Disclaimer: I do not have a child yet. But this method has been in my mind for me to put to work if ever I do get a child.

So how does this work?

Basically, instead of the parent dictating to the child what he should and should not do, the parent educates, but ultimately lets the child decide what to do. Of course, when health/potential accidents are involved, the parent should take in control.

However, in smaller cases like these :

Situation: Way past bedtime

Child: But I still wanna watch TV

Parent: Tells child that he'd be tired tomorrow for school if he doesn't sleep, then asks the child what he wants to do

Child: decides to keep watching TV

The next day, the child is too sleepy for school and had a hard time with his classes.

Premise: The best teacher is experience — letting the child know the consequences of his actions by himself, rather than just his parent telling him that it shouldn't be that way.

Right now, I see more advantages than disadvantages to this method, but I believe it is not widely used.

Am I missing out on some important points here?

  • 2
    My guess is it depends on the child. With my son, the one night he watched TV late he fell asleep in class and the teacher left a note in his notebook about it. Now every night we just have to remind him: are you sure you don't want to sleep now, you might fall asleep in class tomorrow, and he always decides to go to bed. I'm not sure it would have worked on me though...
    – PatrickT
    Oct 14, 2014 at 11:00
  • 3
    Also depends upon the child's age. The parent must always choose a developmentally appropriate technique to teach, guide, and discipline.
    – bishop
    Oct 15, 2014 at 1:05
  • I'd argue that regularly ensuring sufficient sleep is a health issue.
    – Acire
    Nov 7, 2014 at 16:44

5 Answers 5


Most parents try to do it that way when they can. The main thing you're missing is that children live in the moment, to a much larger degree than most adults realize until they have kids of their own. The further removed the consequence is from the decision, the less influence it has on their next decision.

For your bedtime example, it would take a typical five year-old dozens of times before the natural consequence soaked in. Some children perhaps hundreds of times. When your mom complained that she must have told you a thousand times, she probably wasn't exaggerating. It takes a lot of repetition for some behaviors to sink in.

That's why a lot of a parent's job is converting long-term consequences to short-term ones. Rather than a child suffering through half the school year without enough sleep, they only must endure much fewer artificial consequences imposed quickly by the parent the night before.

Now, letting the child occasionally experience her own consequences does have benefits. It helps her feel like she has a say in things. It helps her see that her parents impose the short-term consequences for good reason. If you want her to make good decisions as an adult, and even as a teen, you have to give her a chance to practice as a child.

You probably remember thinking as a teen that the consequences your parents gave were worse than the natural consequences, and at that point, there's a good chance you were right. However, you honestly needed those parental consequences when you were younger, and I think a lot of parents just have a hard time breaking the habit when their kids grow out of it.

Parents don't want their kids to make mistakes that seem easily avoidable to us with 30+ more years of life experience. I can already see myself having a hard time giving my currently 7 year-old son more freedom to experience natural consequences in 6 or 7 years, even being fully aware that I want that for him. It's hard to see until you're a parent, but most of the mistakes parents make are in an attempt to minimize their children's suffering, sometimes at the expense of other important principles.

  • +1 for the last paragraph's realism. I think that would also be one of the obstacles. Of course I wouldn't want my child to suffer bad consequences even if it will lead to a greater good.
    – Zaenille
    Oct 14, 2014 at 3:18
  • 6
    "The main thing you're missing is that children live in the moment, to a much larger degree than most adults realize until they have kids of their own." This. Amen, and amen. Most children have zero ability (improves with age & experience, obviously) to connect choice with consequence if there is any substantial delay. Sometimes they don't even realize that they're making a choice. Heck - half of my college buddies had the same problem ;-) Oct 14, 2014 at 19:00
  • 1
    Love the concept of "converting long term consequences into short term consequences". That is a very good insight - thanks!
    – Floris
    Oct 15, 2014 at 10:28

I think you are missing something important. The negative consequences must be both relatively swift and have to be actually considered negative by the child!

This particular scenario of yours is very real, but I think is a very bad example of letting children experience the effects of their decisions.

Look at it from the child's perspective: he got to watch tv (plus), got to do what he wanted (plus), had to wake up early anyway (minor minus, getting up was harder), was sleepy during classes (doesn't really care). In general the balance is for staying late. The consequences weren't severe enough to discourage any more attempts to stay up late. Hence, 90% of children (who follow the same train of thought) will want to stay up late every day. Eating too much sweets would be another case with similar effect (well my belly does hurt a bit, but hey, all the sweets I ate!)

I do support learning by experience. Don't touch the over - the child touches it anyway - gets burned (a bit). The cat will bite you if you pull his tail. And so on.

Remember that it all depends on the child's age and his character. If school is very important to him, then maybe he won't stay late. In general, however, use common sense and your intuition to decide whether to enforce something or to let the kid experience the effects. Choosing only one option puts the child in actual danger.


I think it's a great idea to let kids make decisions when they can. However, to let a child decide on important things without realizing that in many instances the child will pick what brings him instant gratification isn't really teaching him well. Better to let kids take increased responsibility as they are able to appreciate long-term consequences.

