Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let Them Suffer the Consequences


One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching our kids make mistakes.  Even more difficult is allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions.  Some parents choose to bypass the consequence part altogether, thinking they are helping their kids by taking away the sting of the ramification. They’re not.  In fact, we can do irreparable damage to our children by not allowing them to face the music.  It’s tempting to negate the punishment after the crime has been long forgotten.  Don’t let your child off the hook, though, or you’ll be sorry in the long run.  

I was in trouble a lot as a child.  I was a good kid with a big heart, and meant well.  I did, however, have the propensity for pranks.  From whoopee cushions on teachers’ chairs to Saran Wrap wrapped taut across the hole under the seat of the toilet in my parents’ bathroom, to stealing a kid’s snack, whose mother sent him something other than plain saltines, I was somewhat of a troublemaker and liked to pull practical jokes on my friends, family, and teachers.  Sometimes they were harmless and other times they went a bit too far.  My exasperated mother, who was both on the receiving end of my jokes, as well as listed first on the school principal’s speed dial list, dealt with one caper after another with me.  In grade-school, she’d hear about me having to sit out for recess, or “hit the fence” by running out of the classroom, out of the school and to the fence we viewed from our elementary school window and back as fast as I could.  Other times she’d get called in to pick me up late from school, as my deviance would dictate me staying after school to write the Gettysburg Address.  I’d even get in trouble while serving my time, as I found a way to work the system and write up numerous copies of the Gettysburg Address in advance of my being assigned punishment, so that I wouldn’t ever have to stay after school as long when I did get in trouble…I’d just pull out a pre-printed copy!  My mom dealt with it all.  Sometimes she’d let the punishment the school doled out serve as punishment enough.  Other times an additional ramification would be waiting for me at home, like being denied a privilege such as watching TV or playing video games, or having to do extra chores, or in extreme cases, getting grounded for days on end.  At a minimum, though, I got a severe talking to for my pranks and regular kid infractions, such as being nasty to my sister, not sharing my toys, getting into the adults’ business, and bossing everyone around.  The conversation would start with her conveying disappointment in my behavior and end with a threat of what would happen to me next time if I repeated my offense.

I had enough moxie to never repeat the same prank, but not enough smarts to stop the prankster routine, so I kept getting in trouble as I got older.  Junior high school moved into new territory where I was punished at school with humiliation (putting your face to the wall or wearing a dunce cap or getting detention) for such infractions as commenting on a male teacher’s underwear choice or skipping lunch in lieu of writing fake love notes from one teacher to another and leaving them on their car windshields.  I always got double punishment for these crimes, as I was old enough to know better.  I spent a lot of junior high weekends holed up in my bedroom instead of attending the school basketball games and high school football games. 

By the time I entered high school, I knew I had to tow the line and keep my nose clean, so I refrained from the big obstacles, like drugs and heavy drinking, and instead opted for skipping classes to go to Planned Parenthood and smoking on the school volleyball bus and incorrectly conjugating a cuss words in Spanish aimed at the teacher.  The consequences for my actions were stepped up substantially.  I was given in-school suspension, kicked off of sports teams and threatened with being stripped of my valedictorian status.  My home life was social event after social event being pulled from my calendar.  I pulled a stunt my senior year where a guy friend and I prank called the parents of a girlfriend of ours, from Florida during Spring Break, where their daughter was also vacationing with another family.  I pretended to be their daughter and told them I was being held hostage and he posed as the abductor.  We called them COLLECT from the Pink Porpoise motel in Ft. Myers Beach, where 20 of my closest senior friends and I vacationed in two adjoining rooms.  The second I hung up the phone that evening, I knew I had crossed a line.  I’ll never forget the day my mom received the letter from the girl’s parents in the mail.  The paragraphs detailed the conversation of the prank call, listed the names of all 21 kids that had vacationed in Florida in those two rooms that week, and described the fear the call had invoked in my friend’s parents until they were able to confirm the whereabouts of their daughter.  My name wasn’t singled out as one of the callers, but my mom knew I had done it before I even copped to the crime.  She was disappointed and mad, yes, but this time she was embarrassed of me and truly worried about my path in life.  I’m sure there was some major grounding and privilege taking associated with that hoax, but I don’t even remember them, as they paled in comparison to my parents’ requirement of me calling the friend and her parents that I had spoofed and admitting my identity and fault.  I also had to reimburse them for the collect call.  Additionally, my parents had me contact all 20 of the kids’ parents that had traveled with me on Spring Break and apologize for my actions and for bringing their kids into my mess.  The parents I hoodwinked were cordial to me when I called but have never spoken to me since that day.  Most of the other parents were receptive to my call, but some were very angry and I got a tongue lashing from a few.  I’m truly lucky I didn’t get more than that!  I had crossed the teenage bad behavior threshold and had truly hurt people.  I hurt my friend, her parents, my parents, and all the friends who had vacationed with me on Spring Break.  Sadly, I had also hurt myself, as I had done something I could never take back. 

