As a 4-H agent (and a parent), I always enjoy a good story about how a child learned consequences. It’s my belief that children need to know that all behavior has consequences, both good and bad. In other words, if you study, your grades will more likely be good. If you don’t study, well, you will have to answer for poor grades.
When adults jump into the situation to “help” a child who is in a bind, that child might not have the reward of learning the lessons that come along with natural consequences. Let me explain. As a child, we lived with farm animals and not following through with latching the hook at the cattle gate had dire consequences. Have you ever chased cows through a pasture or tried to lure them with a bucket of feed? It’s not fun and it’s certainly not something that I will ever forget.
Natural consequences fall into place if we follow through and allow the child to correct their mistake. Our job as adults is to guide them or offer suggestions, it’s not to solve the problem or prevent them from having a little misery. However, we shouldn’t allow a child to be unsafe while learning through natural consequences. So no going without food and water or being harmed. Let’s use our common sense here.
4-H is filled with great opportunities for children to learn about how their actions help them grow. At 4-H summer camp, campers are asked to make their beds, put their wet laundry out on the line, drink enough water when it’s hot, and bring all of their toiletries to the bathhouse when it’s time for a shower. Any of these “I forgot” moments will go a long way in teaching a terrific life skill, responsibility.
As adults we should remind ourselves that we are teaching skills related to responsibility that will guide a child to maturity. We should encourage a child’s decision making (instead of making the decision ourselves), support them with clear expectations and limits, encourage independence, and allow natural consequences to teach. All of us have made mistakes that we can look back on and laugh about.
So how can adults help youth navigate tough consequences? We can teach them how to problem solve. Have them stop, think, and then act. Talking about consequences ahead of time is a great strategy too. Before allowing a child to participate, adults can set the stage for expectations and lay out consequences. In this way, children are given opportunities to ask questions and are more likely to succeed.
Clear limits are an effective tool for teaching about consequences. When children are told where to put their belongings, how to manage their space, and what is expected of them, they can rise to the occasion and perform without having to have a penalty. Clear limits should be specific and stated positively. And it goes without saying, clear limits should be for everyone. If the rule is “no eating on the couch” that should carryover to ever member of the household.
Children will exhibit behaviors throughout their youth that may be cause for alarm. Such as lying, stealing, avoiding work, cursing, hurting others, or just overall misbehavior. It’s important that we separate the behavior from the child (because bad behavior does not mean a bad person).
To foster a sense of security, our job is to teach them to accept consequences so that they relate their behavior to a natural end. If adults take away their consequences, they aren’t learning that they made a bad decision. They will continue the poor behavior because they haven’t had to follow through with the outcome.
Responsibility for self and others is a valuable life skill. Spend time teaching children about consequences and allow them to falter as they make decisions. Having to navigate through tough consequences will teach them how to contribute to our larger society.