Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Choices and consequences: some thoughts April 8, 2009

Filed under: Authority & obedience,Books,Choices,Communication and speech — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 11:42 pm

The discussion about offering children choices, the topic of my last post, is often linked to the concept of consequences – specifically, the importance of kids learning from their own mistakes (and parents intentionally giving them the opportunity to do so).  Some parents may offer their children a wide range of choices from infancy specifically for this purpose, thinking,  ‘They’ll best grasp about how life works if I allow them to experience the results of their choices as much as possible.’

One fairly popular childrearing book, Parenting with Love and Logic, explicitly links choices and consequences in a way that strikes me as a bit problematic.   The book advocates a comprehensive parenting method positing that the best way to raise children is to always allow them to make and then live with their own choices.  How it works: “Two choices are given, both of which are acceptable to the parent and can be enforced if the child decides to do nothing… Any consequences come from the child’s decision, not the parent.”  Errant parenting strategies identified are over-loving, excuse-making “helicopter parents” and dictatorial, order-barking “drill sergeant parents.” The third option advocated by the book is a “consultant” parenting strategy: parents offer acceptable choices and then allow the choices’ consequences to silently do the teaching.

Discussing kids’ decisions and consequences with them is deemed “lecturing” and is advised against.  “Keep your mouth shut (after enforcing a consequence).  Allow the consequences to do the teaching….  We allow our kids to mess up, and we dn’t drive home the lesson of their misdeeds with our words; we never actually tell our kids what they have just learned. We believe telling our kids what to think is counterproductive.  Making enforceable statements and giving choices forces that thinking back on them.”

It’s true that kids need to learn decision-making, have occasion to learn from their own mistakes, and internalize the consequences that spring from their actions.  But my chief concerns with the book’s recommended methods are these:

  • Children are by definition immature and inexperienced (what the Bible calls “foolish” in Prov 22:15A), and parents are called to impart wisdom to them.  Experience alone is not a sufficient teacher, and we can draw wrong conclusions from what we learn. Therefore he authors assertion that “allowing children to solve their own problems presumes an implicit, basic trust that  their behavior will change as they learn from their experiences” is, in my view, short-sighted.
  • Part of our job as parents is to communicate directly and effectively, seeking always to reach the heart.  Such dialogue should and need not be “lecturing.”   Our children can and should have the opportunity to learn not only from their own experiences but from those we’ve accumulated throughout our lives as well.
  • A ‘parent through choices and consequences only’ mindset wholly ignores the Bible’s commands to train our kids to obey and respect their parents.  The authors state: “Kids fight against commands… When we tell them to do something, they see our words as an attempt to take control of the situation.  Anytime we usurp more control, it means they have less control.  They exert themselves to regain the control they see slipping away.”  As discussed previously, the parent-child relationship is predicated on the parent’s God-given authority over the child and the child’s submitting to their parents.  Such submission and obedience models that which all believers have toward God.  While children do naturally desire to control their own lives, it’s critical for them to accept the appropriate role of authority to thrive in society and certainly as Christians.  The fact that children naturally resist authority in their lives (as we all do, ever since Adam and Eve led the way in the fall) does not mean that parenting should be orchestrated to cater to this fact.  It is right and wise for parents to directly instruct their children and expect follow-through, and doing so doesn’t make them “drill sergeants.”
  • Directing children through continual choice-offering and consequence-training can be cumbersome and manipulative and won’t always get the job done.  Consider this: “Messages such as ‘Put your coat on; it’s too cold for you to go out without it” and, “Be sure to use the bathroom before we leave tells children that they aren’t capable of thinking for themselves, that they can’t take control of their life and make decisions.”  My three year old isn’t fully capable of thinking for himself, and my allowing his foolishness (in, say, coatlessness on a cold day) is my own display of foolishness.

Utilizing consequences in child-training has its place and is helpful, but they shouldn’t be the whole shebang; we shouldn’t over-do offering choices to boost consequence-exposure for our kids.  Ample opportunity to appropriately display the laws of cause-and-effect crop up in daily life anyway.  Real life examples with my son from this week: “If you run into the dog with your scooter, you’ll lose it for the day;” “If you throw the cow again, you won’t be able to play with your farm anymore;” “If you finish your meal, you may have dessert.”  His actions determine the outcome in each scenario, and he learns that he reaps what he sows.

In these and other cases, correction itself (when properly administered) is the consequence for the young child.  “Children from one to three years can generally understand that obeying your no brings good things and ignoring your no brings discomfort of some type,” say the authors of Boundaries With Kids, a book I endorse for unpacking the importance of boundaries and consequences in right relation to authority.  The key as I see it is a healthy balance between emphasizing 1) respect and obedience for parental authority and 2) teaching our kids to own and take repsonsibility for their own behavior.

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2 Responses to “Choices and consequences: some thoughts”

  1. Courtney Says:

    I think there is something to be said for “keeping our mouths shut”. Our young children only absorb so much, and I think they learn a lot through their consequences (whether that be natural consequences or a parent dictated consequence). I think we need to more often let it be and save the lecture for another time and age.

    I have done my fair share of explaining (lecturing) and more times than not it has proven ineffective and my young child has forgotten why the consequence even occurred by the end of the explanation. And often times parents are worked up by the situation and go on and on.

    I think a short explanation may be effective or asking the child why they received x consequence:
    -Remember God says to Obey your parents
    -We need to love each other
    -Let’s pray for all of us to have good attitudes
    -We need to make good choices
    -No hitting (or whatever the convicting action was)
    Or just be quiet.

    I still struggle with this some, but I really think there is something to silence after consequences for young children.

  2. heartpondering Says:

    I agree with you – there are definitely times that silence following a consequence works best, and we parents DO have a propensity to lecture that we need to watch out for and avoid. This can turn a child off and cause him to tune us out. You’re ‘short and sweet’ approach strikes me as a good middle ground.
    I think it’s a wisdom issue. Sometimes we speak and explain, sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we are silent at the time but try to discuss it later. Boundaries with Kids says, “Talk to the child and ask about the misbehavior. Do this at a time when the child is not misbehaving. ‘When you do such and such, I would like to understand why you do that. Is there something you’re trying to tell me?'” [Tripp looks at training as two pronged – communication on one hand and correction on the other, both critically necessary.] This is also akin to the ‘heart-probing questions’ that Ginger Plowman recommend using to help kids figure out what is in them prompting their actions in Don’t Make Me Count to Three. But you’re right, young kids may not know why they misbehave and discussion may not actually be fruitful with them on some occasions.

    Where I disagree with Cline/Fay (Love & Logic) is in the idea that communication should NEVER occur between parent and child following misbehavior. There are definitely times that consequences need to be unpacked for the child, whether at the time or at another time. And generally speaking, I think we parents should be looking for opportunities to have heart-reaching conversations with our kids, not assuming that their experiences alone are a sufficient teacher, as Cline/Fay believe.

    Thanks for the comment!


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