New teachers often ask me this question, knowing that consequences often shape good and bad behavior. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy. Natural consequences are a part of discipline, but they aren’t appropriate in every situation, nor are they right for every child. When it comes to schoolwork, consequences are pretty tricky.
The word discipline comes from the Latin word for ‘student’ or ‘learner’. Discipline should teach. It should result in a positive behavior change. Discipline may be temporarily uncomfortable, but the discomfort will only be a tool to bend (not break!) the child in the direction of academic success and eventual independence.
As I have parented my boys, I’ve always tried to make sure that whatever discipline I administered to my children resulted in a learning experience that may have been painful in the present, but would teach the child to decide to change behavior in the future. Although I don’t always live up to my lofty standards, I try to keep the following principles in mind while trying to develop the character and habits that will turn my guys into independent learners. Hopefully this will happen before they pursue their PHd’s.
CONSEQUENCES MUST TEACH. It’s a proven fact that you’re more likely to forget about homework if you don’t write it down. Just ask my boys. At midterm, two of them had very poor grades because of missing homework assignments. For one, the end of the world had come. Bad grades were an effective consequence, and he immediately began to do better. He learned from the experience, and his behavior changed. The other guy, by contrast, was only mildly concerned. Since poor grades were of little consequence, we introduced a little more discomfort to the situation. We began requiring him to get his planner signed daily by the two teachers whose homework he couldn’t seem to remember.
CONSEQUENCES SHOULD NOT JUST PUNISH. The intent of punishment is simply to make someone feel bad. Sometimes, feeling bad is appropriate. A child should learn to feel sorry when he doesn’t take care of responsibilities. Feeling bad about grades can result in a positive change. But these ‘bad’ feelings aren’t the goal of discipline. Which brings us back to the saga of the OTHER son… Unfortunately, getting your planner signed is neither cool nor convenient. But neither is walking home. When dear son forgets to have his planner signed, he has another consequence to deal with: he has to walk home from school. The long hike has helped him to be more willing to remember to do what he is supposed to do. Since we instituted the consequence, his English grade has come up from a D to (hold your breath so it won’t change) an A. And his biology grade is making its way out of failing territory. The object of the exercise (pun intended) is to change his behavior, not just to make him feel bad.
CONSEQUENCES SHOULD NOT MAKE THE SITUATION WORSE. Sometimes, consequences don’t teach anything. In contrast, they make the problem worse. A couple of teachers have recommended that I just let the boys fail a test or two. I’ve tried that route, and it has rarely worked. Letting a child fail a couple of tests means they haven’t learned the material, which can dig an academic hole with no hope of escape. A series of poor grades could convince a child he is ‘dumb’ and will never do better. It is especially important not to let a child fail in classes with cumulative content such as math, foreign languages, and sciences. If you’re going to try the ‘just let them fail’ route, let the failure be in spelling or vocabulary or another minor quiz.
THE CONSEQUENCES SHOULD NOT HUMILIATE. A teacher once had one of my children come to her desk and empty his hideously disorganized backpack in order to find a missing assignment. This woman might have gone ahead and placed a dunce hat on my child’s head. He found the lost paper, and the experience made him more careful, but he was humiliated in front of his peers. The lesson was learned at too high a price; my son never trusted that teacher again.
The truth is, consequences can be great parenting and teaching tools. But like any tools, they have to be used carefully. With love and with understanding, consequences can be a powerful influence in shaping your child’s character. And that’s a consequence you can live with!
Kayla: This post is from the archives, but recent events at our home made me decide to publish it again!