Raising Your Child Using the Concept of Natural Consequences
Raising a child to understand the consequences of their behavior can be one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
From toddler through the college years, shielding or saving your child from natural consequences does them a serious dis-service. If you are that kind of parent, it would do you well to examine the reasons behind your own behavior. Do you have a personal need to feel needed? Do you want to maintain an unhealthy attachment to your child? Have your protection instincts lasted beyond an appropriate age?
The goals I set for myself as a parent were to raise:
- A child who is safe
- A child who is healthy
- A person with good self-esteem
- A person who is an independent thinker
- A person who is basically happy/satisfied
- A person who is responsible
Goals beyond these, such as driving them toward specific achievements or successes, place too much pressure on the child and often have consequences opposite from those you intended.
Wouldn't you rather have a happy, balanced child who feels free to honestly communicate with you than one who is forced to make it into Harvard and hide from you any behaviors or conceived failures that they believe will be disappointing?
To help you survive and enjoy the toddler years, I highly recommend the book Parenting Young Children. It is self-described as: Based on the nationally successful STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) program, Parenting Young Children focuses on parents of children under six years of age, and offers guidance on building self-esteem, communicating with young children, and dealing with issues from tantrums to toilet training.
The biggest benefit I got from this book was that I came to understand why my child was behaving the way she was, how her mind was working, that she was behaving normally for her age, and the actual up-side to her behavior.
After I naively thought I had escaped the 'terrible twos,' I had a rude awakening at age 3. But, applying the principles of letting her experience the natural consequences of her behavior was a great help in speeding her through this phase.
I am a firm believer that children thrive with boundaries, but punishment lowers self-esteem, so let the natural world teach him/her. Some examples:
- If you throw a temper-tantrum, that means that you need some alone time. This teaches her the basic principle that rude behavior is not acceptable by society and results in isolation. Of course, everyone needs a time-out or some alone time, maybe she just doesn't know how to express that need. My daughter progressed to the point where she would throw up her little hands and with a big sigh say, "I need a time-out!" And, she would march to her room and slam her door, which was just fine. When she was ready to be sociable again, she came out, usually within 10 minutes.
- If you smile and are helpful, you bring happiness to yourself and others. You don't get candy, you get joy.
- If you use the potty, you get to wear really cute, pink, big girl panties, like the kids in the books, DVDs, etc (you don't get M&Ms).
You see the difference between the actual, real, natural consequences of good and bad behavior? This is the real world, and the Universe/God/our Boss doesn't give us M&Ms when we use the bathroom.
Oh Well, That's Life
If you can get in the habit of saying that, what you really mean is: Life is unpredictable, sometimes you get what you want/expect, sometimes you don't, but it's no reason to get upset.
That's why the phrases: "Que sera, sera," "It's for the best," "It was meant to be," "It'll all work out in the end," came to be.
If your child's entire sense of self is based on achieving a certain grade, winning the spelling bee, getting into a certain college, then they are bound to be crushed from time to time, then the self-esteem falls.
Better to instill flexibility at an early age in your child. Psychologists say this is the #1 factor in teens/young adults developing mental illnesses vs those who do not.
The School Years
There are so many natural consequence lessons to be learned in the school years. If you've been building self-esteem and responsibility before this time, these years will be much easier and less traumatic for your child, as they will quickly recognize in themselves and others the natural consequences of certain behaviors. And, if they have a good base of self-esteem, they will be able to determine which peers to emulate and which to ignore.
Keep in mind: Being judgmental or critical at this age only serves to shut their mouths. They will learn quickly that if they tell you the truth, the consequences are negative, therefore . . .. It's only natural.
I remember getting a call from my daughter's teacher in 2nd grade reporting that she had thrown a snowball at a boy behind her in a line. I asked the circumstances and was told that, yes, the boy did throw a snowball at her first. I couldn't help but be proud. I would much rather have a child who stood up for herself than went whining to her teacher. That's self-esteem.
In fourth grade, I was aghast when her teacher said that if a child forgets to bring their lunch, not to deliver it to them. He claimed this was to start getting them ready for middle school. He said that it would only take one or two missed lunches for the lesson to be learned - and, although I was very concerned for my child's health, he was absolutely right. This was an excellent example of natural consequences: you forget your lunch, you are hungry.
High School and College
These are the years where the possible consequences to behavior can be quite serious. But, if you've left the lines of communication open, hopefully, although they won't admit it, they will hear your personal life experiences and their natural consequences and they might even inadvertently take your advice.
If you haven't already, this is definitely the time for you to remove your own expectations and standards to realize these are young adults who, if you've done your part, will make some responsible and some irresponsible decisions. They are still learning the consequences of their decisions - they just have new and more serious decisions to make. You cannot demand, you can only guide and offer advice. If you have 'the perfect child' who has never gotten into trouble and is on the path to over-achievement, you should be worried. There will be a release of all the built-up tension at some point.
The potential negative consequences at this point in life are many. But, all we can do as parents of young adults, is advise them of the possible consequences of various choices, often based on our own experiences. If they choose the harmful path anyway, their respect for your advice (although they'll never acknowlege it) will only grow and have more impact the next time. (Don't ever say, "I told you so.")
With the stakes so high (suspension, expulsion, legal charges, car crashes, addictions, etc.), our parental protection instincts may kick into high gear. But, this is where you can be of the best service or worst dis-service to your child.
If you've always come to your child's rescue, defended them despite the evidence, intervened so that they never experienced the consequences of their behavior, they will continue to expect the same - not their fault. They will believe that is the way the parent/child relationship works for life, and that it is your duty to shield them.
The principle is very simple: if they don't experience the natural consequences of their behavior, the will continue and further the harmful behavior.
Keep an open mind, remove your expectations, let them experience the consequences, and they will learn so quickly, therefore, in most cases, avoiding the extremely serious mistakes that carry life-long consequences.
Expectations Lead to Disappointment and More
If you expect that your child will never experiment with under-age drinking, drug-taking, casual sex, etc., you will be disappointed.
If you expect that they may experiment in these ways, and have kept the lines of communication open, and have been non-judgmental, you will be in the perfect position to offer great advice and understanding, thus cementing your relationship. There is no need to condone the behavior, but providing a listening ear and gentle advice, will keep those lines of communication open for a lifetime.
If you expect your child to follow in your footsteps, you are bound to be disappointed. Celebrate their independence and unique view of life.
For instance, I was very sheltered as a child and grew to be an inside-the-box, practical, over-achiever with definite black and white, right and wrong values. My daughter, however, unexpectedly taught me to be more open-minded and non-judgmental of other methods of living. Often, I would recommended a certain path, she would choose another, and, as an eye-opener to me, her path worked out for the best. I have learned so much from her and admire her free-thinking abilities. She embraces all kinds of people with a huge range of goals and ways of living. She learns something from each one of them - mostly that there is no one path to happiness.
She has taught me so much, and I dedicate this article to her.