It doesn’t matter what parenting book you crack open, there is almost always a chapter on consequences. When your child struggles, the implied advice from experts shouts: “It’s your fault, parents!” They insist that if your child does not learn from consequences, it is because you, the parent, did not select the right consequence, or else you were not consistent about enforcing them.
Then there are the so-called “natural consequences.” Instead of punishing a child, you are supposed to let the natural consequence do the teaching. If you tell a kid not to touch the stove and he touches it anyway, the natural consequence is that he gets burned. That’s supposed to be more effective than Mom going blue in the face lecturing about the dangers of stovetops.
When I was a brand-new parent I bought into this so-called wisdom, but now I’ve had time to ponder. When I look outside my home into the real world I see examples of consequences not working all the time.
Weight gain is the perfect example. We all know that the natural consequence of consuming too many calories is fat. For some people, this is enough to change behavior. The rest of us will eat an entire box of Girl Scout cookies when nobody is looking. (The two sleeves are serving sizes, right?)
Or what about spending habits? If I bought everything I owned from Value Village I could be typing this column with a smug expression instead of having just cried “Eeek!” after opening up my credit card bill.
Then there’s smoking. Many of us have seen loved ones die from emphysema or lung cancer. For some of us, this is enough to make us never even think about touching a cigarette. Other people become so addicted to nicotine that it doesn’t matter how extreme the consequence, they won’t stop. We’ve all seen pictures of people smoking cigarettes through holes in their neck. The brain wants what the brain wants. For many smokers, natural consequences don’t do squat.
When parenting experts focus on consequences it makes me feel like they are saying: “Let us teach you how to implement consequences properly because you obviously do not know what you are doing.” Again with the parent-blaming.
Well I’m a parent who has believed these experts and I feel tricked. Are consequences important? Absolutely. Will they magically change every child’s behavior? No way.
Some kids learn from consequences, others ram into them again and again to everyone’s horror. Some brains are hard-wired for challenges that consequences don’t solve.
Here’s a wild idea. Instead of relying on consequences to do the teaching let’s actually teach kids the problem-solving skills they need to make good decisions in the first place. Let’s create new ways to help them.
Relying on fat and credit card bills to teach me about health and saving would be stupid. Training me to cook and budget would be a lot more effective.
Kids need training too.
Especially the ones who touch the hot stove over and over again.
Jennifer Bardsley lives in Edmonds. Her book “Genesis Girl” comes out June 14th. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, Twitter @jennbardsley or at teachingmybabytoread.com.