Consequences Are Not About Being Mean
Allowing our children to experience consequences is not about being a mean parent. It’s about being a parent that wants to prepare our children for life and living on their own. It’s also about setting boundaries and being clear with our children. All children need boundaries.
By setting boundaries, parents help their children to understand that their actions or lack thereof have an effect.
It’s sort of like Newton’s third law of motion that states that “for every force there is an equal and opposite force or reaction,” although consequences don’t always result in an equal and opposite reaction. And they aren’t always negative. Consequences are just simply something that happens because of whatever action or lack of action your child took.
For example, the more time spent studying for a test will result in a higher grade, not bringing a jacket on a cold day will result in being cold, and leaving toys out on the living room floor could result in them getting stepped on and broken.
Sometimes there are natural consequences, like the example of being cold when a jacket is forgotten or being hungry at school if lunch is left at home. When natural consequences happen, it’s easy to avoid being seen as mean. After all, it wasn’t your fault the consequence happened. It was a result of your child’s action (i.e., forgetting the item). But how often have you struggled with watching your child suffer through the consequences of their actions? It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s necessary, though.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to remember?” For a very young child, yes. But as they get older, they should be taking on more of these responsibilities. You can help them transition into their new responsibility by reminding them for a period of time, but once they know the routine, it’s their job.
And when they forget, it’s a great time for you to commiserate with them and say, “Yes, that really sucked” and then talk with them about ways to avoid it happening again. If it was a forgotten item, how can the child remember it next time? Maybe the child can write a note or checklist to be placed by the door with a list of the things the child needs for the day.
But what happens when the consequence is something the parent has to put into effect or enforce? The child will see the parent as being mean. Are you ever tempted to go easy on your child or not follow through with the predetermined consequence in an effort to avoid being seen as mean? But that’s not why the consequence was put in place.
It’s not about being mean. It’s about helping your child to learn boundaries, to take ownership of their mistakes, and to learn from their mistakes as well—ultimately, about preparing them to be on their own and to be a capable adult.
Children Need Boundaries
Although they may call you mean at the time, they need you to follow through. Children need boundaries; they crave them, even if they won’t admit it. They feel safer when they know there are limits to what they can do.
I once heard an analogy for these boundaries being similar to a fence put around a yard. The fence clearly marks the edge of the yard but does not restrict what the yard can be used for, just like the boundaries you set for your child do not limit what they can do within these boundaries.
Just like a fence that needs maintenance to keep the posts from leaning, the boundaries you set for your child will also need to be maintained and sometimes adjusted.
One of the ways you maintain boundaries is by having consequences for going outside of them. The consequences work best when they are in line with whatever the boundary-crossing is and when they are discussed when the boundary is put in place, prior to the boundary-crossing. That way when the boundary-crossing occurs, you can remind your child that you talked about the consequence before.
For older children and teenagers, it works even better if you take their thoughts into consideration when determining the consequence. Ask them what they think the consequence should be. Decide on it together, as long as you agree it’s an appropriate consequence. If the boundary-crossing keeps happening, then the consequence in place is not working and needs to be rethought.
Have you ever been surprised by your child’s actions and not in a good way? For major boundary crossings or for crossings that occur that were not foreseen, it’s okay to tell your child that you need to think for a specific amount of time about what the consequence will be.
Preparing for the Future
For me, when my girls tell me I’m being mean or even that they “hate” me (and yes, it’s been said), I’m okay with it. Is this something that would just flatten you? If so, remember, it’s being said in reaction to the moment. I also remind myself that it means I’m doing my job as a mother, and I tell them that. I’m not meant to be their best friend. I’m their mother.
My job is to make sure I prepare them for the world in the best way I can.
I also know I’m not doing what I’m doing to be mean, but to help with this preparation. I also know, or at least I hope, that they will look back on these moments and thank me, just like I look back on moments like these when I was growing up and am thankful. Think of it as tough love.
And if you consistently put boundaries in place from a young age as well as consequences for crossing those boundaries, you’ll have a much easier time as your child gets older; they’ll know you mean business and take what you say seriously.
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Carolyn is a writer, proofreader, and editor. She has a background in wildlife management but pivoted to writing and editing when she became a mother. In her "free time" she is a 3rd Dan (degree) Kukkiwon certified black belt in Taekwondo, loves learning to craft from her enormously talented children, and then teaching what she's learned to her enormously talented grandmother. Read full bio >>