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Parenting : Consequences v Punishment
I feel generally confident as a mother, certain that, while some problems might require a bit of extra research or creativity, I will find an answer, if not the answer, usually by the end of the day. And, even if I don’t have the definitive “Gotcha” for my current parenting gremlin, I certainly am competent enough to get us all through to the next day, when inspiration is sure to pop up at some point. But my kiddoes are all still small, and I have to admit that preadolescence and teenagehood have me quaking in my cute Sunday flats just a bit. I fervently hope my husband and I can teach our angels to choose the right when we aren’t there peering over their shoulders. Our success depends in part on how well we teach them that their behaviors have consequences that may not be undone just because the sin is forgiven.
I have witnessed loved ones pay dearly over years for mistakes made during the turbulent adolescent period. An all-merciful Heavenly Father will forgive us if we repent, but addiction has no mercy. So a child might rebel, break the Word of Wisdom, and be forgiven, but still have that nasty addiction on his back for the rest of his life.
Similarly, Chastity is a huge tempting ground during this time. Physical changes and developing sense of autonomy team up with the still-present yearning to fit in and becomes the elephant in the room that everyone pretends to be too cool to treat as any big deal. As with drugs, a teenager who gives in to temptation in a weak moment, and later repents for her indiscretion, will be forgiven, but a pregnancy or life-threatening disease will not disappear as her sin does.
This is a key distinction between punishment and consequences that many of us fail to understand, even as adults. Companion to this duo is the pairing of mercy and justice. Of course, we have the greatest chance of success if we teach these principles when our children are young. An example of how this might work:
My three-year-old, for reasons known only to his creator (as, when asked, even he can’t tell me why he did it), has chosen to decorate his bedroom wall with marker, a violation of our family’s rules. Taking a deep breath, I look at him calmly but firmly and say, “time out while your brothers eat their snack.”
Having learned that big eyes and baby-bear hugs affect me profoundly, he breaks out the big guns, climbing on my lap, arms around my neck, saying, “I not mark on wall again. I yuv you, Mommy. Fogiv-ee me?” Employing mercy, I forgive him instantly, and praise the positive conclusion he has reached. “I forgive you, baby, I love you too. Good choice to not color on the wall again.” This is said as I lead him to the time out chair. Realizing the demands of justice I continue, “we’ll talk about it more after you’ve finished your time out.” Loving, yet still firm (on the outside at least), I set him gently on the chair and walk away, not reacting to his anguished cries following me. Once his time-out is over, his final “natural” consequence will be helping me scrub the wall.
Did I punish him? Or allow him to experience the consequences of his actions? It’s a tricky question, as it sometimes seems that the difference amounts to nothing more than semantics. This could be the subject of an article of its own, but for now, let’s loosely say that wanting to make him pay, that is, making him suffer for defying my authority and defacing my wall, is different from allowing him to experience the reactions that arise from his actions. The latter is done measuredly, compassionately, and absent any element of a “power trip,” following the humility and charity our Savior exemplifies. The former is retribution coming from me, similar to the perceived wrath of an old-testament God.
I forgave him the instant I saw the marks on the wall. It would have been so easy to convince myself that he temporarily forgot the rules, being caught up in the captivating qualities of brightly-colored markers and fresh white walls, and that my bringing it to his attention will be enough to ensure a better result next time. But that wouldn’t be true mercy. That would be my avoiding the temporary discomfort I experience when he cries about having to sit in a chair for three minutes. It would teach him that my “love” will rescue him from the unpleasant outcomes of his actions. If this lesson is repeated, ten years down the road it’ll be that much easier for him to take a puff. Mom and Heavenly father will forgive him, after all.
It’s our job to teach them that while we, and their Father in Heaven, take no pleasure in their experiencing unpleasant consequences, we love them too much to not ensure that they have the opportunity to experience them. The Lord will forgive, and once we have repented there may be peace, if we accept it, and no more punishment imposed by God, but the consequences—the baby on the way, the devastating HIV diagnosis, the addiction to mind-altering drugs—remains. In His perfect love, He will help us deal with those consequences, but cannot remove them. If a child has not been taught this in her early years, well, Mom and Dad, better late than never!
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
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