I’ve been told often enough that kids need to learn from experience, and I’ve often found this to be true myself, but there are times when I seriously wonder at the lessons they seem to learn.
For example, my youngest child has recently learned that sticking up his middle finger at people is a great way to get a reaction. He’s experimented on his brothers, on other kids at school, and most recently on some poor motorist whose only fault was to stop beside us at a traffic light while we were on our way for groceries. I happened to catch this in my rear view mirror, and I told my kid that since he’d been warned about this many times already, he wouldn’t be getting gum at the grocery store as he’d been promised. He burst into tears, so I let him calm down before I suggested that maybe next time he should make a different choice. “I will,” he sobbed. “Next time I’ll wait ‘til you’re not looking.”
I had a similar moment with my middle child the other day. His friend was at the skatepark, bailed on a backflip, landed on his head, and got a pretty serious concussion. Fortunately he was wearing his helmet, or he might have been killed. Since I’m constantly fighting with my kid about wearing his helmet, I seized on the opportunity to ask him if he’d learned a lesson from this other kid’s example. “Yeah,” he told me, “never bail on a trick halfway. If you at least try to land it, you’ll probably just break your leg.”
Even my eldest, who’s the most practical of the three by far, isn’t immune to this kind of logic. He often forgets to bring his ball with him to soccer practise, which makes his coach quite frustrated. After one practise where the coach had sat the whole team down and given them a stern lecture about arriving on time with all their gear and prepared to play, I asked my kid what he planned to do about his forgetfulness. “I’ll probably just go by the lost and found when I get to practise,” he said. “There’s usually a few balls there I can borrow.”
In moments like these I almost despair that my kids are learning anything at all. It feels that the natural consequences of their actions (which I prefer to use over imposed consequences most of the time) end up teaching them the wrong things half the time. They end up learning to circumvent the system rather than to do the right thing.
What I remind myself is that learning from experience isn’t an instantaneous process, as I’ve seen in my own life over the years. We don’t always learn our lesson the first time, or even the second or third. Sometimes we need to learn the same lesson in a few different ways before we really get it, and there are some things that we never seem to learn.
The key for parents, I think, is to keep drawing those connections for kids. We need to help make it obvious for kids how certain behaviours result in certain consequences, where the middle finger generally results in people getting angry with you, and where wearing helmets generally prevents serious injury, and where remembering your stuff generally results in happier coaches. Our role in the process is mostly to help them make sense of the lessons they’re being taught.
They may not learn their lesson right away, but at least they’ll know there’s a lesson to be learned.