I’m still friends with the girl, whose parents I deceived twenty-some-years ago.  She forgave me long ago.  I am blessed to still have many friends, teachers, and family members that believed in me then and cared enough to always make me face the music, even now.  That prank was the last one ever pulled.  Because of my parents and teachers both setting clear expectations and ramifications of my behavior, I was prepared for functioning as an adult in college and beyond.  I knew to expect an unexcused absence mark if I decided to blow off a class.  Three of those absences equaled a whole letter grade drop….not a surprise.  I understood that I ran the risk of not getting a job I wanted if I was late to the interview or lied on my resume.  Being kicked to the curb with or without my belonging was a clear result of not paying rent.  Life was not full of too many surprises because I was forced to take responsibility for my own actions as a child by my parents, and today because of them.  

Imagine, though, where I could have ended up had I never been assigned consequences for my actions.  I could be broken, cast away from society in prison, or living a life filled with drugs and crime, homeless living on the streets, or destitute and in trouble.  It’s not that far-fetched.  It took about ten years for my harmless kid pranks to escalate to truly destructive teenage behavior, all while being dealt punishments and consequences from my parents, teachers, and loved ones.  Imagine the scenario if left unchecked.  What if, when I called a kid a bad name at school in 4th grade (even though the action warranted the name-calling, in my opinion) my parents hadn’t grounded me for my bad language and mean spirit and forced me to apologize after talking to me about compassion ?  I’ll tell you what:  I would have learned that “an eye for an eye” is fair game.  It would have condoned me being nasty and I would have continued to do it as a teen and young adult, and I would be, at the minimum, a complete bitch today.  Imagine the outcome if, when I lost my scholarship in college due to bad grades, attributable to pot smoking and dereliction, my parents told me it was okay, no worries, they’d foot the bill for my next semester, instead of telling me, “Tough break, you’ll have to live with your mom for the summer, get a job, pay her rent, get some counseling, and get drug tested every week until you prove you’re ready to go back to school.”?  I’ll tell you what:  I would have never finished college!  I would have screwed around indefinitely at my parents’ expense.  What if my mom hadn’t have staged an intervention when I was a stoner and heading nowhere fast as recent college drop-out?  I’d probably think it was okay to get high with my own kids today, like I’ve seen other parents do with theirs. 

Growing up, I often wished that my parents were more like some of my friends’ parents, who didn’t punish them, never required them to do chores or save their own money, treated them like their friends, and bailed them out when they got into tight spots.  Today I thank God that I was stuck with the parents I had.  Those friends truly didn’t stand a chance at life.  There’s not a one of them fully functioning as an adult today.  Now as a parent myself, I try to instill in my children a sense of responsibility for their actions.  Because of the things I did as a child, I probably over-enunciate the lesson to my kids, sometimes to a detriment.  My eight-year-old cries before I even correct her if she’s mean to her sister, and I sometimes wonder if my three-year-old is almost too young to understand the connection between tomorrow’s loss of treat privilege to today’s sassy response to her parents.  I have to say, though, I’d rather err on the side of caution that on the side of free-for-all.  I know how that turns out.  Today’s 10-year-old boy that backhands his sister without ramification is the same adult male up on charges for battery and assault.  Today’s 12-year-old girl left without consequence after telling her mother that she refuses to be nice to an unpopular girl at school because she doesn’t matter, turns into tomorrow’s college cyber-bully, responsible for the humiliating mass-text attributable to the death of a college freshman .  Today’s 1st-grader telling his teacher he doesn’t have to do the homework because the teacher can’t make him, and left unaccountable, morphs into tomorrow’s recent college grad who loses his first job due to insubordination.

It’s hard to hold our kids accountable, especially when so many of us don’t hold ourselves accountable on a daily basis.  It can even be painful at times.  Sometimes punishments for our children have more detriment to us that to our kids.  He can’t watch TV for the day?  What will I do with him while I try to work out?  I guess no workout today with Elmo out of the picture.  Other times the consequence is simply a conversation about the child’s actions, or a review of your family’s Rubicon for consequences, which can be just as difficult for you to convey as it for your child to understand.  I truly feel like the Wicked Witch of the West when my toddler is crying huge crocodile tears and looking at me with eyes that say, “Why me, mom?” when I don’t let her have ice cream because of her bad behavior, even though her sister still gets the icy treat.  It’s the best feeling in the world, though, six months later, when at the same ice cream shop my slightly better behaved toddler asks me if today she can have an ice cream cone because she’s not misbehaving like last time when she didn’t get her treat.  The growth we help foster in our children by allowing them to suffer their consequences is well worth the sometimes uncomfortable interactions with our kids.  After all, our job is to be their parent, not their friend.  Our job is to do what’s best for them, even if it seems like it’s not best for us.  If you’ve never let them suffer before, let them suffer today by doling out a consequence for an action and give them a chance at being prepared for life outside your home, where the world is not so forgiving.