For kids, consequences are a source of learning and growth
A newly licensed teenager returned home with his father’s car later than the legally mandated hour for a 16-year-old driver. As a consequence, he was grounded - unable to use the car - for two weeks. This was met with great anger by the young person, who thought it most unfair.
From the time children become mobile and self-directed, parents begin to consider the question of discipline. Discipline most often gets translated as punishment and is raised when children behave in unacceptable ways or counter to parents’ requests. Discipline then becomes a search for a method that will control behavior we don’t like or feel is inappropriate. Parents often talk about this as learning, there have to be consequences so that children will learn to do as they are told. The question is, if a child has to learn something, what is the best way to teach it?
An important part of growing up is learning that there are consequences for our behavior. In that case, the consequences need to flow from the behavior, not be something made up having nothing to do with the behavior. If children are to learn to take responsibility for their behavior, they need to experience the connection between what they do and what the result may be.
In the example given, the consequence for the behavior was related to the use of the car, but to the young person, it felt more like a punishment than a natural consequence of the behavior. An actual consequence might have been if the youngster had been stopped by the police and lost his license as a result. But that had not happened and might never happen, which might then impart a quite different lesson. In this case, the father was substituting parental authority for legal authority. The child was punished for breaking the law. But the anger was directed at the father.
How would this compare with a similar consequence for a child who simply broke parental curfew? Here the connection between behavior and consequences would seem more direct. Yet the connection between the two examples is one of parental responsibility. As parents, we are responsible for our children while they are growing up and maturing. We teach them to follow the rules within the family so that later they will follow the legal or social rules for life in the larger world.
There are situations in which the consequences may flow directly from the behavior. If a child dawdles in the morning and is late for school the result may be having to report to the principal’s office, or missing some school activity. Yet often parents take responsibility for getting the child out on time preventing the consequence.
The problem is that as parents we are often torn between protecting our children or teaching them to take responsibility for their own behavior. As children get older and are interacting more fully with the larger world, their behavior may open them to more severe consequences than we as parents would like them to experience.
The question becomes when to protect children from the consequences of their behavior and when to let the consequences become a source of learning and growth. There is no universal answer to this question and it is one of the major challenges of being a parent. We love our children and seek to protect them from harm. Yet as parents, it is our responsibility to teach them to take responsibility for the consequences of their own behavior. Sometimes, the two conflict and we must use our own judgment and knowledge of our child.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.