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Consequences

Most of what we learn we learn by experience. We say, think, feel or do something, and then we receive the consequences of what we did. Some people believe this is the only way we learn how to get along in the world. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that consequences are an effective way to parent our children. Learn more about how to use consequences in this presentation.

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We’re picking it up to today with the seventh in our series on Practical Christian Parenting. Last time we discussed appropriate family boundaries. Today we’re going to talk about how to enforce them.

If you recall, we explained in Part 2 of our series that all boundary setting and enforcement is done from a foundation of love communicated to children in a way that they can understand and receive it. We also said, in Part 1, called The End Goal, that a Christian parent’s goal is to create a loving relationship with their children. Every other good thing flows out of that. But we also have to socialize our children. We have to teach them to say, “Please” and “Thank you,” to cover their mouths when they cough, to go to bed on time, to brush their teeth, to wash their hands before eating. The list seems endless, but it actually isn’t. If you want a good book that covers most of the elementary/middle school things, read the book, The Essential 55, by Ron Clark. That’ll help you.

When our children become teens, there is even more at stake. Things get a lot more complicated. We want them not to drive too fast. We don’t want them to drive without a license. We want them not to drive with drunks. We don’t want them to smoke weed or bring it home. We don’t want unprotected sex or we don’t even want sex, period.

So, how would you like your child to respond to you the first time, without having to raise your voice or get angry with them? How would you like it, if the way you disciplined children caused them to comply with your boundaries, but also learn how to be a responsible person in the process? How would you like it, if when you disciplined your children, they became frustrated with their own shortcomings instead of frustrated with you? Think how much happier everybody would be if you could pull that off! And think how much easier their lives would be. They would be focusing on changing themselves, instead of on resisting you. There is a way to accomplish these things. And it’s called consequences.

What is a consequence? A consequence is the result of an action or thought. It’s not a punishment. “You’re grounded for a month” is a punishment. Consequences only last as long as the misbehavior. When I use this term, consequences, I’m talking about it in a very specific way. I’m talking about it in a system used to parent kids. Almost all learning is the result of experiencing the consequences of one’s actions or thoughts. The Bible is full of this kind of learning. It calls people who can’t learn this way fools. And Proverbs tells us that the way of the transgressor is hard. It says, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child” also. So, we need to teach children how not to transgress so they can live a healthy life.

Around the turn of the century, a man named Albert Adler observed that there are two kinds of consequences that help children learn – natural consequences and logical consequences. Every successful parenting program since then has used these two principles. Why? Because, if applied consistently, they work. Like I said, the Bible is full of this kind of learning. We get to watch people in the Bible do things and then we see what happens to them. We’re told, in its pages, again that the way of the transgressor is hard. So, learn the lesson. Why? Because when we break God’s laws, difficulty arises as a consequence.

So, what is a natural consequence? What would be some examples? Well, natural consequences occur without parents having to do anything.

When I was in high school, I’m ashamed to admit, I asked my father to give me a ride to school one morning. He said, “Why do you want a ride? You usually walk.” I said, “It’s cold.” He said, “Where’s your coat?” I said, “I left it at school.” “Why did you do that?” “Well, it was too hot yesterday to wear it home.” “Where’s you other coat?” “Well, it’s at school, too.” He said, “If I take you to school, I’ll be late, so you’ll just have to figure it out for yourself.” See, he just let me deal with the problem. I would have eventually figured it out for myself – if it’s too hot to wear your coat home, carry it or you’re going to be miserable tomorrow morning. What would have happened if he had yelled at me and called me an irresponsible brat while he was taking me to school and making himself late as well? Well, one thing – I would have only learned that he would bale me out, so there’s no real need to bring my coat home. And I would have been angry with him for being disrespectful to me. Because of my anger toward him, I would have become resistant. If he’d taken me to school, he would have also been an enabler – the helicopter parent always hovering, rescuing, not allowing me to learn that vital lesson – the choices I make cause what comes next. He also might have seen me as a resistant stubborn child when he, with his anger and disrespect, promoted my anger and resistance. But no. He was a good father. He wanted me to learn to be responsible for myself. And, as a result of his action, which was no action at all, I wasn’t angry with him. I was angry with myself as I shivered my way to school. I think I finally learned about coats two years later. See, it doesn’t always happen right away, but if you leave people to struggle with the results of their actions, they have a much better chance of learning the lesson.

