It is often recommended that the negative, behavior of children, i.e. behavior unwanted by their parents, should be met with its "natural consequences". For example being cold outside in winter will teach your child to wear mittens without your interference. But there is some behavior where a natural consequence is hard for me to imagine.

Imagine there is a 6 year old child who reacts with outbursts of extreme anger whenever his parents end their special play time (i.e. the time the parents play "on their knees" with their child). The natural consequence seems to be not to play again with the child. But this seems extreme, contrary to the wishes of both parent and child, and leave no exit, because the child gets no future chance to display positive behavior. On the other hand, simply playing together again the next day will show the child that his behavior has no consequences.

So what would natural consequences be for:

  • running away
  • threatening (with gesture) to hit parents, or actually hitting them
  • being angry at parents for the child's own failures

and similar behavior from a six year old boy?

  • Young children don't connect things done at completely disparate times, so the odds are pretty good that he sees little to no connection between playing today and playing tomorrow. Cutting the playtime short may, in fact, be sufficient. Your example with the cold demonstrates that -- it's going to be cold, regardless, but how long the child can be out in it is dictated by how appropriately he dressed.
    – Shauna
    Apr 25, 2014 at 17:19

2 Answers 2


I find natural consequences to be my preference, since they tend to generally be more instructive than "do what I say because those are the rules".

However, in some circumstances, natural consequences are simply not a viable option.

In those instances, a substitute consequence is entirely appropriate. Failure to tie in a "natural" consequence should not result in the child getting away with no consequences.

At six, loss of small (or large, depending on the severity of the infraction) privileges is usually a good substitute.

However, be sure to look carefully to see if an appropriate natural consequence can be found before going to a substitute.

In the examples you listed, I'd think that restricted ability to play outside without close supervision would be a natural consequence of a child running away ("you have to stay right here by mommy and daddy until we can trust you to not run away").

If a child threatens to hit, or actually hits, someone, including but not limited to a parent, the natural consequence is canceling an activity involving the person hit (e.g. "we're not going to the playground because you hit me, and that really hurt my feelings, so I don't feel like doing something fun with you right now").

Similarly, a child being angry with a parent because of the child failing to accomplish something has a natural consequence of hurting the parent's feelings. In this case, though, a simple, but sincere, apology might be sufficient, if the child's anger and frustration can be redirected.


I think the natural consequence of antisocial behaviors is that people do not want to spend time with you. When your child is misbehaving in these ways, a time out is appropriate - you withdraw your attention from the child because the child has abused your attention-giving. It is not a physical consequence in the way that cold makes a child put on mittens, it is a social consequence.

Beyond having pleasant interactions with your child, you have a longer goal here of teaching your child how to behave with others. Other children will not tolerate these behaviors and will refuse to have anything to do with a child who is unpleasant. By removing your attention for a short period, you are demonstrating to your child the consequences he will feel when he acts this way towards others.

  • From my observation most children have these agressive "tantrums" when they are tired of their parents and need a time out: too much fun for too long often deteriorates into tantrums. But they do not want to stop playing and in any case don't know how to extricate themselves from a social situation, so they stay in it until it overwhelms them: they get angry, the parent or the child himself finally withdraws – and the child gets what he may not knowingly want, but needs! So a time off is not a negative consequence, but the hidden goal and a relief. It will only reinforce the aggression!
    – user4758
    Apr 25, 2014 at 6:28
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    You asked for natural consequences, but from your comments you appear to be only looking for something that feels like punishment. Punishment in my experience as a parent, a teacher, and an employer, will not get you the shift in behavior you are looking for. When a child is behaving negatively, your goal should be to redirect them to a more positive approach. Time out is a model for applying the natural consequences of antisocial behavior in a way that is structured for the maturity of a child.
    – MJ6
    Apr 25, 2014 at 14:44
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    Remember that a child that behaves in the ways you are describing is not being “bad” – he is learning how to be sociable by experimenting with a range of behaviors. As he experiences the consequences of those behaviors (other children don’t want to play or he gets put in time out), he will learn to adjust his behaviors more appropriately.
    – MJ6
    Apr 25, 2014 at 14:45
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    @what - So, include in the lessons you teach your son that it's okay to say "I don't want to play anymore right now" or "I need some time to myself for a while," before it gets overwhelming.
    – Shauna
    Apr 25, 2014 at 17:21

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