The only source of knowledge is experience. – Einstein
Being a “good parent” usually means being involved in your child’s life and “doing” things for your child, like volunteering in school, attending their sporting events, and teaching them values and skills.
Allowing your child to experience natural consequences is often painful for parents because it requires us to do less or to not do something. Inaction can leave you feeling like a “bad” parent.
You may want to rescue your child from natural consequences of their behavior to prevent your child from feeling pain, to keep your child happy, or to make sure your child likes you. Or you may intervene in natural consequences to ease your own pain. It’s hard to see your child struggle with difficult emotions like disappointment, failure, and loneliness.
If our job as parents isn’t to keep our kids happy, what is our job? It’s to do what we can to raise responsible children who grow up and contribute something positive to society. Our job is to encourage self-awareness and sensitivity to others so they can grow up to create fulfilling adult relationships and healthy families. Before rescuing your child from the natural consequences of their actions, consider asking yourself these five questions:
1) Is my child in immediate danger?
If “no” then let natural consequences play out. If “yes” then intervene and use other ways of teaching. Examples of immediate danger are a toddler running into street, teen driving drunk, tween chatting with a stranger online. Generally, these situations are the exception in everyday parenting. It’s the small situations that are sometimes the trickiest to work through, like a child forgetting lunch, fighting with friends, breaking a household rule, because they don’t seem like a big deal individually, but they add up over time.
2) Whose problem is this?
Who owns the problem? If you “pick up” the problem and hold on to it, your child will let you and allow you to be in charge of their problem. Notice the language you use when talking to your child about their struggles. I hear a lot of moms say, “We’ve got a lot of homework tonight.” That’s a sign that mom owns the homework, instead of the child. I like to tell my 9-year-old, “I already passed 3rd grade. This is your homework and I’m here to help and support you.” Your language can give clues to who owns the problem/issue.
Author Byron Katie says there are 3 kinds of “business” in life: a) your business, b) other people’s business (including your child’s), and c) God’s business. She suggests that when we are experiencing pain we are into other people’s or God’s “business”.
I remember the difficult process of letting my teenaged daughter and experience the consequences of a big mistake. We have an old car that she was able to drive. She drove it for weeks without oil, after several reminders from her dad, and the car was damaged beyond repair. She is now paying us back a couple thousand dollars for the car she totaled.
3) What is the most loving thing to do?
Doing the “loving” thing isn’t the same as being nice or choosing a path that results in the least amount of relational conflict. The loving thing may at first seem to be rescuing, but being loving is actually doing what’s in your child’s best interest.
I’ve seen parents who, in an attempt to be “nice” and unconditionally loving, enable their child to continue to break the law, to take advantage of others, and to develop a sense of entitlement. In extreme cases, I’ve known a few parents who, in the name of love, enabled an adult child to an early death from addiction by not allowing them to hit rock bottom and continually bailing them out.
4) What will my child learn if I rescue him/her?
By rescuing your child from natural consequences you may be inadvertently teaching your child not to trust their own judgment, that they are not capable of handling hard things, and that they will always need you to help them. I recently met with a mother of an adult child who was angry with her son for taking advantage of her. She wanted him to get a job or work harder in school, yet she was allowing him to live at home without contributing to the household chores or paying rent. He had no incentive to step up. Her child had learned that his mom would take care of his basic needs even if he doesn’t contribute.
A Facebook friend Michelle W.’s 5-year-old stole a $15 book. Michelle held her daughter accountable to pay for the book by doing household chores. Her daughter, now 12, still has the book, and learned early in her life that you can’t get something for nothing.
5) How will this prepare my child for their future?
Each stage of development prepares a child for the next phase of life. Allowing your child to make age appropriate choices and experience natural consequences early on gives them experience to build on for future developmental stages in every area of life: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, physically.
Homework seems to be one of the most common parenting struggles. Here’s an example of how early experiences with natural consequences build preparation for the future. If your first grader forgets to do homework they may have to stay in at recess. In Junior High School if you forget to turn in a paper you’ll get a lower grade in the class. In High School forgetting to turn in papers means a lower grade in class and a lower GPA which limits future options, like college scholarships or work opportunities. Turning in papers in a time manner in High School or college prepares you for adult employment where forgetting to write report for board meeting will get you fired.
Another Facebook friend, Emily H., shares how she lets natural consequences teach her High School children who want to stay home because they aren’t feeling well. “They are quickly learning life is easier and less stressful if they go to school and stay on top of their work without me saying a word,” she says.
Even though it is painful to watch our children experience the result of their own choices, it is an important part of their growth process. Our job is to teach our children to prepare for adulthood by allowing them the opportunity to navigate difficult situations, repair their own mistakes, and to experience themselves as capable of making decisions that are in their own and other’s best interest.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW has over 20 years experience counseling families in UT and is owner and director of Wasatch Family Therapy, LLC (http://www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com), author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women (http://www.juliehanks.com/books/burnout-cure/), a popular local and national media contributor and award-winning performing songwriter (http://www.juliehanks.com) Her most valuable experience has been “in the trenches” of family life with her husband of 26 years and their 4 children ranging in age from elementary school to college-aged.