Consequences can also be positive as well as negative. People in this family who eat their veggies get dessert. Right?

When I was in the eighth grade, I was telling my mother I was tired of being broke all the time. She said, “Get on your bike, go to The Times office, and apply for a paper route.” I think I mentioned this already in one of our presentations. And I got a paper route, I worked hard, I learned how easily money got lost if I didn’t keep track of it, but in the end, I enjoyed having some money to save and to spend. It felt good. I started to understand the value of work. And that’s because my mother, instead of giving me twenty bucks, told me to go get a job. You know, “You’ve got a problem? Solve it yourself.”

What is a logical consequence, then – the other principle? Sometimes children do something contrary to family boundaries, for which there is no immediate natural consequence. That’s when parents can provide a consequence that is logically connected to the misbehavior. For example, a man came to me who grew up with no boundaries when he was a kid. His mother neglected him. He correctly interpreted that as a lack of love. When he had four children of his own, he knew boundaries meant safety and love to children, so he them all doing a chore every day, which was a good thing. But when they wouldn’t do their work, he would get frustrated and angry with them and start nagging them in the most sarcastic way. And that only made it worse, actually. So they hated his nagging and they would resist him at every turn. So we worked on a way for him to deal with this issue. After he thought about it, he came back to me and mentioned he had one younger child clearing the table and wiping it down and one teen washing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen after the first one was done clearing the table. And then the younger one would come in, after the dishes were washed, and sweep the kitchen and take out the trash. Sometimes the one who was supposed to clear the table wouldn’t do it. In order to wash the dishes, the older one had to clear and wash. So he told the younger child who was supposed to clear, if she didn’t clear the table by 7:00, she would have to wash the dishes too, because her sister couldn’t wait all night. That’s a logical consequence, directly connected to her violation of the boundary.

Once he solved that problem, then the one who was washing dishes would rake the crumbs off the table onto the floor so her sister would sweep it up. The sweeper complained. There was no way to catch the offender, except by spying or standing over her, so he said, “Well, you can do that, if you want. I’m not going to be the crumb police. But you know you’re offending your little sister. She’s going to resent you and not want to be helpful to you. And then he didn’t say anymore – no nagging, no sarcasm. He just let it ride. And so she continued to rake the crumbs off onto the floor, but one day she wanted to swap chores with her little sister so she could go out with friends, and her sister said, “No. You don’t help me. Why should I help you?” So the older girl went to her father, and told him that her little sister was being a brat. And he said, “You know that crumb thing? How’s that working out for you now?” And he went back to studying for his college exam. That’s a natural consequence. He didn’t rescue her from it.

So, why do logical consequences need to be logical? “You didn’t come home on time. Give me your phone. You’ve lost it for a month?” That’s a punishment. It isn’t connected in any way to the misbehavior. So it feels arbitrary and punitive. And that makes us angry and so there is less chance to learn from it. Angry kids don’t learn lessons.

Jim Fay, one of the authors of a very successful parenting book called Parenting with Love and Logic – a believer in consequences – told a story in an audio I heard about the time one of his daughters didn’t come home on time from a date. They waited up for her. When she came in an hour late, instead of berating her and preaching her a sermon, they hugged her and kissed her, and told her they had been so worried about her, they were so glad she was safe, they could imagine her dead in a roadside ditch after a terrible accident.” And then they said, “Aww! We’re so glad you’re back and safe, and let’s go to bed. We’re tired.” And so, that was it. But then, two weeks later, she wanted to go out again, and they said, “Oh, we couldn’t stand the stress. Stay home.”

So the chance for learning is enhanced when the consequence logically connects in the child’s mind to the behavior them the problem. Okay? Simple. Simple to learn, but sometimes hard to figure out which consequences to use logically. But, you know, you have time to think about it. It’s not impossible.

Here’s another principle. These consequences must be delivered without anger. If consequences are delivered with anger, all the benefits are lost. Why is that? Have you ever been given a ticket by a disrespectful police officer? Or have you ever been chewed out by an angry boss or teacher? Where does your attention go? It goes to them and their disrespect of you. You get angry with them. You’re not thinking about what you did. You’re thinking about what they did. All thought of your own fault in the matter goes out the window. On the other, if the police officer is polite when he gives you the speeding citation, all the attention goes to how foolish you were to drive that fast. If your boss is polite as he corrects you, your focus goes to your job security and your lack of performance.

