Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
Part Six – Actions Have Consequences
If a baby reaches up and pokes you in the eye, you won’t likely scold the baby. On some level, you understand that the baby doesn’t mean any harm. In fact, the baby doesn’t really understand what your eyes are, let alone how sensitive they are. When that happens, we usually make a good-natured response, laughing, and moving the baby’s hand away repeatedly until the baby figures out that you don’t want her touching your eyeballs. The situation is much different when it comes to an older child. If an older child tries to grab your eyeball, you will likely take stern corrective action, and rightly so. The question on your mind is, What on Earth are you, someone who knows that grabbing eyeballs is hurtful, trying to do to me?
But what’s the real difference between the baby and the older child? When the baby tries to grab your eyeball, she’s not making a moral decision; she doesn’t really have any idea about how eyeballs work. When an older child attempts to grab your eyeball, knowing full well the sensitive nature of eyeballs, we view the moral context differently. Scolding a baby for being a baby is senseless, mostly because the baby isn’t equipped to understand the situation. First she has to understand the situation before she can process being scolded.
The final piece to the moral foundation of discipline, then is a child’s becoming aware of actions and consequences.
As with the principle of trust, this is one that is more important for children than for adults, and thus adults often skip this part of the disciplinary process. Allow me to explain why that’s a bad idea.
Suppose we never tell a child that it hurts every time she pokes our eyeballs. Suppose instead, we just scold her. Then, that child will learn the following principle: Every time I poke Mommy’s eyeball, she yells at me; I don’t want to get yelled at, so I will stop poking her eyeball. On the surface, this seems like the appropriate lesson to have learned, and that’s why so many parents stop there.
Now suppose instead that every time a child pokes our eyeball we say, “Ow! Please don’t do that, that hurts.” Then we leave the child to make the next decision. She decides to try it again, so again we say, “Ow! That hurts my eye. You don’t want my eye to hurt, do you?” Then we leave the child to make the next decision. She tries it a third time, so we say, “Ow! Now my eye really hurts.” We frown, and we walk away for a moment. In this case, the child will learn the following principle: Every time I poke Mommy’s eyeball, she says ‘Ow’ and tells me it hurts.
In the short run, the first option will probably correct unwanted behavior the fastest. In the long run, though, the second option creates a logical chain of events that forms the building block for future decisions about eyeballs. The child starts to learn that poking eyeballs makes people cry out in pain. Later, when asked not to poke eyeballs, the child will connect the request (the rule) with the knowledge that violating the request (rule) causes pain. When it comes time to enforce the rule, the full connection will be made: Every time I poke somebody’s eyeball, they cry out in pain; I’ve been asked not to poke anyone’s eye, because it hurts them.
Children need to understand that all actions have consequences, and that these consequences are tied to the rules in a very tangible way. We already discussed how all rules should have a rational explanation that highlights how living by the rules benefits everyone. Without this additional knowledge, that rules are invoked by the consequences of our actions, the child is less likely to learn about the full nature of moral action.
Morality isn’t merely a set of rules that we’ve decided “are good rules.” Morality is specifically a set of principles about how to maximize everyone’s happiness in light of the fact that actions have consequences on ourselves and on other people. If we are to successfully discipline children, we must begin by teaching them that morality isn’t about enforcing rules, it’s about making choices and living with the consequences. Thus, morality is about making choices that support the best possible set of consequences.
I began this series by establishing three conditions that a successful disciplinary philosophy must meet: Minimizing punishment, maximizing cooperativeness, and producing progressively more good behavior and less misbehavior. From these principles, I reasoned that there must be a fourth principle, that well-behaved kids are those who behave well voluntarily. A robust philosophy of child discipline, then is one that satisfies all four conditions.
Next, I discussed the nature of household rules. First of all, these rules should be rational, and following the rules should produce clear benefits for everyone. Second, everyone – parents and children alike – must follow the same set of rules, and the children must have just as much right to hold parents to the rules and parents have to hold children to the rules. Third, everyone within the household must entrust each other with their own moral agency; that is, we lay out the rules, ask them to be followed, and then allow each other the free will to take our own actions.
Finally, I established that actions have consequences, and that it is important to help children understand that when they take actions in a moral context, the consequences that then ensue are directly tied to the child’s actions.
Now that I’ve laid out the basic set of conditions necessary to establish before effective discipline can even occur, I can finally get to the actual process of discipline.