Over a decade ago, I watched a documentary about why people land in prison, and why they end up returning. The biggest take-away was that those prisoners didn’t learn that their actions have consequences. They don’t make the connection that their choices shape their lives. The most important thing a child needs to learn is that what he does will have an effect.
Parents love their children and want to protect them. That is a parent’s job. But if we protect a child from the reality of her actions, we cause her long-term harm.
We have to temper the allowing of consequences with our time-learned wisdom. For example, it isn’t fair, or wise, to let a young child reap the long-term consequences of not brushing his teeth. He would be dealing with cavities and caps in adulthood from a childhood when he only knew how to live in the moment. Parents have to keep the big picture in mind. That’s also a parent’s job.
But it’s vitally important that a parent keeps an eye out for those opportunities when a child can learn from her actions. It might be not interfering when a child is overly bossy with a friend. When the friend goes home mad, the parent can point out that the bossiness had a consequence.
One mom constantly reminded and nagged her son about setting the dinner table. Finally, she told him that it was his responsibility each night and she would not remind him again. That night, when he didn’t do his job, the whole family had to eat spaghetti off the table with their hands. He saw that his action (or lack of action) had consequences.
Parents and adults who mentor kids, who promise a certain consequence for a certain behavior and don’t follow through, are doing children a disservice. In order to help children learn important life skills, we need to make sure we are willing to follow through with the consequences we threaten, and then do the difficult but necessary job of following through, no matter how time consuming or emotionally or physically exhausting it is.
After spending childhood seeing the consequences of their actions, young people can make good decisions. They will learn that the choices they make put them on a path to a destination. If they don’t like that destination, they can choose to step onto a better path by changing their actions.