A mother called me and described one of her children:
“I don’t know what to do with this child. He often breaks things around the house: dishes, kitchen utensils, stuff like that. Sometimes he breaks things just because he’s being careless, but more often it’s because he’s angry or wants to punish me in some way. I’ve talked to him about it many times, but that hasn’t done any good. I’ve also gotten angry and spanked him, but that hasn’t helped either. So what can I do?”
As I answer her question here, I believe every parent can learn something about parenting, loving, and the use of consequences. I talk a great deal about how to raise children in the book Real Love in Parenting, so I won’t repeat all the basic principles here.
Now allow me to address the mother who asked the question:
The most important principle for you to remember is that a child acts out when he doesn’t feel loved. Your son doesn’t feel sufficient Real Love, and at every step you take with him you must supply some of that essential ingredient.
How would that look? In the beginning, after years of not feeling sufficiently loved yourself, you may find loving your son difficult, but there is one powerfully loving act you could attempt right now: Simply refuse — absolutely refuse — to speak to your son in anger. Anger has such a terribly destructive effect on children that if we can simply eliminate that one behavior we can take a giant step toward loving them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you stifle your anger, or pretend not to be angry when you really are. What I’m suggesting is that if you become angry, instead of expressing that feeling to your son in any way, you close your lips and call another adult who is capable of loving you unconditionally. If you’ll do that, you’ll find that the love you receive will usually eliminate your anger, after which you’ll be able to speak to your son in a much more loving way.
Now, back to teaching your son. You’ve tried teaching him that breaking things isn’t the right thing to do, so you can be sure he understands that principle. From his behavior, you might think he doesn’t understand what you’ve taught him, but he really does, so you don’t need to keep repeating it. What he needs now is to be taught in a different way — with consequences.
So sit down with your son and talk about what will happen the next time he breaks something. He needs to learn that there is a cost associated with every decision he makes. Explain to him that that’s how the entire world operates. We all pay a price for our choices. Tell him that if you break the speed limit, for example, you pay the price of getting a speeding ticket and increased insurance premiums. If you’re careless with your checkbook, the bank charges you overdraft fees. If you’re repeatedly late to work, they fire you. And so on.
Up to now, you have inappropriately saved your son from the consequences of his choices, and now you’re simply letting him experience those consequences. This new way of doing things is not a punishment. It’s just the way the world operates.
So what specific consequences could you impose? You have many possibilities to choose from. When he carelessly or maliciously breaks something, you could
- require him to repair it. Some things can be fixed, and it can be quite instructive for a child to learn how much more difficult it is to repair an object than to destroy it.
- require him to pay for replacing what he broke. He could use his allowance, or he could work for the cost of the broken item.
- forbid him to use anything in the house belonging to you for a certain number of days. The rationale here is, “If you have no respect for other people’s things, then for a time you’ll not be able to use other people’s things at all.” He will discover that it’s quite inconvenient not to have the use of all the appliances, tools, and so on in the home that he has come to take for granted. I know one mother who did this with her daughter, and the daughter discovered that life was quite different when she didn’t have the use of the family car, the hot water heater, the dishes, and so on.
- break something of his. The idea here is to demonstrate to him how inconvenient it is to lose something through the carelessness or malice of another person. I caution you, however, that this consequence will almost always appear to the child simply to be a form of vengeance, and no positive lesson will be learned.
Notice that all the consequences above have the effect of inconveniencing a child, and that is the intent. As your son experiences these consequences, it becomes increasingly likely that the next time he is about to treat an object carelessly or angrily, he’ll remember that he didn’t enjoy the inconvenience of the consequence, and then he’ll be much less likely to make the irresponsible choice. Children don’t like to pay for their choices.
Allow consequences to teach your son. If you nag him or become angry at him, he learns only to do things to please you, and that’s not a lesson that will be useful to him for the rest of his life.
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