Why learning the hard way is the best for your children

I don’t usually gravitate towards controversy.  Insert a picture of a turtle retreated into his shell until all the mayhem and danger has passed.  I spent way too many years in a family prone to conflict to really desire to battle things out with people.  So, come election time, I quietly slip into the booth, punch my card, and proceed to avoid Facebook conversations about who did what and why this person is the saving grace our nation has been waiting to inaugurate.  I appreciate others’ passion for their own opinions, even when they differ from mine.  I avoid battlegrounds … unless they warrant my comments.

That said, something happened this week in a parenting group on Facebook.  A man posted this comment:

Have you ever heard a parent say, “Well, I guess he or she will just have to learn their lesson the hard way.” I have, and it always makes me cringe because the hard way can be far more than you bargained for.  I encourage you, speak the truth to your children and then do whatever you can to stand between them and behaviors that could result in a devastating consequence.

photo courtesy of hal gatewood

He went on to describe how letting our children learn by burning themselves on a hot flame would be excessively cruel.  He said when his kids were teens, they checked that parents were home whenever their adolescents went to a party at someone else’s home.

When a Response Is Needed

I prayed.  Finally, I responded:

I want to clarify if you are suggesting we shield our children from natural consequences. The example of a hot flame is an extreme situation. Of course, we need to shield them from life-threatening choices. Checking as to whether parents are present at a teen party is prudent. I don’t relate that to “learning the hard way.” That’s simply providing support and ensuring your teen has a safe environment where they won’t be left with more temptation than they can bear.

I believe there are numerous situations where children need to feel the outcome of their choices. Often this is the only way they will learn. God’s design often involves us learning from the outcomes of our choices. This is biblical. Could you clarify for me?

In response to me, this well-meaning man answered that he thinks we are intended to learn from others’ examples and mistakes.  What do those “others” learn from?  Are they not people, learning the hard way?  Why should they suffer and so we can be spared?  He pointed to the Bible and stated that all those examples were there for us to learn from so we don’t make the same mistakes.  While we can learn from mistakes of others, and we should if we are able, we will all sin and make bad choices, and those choices have outcomes designed to help us choose well next time.

photo courtesy of camile minouflet

The Beauty of Consequences

I’m the parent of two boys and we have fostered and cared for others.  One of my sons is what I will call a “reasonable” child.  He does tend to often take in lessons by watching others and deciding not to do what they have done.  My other son could be the poster child for strong-will.  He won’t learn by example, lecture, or good ideas.  He has to road test all theories.  When he comes up against a “that won’t work” situation, his next thought is usually something like, “That won’t work for most people, but I think I can get around this and make it work for me.”  Then he proceeds to either beat the odds or bang his head repeatedly until he finally relents.

Even my reasonable child has to experience both natural and logical consequences to his choices.  Let me give you a simple example.  To say my son is messy would be an understatement.  He leaves a trail that would make Hansel and Gretel envious.  Everywhere he goes there are empty yogurt cups with spoons in them, pieces of art projects, toys and socks in the yard, church papers in the car, music books on the floor.  You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to track this boy and deduce what he ate and where he went.  The I-Spy books could do a photo shoot in his bedroom most days.

photo courtesy of marcus spiske

Our Mistake

My husband and I are both relatively tidy people.  We clean up messes in the moment.  Our home tends to be organized.  I’ve noticed we both unconsciously pick up items and return them to the proper spot as we go through the home.  Consider my son.  All his life as he dropped and left this or that around, someone innately came behind him and picked it up out of a habit of orderliness.  What was he learning?  The lesson was: If I leave a mess, others will pick it up.  Uh-oh.

So, we put a few things in place through the years.  The first is “clean sweep.”  Several times a day, I’ll announce, “Clean Sweep!” and all the kids (even visiting neighbors who practically live at my home most days) will run around putting everything back in its place.  Whew.  The other is the Saturday box.  If things are left out, I pick them up, put them in my closet (there used to be a box there.  Now I just shove them under a chair.)  My child can get the items back the coming Saturday.  The third thing we do is to inconvenience our son with his own messes.  If he left a mess, he has to stop playing outdoors or in his room, come clean it up and then go back to playing.  My husband and I have to restrain ourselves from the knee-jerk (and easier) way of cleaning up the mess for him.

photo courtesy of kamal bilal

Learning from Mistakes

Guess what?  He’s learning to clean up more and more.  It’s not perfect, but he’s getting there.  If we didn’t allow him to “feel” the outcome of his messes, he wouldn’t care one iota and we’d be left in the wake of his piled up mess every day.

This example is simple, but it makes the point.  Children need to engage with the outcomes of their choices.  One of the best gifts God has given all of us is the ability to learn from our mistakes.  Choices have consequences.  Every decision leads in a direction.  Our children learn responsibility best, not through our words, but through their own experience.

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  • Reply
    June 6, 2018 at 5:09 PM

    I am so stealing your “Clean Sweep” idea! Great post!

    • Reply
      June 6, 2018 at 6:10 PM

      Thanks, Dawn! I realized after writing this that it was like a post within a post. My point – that children learn (we all do) from experience and consequence, was layered within a story about how to teach your adorable, yet messy, children to be more responsible. It’s a two-for-one day at hearts homeward! 😉 … I am so grateful for you. Hope clean sweep helps you!

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