Where do we want our children’s focus? We decide that by the way we use the consequences to gain compliance, rather than our anger.

Let’s look at another principle about consequences. All of this has to be done consistently. I hate to use an animal experiment to explain human behavior, but sometimes it really is the best way. If you have a white rat in a cage, and you’re trying to teach it to drink out of the blue water tube, instead of the red one, you can make the water tube in the blue slightly sweet. Every time the rat drinks out of that tube, it gets a little yummy sweet water. Wow! You can also fix the red tube so that every time the rat drinks from that tube, it gets the tiniest little electric shock on the end of its little pink nose. Soon the rat learns the difference.

There is no need for consequences to be extreme. You do not have to shock the rat into a convulsion. Why not? Because a mild consequence administered every time is all you need to do, where harsh consequences administered inconsistently don’t work at all. So, we want to give our kids lots of opportunities to learn the same mild lesson over and over every time they violate the boundary. And that’s what works best.

Have you watched Super Nanny? She puts a child on a naughty stool for a minute, per their age – five minutes for five years. What good does that do? Well, it creates rapid learning, as long as it’s done every time. I took my coat home from school, even if it was hot, because I knew it would be cold the next morning, without fail, in the winter.

So what happens if we’re inconsistent? Well, then it becomes a game of chance – will he or won’t he? You know how people like to gamble. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you pull the arm on that one-armed bandit, so let’s see if we can get it to work for us. So, our kids say, “How many times will he say, ‘Don’t do that before he actually does something?” Well, if the answer to that question is always, “Just once,” then it stops after one warning. How do you teach a dog to stop begging at the table? Well, you’ve got two choices. Always feed him, so he doesn’t have to beg or never, ever, ever feed him. If you feed him, sometimes, then he thinks that, if he begs hard enough,             he might get something. And, it’s worked before! So, inconsistently held boundaries increase boundary violations, and consistently held boundaries extinguish boundary violations.

Let’s look at one more principle about boundary setting. It’s the principle of self-care. When should we consequence and when should we not? Well, there needs to be some consistency so children can gauge their behavior. Parents need to pick their battles according to the level of discomfort they’re experiencing. In the example I just used, they said to their daughter that the reason they wouldn’t let her go out was because it was too stressful for them. Can we see what message that sends? “We love you so much we worry when we don’t know if you’re safe. We don’t like worrying, so stay home and be safe until we feel better about your ability to come home on time. It’s not punishment. It’s a consequence enacted to keep you safe and only until you can prove you can come home on time.”

“If you guys are going to argue like that, take it somewhere where I can’t hear it, because it bothers me.” Now some parents would say, “If you jump into the middle of a fight your kids are having, you almost always pick the wrong one to champion.” The kids at school – when I was a school counselor – always used to tell me that the duty teacher never saw the kid that took the first swing. It was the one that responded. So you really never know what’s going on in situations like that. Now, if something is life threatening, then that’s a whole different ball game.

Here’s another one: “If you don’t get up in time to get ready for school, you’ll have to go to class in your pajamas and socks, or you can get dressed in the car, because I don’t want to be late.” And you can have a bag of their clothes – probably the ones they really wouldn’t want to be seen in at school – up on the shelf, and you can throw that in the car as you leave.

“If you refuse to go to school tomorrow, I’ll have to call the police, because I could get in trouble if you don’t go to school.”

“If you bring drugs into our house, we could go to jail for it, so you’ll have to move out if we find any drugs here again.”

“When you talk disrespectfully, I don’t like it, so please go somewhere else until you can be respectful. I might be more inclined to help you then.”

So there are some examples. There it is in a nutshell – natural and logical consequences delivered without anger and consistently out of parents’ self-care that speed compliance, and facilitate peace and harmony in the home. Now, I think you could agree. It’s a simple plan that, obviously, is going to work.

Why is it, then, so hard for some of us to do these simple things, like being consistent, like being respectful to our children instead of angry, like not enabling by modeling self-care for them? Why is that so hard for some of us? Well, that’s what we’re going to look at next time – the parental behaviors that impede practical Christian parenting. And that will be part 8 and it’s called Parental Issues. Don’t miss it.

We post new presentations every two weeks, so we hope you’ll check that out. In the meantime, you can go to our Website – liferesource.org – for more on parenting, child advocacy, mental health and Christian living resources.

So, until next time, this is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.