I have been thinking about what we, as parents, often think consequences will do for our children. And I have realized that sometimes we are under the misguided impression that using consequences will influence our children so that they will make good choices and those good choices will turn them into good people. Of course this is errant thinking on so many levels. I discussed this in my series on character and in a post called "Parenting by Heart" as well.
Consider this situation which happened in my home:
We had been having "screen days" and "no screen days" for some time (screen days were days when my boys could watch something or use the computer and no-screen-days were, well, when they couldn't). The problem became that I was always still asked if it were a screen day or not and if they could watch screens. The focus (in their hearts) on screen use was not diminishing and fading into the background. We have a limited number of total hours a week screens could be used (7 hours a week maximum) and they kept a tally on the white board. Again, this seemed to make them think about using screens a lot. In some weird course of events, my oldest preteen son and I simultaneously had this thought that we should do away with screen days and no-screen-days and we should just see how it goes. When the boys want to watch something, they ask. I can say "yes" or "no" based on what I feel is appropriate. Granted this takes their self-control and internal monitoring out of the picture (which is our ultimate parental goal) but it helps build in something else that I think is a precursor to self-control and that is a diminished interest in the screen altogether.
Well, we have been going along in the new way of screen-use in our home and we are bumping up against a new issue as we do. My eldest will probably make a good lawyer some day. When he or his brother would ask to use screens and I would say, "no," he would start asking about "what if," and "when" and "could we just ..." He wasn't trying to be defiant or undermine me. He just is persistent and doesn't always agree with my decision about things. So, he respectfully asks to change that decision. We have had this come up in several areas lately -- this second-guessing or need to push the edges a bit. It's totally appropriate for his age, so I get it. But, nonetheless, it wasn't helping the whole "let's minimize the emphasis on screens around here" goal. So, I sat down with him and said, "You know, lately when I say, 'no' about screens, you push and prod trying to change my mind. You ask about other times and you make it more of a focus when the whole goal is to make this less of a focus. I have decided something. If you can't take my 'no' answer, we will go to Saturday only screen day. We won't have screen use six days a week. That will take all questions out of the question and it will eliminate this struggle we keep going through. I want to address this deeper issue of you needing to buck up against my "no" answers, okay?" He totally understood what I was saying and he said, "Yeah, you are right, Mom, I was pushing too much."
Now, here's the kicker. His character will develop from this interaction. He will become more self-controlled. But, it wasn't the pending threat of a consequence that was the change agent. What happened was that he was engaged relationally and respected and he was told an outcome (and saw that even though the outcome was undesirable, it would be implemented for his good) and he was given the open room to choose to agree and work along with the situation or not. Ultimately it is up to him. I have a boundary in place: I won't be argued with about my "no" answers about screen use. I stated what would happen if the boundary is crossed: We'll go to Saturday only screens. I communicated in love and with his interest at heart: I want to help you grow in this area because it isn't good for you. I gave him the power to choose: You can honor the boundary, or choose the consequence.
Now, this could have gone another way. I could have said, when he started in with the bartering and pushing limits, "You have pushed my limits too many times. When I say 'no' I mean it and you will listen to my 'no' and obey and you will do that with a cheerful look on your face and a cheerful heart behind that look. From now on if you ever say anything but, 'yes ma'am' when I say 'no' to you, you will lose your screens and only have Saturday screen time." The approaches are the same with regards to facts: When I say no, I mean it; You need to go along with that; If you don't you lose something.
The two approaches are actually worlds apart. In the first example, I am not forcing my son's hand. I am not dictating what he should or shouldn't feel while he does or doesn't choose to obey me. The choice is his. He gets to exercise his will (which will build his character) and he gets to hear my heart about how I want to help him grow (which encouraged him enough that he actually willingly joined my efforts by cooperating). My parenting isn't all touchy-feely, loosey-goosey without boundaries or consequences, but I don't demand behavior nor do I demand a certain emotion (cheerfulness) in response to my authoritative statements.
