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"Teach me — don’t punish me"

Lauren Fine and Mark Tomlinson

discipline, v. to teach [from the Latin: discipulus, pupil, disciple]
discipline, n. instruction [from the Latin: disciplina, teaching]

The aim of this article is to offer a short discussion on natural and logical consequences. Many child care workers struggle with the subject,— so we mustn’t too readily assume that the children can understand and work with natural and logical consequences. In our experience, children in care are seldom developmentally in tune with their chronological ages, and they need help in understanding the principles of consequences.

Some questions

We wish to pose a number of questions and hopefully go some way in answering them. Some of these questions are:

1. What response does one offer if a particular behaviour begs a natural consequence but no immediate consequence is apparent?
2. Does ‘negotiation’ as is called for in logical consequences imply that everything is up for negotiation, or does the child care worker limit that which can be negotiated?
3. What alternatives are there to a situation where prior negotiation is not possible, for example, when the incident has already happened, but where it is felt an important lesson may be learnt through a creative use of consequences?

In the literature there seem to be four ways of applying consequences for children’s undesirable or problem behaviour.

1. Reward or punishment.
This can often be an arbitrary consequence — and the response most readily chosen. We reward the obedient child and punish him when he disobeys. While this disciplinary system is probably still the most common, it places the locus of control outside of the child and in the hands of the adults in the child’s environment. Thus, parents (or caregivers) take responsibility for the actions of the child, while opportunities for the child to learn his own behaviour are limited. The locus of control tends also to be vested in an ‘authority figure’ who is present — and in whose presence behaviour must be ‘good’. Once the control of the authority figure is no longer immediately present, the child, who has not been given the opportunity to develop his own inner sense of right and wrong, reverts to misbehaviour.

Punishment by arbitrary consequences does not teach the child anything; he cannot draw any meaning from the transaction. He hits another child: we take away his pudding. He steals a chocolate: we send him to his room. He loses his toothbrush: we make him weed the garden.

2. Natural consequences.
Children can quickly learn sequences and patterns which make sense and that are consistent with their other knowledge. In using natural consequences, we allow the results of a certain behaviour to flow naturally from the act — and let the child draw his own conclusions from the sequence of events. For example, if you do not take a raincoat out with you on a rainy day you will get wet. Or not getting out of bed in the morning means that you will be late for school — and you will have to face the school’s response to this.

Natural consequences are based on three principles:

1. allowing children to make decisions;
2. letting them take the responsibility for their actions; and
3. (most important) ensuring that children learn from the natural order of events. (Dinkmeyer and McKay, 1983: 72).

In summary, these authors outline a number of advantages of natural consequences:

But earlier in this article we raised the problem that natural consequences do not always suggest themselves, or are not always appropriate. The famous educator John Holt used to say that we cannot allow a three-year-old to suffer the natural consequences of disobeying us and running across a busy street! We may need, he suggested, to interpose some other consequence.

3. Logical consequences that are imposed by a parent or caregiver.
We are easily confused by the fact that in the literature logical consequences are referred to in two quite different ways.
Firstly there is the imposed logical consequence (for behaviour which has already occurred), and secondly the negotiated logical consequence (which anticipates future behaviour, and which we will deal with in section 4).

Brendtro et al. (1990: 83) write as follows:

"Natural consequences are powerful when available, but too often they are not. If there are no natural consequences, then ... adults should at least make consequences logical. An example would be the assignment to the janitorial crew for youth who had flooded the school lavatories."

There are many instances in the daily life of a child where a natural consequence for a certain behaviour may not be immediately obvious. Here the child care worker should intervene in order to link the behaviour to some (logical) consequence for the child, thereby teaching the child that certain actions have certain consequences — for which he is responsible.

An example of a logical consequence imposed by staff is that of the fourteen-year-old boy who attended a function at the local pre-school. While everyone was outside, he and a friend "looted" the office and he stole two small items. He did not deny this when confronted, although it appeared that he felt remorse for his act and was willing to accept any "punishment". Although this boy knew cognitively what the natural consequence for petty theft was (police, court, etc.) this was not enough to deter his misbehaviour. We needed to help this child make the shift from behaving appropriately when the adults are in control (e.g. at school), to behaving according to his own inner sense of right or wrong — in other words, not just "being good" to please the adults. We needed to teach him that if you choose to behave in a particular way, then you must accept responsibility for your behaviour.

A plan was drawn up together with the child, however in this case there was no prior negotiation — and precious little choice. The only "choice" lay between his accepting our consequences or falling back on the legal consequences. The boy was required to work at the preprimary school during the short school holidays, repairing, painting, and restoring equipment, and for the first two weeks of the new school term, he spent half an hour before school each day assisting the teacher with her preparations for the morning activities. I n this way, he was able to link his ‘taking’ from the school with ‘giving’ something back. At the same time the fact that he had a task to perform directly related to the misdemeanour, allowed him the dignity of making good.

This example raises one of our questions. The purpose of natural or logical consequences is to help the child to learn by experiencing the reality of the social order, rather than inviting resistance by imposing an arbitrary punishment. Arbitrary punishment brings into play the balance of power which is part of the relationship between child and child care worker, instead of collaboratively developing the child’s sense of responsibility. However, how often do we assume that the child is able to make the connection between his behaviour and its consequence? We noted earlier that developmentally he might not be able to understand the gravity of his actions, or to grasp conceptually the possible and future consequences.

