consequences: the fine line

Impossible Parenting Expectation #4,021

As a parent, it is your job to teach your children about consequences. If your child doesn't understand consequences he has no soul. He will feel no joy and no sorrow, no crushing sense of despair and no sweet balm of satisfaction. He will live his life in the anesthetized twilight, a purgatory, an eternal limbo without day or night, a place of silence, an insomniac half-life. He will basically be Ed Norton in the beginning of Fight Club.

You must teach your children about consequences.

But obviously you can't REWARD your children, otherwise you're just BRIBING them and they won't really LEARN anything except how to MANIPULATE you for TREATS and then you've RUINED them and you'll have to find a grateful teenager to adopt so you can have someone to take care of you in your old age because once your kid gets a job and can buy his own cookies he ain't gonna be comin' round for dinner anymore.

Also you can't PUNISH them because then they just learn how to RESENT YOU and AVOID PUNISHMENT and that makes them SNEAKY LIARS and the SNEAKY LIARS always grow up to be Oxy addicts and compulsive sexters. Good job, Mom.

So, just teach your children that their actions have consequences. While earning their love, trust, and gratitude. Without punishing or rewarding their actions.

It's not that hard.

Well no, I can't explain how to do it.

Good moms just know how to do it.

And it's, like, easy. So if you're trying really hard, like, you're not doing it right.

But bless your heart for trying, sweetie.


For Example

We had planned to go to the zoo.

I rounded up the boys and herded them down the hall, snapping my whip and hollering "HYAH HYAH GETAROUND GETAROUNDNOW."

Once in the bedroom, Chicken leapt on top of Buster with an ice cream scoop that I swore was not in in his hand 4 seconds earlier. Buster screamed, "NO!"

Chicken bore down, shoving the ice cream scoop in Buster's face and saying, "THE PHONE'S FOR YOU BUSTER."

Buster screamed again, "No! NO NO NO!"

I stepped in.

"Chicken, do you hear your brother?"


"What's he saying?"

"He's saying..." Chicken slid a sly glance my way. "... yes?"

"He's saying no. And on our team, when someone says no, the first time, you stop and take a step back. Got it?"


Chicken nodded.

Then he hurled himself on top of Buster again.

"OK, that's it. You guys aren't listening. We're not going to the zoo."

Chicken fell to his knees and screamed, as if he'd just witnessed the drowning of Curious George.

He jumped up and down, screaming, "But NOW I'll listen! Mommy, NOW I'll listen!"

I really wanted to go to the zoo.

I looked down at his teary cheeks, his square mouth open and moaning. I gaze deeply into his brimming eyes.

"Last chance. Pants. Now."


The Polenta Problem

"You can't listen, so we're not going to the zoo."
"If you had behaved, we'd be going to the zoo."
"Listen to me and put on your shoes, or we won't go to the zoo."
"If you get your pants on, we can get in the car and have a cookie on the way to the zoo."

Every time I hear myself starting another "if you don't..." ultimatum, I can't help but think about polenta. Yes, polenta. The corn mush cake.

Every time I hear the word "polenta" I think, damn! Polenta sounds good! And then I make it, my mouth watering as I grate the fresh parm on top of my steaming cornmeal cake... and as soon as I take a bite I think, damn! Polenta's kinda meh!

Sure, I eat it, and my belly fills, and the problem of my hunger has been solved, but the problem of satisfying my heart's desire still throbs.

Just like polenta, threatening to take away the zoo always seems like a good idea (or maybe not a "good" idea, but certainly the "only sane" idea I can come up with) and technically it "works," but it doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth.

Because the next time we go to the zoo, I find myself standing in the bedroom while naked children hurdle the chair, and I'm yelling, "If you don't put your pants on RIGHT NOW, we WILL NOT GO TO THE ZOO." And he gets his pants on, but this time, it takes him a few seconds longer, and he checks in with me a couple more times, to see if I'm still watching, to see if these extra stretched-out seconds are "okay." And maybe I have to yell a couple more times. Maybe I have to count to 3. And while the problem of pants has been solved, the problem of my heart's desire for a loving, cooperative relationship with my child still throbs.

Because I really, honestly, just wanted to have a fun fucking day at the zoo, but I didn't want to pay for it in blood, sweat, and tears before I even left the house.

If you aren't willing to dangle carrots on the regs (because let's be real, everyone dangles a carrot when we're late to the dentist, and by carrot I mean apple slices, and by apple slices I mean juice box, and by juice box I mean otter pop and by otter pop I mean otter popsssss), and you don't believe in hitting your children, and you don't have the upper body strength to cling to a two by four until the storm passes and the children finally GET consequences, where does that leave you?

I'm really asking.

Where the hell are we?


For Example Again

"He's saying no. And on our team, when someone says no, the first time, you stop and take a step back. Got it?"


Chicken nodded.

