Kids love ice cream. Well, most kids. Some kids don’t, probably because they are lactose intolerant or have malformed taste buds that don’t allow them to properly compute the joy that is cold sweet cream melting on their tongues. I mourn their empty childhoods…
But for the majority of kids – including mine – ice cream is a delight.
In our house, we have rules. These rules were established with the input of our children, and serve as a framework for our daily lives. They give us all a code of conduct to live by and a safe space in which to coexist. Do your chores before bed. Clean up your play space. Don’t hit. Use your words to communicate your feelings. Give lots of hugs and cuddles. There are more, but you get the idea. We have expectations for how our children and we should behave, and we hold everyone accountable to those standards. We teach our children that they have the freedom to choose whether or not to follow the rules, and that there are consequences – both good and bad – for making those choices. Those consequences are the natural extension of their own choices, not punishments or rewards doled out by mom or dad.
Ice cream is what we refer to as a sometimes food. We don’t call it junk food, or bad food because those words tend to elicit feelings of guilt and shame when indulging in those foods, and I don’t want to open the can of worms that is shame about food or our bodies. Sometimes food is just that – food to be eaten on occasion, but not every day. The nice thing about having sometimes food in our parenting arsenal is that indulging in it truly becomes a treat, and a useful incentive.
One of the rules in our house is that you must finish your meal before you are allowed any other snacks. And so, last night when we went out for dinner, Tory promised the kids that should they finish their entire meal, they would be allowed dessert. A positive consequence for a positive choice. A finished his entire meal much to our amazement, and so we followed through on our bargain and he was soon presented with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with strawberry sauce and whipped cream.
L enviously eyed this creation, and immediately started begging for his own. The problem, however, was that L had hardly touched his meal. He had talked and played and dawdled instead. We had reminded him several times throughout the meal that he needed to finish his dinner if he wanted dessert. Of course, he didn’t seem to mind until A had something he did not. And worse yet, we had run out of time to wait for him any longer (he had over 40 minutes to finish) as we needed to head out to soccer. A natural consequence for his choice. He was not happy with this, not at all, and made sure to voice his displeasure.
But what would happen if there were no consequences? What would happen if instead of holding L accountable for his choices, we gave him excuses? If we told L at the end of the meal (knowing full well he is capable of finishing it) “Oh, it’s ok, you’re just too little and have a smaller appetite. Go ahead and have some ice cream anyway.”?
You may not think this is a big deal. After all, he’s only 4, and it’s just one meal. But if there are no consequences for his choices, the lesson L learns is that 1) he can make excuses for his choices and 2) because of those excuses, his choices don’t have consequences. He chose to fool around instead of eating, even though he knew what the outcome would be. Taking away his consequences is setting him up to believe that there are none, and that excuses can relieve you of responsibility.
If I think back to my childhood, the lasting lessons I learned did not come as a result of grand gestures or stirring lectures on the part of my parents. They came from the small things, the every day things, the choices they made in their interactions with others and in their dealings with us. And so, as a parent now myself, I seek to consciously parent my children through all of the small things, helping them to learn the big lessons in life. Each small moment gets piled onto the next until soon enough you have a mountain. If it is something good, then you have given them sound footing, high enough and strong enough to weather the storms of life. But if you aren’t careful, your children can end up on mountains of misunderstandings and fantasies so steep they become almost impassable. And the fall down from that peak when reality hits can be incredibly damaging.
When you make the choice to give your children excuses for every difficult moment that comes their way, you are teaching them moment by moment that they are the victim of their circumstances, and that they hold no responsibility for their own behaviour. When your son gets 50% on his spelling test because he didn’t practice all week, and you tell him it’s ok because the words were really hard, what he’s learning is that if he doesn’t work, he can just find something or someone else to blame it on. You are robbing him of the opportunity to learn that his choices hold weight in the world, and you are robbing him of the power to affect his own outcome.
And when your son decides to play instead of eating his meal, and then you get him ice cream anyway, you rob him of the opportunity to learn that his choices have consequences, and that he has a say in how his life will unfold.
It is not our job as parents to keep our children happy every moment of every day. It is our job to prepare them to navigate the terrain of life. One of the biggest and most difficult realities of life is that our choices have consequences. Taking away consequences and making excuses is lazy and selfish parenting, parenting that is focused on making yourself feel good for being the hero and not having to ever suffer through seeing your child uncomfortable or angry with you or disappointed. And robbing them of learning about consequences now sets them up to have to learn much harder lessons later in life.
I don’t want my children to make excuses in life, I want them to make choices. I want my children to feel empowered in their lives, not enslaved. Taking away the consequences for their choices now sets them up to be the victims of their circumstances for the rest of their lives. I have no interest in raising my sons to be passive victims, excusing their choices and believing that the world owes them something or is working against them. I want my sons to know that we all deal with shit in our lives but that we get to decide how to react and respond and that those responses have consequences for us and for those around us. I want my sons to take ownership of their lives, and the only way they will learn to do that is if I allow them the freedom to choose as well as to suffer.
Excuses don’t remove us from the consequences, but they do deprive us of the joy of our accomplishments and the lessons of our failures. Excuses are a prison, keeping us enslaved to everyone and everything around us, keeping us from growing and learning and living and becoming the kind of people that choices allow us to be.
The greatest gift we were ever given as humans was the gift to choose. The best thing we can do as parents is teach our children how to use that gift responsibly.
And sometimes, that means no ice cream.
Believe me, son, you’ll thank me some day.