24 June 2009

For Every Action, There is ...

We all know the end of this basic tenet in physics, "an equal and opposite reaction." Stated another way, we can say that actions have consequences. A word I realize carries negative connotations, erroneously so I might add. Think of it this way, consequence simply provides another, more concise way to speak about equal and opposite reactions. It also applies better to discussion about people's choices with respect to actions we take in our everyday lives. When my children and I talk about consequences for choices they make, we're talking about the natural reaction the world and the people in it have in response to a choice they enacted. If my son chooses to take a candy bar without paying for it and someone in the store notices, they may very likely respond angrily to his choice, report what they saw to the store owner, or even call the police. The person isn't attempting to control my son by manipulating his behavior, as Alphie Kohn seems to imply, but reacting to the intentional breaking of a law.

Everywhere we go, every action that we undertake, leads to a natural consequence that may ultimately be positive, negative, or even neutral. I failed to receive an instruction manual for parenting with the birth of my first and successive children, but grew to understand that my job description entail assisting their understanding of this basic facts. We all have choice, free will, to do as we please, and need to understand that exercising our free will does in fact carry consequences. I choose to help a neighbor through an illness, and the natural consequence or outcome is that I feel good about myself, and my neighbor may or may not express gratitude for that help. I harm another person, and as a natural consequence the society in which I've chosen to live applies the rules under which we collectively live. Perhaps I am ostracized, perhaps even punished by the legal system.

I absolutely embraced the philosophy of the Love and Logic material as a parent, and continue to apply those concepts in the course of raising my children. Regardless of where we go to visit with others or spend quality family time in a public activity, someone invariably approaches our family to commend us all on my children, their behavior, how the show respect for others, or how they handled conflict. I believe this results from our approach to learning and life itself, and that I chose to explicitly teach my children that they ALWAYS have choice, and to recognize the consequences those choices may carry when enacted. Am I imposing a consequence, a 'punishment light' as Mr. Kohn refers to it? No, I am attempting to teach my children to accept responsibility for their actions and the outcome, I am teaching them to be accountable, and to understand that we don't grow up in a vacuum. Do I ever impose more than the "logical" consequence? Actually, I do, but within guidelines and in an attempt to educate my children about some of the more abstract, difficult to understand ideas and values such as honesty.

Amnesty. As a family, that's what we say when referring to our system for natural and parentally imposed consequences. More than anything else, I want my children to know that we all make mistakes, that we learn from them, and move on, and more importantly, that honesty is of paramount importance. I remember my childhood, how afraid I was of my parents' anger, and of being punished. I recall how, throughout my childhood in the 70's, children were meant to be seen, not heard, and it was assumed that all children were dishonest and motivated less than ideal charater traits like greed. I made myself a promise that as a parent I would talk to my children, listen and attempt to understand their motivation for taking action, and avoid if at all possible parentally imposed punishment, particularly of the physical variety. My intial attempts at parenting in this manner met with varying levels of success and failure unitl I read Cline & Fay.

Even with that, my attempts to provide guidance, acknowledge and respect the value of my children's mistakes, and raise them to value honesty, integrity etc. still floundered. When my oldest hit 13, and I knew internally that she and the less than savory characters she now called friends engaged in some fairly unhealthy or dangerous activities, it hit me. I waited for a time when I knew she'd hidden a number of events, some I could guess at while others I had not clue about, and explained my idea. We were going out for dinner and a night of Amnesty. She could tell me, without fear of reprisal, parentally imposed consequences, yelling (on my part), or any other typically "Mom's mad" behavior about anything she or her friends had done in the last three months, particularly those things she might have hidden or lied about.

Of course she didn't believe me, and it took us awhile to get started. I had to exercise incredible control of my reactions and urge to (occassionally) scream, either in disbelief or horror. She started slow, tested the waters, eventually began to say more as I listened intently but failed to react normally. Soon, the flood gates opened and we relocated ourselves to more private, yet still neutral ground. Starting out close to 9:00 PM, we ended up talking until four in the morning. I learned much about my daughter, about her fear of me and my reactions as an angry parent, and how she felt about herself internally having kept all this a secret. I learned more than I ever really wanted to know, but truly needed to hear and understand. We talked at length about what the natural consequences might have been, not the "what parents do when they catch you doing this", but what might have happened had they been caught, had the pot been tainted with other drugs, etc. We made a list, and then kept adding everything she could think of that she or her friends did or might want to do, and what could possibly happen as a result.

In the end, we had an agreement. Everyone makes errors in judgement. That's simply life, and I chose to acknowledge that rather than punish it. From that day forward she had 48 hours to call for an Amnesty and tell me about her own or a friend's error in judgement, and I promised to simply listen. To help her and anyone else understand what the natural consequence was, and how to face it. I promised to do this without yelling, without reacting negatively, etc. The only time I would impose a parental consequence would be if I learned of something she kept hidden or secret beyond that 48 hour window. For that, we looked at the behaviors, all the you may nots and your not supposed to's and figured out what I would normally do in reaction. It was her idea to make parentally imposed consequences be three times the normal if she actively hid something, which surprised me until I later realized why. She needed help in understanding the natural consequences. She needed help in navigating her way through these, and she was relieved to find that help in a parent. She was relieved to find she could be honest and make every mistake a learning opportunity.

Ultimatley, the plan worked better than either she or I expected or even fully understood until now, when her brother nears those preteen years and knows this is how we do things, and tells me things most eleven 12 year old boys would avoid telling even a big sis. For me, I get it, I understand that it's my job to explicitly teach and walk them through making the choices, accepting the reaction to their action, and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities. I've even incorporated aspects of this into my teaching and conversations with my students, and had them thank me for being one of the few adults who listens and understands that sometimes they really don't know why they did something. Sure, I'm biased, but I disagree with much of what Alphie Kohn proclaims. I've experienced children's learning in the face of logical consequences, witnessed exponential growth in understanding, and know that it can be combined with - no, is - a part of them having choice in what they do.


Toward the Positive said...

Wow! Great post, Kirsten!

Marilyn Cohen said...

Thank you for sharing such great parental experience and advice! Educating our children about choices is a constructive, concise and powerful strategy. I LOVE your amnesty idea and plan to use it with my teenagers. Isn't it great when we figure something out with the oldest kid that we can use with the younger ones. Kirsten, you should be so proud of the mom you are.