LEARNING BY EXPERIENCE
Mother heard a blood-curdling scream from the bathroom, and dashed in to find the hot water running and her three-year-old daughter howling in pain from a scalded finger. As Mother ran cool water over the wound, she scolded, “Didn’t I warn you not to touch that faucet, that the water would hurt when it got hot?”
The child sobbed, “I just wanted to see if that was true!”
A lesson learned the hard way makes a deeper impression than a hundred lectures—but sometimes the hard way is too hard a way for children to learn. When should adults intervene directly, and when should we stand back and let children learn through consequence? And when intervention is necessary, how can we most effectively drive the lesson home?
When Consequences Are Minor
Too many parents rush to the rescue at every hint of trouble: providing extra funds when allowance is spent, driving fifteen miles to deliver forgotten homework to school. Lecture as they may after the fact, the kids still grow up assuming responsibility is optional because Dad will always “fix things.”
Before setting a situation “right,” consider: What’s the worst that could happen if I did nothing? If the answer is “my child will have to live without spending money until next allowance day,” so be it—go deaf to all pleading and tears. Even one failing grade for not turning in an assignment won’t do any lasting harm.
When Consequences Bother You More Than the Child
Many children are quite content with the house in shambles and someone else feeding the pets—but there are obvious problems with letting this continue indefinitely. There are better approaches than nagging, punishing, or doing all the chores yourself.
- Distinguish between personal and communal areas. If someone’s own bedroom is a mess, that’s his business. Save your judgments and personal picking-up for whole-family rooms.
- Consider how to make a point without making a scene. If toys are left on the kitchen floor, picking them up and putting them “somewhere” has greater long-term effect than demanding the owner come get them immediately.
- Stay low-key. If overdue chores must be completed before more enjoyable plans, stick firmly to that point without raising your voice or lecturing on “Let this be a lesson to you.”
When Consequences Are Potentially Serious
If possible injury is worse than a bruise or a child is completely failing in school, you obviously can’t stand back and wait for the worst to happen. But neither should you let the child stand aside and watch you make everything better. Actively engage her in discussion of what’s likely to happen, and what both of you can do about a solution.
And if a child willfully persists in dangerous behavior? Focus on the needs of the situation; don’t let your top priority become “showing them who’s boss.” A calm-but-firm “Since you don’t feel like staying out of the street, you’ll have to come indoors” makes a stronger impression than angry scolding—and also acknowledges the child’s right to choose his own feelings.
Finally, don’t give up when children don’t always learn instantly. Stick to your course; focus on gentle encouragement; and someday you’ll look at your kids and realize you’ve reaped the best possible consequences.