Tag Archives: Consequences

Knowing when to let go

“He climbed up there, he’ll get down”, the mother shouted from the bottom of the stairs in the Children’s Hospital. She turned back to her friend and the member of the hospital staff in the stairs and I looked at each other. I offered the child my finger to help him down, but he gave me a terrified look so I just lingered around to catch him in case he fell. The stairs were way too high for a child his age, made of white stone, hard and edgy. The little boy had huge curls surrounding his face and dark brown eyes, conveying no trust in this world. When he had landed safely I continued up the stairs. The staff member rolled her eyes: “Interesting parenting you see around here sometimes”. The scene made me depressed for the rest of the morning.

Teaching a child to learn the consequences of its actions is a core task in parenting. It is a fine line parents need to walk – when to support individuation and let the child experience the consequences of their choices and when to shield them from their own immaturity. It takes sensitivity, afterthought, and a lot of trial and error to know when to let go, when the child is ready to understand the concept of consequences.

Logical consequences is a specific strategy in the Positive Parenting Program, Triple P, but several parenting programs have similar tools. Its purpose is to help children experience consequences of their behaviour in a predictable way. So if two children fight over a toy or device despite the parents asking them to start sharing instead or the toy will go away, the object indeed goes away for five minutes. Logical consequences make sense to the child and are closely related in time to the inadequate behaviour, helping the child make the link. A logical consequence can also be shorter time for play because of time spent whining instead of getting ready or not being able to go shopping with a friend because of missed homework that has to be done.

A logical consequence for the little boy in the stairs for not listening should have been to sit in the pram. In fact, given that he was only about 18 months the best choice would probably have been to distract him with something else or why not walk with him a couple of times, telling him that mommy will be busy later on and he can be a good boy playing with some toys after the walks in the stairs. There was no logic to the consequence of possibly letting him fall.

At times, however, children will and should fall. A book that provoked a lot of debate in Sweden problematized the consequences of what was termed “curling parenting”, a Swedish version of alleged overprotective parenting where the path is cleared for children, as the ice is swept clean in the sport of Curling by the Sweepers for the granite stone to glide as smoothly as possible. The authors Carl Lindgren and Frank Lindblad argued that in parents’ efforts to protect their offspring from injuries and negative experiences, the children were left without resilience for the normal challenges of life.

Given the links between overprotective parenting and fearfulness and anxiety in children (Rapee, 2009), they seem to have a point. Of course children who are temperamentally inhibited, less sociable and more fearful of new situations, might elicit this type of parenting when they are toddlers. So the causal pathway could go either way, but being overprotective certainly does not improve these children’s bravery or resilience.

To be honest, I tend to be pretty protective of the children. Helmets, sunscreen, and life vests are non-negotiable and they are all tired of hearing me talk about never going anywhere with strangers. But I like to exercise “controlled risk”, as in letting them walk on their own to the store and back, secretly checking on them or biking behind the bus when they are riding it on their own for the first time to school. I hate letting them go to camp or downtown with friends, but I do, because I figure that is part of being a good parent. And because my husband tells me not to be such a mother hen…

But I have to stop myself from making up all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head and something in me will not settle until the kids are all back and sound asleep in their beds so I can peep in and listen to their even breathing. That will, of course not be like that forever, because we have to let go of our children: the question is only  when and how.

Getting into trouble

It only took two weeks of school for my 11-year-old to get into trouble. In Australia that means publicly being called up to the principal, having to explain yourself in a letter to your parents, and being “grounded” for lunch recess. I don’t know what a pupil would have to do in Sweden for this to happen! Here, there was apparently a rule that older children were not allowed to cross over to the younger children’s part of the schoolyard. Even if my daughter didn’t know that rule, she will have known that getting into a fight with a younger kid was not a good idea. The thing was the amygdala firing away again (see the post on Our representation of the world for more on this ancient part of our brain) when a friend’s little sister from prep class came crying for the fourth time, reporting that she had been hurt by a year 1 student. Unfortunately, the amygdala firing away is only an explanation for why my daughter felt it imperative to help the little girl’s older sister intimidate the offender, not an excuse. This would have been the time for self-control to take action.

Self-control, or delaying our (emotional) responses, has to do with analysing and understanding the consequences of our actions and being able to restrict our impulses in accordance with that analysis. In the famous “Stanford marshmallow experiment”, four-year-olds were told that they could choose to either have a marshmallow right away or wait 15 minutes and get two. Provided the child likes marshmallows, this is actually quite cruel. The kids are seated at a table with the marshmallow smelling beautifully on the plate right under their nose.

On the original videos of the experiment you can see how the children employ all sorts of strategies to endure the 15 minutes once they have made the decision they want two marshmallows later. Others give in or simply lose their focus on what the objective was in the first place and pop the marshmallow in their mouths. The consequences of being able to understand that you will get two marshmallows if you can restrain yourself, and being able to act upon that, are huge. The children who had developed this kind of self-control, the “high-delayers”, at age four had better education and better health as adults, and were less likely to become addicted, have trouble with the police, or become single parents.

So as a researcher I am a bit concerned. By eleven years of age, breaking rules should be a conscious choice and not a consequence of an impulse or just not caring enough. As a parent, although I don’t love the idea of being the mother of a child who had to go to the principal on the second week of her new school, I am grateful. If my child is to learn self-control, a skill in fact possible to improve, we need to be many adults around willing to take on the role of setting limits with clear consequences. Hopefully, this helps her internalise that control so she herself can exert it next time without the need of external reinforcement.

But in all honesty, the rebel in me smiles. It’s not like I wasn’t in detention a few weeks into my new high school in Chapel Hill, NC. I had been late to school, missing the school bus by seconds. Ignoring my self-control altogether, I set out to hitchhike to school in pure protest. I was very lucky not to end up in four pieces in a black plastic sac thrown into the ditch somewhere, raped and mutilated. I am glad that I was allowed to learn a lesson by cleaning the school windows on a sunny Saturday morning instead. Sometimes you need to break rules, especially stupid ones. Sometimes, there is no option, but following your heart, knowing the consequences can be dire. But ignoring rules altogether and not exerting any self-control is not a socially viable option. From the look on my daughter’s face when we got her at school on Friday I am hoping she has started to understand that.