A child will do his or her best when they can figure out what is expected of them all on their own. We can help them figure out what we, and probably most of society, expect of them as they mature by allowing them to make decisions on their own and then experience the consequences of those decisions. Parents usually don’t have a problem pointing out the negative consequence that results from a poor decision. The thing that many parents forget, however, is that some decisions result in pleasant outcomes and so children need to be helped to see the positive consequences that they have gained from a good decision. At times it is useful to provide concrete consequences so that it becomes plain to the child what our feelings about a particular decision are, especially if the natural consequence is not as obvious to the child.
Let Them Learn Natural Consequences Early
Children can begin to absorb the reality of consequences very early on. If they fall down, it may hurt. If they shake a toy, it makes a noise. If they scream, mommy comes running. At the beginning it may be no more than the fact that every action has a reaction but even those simple truths are helping a child to learn the more complex ideas that they will build upon throughout life. It is our job as parents to help them understand the concept of consequences in order to shape their behavior and teach them responsibility and discipline, in the general sense. One must be careful, though, to keep these lessons within reason. A third degree burn will do more to harm them physically and psychologically than will to teach them a positive life lesson.
Let Them Know Your Values
In order for a child to really grasp the concept of consequences, they need to understand what is considered good and what is considered bad. Not all families have the same values and so the natural consequences that fall upon some children will not have the same impact on their adult lives as that same consequence for other children. A child’s behavior is only an issue when it comes up against the ideals of the parents and the society in which the child will likely mature. We must, as parents, teach a child to understand what we value as good decisions and what we consider to be bad decisions. For example, if a teenager is given a curfew of 10 p.m. and they arrive home at 10:15 p.m. (with no phone call alerting their parents to their impending tardiness), one family might consider those 15 minutes to be a considerable breach of trust while another family might consider the teenager simply in need of some time management training. The consequences of being late by 15 minutes would be very different in those two families and the child must know how much you value that curfew in order to understand the possible consequences of being even 15 minutes late.
Teach Them That Adult Decisions Have Consequences
A good lesson for children to learn, especially when figuring out how to modify their own behavior, is that the decisions we make as adults also have consequences. Children will generally have the chance to experience the fallout of a bad decision that their parents have made. They will hear a conversation or see the evidence that mommy or daddy are dealing with a negative consequence (like getting pulled over for speeding). Children may also have the good fortune to witness a positive consequence that resulted from a good decision (like celebrating a raise at work). Children are always watching our behavior and reactions to situations, even when we think they are not but it is still good to specifically point out how a decision you made resulted in either a positive or a negative consequence. The fact that consequences occur throughout life will help drive home some of the lessons you are trying to teach.
Finding a Balance as They Age
One of the trickier things that we encounter as parents is where to draw the line when allowing a child to experience a natural consequence to a decision they have made. We don’t want to be over-protective but we also want our children to be safe from harm. The bottom line is that no amount of lecturing about do’s and don’ts will help a child learn what happens if they do or what happens if they don’t. They must, within reason, learn some of their life lessons the hard way to really comprehend the possible consequences of their actions. They will never learn how to handle themselves and become independent thinkers without exploring their world and living with the consequences.