Most kids are equal parts Sophisticate and Innocent—except when they’re not. There are pristine moments when children seem completely, achingly unspoiled. Other times they appear as hard as slum lords. Been there, done that, hated it, bought the t-shirt just to be ironic. This can be awfully confusing for parents and other adults who care. And even more confusing for kids with a foot in both worlds.
Trying to protect the young from exposure to the world they live in is about as useful as putting a wetsuit on a dolphin. It’s too late; they’re already wet. What we can do is create the sort of consequential environments that help kids keep their heads above water.
Mostly adults fail to insulate kids from toxic influences—instead, we rescue them. We make it easy to engage in high-risk behaviors, then bail kids out so they don’t learn from the natural results of their mistakes and misdeeds. Life without consequences is confounding. When kids act out they get confused if there’s no equal and opposite reaction from the adults who care for them. If they don’t learn about cause and effect until something VERY BIG is at stake, the consequences can be crushing.
That’s why it’s so important to create an appropriately consequential environment for children; and I say create because it can’t be bought off-the-shelf—you have to cook it up at home from a family recipe. This requires thought and attention to minding the stove.
There are two kinds of consequences: Natural Consequences and Logical Consequences.
Natural Consequences flow directly out of the circumstances in a cause and effect relationship. Natural consequences are beautiful because you don’t have to think them up; they just are.
Let’s say you have an agreement about managing money and your teenager blows his wad on an impulsive purchase. Then, when he wants to go to a concert or buy a new hoodie, he comes to you to bail him out. The natural consequence of his impulsive spending—this is especially important if he’s a repeat offender—is that he doesn’t go to the concert or doesn’t get the jacket. He doesn’t know it but this is small potatoes compared to not being able to pay his rent because he spent all the money.
It’s easy for you and me to see how the ante will go up in the future because we know what that looks like. But if in the heat of the moment you try to convince your kid about the higher stakes she’ll face in the real world it’ll come off like moralizing. Let it be. She’s smart; just inexperienced. That’s what all this is about. Let her suffer the natural consequences of her behavior and she’ll get it. You can process it later to make sure it stuck.
Logical Consequences are not as elegant as Natural Consequences. Apart from missing a meal or losing some sleep, there’s no natural repercussion for coming home late. So you may have to devise an aftereffect that is logical under the prevailing circumstances.
Depending on the child, you may find it helpful to invite him to join you as you invent Logical Consequences. Some possibilities for coming home late:
If I miss a meal because I fail to come home in a timely manner, I’ll fix my own plate and do the dishes for the whole family (if I chose to eat out without coordinating that decision at home, I’ll do the dishes for the whole family anyway).
If I fail to return on time, I’ll set my curfew an hour earlier tomorrow to ensure the extra time necessary to get home (and endure another consequence if I miss the new curfew).
More logical consequences:
If I bring the car home with less than a quarter of a tank of gas, I’ll wash it within 48 hours.
If I can’t keep my clothes reasonably well-sorted and off the floor, I’ll do my own laundry. If I can’t do my own laundry to a mutually agreed-upon standard, I’ll pay to have it done. If I can’t afford to pay to have my laundry done, I’ll figure a way to keep my clothes reasonably well-sorted and off the floor.
If I can’t manage my time in such a way as to get my homework done and get adequate rest, nutrition, and exercise and still have some fun, and still be a participating member of this family, I’ll get help from the expert of my choice. If I still can’t manage, I’ll get help from (yikes!) you.
Create your own list of what matters. Susan and I chose not to care too much about the tidiness of Kate’s room. Come to think of it, Susan shows considerable tolerance for the state of my home office. This is what doors are for. But Kate (and I) generally showed due respect for the common areas of our home. Stealing an idea from Disneyland, at our house bedrooms and offices are backstage and not part of the tour. What is on the tour is kept guest-ready at all times.
Of course there are more serious stakes when it comes to matters of health, safety, and sexuality. I hope you don’t have to begin by retrofitting a consequential environment in those areas. But if you do, the principles are the same (even if it’s not as easy to talk about). As in less volatile matters, set a new plan together and keep working at it until you get it right.
In all these things I figure, I’m the adult; everything about my life has prepared me to outlast any child. If it takes a year or two to get things turned around, I believe that’s a small investment of time and energy for something that will serve both of us for the rest of our lives. It’s not about one person winning at the expense of the other. Taking the time to get it right expresses mutual respect and I don’t know anyone of any age who can’t appreciate that.
— from Raising Adults