When Do Children Understand “Consequences?”


Why is it so difficult to teach children that actions have consequences?  The question might be, “Why do children not choose the best course of action?”

It is difficult because of caregiver/parent’s unrealistic expectations of children’s brain development. Honestly, I think every parent should take an online course about brain biology when they have a child! Brain growth occurs at different ages, and when parents understand the appropriate ages, they will learn when it is best to expect that children can base decisions on understanding consequences. Most parents give children “consequences” as a punishment much too young an age, when they can’t yet understand them.

The prefrontal cortex is the last section of the brain to fully develop and is responsible for behaviour control and critical thinking. Before age 6, children are pre-operational in their thinking, which means they do not have the ability to think out plans and imagine consequences of those decisions. They do not have all the information in order to make the right decision. When they reach school-aged, from ages 6–13, they get better at understanding consequences and can make decisions. However, they do not have abstract thinking skills yet. School-aged children are still operational in their thinking which means they understand what is tangible and what is in their immediate environment – things they can readily see, hear, touch, smell and taste. They can’t think conceptually until the teen years, so they don’t understand the “gray” areas of decisions, or theory or ideology. Consequences demand that the chooser understands all aspects of the decision in order to make an informed choice.

Children are able to begin understanding consequences around age 6 and are much better at it around age 13. Parents and caregivers need to adjust their expectations accordingly. And consequences should never be given to punish children for their decisions. They need an adult/caregivers help to problem solve a solution instead of “pay” for their behaviour with a “consequence.”


About Judy Arnall, BA, DTM, CCFE

BA, DTM, CCFE, Certified child development specialist and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices. Keynote speaker and best-selling author of "Discipline Without Distress", "Parenting With Patience", "Attachment Parenting Tips Raising Toddlers to Teens", and "Unschooling To University."
This entry was posted in Babies 0-1, Emerging Adult Children 19-25, General Parenting, Preschoolers 3-5, School-Aged 6-12, Teenagers 13-19, Toddlers 1-2 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When Do Children Understand “Consequences?”

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  3. Mary Gilmore says:

    Thank you for this educational article. Our great-grandson, Logan, is two years one month, and our grandson in law serves as a wonderful example of a father, yet we feel that his discipline, with consequences, seems far beyond Logan’s capabilities. He is an extremely intelligent child who is privileged in many ways, as he is the first grandchild, greatgrand and great nephew on both sides of the family. We live in close proximity to each other, and he is showered with unending love through reading and play. I am thankful for your article and shared it with my granddaughter and her husband. Hopefully, none of us will expect more than he is intellectually capable.


  4. Hi Mary – It happens often. Many parents think that children will understand consequences by the age of two and three. Although they are *beginning* and beginning is the key word here, to understand cause and effect, they still do not have a grasp on pre-planning actions based on understanding the consequences of those actions. That is why children do not go to school until age 6 – when they do have a good concept of consequences. A great resource (other than this blog) is the information at ZeroToThree.org Perhaps he might find that helpful too.


  5. Pingback: Site Title

    • The rest of the world can issue consequences and the child learns from them. But consequences have no place in building a love relationship. Only parents are willing to take the time to problem-solve with the child instead of punishing with consequences. Problem solving is a much more useful skill in working out problems within love relationships.


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