Then he hurled himself on top of Buster again.

I took a deep breath. I'd been expecting this. I knew what I needed to do.

When I spoke, my voice sounded like a This American Life producer's, like a voice that purrs "propitious!" when the Seahawks win the Superbowl. Like a voice that has only ever smoked clove cigarettes and sipped licorice tea.

"Well, it looks like we need to work on our communication skills, and when our team isn't communicating well, that's not a good day for the busy zoo."

Chicken fell to his knees and screamed, as if he'd just witnessed the stabbing murder of Daniel Tiger.

He jumped up and down, screaming, "But NOW I'll listen! Mommy, NOW I'll listen!"

Buster jumped up and down, screaming, "JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!" (He's a simple creature.)

I shook my head.

"That's not how it works, baby.

I don't threaten to take away a zoo trip in order to get you to listen. When you listen, that's how I know that it's going to be safe and fun for our family to go to the zoo.

If it looks like we're not going to be able to follow Team Family Safety Rules (#patentpending), then we hang out here, run a couple of errands as a team and practice our communication and teamwork, and try for the zoo tomorrow."


The Fine Line

I mean, every parenting technique is always "pending approval." You can enroll in a clinical trial, give it a shot and it might work. In that case, well done you! But just as often, that shit goes down in flames and you have to go to Canada to try the next cutting-edge breakthrough in parenting techniques.

This is my Pending Approval for... The Fine Line.

As Alfie Kohn brilliantly describes in his book Punished by Rewards, the crappy/awesome thing about punishments and rewards is that they "work" - they reinforce a behavior, but only as long as you continue to offer sufficiently painful punishments and succulent rewards.

I use bribes like every other motherfucker on the planet, and I don't judge anyone I ever see telling their kid to "get in the car seat and I'll give you a cookie." GIRL, I have been there, and I'm headed back in about 10 minutes. Godspeed, comrade.

But I personally cannot get over the demoralizing feeling that I am a sucker, getting played by a pants-crapper, whenever Buster's "inconsolable" tears straight-up vaporize at the sight of a juice box.

I'm not willing to dance that tarantella (#ibsenreference #imustdance #keepdancing #stilldancing #dontopentheletter) for the rest of my youngish life.

So this is The Fine Line.

I'm trying to be transparent.

I try to show them how their behavior influences my decision-making, rather than hold a prize out of their reach until they demonstrate their "listening trick" to my satisfaction.

I have to make sure that I clarify that behaviors don't BUY outings; outings are made possible by demonstration of Team Family Safety Rules.

When we are able to successfully get out of the house together, I make sure to acknowledge, "Hey you guys! We're really working together today. I'm so glad we get to go to the zoo."

Sure, I'm writing the same basic equation: Crazy Antics = No Zoo. But there's a middle part of that equation that I'm trying to change. Whereas before it looked like this:

Crazy Antics = You're Not Listening = No Zoo/You Don't Get an Outing

Now, it looks like this:

Crazy Antics = Our Team Needs Practice Today = No Zoo/Let's Focus on Our Teamwork



As a parent, it is your job to teach your children about consequences.

In the course of learning how to teach your children about consequences, you will probably bribe your children, punish them too harshly, make empty threats, stare off into space while desperately racking your brain for something, anything to do differently this time around.

You will probably wake up one morning and realize that part of your daily routine is bartering fruit snacks for shoes. That might bother you. It might not. Fruit snacks is good, you guys. I'd totally put on my shoes for fruit snacks. Like, every day.

You will probably wonder if your kids are too young to understand, or too old to change. You will wonder if something is wrong with them. You will wonder if you're too strict, if you're too easy. You will say the same things you've heard a million people say a million times, but you'll mean them sincerely, personally, uniquely: "I wish there were a manual." "The hardest thing is that you never really know if you're doing anything right."

You will probably read books and blogs and post on Facebook asking parents how THEY deal with tantrums or hitting, how other parents teach consequences. You will laugh the mirthless, grizzled chuckle of a lifer when someone responds, "I don't really have any of those problems with my son. He's so gentle and happily shares with other kids and listens to me really well. I guess I just got lucky with a good baby! 7 months has just flown by! I LOVE BEING A MOMMYYYYY!"

there must be a mom like me in every playground in america.
i'm the one who can get it for you;
a bag of cheerios if that's your thing,
a bottle of chardonnay to celebrate your kids going to sleep early on a friday,
damn near anything within reason.
yes sir, i'm a regular target.
one of the ones with a starbucks in it.

In the course of learning how to teach your children about consequences, you will try out things you've heard other moms say, roll their words around in your mouth and ask yourself, "do I like this? Is this for me?"

Keep trying. Keep trying. You're great. Keep trying.



Chicken: UUUUUUUGH. I don't LIKE consequences.

You right, Chicken. Consequences are the worst.


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