One of the most effective methods parents can use to help modify behaviors of their children, are natural consequences and positive reinforcements. Although consequences can be seen as punishment, and reinforcements as rewards, there are some differences. Natural consequences, sometimes referred to as logical consequences, are an established set of results, which occur from specific behaviors. There is no emotionality contained with the dispensation of a natural or logical consequence; it is just the given outcome of a particular behavior. For example, if a child forgets to take a coat to school on a cold day, the child will be cold. That is a natural consequence of forgetting to take the coat. If an adolescent is caught shoplifting from a store, the legal ramifications, which befall them, is a natural and logical consequence.

What makes a natural consequence logical is that there is a direct connection between the behavior and the outcome or result. If a child goes to the freezer, gets a container of ice cream and puts it on the counter, and then is distracted and forgets about the ice cream, it will melt. When the child remembers the ice cream and wants some, it won’t be frozen anymore, but rather a container full of soft mushy ice cream, which is a logical result from leaving ice cream out of the freezer for a length of time. The melted ice cream is not a punishment. It is simply the natural and logical consequence of a particular behavior. Of course, melted ice cream is not that important. If a child refuses to do their homework, a natural consequence would be they get a poor grade, or fail the assignment. That would be the natural consequence. But, child might not care, so the consequence is meaningless. Contingencies can be established such that consequences become more meaningful to a child. In our society, privileges are earned, often through performance. A list of privileges can be established which equates to achievements either in school, or in the home, over a period of time. For example, if a child or adolescent completes all schoolwork and obtains satisfactory or better marks, measured in specific time increments, weekly, monthly or quarterly, a logical consequence would be some kind of privilege earned. This could appear to be a reward but because it is set up as a logical consequence of behaviors, it is more of an established cause and effect situation, available without emotionality. One of the differences between rewards and punishments and natural consequences is the matter-of-fact nature of consequences, vs. the emotionality of rewards and punishments.

What makes natural consequences so effective is that it is life teaching the child, not the parent. Children can argue with their parents, call them names, make them feel guilty, or angry. But, the child cannot argue against the laws of physics or the ice cream. They cannot take a privilege at their discretion if it is not available. If a child breaks a toy, there is no need for punishment. The loss of the toy is itself the natural consequence of breaking it. If the adolescent wants, say, the keys to the car, that is a privilege, which can be earned through performance. The privilege becomes established as a logical consequence, not much different than getting a paycheck for going to work, which is not considered a reward. It is the established natural consequence of going to work.

Parents can establish a comprehensive list of behaviors and consequences, which are automatically enforced and thereby remove themselves from the role of punisher. As long as the consequences are logically related to the behavior, and can be enforced with minimal effort on the part of the parent, within a very short time of the behavior, they will be effective in teaching a child personal responsibility, without having to tell the child to be responsible, repeatedly.

Positive reinforcement is a form of consequence. Some of the more common forms of positive reinforcement are praise and acknowledgement. If a child, on their own, cleans up their room, statements such as ‘you did a very good job in cleaning up your room’ or ‘your room looks very nice since you cleaned it up’ would reinforce that same kind of behavior in the future. Sometimes a simple ‘thank you, I appreciate what you did’ is quite sufficient. For example, if an adolescent, on their own, helps to clean up after dinner, a simple acknowledgement and thanks goes a long way to reinforce that behavior. If a student receives an A on a test, that alone is positive reinforcement and a natural consequence for their efforts. However, if the teacher should also verbalize praise and acknowledgement, that is an even more potent form of reinforcement as praise and acknowledgement from another person, especially an ‘authority’ is considerably influential.

In establishing a program of positive reinforcement, it is necessary to identify the behaviors that are targeted to be developed or increased. Specific reinforcements are then attached to those behaviors and applied whenever those behaviors occur. Reinforcements need not only be verbal praise and acknowledgement; they can be material ‘rewards’ as well. But, as in the dispensation of natural consequences, these reinforcements or rewards, are automatic and generated by the behavior, not by any mood or inclination of the parent, teacher or authority.

Designing a program of natural and logical consequences, including positive reinforcements, can take some thought and some time. And, once developed, they must be implemented automatically, without emotional involvement, and consistently over time. Additionally, any other players involved, such as relatives, teachers or neighbors, should also be included in the plan so they to can employ the consequences and the reinforcements as well.

Parents considering designing and implementing a behavior modification plan which uses these tools would benefit by sitting down with a professional counselor skilled in these areas to ensure the best possible design and implementation. It is important to only take on a few behaviors at once. Once those behaviors are established, additional ones can be taken on. Some behaviors, which may be excessive, and some behaviors which may be based on severe mental health issues, can take a longer time to see results and may require additional interventions as well. But, for what we might call normal misbehaviors, a well-designed and consistently implemented plan of natural consequences and positive reinforcements can work wonders.

Author's Bio: 

Ken Fields is a nationally certified licensed mental health counselor. With over 25 years in the mental health field, he has worked as as an individual and family therapist throughout school districts and within communities, a crisis intervention counselor, a clinical supervisor and an administrator in a human service agency. He has taught classes in meditation, visualization, goal setting, self-image psychology, anger and stress management, negotiation, mediation and communication, crisis intervention, and parenting. Mr. Fields specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Family Systems Therapy and Communication Coaching. As a practicing counseling psychologist, Mr. Fields brings decades of specialized training and applied skills to his work. He now provides quality online counseling and can be found at http://www.openmindcounseling.com