We can give our children the impression that the only acceptable emotion is "cheerfulness." A thorough study of the perfect life of Jesus will show that a cheerful response is not always even the godly and perfect response to life. He exhibited righteous anger, weeping and many other emotions. God also encourages us to express all emotions to Him in the examples of the Psalmist. We need to allow our children the internal space to process emotions. I surely am not instantly cheerful when something doesn't go my way. I can feel a range of emotions and even act on them sometimes. Eventually my feelings do line up with my thoughts and what is right in God's sight -- but that can take a l o n g time, even at my age. It is not fair for me to ask my children to express cheerfulness at all times. It is far better for me to reflect God to them -- He loves us whether we are cheerful or fretful or angry or depressed. His love is not contingent on our cheerfulness and if we ask our children to be cheerful all the time, we aren't keeping them from feeling other feelings, we are just teaching them that only certain feelings are acceptable and the rest are not -- which may even make them feel at least partially unacceptable altogether over time.
But, consequences will only produce certain things: behaviors. They will not produce changed hearts. We can become a person who knows how to say "please," "thank you," "yes ma'am" and "no sir," and still have a hateful, unsubmissive heart under the behavior. Consequences will not make a person good. Most consequences lead to mere behavior control which will lead to acceptable conduct. This isn’t all bad as we need to have some order in society and in our homes. But, we just can’t legislate morality and that truth is applicable at both the macro (governmental) and micro (familial) levels. Though good behavior is important, without a noble heart behind the behavior we miss the mark. If we are not careful, we can fool ourselves into thinking that our very compliant children have pure hearts when they have merely learned to avoid the shock of punishment.
Part of why consequences work when they do is when they are used as a part of discipline (instruction) rather than punishment. God has said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a hope and a future, ….” That verse is very familiar to most of us. We can wear a verse out to familiarity by putting it on bookmarks and picture frames and gifting it to our nephew when he graduates. Sometimes we have to step back and revisit the familiar and well-worn verses and see them with fresh eyes. Though this verse (in context) relays God’s message to His people while they are in exile, it holds a truth that is echoed throughout Scripture. God has a will for us and it is focused upon a hopeful future. He disciplines with an eye for the future. Punishment is focused on what was done and a price to be paid. Discipline (paideuō in Hebrew) is for instruction which has an eye towards the future. Our goal in discipline is to look towards the future and instruct our children in ways they should walk.
Charlotte Mason said that behavior ought not be forced out of a desire to please someone we love, to avoid a negative consequence or as a response to the art of manipulation. She referred to that as "suggestion." What she meant was that a person with power in a relationship should not use that power to make someone else do their will. The other person with less power should be free to use their will. They should not feel external constraint to make a given choice because of the more powerful person. So, as parents, we have to be so careful not to set our children up in a "choice" that really leaves them no choice whatsoever. The will is strengthened (in the good sense) when it is exercised. We want our children to exercise their will and choose. So we don't force their hand by way of excessive use of consequences.
Boundaries are the lines we draw or the lines that naturally exist that should not be crossed. When we pair a boundary with a consequence we let our child know what the outcome will be if the boundary is crossed. We don't do this by means of a threat, but by way of information. It helps a person make an informed choice when they know what will or could happen if they choose one way or the other. Of course we know how we want them to choose, but we need to back off a bit and let them choose and let them experience the results of their choosing. When they choose well, they can feel the goodness of that internally. When they choose poorly, they will learn from that too. And this process of internal choicemaking does actually help build character in ways that the imposition of consequences in a more authoritarian way does not.
So, consequences are good. The ones that come naturally are the best -- we don't need to exaggerate those nor diminish them. Sometimes we need to state a consequence with a boundary. We can do this in love, with an eye towards the future and the growth of our child while we stay on their side and in their corner. Our children need to exercise their will and make choices -- this is how they grow. We can allow them experiences including all the emotions and outcomes that come with making either good or poor choices. Over time this process will have a building and strengthening effect on our children. Our role can be one of a loving guide, coach and ally as we help them grow in maturity.