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Teaching Children - Should You Let Nature Take Its Course Or Intervene?

By Donald Saunders


One tough dilemma for any parent is to know when to let children learn for themselves from the consequences of their own actions and when to intervene to teach them a lesson. This is sometimes referred to as natural consequences or logical consequences and the principle is simple but its execution is not always easy.

A common example of a natural consequence might be seen in the kitchen where if a child touches the hotplate while you're cooking he'll burn his hand. Here the child learns a lesson from nature without any need for you to intervene. However, this is perhaps something of an extreme example.

Let's say a child wants to buy a model airplane and that you agree to help by paying him to wash the car each week, rather than taking it as you normally would to the carwash, so that he can save enough money to buy the model. However, with money in his pocket he can't resist the temptation to spend it and by the time he should have saved enough for the model airplane he's already spent most or all of his money on junk. At this point of course he probably still expects to receive the model airplane and is surprised when he doesn't.

In both of these cases the child has learn a valuable lesson from the natural consequences of his own actions and you have played no active part in teaching him these lessons. This is perhaps the best way to teach any lesson and the child benefits whether the result is good or bad. If the child had not for example spent the money earned by washing the car and had been able to buy the model he would equally have learned the value of working and saving for something and would also have learned the value of the model itself, since he had to work and save to get it.

But let's return to the example of the child putting his hand on the hotplate. This is certainly one way for the child to learn a lesson but no parent is going to stand by and watch their child learn a lesson in this manner. In many cases the consequences of a child's action are serious or long-lasting and you need to intervene and find some other way to teach the child the lesson he needs to learn.

The secret here is to ensure that your intervention is seen as part of the logical consequence had the child been allowed to learn the lesson without your intervention.

Let's say for example that your teenage daughter rents a movie from the local corner shop but forgets to return it on time so that she incurs a late fee. Now, assuming that she doesn't have the money to pay the late fee, you give her the money so that she can return the movie.

At this point you could punish her by forbidding her to rent any further movies for the next month but this is not a logical consequence of her action of not returning the movie on time, which was to incur a late fee. It would be far better therefore to punish her by deducting the late fee from her allowance. Because this punishment is directly related to the late return of the movie she is much more likely to remember to return the next movie she rents on time.

Some lessons of course are easier to teach than others. If your seventeen year old son has unprotected sex with his sixteen year old girlfriend the natural consequences of an unwanted pregnancy could have life-long consequences. But how do you intervene to stop this happening?

Unfortunately there's no simple answer to this one and how you tackle the problem will depend very much upon your own personal and family circumstances and the relationship which you have built up with your son. What is certain is that you cannot simply sit back and let nature take its course if you feel that there is a danger of your son getting himself into trouble.

For each and every situation that faces us as parents we have to decide whether our children can learn for themselves through their own experience, or whether we need to intervene to help in the learning process. In addition, having decided that intervention is necessary we need to intervene wherever possible in a manner that follows the natural consequences of the child's action. Here there is no stock answer to the problem and you need to be guided by your own experience.



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