By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.
How do we show love to our children beyond providing basic necessities? It’s one of the questions I often ask parents. The responses are what one would expect: we spend time together, we take them special places, we celebrate their birthdays, we encourage them to succeed in school and outside activities, we hug them and say “I love you.” Rarely do I hear a parent say, “I let them experience natural consequences.” Yet that statement might provide the most meaningful way to show love and respect as we help to prepare our children for adulthood.
The Talmud tells us that a parent is obligated to teach a child Torah, a profession, and how to swim (Kiddushim 29b-30a). We may have definite ideas about how to achieve the first two obligations, but how do we teach them to swim, to stay afloat when the waters are rough? By allowing them to experience natural consequences, we encourage our children to be accountable for their actions and to make healthy choices that will be less risky instead of ones that might potentially get in the way of their becoming resilient adults. By allowing natural consequences to happen, we are being respectful of our children’s ability to build self-discipline.
Oftentimes, punishment and consequences seem similar, however, there is a major difference. The root word of punishment is “to inflict pain.” Without question, there are times when we need to punish our children. When we punish, however, the control lies with the adult. We are determining the result of the child’s actions. The root word of consequence is “to arrive at a conclusion.” With natural consequences, a child learns directly from the choices he/she makes. The parent may not have to do anything other than allowing the child to face the consequence.
This isn’t always easy for a parent to do especially if the natural consequence is uncomfortable:
- The child left her bike in the driveway instead of putting it in the garage. Rain caused it to rust and now she can’t ride it.
- The teenager comes home late for dinner, without calling. He now has to fend for himself and fix his own meal.
- The child forgets to do his homework and ends up getting a failing grade.
None of us want our children to hurt, to be upset or unhappy, but if we get in the way of letting them face natural consequences, we are doing them a disservice. If we somehow fix the bike or even buy them a new one; if we go back in the kitchen and recreate dinner so they’ll have something substantial to eat; if we write a note to the teacher asking for our child to have another chance to do his homework, we are getting in the way of helping them learn the coping skills needed to keep themselves afloat. We want our children to become responsible, independent people—even, or perhaps especially, when we’re not there.
Here are some rules to follow: (some of which are taken from “Roots and Wings,” a program for parents offered by the JCS Prevention Education Department)
- Allow natural consequences whenever possible
- Don’t allow natural consequences when they are dangerous, too costly for you or your child, not age appropriate, or too far in the future for the child to learn from them now
- Think carefully about allowing natural consequences to happen if they will disrupt or impact the rest of the family to a great degree
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings, but don’t negate the impact of painful or uncomfortable feelings
- Be supportive and helpful as they experience the natural consequences—not judgmental
- Use the experience as a teachable moment
- Be consistent in how you approach natural consequences
Remember that natural consequences can be positive and rewarding, too. A child who saves her allowance will have extra money to buy something special. A child who studies hard for a test may get that well-deserved good grade. As the late Erma Bombeck wrote in a letter to her children: “I loved you enough to insist that you save your money and buy a bike for yourself even though we could afford to buy one for you.”
Love is like a muscle—the more it’s used, the stronger it gets. Create a trusting relationship with your child. Help them learn to swim by experiencing natural consequences in the safest and most secure way possible—with you as their coach.
By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed., Health Educator, JCS Prevention Education
Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.