Another example will illustrate how this method of discipline can so easily fail. If the child does not see the logic of the consequence, and refuses to take responsibility, we all just end up in the very power struggle we were trying to avoid. A five year old child refuses to tidy up his toys at the end of the day even though the child care worker has almost depleted her repertoire of ‘management techniques’. Finally she appeals to the child’s logic and explains that he has a choice — if he chooses not to pick up the toys, then the dog is likely to chew them up and they won’t work tomorrow. Still no luck. The child says "that’s OK" and refuses to budge. (Can a five year-old anticipate and understand a consequence which is still "possibly" to come?) Another child care worker passing by overheard the conversation and called her colleague aside with this advice: "Tell him that he can choose: (a) toys left lying around would be removed and he would not be allowed to play with them, or (b) toys packed away in a safe place would be in good condition the following day when his key worker had planned to play with him. "Bingo!" He made the connection, and within five minutes the room was spotless. A very similar scenario was played out a week later, but with an eight-year-old. It did not need as much explanation: he quickly decided to pack his cricket set away as he wanted to use his cricket bat the following day when his dad was coming to visit.

Clearly, the five-year-old is in a very different developmental phase from that of an eight-year-old, and our posing of choices and consequences must relate to this.

In the same vein, imagine a thirteen-year-old who continually leaves his soccer ball lying around. The natural consequence of this is that sooner or later it will get kicked away by someone or chewed by the dog. The response of the child care worker in this instance may be not to get involved in a power struggle, but rather to let the natural consequences follow. The problem is that developmentally the thirteen year old child might not be able to foresee the natural consequences of his actions, with the result that when the soccer ball is chewed up, he is left with anger, a sense of loss — but without any sense of his responsibility for the disappearance of his ball.

The moral of this scenario is that we should be sensitive to the extent to which any child is able to ‘predict’, or even understand, a consequence. A child may well need an ‘imposed logical consequence’ in order to come to an eventual understanding of the natural consequence of his actions.

4. Logical consequences which are negotiated between staff and child.
This is a most helpful method when a specific recurring or resistant behaviour can be targetted as problematic for the child. Negotiated logical consequences are planned together with a youngster in anticipation of undesired behaviour which may occur in the future.

Krueger (1988) suggests specific steps for setting up logical consequences in anticipation of having to deal with future behaviour. Firstly, the staff team working with the child agrees that the behaviour is indeed a problem — not just something which ‘bugs’ one team member. Then the child care worker and the child discuss the behaviour and agree that it is a problem. With the child, various options are explored, and a consequence is agreed to which is appropriate to the child’s abilities as well as his social needs and treatment goals. The rest of the team agrees to the consequence, and from there on it becomes part of the child’s treatment plan.

Example: John contributes little to the domestic side of the unit — and this is an obstacle to the rehabilitation of his family because they would need his help when he returns home. In particular he doesn’t co-operate with the laundry staff, ’forgetting’ to hand in his laundry at the stipulated times and causing them to work late because of him. All agree that he has to learn to manage this better, and it is agreed that when he misses a laundry call he has to do a two-hour shift helping out in the laundry.

The advantages of this are:

(a) John is himself made responsible for this problem: he knows he must choose between being helpful with laundry calls or helping with the laundry.
(b) John gets to understand the direct link between his missing laundry calls and the trouble it causes others; he develops a sense of responsibility for this.
(c) He and the child care workers are spared the nagging and the arguing about laundry.

Everyone knows ahead of time what will happen if John fails. Negotiated logical consequences work with groups as well as individuals. Krueger refers to the problem of kids fooling around in the van on their way to a function or fun day. Staff and youngsters agree that this is dangerous and therefore a problem. They agree that when this happens, the driver must simply turn around and drive home.

Instead of having to punish, says Krueger, this can ‘place the adult in a position where he/she can say "Remember, we talked about this together" when the problem occurs’. Responsibility for ‘controlling’ the kids is placed in their own hands.

Creative discipline
Instead of ‘shoot from the hip’ punishment, which so often is more a function of staff anger or lack of resources than of helpful behaviour management, we can create positive learning experiences for children if we are careful about consequences. We would like to share a last example of the use of creativity when adopting a logical or thematic method of discipline. Two thirteen year old boys were preparing a snack in the kitchen of one of our group homes. The domestic worker, an integral member of the team, was urging the boys to clean up their mess as she needed to prepare the evening meal. What started out as a playful interaction, very quickly grew into a power struggle and she was trying very hard not to get pulled into this. The two boys, however, became quite abusive and began making derogatory racist remarks. Another child care worker on duty intervened, and the boys retreated to their rooms, failing to see the need for an apology.

The following day, the incident was discussed with the team and the following issues arose:

It so happened that the movie Sarafina was showing at a local cinema, and the following consequence was imposed on the two boys:

1 . They were to take the domestic worker with them to see the movie within three days of the misbehaviour.
2. They were required to pay for not only her ticket as well as their own, but also to buy her a bucket of popcorn and a coke.
3. They had to then complete a two-page essay discussing the movie, how they experienced it and making the link between what they saw and the inappropriateness of abusive and racist behaviour.

What transpired was far better than we expected. Before they were a third of the way through the movie, both boys were so horrified by what they were seeing that they began apologising there and then, saying they had no idea that what they were seeing really happens. They could not stop talking about it and apologising over and over for their thoughtless misbehaviour. The extent of their remorse was clearly demonstrated in the essays the following day, and to date, months later, they have not forgotten.


Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M, and Van Bockern, S. Reclaiming Youth at Risk

Dinkmeyer, D & G, McKay, 1983: Step Teen: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens: American Guidance Service, Circle Pines, Minnesota.

Dreikers, R and L, Grey, 1970: A Parent’s Guide to Child Discipline. New York, Hawthorne Books.

Krueger, M. 1988: Intervention Techniques for Child & Youth Care Workers. Child Welfare League of America. Washington DC.