating children. But consequences are a natural part of life, and being able to understand cause and effect is an important developmental milestone.
Babies quickly understand that crying gets mums attention. As children we learn that being kind encourages kindness in return. And as adults we use cause and effect to make scientific discoveries and work out why the bus is always 10 minutes later than timetabled!
It is human nature to learn through the process of cause and effect.
And, more than that, consequences prove that our actions matter – what we do has an impact on the world and those around us.
Cause and effect parenting
As a parent, I use the cause and effect pattern to show my children how their choices affect their lives. When they misbehave, there are consequences, just like there are out in the real world.
Many parents worry about upsetting their children – it is hard for us to see them sad, and it is even worse when we know that it was our doing.
But I would much rather my children learn the impact of their choices in the safety of our home than in the unforgiving world “out there”!
Just like the glass being smashed at the beginning of this post, a child’s actions should have consequences:
- If you complain about the TV programme again, the TV will be turned off
- If you knock your drink over, you will have to clean it up
- If you draw on the walls, your colours will be taken away
Therefore, if they choose to behave this way, they choose to accept the consequence. They have triggered the cause and effect pattern.
Punishment versus consequence
But I know what you’re thinking – how is that any different to a child being punished for doing something wrong?
In my opinion, it comes down to two things: motive and goal.
- The motivation of a consequence is to train the child.
- The goal is to teach them what behaviour is acceptable.
- The motivation of a punishment is to seek retribution for the child’s behaviour.
- The goal is to frighten them into not repeating it.
Consequences are not:
These are the characteristics of a punishment. Punishments are designed to cause fear. They are unkind.
On the flip side, a consequence is:
an objective, time-limited, cause and effect scenario,
which is issued with calm and delivered with love.
The characteristics of cause and effect consequences
I’m not going to pretend this stuff is easy – in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to lash out and issue a malicious punishment in anger. We’ve all done it. Remember – gentle parenting is about being gentle with yourself too; forgiving yourself when you get things wrong.
But don’t stop there – aim to do better next time!
Here is your consequence checklist – the five things that should feature every time:
However worked up you feel, you need to put your emotions aside and think about what is fair. A small misdemeanour only needs a small consequence.
Whereas a punishment causes long-lasting hurt to the child (such as the sting of a slap or the shame of being humiliated), a consequence should have a clear start and finish. Once the consequence has happened, everyone can move on and put the whole situation behind them.
Cause and effect
If possible, choose a consequence that is immediate and related to what is going on, such as turning the TV off if the children are bickering about what to watch. It is easy to see the cause and effect in this scenario.
- Consequences that are too far in the future just dredge up history at a later date
- Consequences that are unrelated often move into punishment territory as parents use the one thing they know their kids love as a bargaining chip.
Issued with calm
Always give your child a warning. Explain:
- What they are doing
- What will happen if they continue (the cause and effect)
- What you would like them to do instead
Your child then has the choice to carry on and face the consequence, or do something else. You are giving your child autonomy.
Delivered with love
If your child chooses to carry on misbehaving, you must go through with the consequence that you prescribed. This is cause and effect in action. But remember to do it with love – your goal is to teach your child, to help them to grow.
The importance of understanding cause and effect
When we teach our children cause and effect, we teach them that they can make a difference in the world. They learn that their choices and actions make an impact on themselves and those around them. And they can choose whether to make a positive impact or a negative one.
I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this. Do you do consequences in your house or something else? Do you agree with the distinction I made between punishments and consequences? Are there any bits in this post that you loved or hated? Leave me some feedback in the comments section below!
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