Consequences is a parlour game. Everyone takes a sheet of paper and writes a name, then folds the paper to hide what they’ve written, and passes it to the person on their left. On this new sheet, everyone writes a second name, conceals it and passes it on. This goes on, until each piece of paper tells a story:
X met Y. X said this. Y said that. They did this. Then that happened. And the consequence was . . .
It’s a good game. It usually gets a few giggles, mainly drawn from the absurd incongruity of the story parts. The consequence often receives the biggest laugh. How funny these disconnected consequences are.
‘Consequences’ are talked about pretty liberally in parenting. They’re a key part of the carrot-and-stick approach to getting people to do what you want. Pleasant consequences can be provided to encourage people to repeat behaviours that you like. Unpleasant consequences aim to discourage behaviours that you dislike.
When I was a child, my mum sometimes talked about leaving someone to stew in their own juice. The idea being that if someone had caused their own problems, they should be left to deal with those problems alone. Natural consequences sound like that to me.
I don’t think that there’s anything particularly natural about them. The consequence only kicks in if I refuse to help.
Honestly, I think a large part of my job as a parent is to protect my children from natural consequences. Nature is cruel. I don’t want my boys suffering from exposure.
If the boys don’t brush their teeth, for example, the natural consequences include mouth ulcers, bad breath, and rotten teeth. Standing back and watching the boys suffer that seems pretty harsh to me.
If Eldest doesn’t feed his rabbit, the natural consequence would be a dead rabbit. I cannot imagine any parent who would consider that acceptable.
So, we don’t use natural consequences. But, we often use what I think of as Mitigating Consequences.
If the boys refuse to brush their teeth, I refuse to give them sweets. I can’t force them to brush, but I can try to limit the amount of sugar that sticks there. I would call that a Mitigating Consequence. It’s basically the opposite of a natural consequence. I deliberately stand between the boys and the natural consequence.
If I set consequences, I am usually trying to undo whatever damage I think has already been done. I am quick to offer a dustpan and brush when bowls of cereal get thrown across the room. I pull over the car if anyone undoes their seatbelt and refuse to drive again until they are safely buckled in.
If the boys don’t do school work, I don’t stand back and wait for them to fail exams. I keep pestering until the work is done.
Sometimes, I am just trying to prevent the damage happening again. When one of the boys climbed out of his bedroom window, the consequence was that we locked his windows and took away the keys. I figured we could at least prevent a repeat performance of that stunt. According to the same logic, I have disposed of toys that were too effective as weapons, such as the lovely puppet theatre which was held together by long metal posts.
Other times, I don’t set any consequences for the boys at all. If Eldest doesn’t feed his rabbit, I feed his rabbit for him. The rabbit needs to be fed. I suppose that I could take away the rabbit, that would prevent this issue coming up again, bit we’d lose all the benefits of having a rabbit. So, sometimes, I just shrug it off and move on. I don’t think that everything has to be a teaching moment and I don’t want everything to turn into a fight.
I like to think that our model of discipline is of solving problems together.
If Eldest doesn’t feed his rabbit, the problem is a hungry rabbit. Obviously the solution is to feed the rabbit.
If Middly has a tantrum and breaks a favourite toy, the natural consequence would be for him to no longer have that toy. But, he knows that we can afford to replace his toys. He isn’t stupid.
If we refuse to replace the toy, what are we actually teaching Middly? Surely that would show him that we don’t care enough to help.
If Middly has a tantrum and breaks a favourite toy, the problem is that his toy is broken. The solution is to try and fix it. If that doesn’t work, then, the solution is to replace it. Often I will suggest that we put it on his Amazon wishlist, in the hopes that he’ll get a new one for his birthday, Christmas, Easter, or whatever celebration is upcoming. We never seem to be very far from a celebration! Sometimes, he might be able to buy a new one using pocket money. But, if we’re miles from his birthday and he can’t afford it, I am quite prepared to buy another one.
I want my children to come to me when things go wrong and I want them to trust me to do my best to fix the problem.
I want the boys to have a solution-focused view of life. Everyone does the wrong thing from time to time. When they do, they need help to make it right.
When I mess up and yell at the children. I apologise and give them a hug. That can only work if they help me by listening to my apology and accepting my attempt at reconciliation. So it seems reasonable that when they mess up, I am there to help them make it right.
When they were younger, if they hurt someone, I apologised on their behalf. I held their hand and showed them how to make up with people they hurt.
That didn’t seem to teach them that hitting was ok. They had no trouble understanding that hurting others is wrong. The trouble was working out how to fix it. Now – generally – they apologise without prompting.
I used to make chocolate milk when one of the boys hurt the other (not every single time, there is such a thing as too much chocolate milk). First, I made it and gave them each a cup. Then, as they got older and more capable of participating, I made it and asked them to give their brother the chocolate milk to make up. Now they can make it themselves and attempt to repair their relationship on their own. Sometimes the boys make me a cup of tea when they’ve been unkind. I like to think that we’ve modelled reparations for the boys so they can begin to use them for themselves.
In our family, the problem has never been knowing what was right or wrong. Nobody ever really thought it was right to hurt people or break things. So, I don’t think that I need to spend much time telling them this.
The problem has been coping with getting it wrong, making the move from someone who caused problems to someone who solves them. I like to ask ‘what are we going to do about this?’ Usually, the boys don’t know, and I will offer some suggestions. But, as time passes, as we keep practicing, we’re slowly getting there.
And the consequence is we’re learning how to clean up after ourselves.
It’s not perfect. I’m not perfectly calm. The boys aren’t perfectly behaved. We certainly aren’t always in tune with each other. But, focusing on solutions feels kind in a way that natural consequences just don’t.
There are so many problems that I can’t fix for my children. I can’t make injuries vanish. I can’t make other children be their friends. I can’t take away awful memories. Sometimes my boys (just like me) will make mistakes that I can’t fix. Sometimes they will cause hurts that I can’t take away. I am in no hurry to cause more.
Of course, all families are different. And I am wrong about lots of things! I’d be fascinated to hear how you handle consequences in your family.