Natural consequences aren't enough -- to live a healthy life kids need to be taught to grow in virtue.
At one point in my parenting journey, I became obsessed with the concept of “natural consequences.” Natural consequences are — you guessed it — consequences that occur naturally rather than being imposed. Kind of like the way falling backward is a natural consequence of tipping your chair, despite the fact that your mother has told you 10,000 times not to tip the chair.
It just so happened that Halloween occurred during the height of this phase. As they did every year, my children began asking if they could eat a piece of candy after the first house and escalated the pleading with each additional house. Frustrated by this yearly battle to limit their candy intake so they didn’t eat themselves sick, I decided that this was exactly the situation that called for natural consequences.
“Kids,” I said, “you may eat your candy.” They looked at me with dumbfounded expressions. “What, you mean like all of it? How many pieces? Five? 10?” they began clamoring for answers. I held up one hand for silence and said, “this year, you get to decide how much candy you should eat.”
Every single one of those kids ate themselves into various states of stomach upset — some full-on threw up, others went to bed with tears and reflux, but they all experienced the “natural consequence” of eating too much sugar.
Honestly, I felt pretty pleased with myself. Now they knew, see. They understood what I was trying to save them from, and they wouldn’t beg incessantly for more ever again, right?
Wrong. The next morning, my son Liam (one of the pukers) wandered into the kitchen from his bedroom and said, “Mom? Can I still have as much candy as I want?”
Here’s the thing about natural consequences — some of them are immediate, but some aren’t. Some happen instantly while others take years to develop. So never mind the immediate effects of too much sugar — there are also the natural consequences of eating a lot of sugar for most of your life. A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted the connection that’s just now being recognized between years of high sugar intake and Alzheimer’s.
There comes a point when natural consequences — whether they be those that come quickly or those that come slowly — are simply aren’t enough. None of us learn lessons very well by experiencing the consequences — if we did, the confessionals would be a lot less crowded. Usually we repeat the same mistake, over and over, gradually learning to modify our behavior until we can avoid whatever the temptation is. If we don’t grow in virtue, those mistakes often have consequences that are heavier than we realize — much like Alzheimer’s after a lifetime of eating too much sugar.
In order to be healthy, you have to learn temperance — and that requires learning how to restrain yourself from overindulging in any one thing long before you feel the natural consequences. Temperance is a virtue, one as essential to living a healthy spiritual life as it is to living a healthy life overall.
I realized that morning in the kitchen that my job as a mother isn’t to let my kids modify their own behavior be experiencing the consequences. Sure, there will be times when that’s going to be appropriate, but my actual duty is to protect them from experiencing the consequences of indulgence by teaching them how to develop temperance.
So I turned to Liam and said, “No, buddy, you can’t have as much candy as you want. I shouldn’t have let you do that last night — it’s not good for you. You can have a healthy breakfast and after dinner tonight, you may choose one piece of candy.” Surprisingly, he didn’t really fight me much on it — he just shrugged and waited for his eggs. And right then and there, my obsession with “natural consequences” went on the scrap heap of “parenting tactic fails.”