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Every action has its own consequences

  • As parents, we have the task of teaching our children responsibility and it is often equated with duty or obligations, reliability and dependability, or just "getting the job done."

As parents, we have the task of teaching our children responsibility and it is often equated with duty or obligations, reliability and dependability, or just "getting the job done."

Yet, responsibility is broader than these definitions. Just like gravity, we reap what we sow; every choice or action that we make has its own consequences, whether relational or reality consequences.

Relational consequences include getting angry, nagging, sending guilt messages and withdrawing love, whereas reality consequences include losses of time, money, things the child enjoys or values and pain. The latter teaches children that they are ultimately in control of much of how their life goes as it transfers the need to be responsible from the parent to the child. How then do parents raise their children up to be responsible adults?

Question: How can I acquaint my twelve-year-old with the need for responsible behavior throughout his life? He is desperately in need of this understanding.

One important objective during the pre-adolescent period is to teach the child that actions have inevitable consequences. One of the most serious casualties in a permissive society is the failure to connect those two factors, behavior and consequences.

A three-year-old child screams insults at this mother, but Mom stands blinking her eyes in confusion. A first grader defies his teacher, but the school makes allowances for his age and takes no action. A ten-year-old is caught stealing candy in a store but is released to the recognizance of her parents. A fifteen-year-old sneaks the keys to the family car, but her father pays the fine when she is arrested. A seventeen-year-old drives his car like a maniac, and his parents pay for the repairs when he wraps it around a telephone pole.

All through childhood, loving parents seem determined to intervene between behavior and consequences, breaking the connection and preventing the valuable learning that could and should have occurred.

Thus, it is possible for a young man or woman to enter adult life not really knowing that life bites – that every move we make directly affects our future – and that irresponsible behavior eventually produces sorrow and pain. Such a person secures his first job and arrives late for work three times during the first week.

Later, when he is fired in flurry of hot words, he becomes bitter and frustrated. It was the first time in his life that Mom and Dad couldn't come running to rescue him from the unpleasant consequences. (Unfortunately, many parents still try to bail out the grown children even when they are in their twenties and live away from home.) What is the result? This over-protection produces emotional cripples who often develop lasting characteristics of dependency and a kind of perpetual adolescence.

How does one connect behavior with consequences? By being willing to let the child experience a reasonable amount of pain or inconvenience when he behaves irresponsibly. When Jack misses the school bus through his own dawdling, let him walk a mile or two and enter school in midmorning (unless safety factors prevent this). If Jane carelessly loses her lunch money, let her skip a meal.

Obviously, it is possible to carry this principle too far, being harsh and inflexible with an immature child. But the best approach is to expect boys and girls to carry the responsibility that is appropriate for their age and occasionally to taste the bitter fruit that irresponsibility bears. In so doing, behavior is wedded to consequences, just like in real life.

Question: I have a horrible time getting my ten-year-old daughter ready to catch the school bus each morning. She will get up when I insist, but she dawdles and plays as soon as I leave the room. I have to nag and push and warn her every few minutes or else she will be late. So I get more and more angry and usually end up screaming insults at her.

I know this is not the best way to handle the situation, but I declare, she makes me want to clobber her. Is there a way I can get her moving without a fight every day?

In a sense, you are perpetuating your daughter's folly by assuming the responsibility for getting her ready each morning. A ten-year-old should definitely be able to handle that task on her own initiative, but your anger is not likely to bring it about. We had a very similar problem with our own daughter when she was ten. Perhaps the solution we worked out will be helpful to you.

Danae's morning time problem related primarily to her compulsivity about her room. She would not leave for school each day unless her bed was made perfectly and every trinket was in its proper place. This was not something we taught her; she has always been very meticulous about her possessions.

Danae could easily finish these tasks on time if she was motivated to do so, but she was never in a particular hurry. Therefore, my wife began to fall into the same habit you described, warning, threatening, punishing, and ultimately becoming angry as the clock moved toward the deadline.

Shirley and I discussed the problem and agreed that there had to be a better method of getting through the morning. I subsequently created a system that we called "Checkpoints."

It worked like this: Danae was instructed to be out of bed and standing upright before six-thirty each morning. It was her responsibility to set her own clock radio and get herself out of bed. If she succeeded in getting up on time (even one minute later was considered a missed item), she immediately went to the kitchen, where a chart was taped on the refrigerator door. She then circled yes or no, with regard to the first checkpoint for that date. It couldn't have been more simple. She either did or did not get up by six-thirty.

The second checkpoint occurred forty minutes later, at seven-ten. By that time, she was required to have her room straightened to her own satisfaction, be dressed and have her teeth brushed, hair combed, etc., and be ready to begin practicing the piano. Forty minutes was ample time for these tasks, which could actually be done in ten or fifteen minutes if she wanted to hurry. Thus, the only way she could miss the second checkpoint was to ignore it deliberately.

Now, what meaning did the checkpoints have? Did failure to meet them bring anger and wrath and gnashing of teeth? Of course not. The consequences were straightforward and fair. If Danae missed one checkpoint, she was required to go to bed thirty minutes earlier than usual that evening. If she missed two, she hit the "lily whites" an hour before her assigned hour. She was permitted to read during that time in bed, but she could not watch television or talk on the telephone.

This little game took all the morning pressure of Shirley and placed it on our daughter's shoulders, where it belonged. There were occasions when my wife got up just in time to fix breakfast, only to find Danae sitting soberly at the piano, clothed and in her right mind.

This system of discipline can serve as a model for parents who have similar behavioral problems with their children. It was not oppressive; in fact, Danae seemed to enjoy having a target to shoot at. The limits of acceptable performance were defined beyond question. The responsibility was clearly placed on the child. And it required no adult anger or foot stamping.

Adaptations of this concept are available to resolve other problems in your home, too. The only limit lies in the creativity and imagination that you bring to the situation.

This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from "Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide" with permission. For more information, please contact:

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