Natural Consequences: When Not to Save the Children

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March 17, 2014

On our way to school one Wednesday morning, my kindergartener yelled, “I forgot my homework!” We spent most of Tuesday afternoon on it, so this felt catastrophic. You know, like in the movies when things go slow-mo and everyone freezes in terror. I’d told him to put that stupid folder into his bag when he finished. Sadly, the adventures of race cars couldn’t wait one more second. He’d worked seriously hard to get it done; it was on the tip of my tongue that I’d bring his folder back. But I didn’t. Couldn’t. Because it had been his decision to play instead of packing it.

Buckle Your Seat Belts

We all struggle with a desire to shield our kids from the ugliness of reality. We want our children to be happy. The idea of their fragile hearts hurting makes us want to suit up and fly to the rescue. We know they need to be their own people, but in the day-to-day it’s hard to watch it happen. I’m not going to get into specific discipline methods. I’ve seen all kinds work and all kinds fail. But, one thing in big picture parenting that seems to work just about every time is allowing kids to take the reins and then face what happens. We should let them make decisions and, the hard part, brace ourselves to let them experience the consequences.

When to Set Them Loose

The trick for us parents is finding what to let them handle on their own and what shouldn’t really be left to their unpredictable minds.  For very young children, this might mean letting them learn to walk without following with a pillow to protect their bottoms when they fall. Or maybe you let your four-year old try to work through that snotty classmate that stole his toy.  Older kids can take charge of their clothing choices. My daughter has spent a few shivery days when she ignored my suggestion of a sweater. To the surprise of many who know I taught in schools, I give my kids the power to decide when to do homework. We have a few times every week when I tell them it’s a good homework time. If they choose not to do it, the day before homework is due can be brutal. When they complain, I answer, “Tough luck. It was your choice.”

Give ‘Em a Hand

Allowing your children to choose does not mean that you wish them luck and refocus on your favorite soap opera. They don’t have enough life experience to know all the options, let alone which one is the best. You act as their guide and support.  Eventually they figure out that your suggestions generally pan out and you might not be a moron after all. Although, in my experience, not nearly as soon as they should!

Do It Yourself

Sometimes, Life lets you down and does not give you a natural consequence for decisions. Then you need to create them for yourself. For example, I used to ask the kids to pick up their stuff from the living room. Being kids, they wandered aimlessly for so long, we ran out of time. At the end of the time, the living room was still a minefield and the kids weren’t out a thing. Now I tell them, “We have 45 mins before bedtime. You need to get your stuff out of the living room. If you finish quickly, we’ll have time to read together. If it takes too long, you won’t have time for books. And if all the time has passed, I’ll assume you have too many toys to handle and give the ones that are still out to someone who would appreciate them.” Things get done pretty quickly.

Look on the Bright Side

As time passes, more and more of their decisions will be the right ones. Make sure to point those instances out and celebrate them. Positive consequences reinforce good choices.

The Check’s in the Mail

One cold morning, you will pass the time picturing your child shivering in the shorts she insisted on wearing. When your toddler tries to climb a table, you will have to look away. The week your teenager puts off their project until the night before, you will want to shake them.  In those moments of stress and anxiety, give yourself a hug, maybe a little chocolate, and a reminder that this will help them to face their own battles later.  Your suffering gives them a tool for life.

That morning in the car with my son, it hurt to tell him that he’d have to go to school without homework. Truthfully, I felt even more disappointed than he did. That afternoon, he sadly told me he had to pay a “centavo,” the reward system for his class. I wanted to tell him I’d pay him a dollar or take him to the store or buy him a pony, but I just sympathized and told him he probably wouldn’t forget next week.

And you know what? He didn’t.

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