(This is part one of a two-part article on responsibility and consequences, originally published in 2011)
A man reaps what he sows.Galatians 6:7b
When I was eleven, I accidentally set fire to my parent’s house.
Mum and dad had left for work, and I had an hour to kill before school. Normally that wasn’t a big deal, but on this one morning it was just enough time for my foolishness to lead me down a harebrained path.
I’d found a few sparklers left over from an evening of fireworks at a neighbour’s the week before. I think most people would have had the sense not to scrape the grey stuff off of the wire into a metal pie plate, and light it with a match … indoors.
Sparks rocketed in every direction. The metal container quickly burned a hole in the scatter rug beneath the plate. Panicked, I doused the flames, while worrying out loud to our miniature poodle what I was going to tell my parents about the burned rug.
I threw open some bedroom windows to rid the upper story of smoke and the metallic smell, and ran downstairs with the damaged rug. Heaving it over our high back fence, I hoped it would land in the creek that ran behind our property, which was still moving along at a brisk spring pace.
Still confiding in the dog, I ran back upstairs aware that I was at risk of being late for school. After cleaning up any obvious evidence of my foolishness, I blasted out of the house, and raced to school on an extra dose of adrenalin.
Like cigarette smokers unaware of their public “aura”, I was caught off guard when my homeroom teacher asked, “Did someone sit a little too close to the fire last night?”
Before the hour was out, I was summoned to the principal’s office where a woman was waiting to whisk me home to the sights, sounds and smells of my worst nightmare. During the five minute drive, she didn’t say a word.
When I arrived, fire trucks lined our end of the street. Our front lawn was littered with things that belonged inside of the house. (Apparently a spark had landed on an overstuffed chair.) Thankfully, my canine confidante was safe, busy barking at firemen who were coming and going without her permission.
I’d also overhead someone say that my dad was on his way home.
So, what happens next? From a parents’ perspective, what ought to happen next?
Melissa and I want our children to always feel safe confessing their mistakes, yet we don’t want them to miss the powerful learning that comes from living with the consequences of their poor choices.
Notice the tension between these two worthwhile goals?
Punishment and consequences
One key is knowing the difference between punishment and consequences. Parents and children get them confused. They’re not synomyms. To a child or teen, punishment and negative consequences look and feel the same, so we need to help them with that.
Punishment hurts, it breeds fear and resentment, its primary motivation isn’t character-shaping, and it tends to be focussed on past behaviour. (Parental ranting and raving, and emotional withdrawal probably fall into this category as well.)
A consequence is different. It speaks to, and respects the heart. A consequence is a natural and age-appropriate result of a child’s choice, and its purpose is to shape future behaviour. It comes in two varieties: positive and negative. Pleasurable and painful.
While punishment and consequences are both found within the pages of scripture, I can’t seem to find where the former is ever associated with parenting. So, fathers and mothers will probably want to focus on consequences, rather than dropping their kids into a winepress, or letting an ancient Assyrian babysit for an evening.
After the fire, I fully expected to be punished.
Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a childProverbs 22:15
I’m of the opinion that as an approach for cultivating responsibiltiy in precious young foolish beings, there’s probably nothing better than consequences.
My 11-year-old son, Andrew, fractured his wrist while riding his bike carelessly, racing his sister home. He lost control on some loose gravel on a turn.
After the initial pain subsided, healing began. Thankfully, so did the learning. He realised he’d have to give up tennis for at least six weeks. More immediately painful, it hit him that he wouldn’t be riding a bike or swimming in the ocean during our family’s annual Hilton Head escape. Almost before his cast had hardened, Andrew confessed that what he’d done was stupid, and he wouldn’t let it happen again. Savouring this admission as one of those rare parental satisfaction moments, Melissa and I just smiled.
Sow, reap, sow, reap
If we parents are doing our job well, our children will know in advance what will happen when they choose to misplace their manners, hurt someone, tell a lie, be tardy, lazy or get their priorities badly mixed up. On the everyday stuff, there ought to be no surprises.
Consequences transfer the need to be responsible from the parent to the child.Cloud & Townsend
Children who learn the concept of sowing and reaping in the home will be better prepared to work hard and meet (rather than whine about) workloads and deadlines in college and the workplace. They are more apt to take responsibility for failure in tasks and relationships, rather than adopting the increasingly popular blaming or victim role.
I even go so far as speculating that children who learn responsibility through consequences will end up modelling desireable character traits to their children.
That way, when a child finds himself on the “hotseat” as I did years ago, and asks himself, “I wonder what’ll happen if my parents discover I started the fire?”, he may feel more secure in doing the right thing for the right reason.
With fire hoses reeled in, the pump and ladder trucks are ready to pull out. Neighbours have retreated to their homes. Just me and the dog on the front lawn.
My father’s car just pulled up. Now he’s walking towards me. What should I tell him? What am I going to say?
Okay, I’ve made my decision. Thankfully, dogs can’t talk!
(to be continued in part two, “Stewing in Juice”)
A few things to think about …
- When you were growing up, did your parents punish you physically or emotionally, or did they have a way of allowing you to live with the natural consequences of your choices?
- As a parent, have you carried on that tradition in your home, or have you adopted a different style?
- To what degree do you tend to step up and take responsibility for situations that fell short of success, even when you were not fully responsible?
- What would you have said to your father, given the same situation after the house fire?
Blessings on your home,
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