In the scenario you provide, have you considered the other consequences of going to school sleepy? They include:

  • disrupting the rest of the class with questions because he's trying to understand something he slept through the day before...
  • getting on the wrong side of his teacher because it puts her in a bind (does she wake him up and risk embarrassing him? Does she let him sleep and set a bad example for the rest of the kids? Does she waylay her lesson plan because your son can't move forward?
  • teacher may come to believe things are bad at home and refer him to the school counselor, talk to other teachers about your son, send home a letter or make a call asking why your son isn't getting enough sleep (are you expecting that the teacher will admire your letting him learn the hard way, choosing to watch TV over sleeping?)
  • child will do badly in school, from which he might not recover well, his lesson being learned at a high cost (not learning good habits)...
  • the effect this might have on other kids... and reflect back on him, possibly...

Better to start small (making sure the consequences affect him alone), and increase as desirable. The goal is to love your child and help him to become a successful (not meaning money here) adult. Modelling responsible behavior for him and letting him learn about consequences that way is a good thing, too.


I agree with the answers already posted, but let me add a few thoughts.

I recall seeing a TV program not long ago where the narrator said that parents shouldn't dictate sexual morality to their teenage children, but should let them make these decisions for themselves because "then they will own the decision". And I thought, Yes, great, except the consequences of an unintended pregnancy are very large and last for 18+ years. Would you say of a 5 year old, "I'm not going to tell him not to play in the middle of a busy street. Let him make that decision for himself so that then he'll own it." No, I would not do that, because if the child decides that playing in the street sounds like fun and then he gets hit by a truck, he could be crippled for life. The danger is too great.

I believe the guiding principle is this: A newborn child is totally incapable of making decisions for himself. By the time he is 18 or so, he should be 100% capable of making his own decisions. So you have to get him from point A to point B fairly smoothly. Some parents err on the side of being too controlling, of giving their child too little freedom to make his own decisions and his own mistakes, so yes, you keep the child safe, but then when he grows up and moves out of the house he has no idea how to run his own life, and he makes huge mistakes. Other parents let their children make their own decisions too soon and the child does himself serious harm.

For example, suppose that as your child is growing up you never let him decide for himself when to share his toys and when not to. You always tell him exactly when he must share and with whom. Then the child grows up and moves out. For the first time in his life he can tell other people "no, you can't have this". He gets carried away with this new power and is extremely selfish. Then he gets married. It's easy to see a disaster looming. Or maybe he goes to the other extreme and is too willing to share. Then he tries to make it on his own but is always loaning other people money that he can't afford to be without, let's a neighbor borrow his car and now he has no way to get to work, lets casual friends stay in his apartment and they trash the place, etc. If you always tell him when to share his toys and when not to, then he may never learn the logic behind the decisions. He just knows, "mom and dad said so". But if he can make these decisions for himself, then he will gradually figure out, If I never share, then it's hard to keep friends, but if I share too freely and/or with the wrong people, they break or steal all my toys.

On the other hand, like the examples I used to start this post, sometimes the consequences are just too severe for the child to be trusted to make this decision himself. I did not let my children decide whether or not to play on the street when they were 3 years old, because they did not have the sophistication to distinguish between a street that was too busy to play on and one that was reasonably safe. I did not let my children decide whether or not to go to school when they were 10 years old, because the consequences of not getting a good education were too serious. Etc.

In your example of staying up late, I'd say no, I would tell the child he has to go to bed. As Dariusz says, from the child's point of view, getting to stay up late and watch TV are big plusses. Falling asleep in class? So what? The REAL consequence here is that he will not learn as much as he could have. So say the child sleeps through a math class and fails to learn how to calculate interest rates. 15 years later when he buys his first house or his first car he can't figure out what this is really costing him and he gets cheated or makes a poor decision. Then he says, Wow, I should have paid attention in math class. But it's way too late. The consequence is so far removed from the decision that very, very few children will anticipate it.

So you have to decide how much freedom to give your child on a case by case basis, considering the maturity of the child and the consequences of a bad decision. Your goal should be to go from 0% freedom for a newborn to 100% freedom for an 18-year-old, on a relatively smooth curve.


Children should learn respect for adult authority... period. Unless its a case of obvious abuse, children need to do what they are told in school and in other public situations where their parents aren't present. The suggestions here that parenting should be customized to the child's temperment or perceived maturity, is shortsighted and only addresses the child's half of the equation.

What about teachers trying to teach a bunch of tired, restless children? THEIR plight should matter too! There are far, far too many parents these days who think their children and related home life are all that matters... and could care less about how what they do affects the rest of the world. That's a horribly ignorant attitude to have and nurtures an elitist attitude that isn't going to do anyone any good.

Really people... Too much focus is being placed on children's current, short lived moments and scenarios instead of preparing them for growing up and becoming mature adults. Too much of society, parents included, are falling for the rush of expedient, personal gratification at the expense of others in their community... and passing that ideal on to future generations, by example.

I don't know how many times I've heard parents with very ioose restrictions arguing that letting their kids roam freely around the city on their own terms teaches them independence and self esteem. Okay... but what is their behavior like? Are they crossing the street in accordance with traffic signals? Are they stealing anything from a convenience store? Who's teaching them anything along the way??? It should matter how they act and treat other members of society. Its not something that children just instinctively know how to do properly. There's far more that should be considered above and beyond the simple fact that they made it back home in one piece.

If any parent wants to have issues balanced in a child's mind, they should be framed with 1) Respect for others and 2) The fact that none of us lives on a social island: What we do affects others. Those two elements cover alot of ground when it comes to questions of why things are better done one way and not the other.


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