When I published a recent post on why conditional parenting isn’t healthy for the parent-child relationship, I wasn’t expecting the overwhelming response to the term ‘consequences’.
In modern parenting, consequences seem to have taken on multiple forms so it can be confusing to understand why certain ‘consequences’ can be damaging for kids, while others can be immensely beneficial.
So, let’s look at some definitions.
Consequences are defined as “a result or effect of an action or condition.”
Punishment is defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.”
But, consequences aren’t punishment, right? It depends on the type of consequences we’re talking about.
We tend to use language to sanitize questionable practices. So we say spanking instead of hitting. We say time out instead of love withdrawal. And we have started saying consequences instead of punishment.
The word consequences may sound less offensive and more intellectual, but it is punishment reimagined for a more politically correct era.
And no matter which word we use to describe our actions, our children’s experience remains the same.
Punishment is a behaviour modification tool that isn’t designed to get to the root of the unmet need, nor teach the unlearned skill.
But there is one exception: natural consequences. Natural consequences are the only type of consequence we experience in our family. I say ‘experience’ instead of ‘use’ because I have no power over natural consequences, they happen as a part of normal day-to-day life. Here’s an example….
How we learn from experiencing natural consequences
My son and I are about to walk to the park. I can see that it’s lightly raining outside. My rational adult brain with years of experience with weather, tells me to wear a rain jacket. After all, the rain may get heavier. Or, then again, it may pass.
My decision is YES for the rain jacket. My five-year-old son decides otherwise.
His live-in-the-present-moment, black-and-white, inexperienced brain tells him he doesn’t want to wear a rain jacket. He’s “Canadian,” he tells me, “he can handle a little rain”. Ok, I say. I don’t force him to wear a rain jacket. His body. His choice.
So, I wear my jacket and slip his jacket into my backpack. We walk to the park. The rain gets heavier. He starts to feel cold. I say nothing.
“Mum,” he says, “I feel cold now. I want to keep playing but I need my rainjacket”
“I brought it for your bud, here you go,” I reply.
“Oh thanks, mum, I didn’t think I needed it, but I did, thank you so much for bringing it for me!”
“No worries bud, I’m your Mum, that’s my job, to look out for you.”
I resist repeating the phrases I’ve heard too many times like “I told you so” or “Didn’t I tell you….” or “Mum always knows best” or “Next time, you should….”
Because the lesson I want to teach is not that adults know better than kids. Not that he has to follow my lead blindly. Not that he has zero say over his body.
I also didn’t intentionally leave the rain jacket at home knowing he’d get wet so that I could (ab)use the natural consequence to really “teach” the lesson by either getting wet or needing to come home and miss the playtime.
I see this as my job as a parent. My child is five. All he thinks about is play. All he wants to do is be in the present moment. That’s his job – to be a kid.
So, the natural consequence is to get wet.
And the lessons we can take from that natural consequence are diverse and many.
One lesson is to look for patterns so that we can make predictions and be prepared. How can he do that if he’s always dry? He can’t. So, he got wet and learned he needed a jacket.
What if I’d forced him to wear the jacket before leaving home? All he’d learn is that he can’t make good decisions, that Mum knows best and I have the final say. And perhaps that I am a bit of a ….bully.
What if I’d intentionally left the jacket at home while standing there wearing mine? And all he’d learn is that I didn’t care enough about him to bring his rain jacket. That I cared more about “teaching him a lesson” than I did about him.
Do I expect him to take a jacket next time? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? Not really. Some lessons he picks up immediately, while others take years to learn. And that’s ok. Childhood isn’t an emergency, and neither is the lesson.
Maybe if neither of us had rain jackets we’d have danced in the rain and come home to a warm bubble bath together or maybe we’d have camped out under a tree until the rain passed, while finding bugs and telling stories.
Would I take the same approach to wearing a helmet while riding a bike? Of course not. That’s all about setting boundaries and holding limits (a topic for another blog post).
I also don’t want to condition my son to be as over-prepared as I often am – after all, nine times out of ten I bring a rain jacket and don’t need it.
Maybe he’ll grow into a more carefree person than me. Maybe he’ll teach me to relax a little more.
And maybe some lessons aren’t apparent in the moment. Because, days later, as we were hopping in the car as a family, it was lightly raining outside again. I had my jacket and my son’s jacket under my arm. “Dad,” my son said, “do you have your jacket? Let me get it for you! You don’t want to get wet.”
And so the lesson was bigger than a little rain. My son learned that we look out for those we love. He learned that we can be each other’s safety nets. He internalised the lesson. He learned that it feels good to have others to rely on. He learned that we’re in this together; that interdependence trumps independence and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It reminds me that when we focus only on the destination, we miss the side trails, we miss the greater lessons the organic process of life and natural learning can bring.
So, I try my best not to helicopter, to not prevent natural consequences from unfolding. To be his safety net without suffocating his need for exploration and adventure. I stand in awe as he learns life’s lessons and I try my best to fill in the gaps, to hand him the missing puzzle pieces when he needs them. I practice silence, I bite my lip, I pause. This is the art of parenthood – learning how to find the thin line of too much and not enough and then dancing on it. Some days I nail it, other days I mess up. Some days I’m the teacher, most days I’m the student. And that’s ok because our kids need connection, not perfection. They need guides, not puppet masters. And isn’t parenting so much more fun that way anyway?
Does this approach to natural consequences resonate with you? I’d love to hear in the comments below.