To Rescue or Not To Rescue: Teaching Kids Life Consequences
Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child
9:30 pm—I had just finished cleaning the dinner dishes, sweeping, and packing lunches for school the next day. Like most moms at this time of night, my bones were weary, my muscles were weary, but my mind was weariest. The house was as quiet as it ever gets. Two sleeping boys in their separate quarters and a basketball game droning on in the living room, I decided to get in some reading time before going to sleep. The only thing that kept me standing through the nighttime routine was the heavenly pair of pajamas that I knew was waiting for me at the end of my bed. I tiptoed down the creaky hall hoping not to wake the sleeping beasts determined to put those pj’s on and get into reading position.
No sooner had I put my arm through the second sleeve of the luxurious top did the door bang open and slam against the wall. Son1—nine at the time—was standing in his boxers, hands clasped to his chest, mouth stretched as tightly as a rubber band across his mouth. “Mahhhhhhm!” he throatily cried, sheer panic making his voice deep and low. “What is it?” I cried equally panicked, my voice equally throaty, deep and low.
“I forgot to do my REEEEEEEEEEEdin’ project!!” he sobbed. I then asked something that I am sure many moms ask–even though they know full well what the answer is– “When is it due?”
“ToMORRow! ToMORRow! ToMORRow!” He yelled repeatedly (just in case I missed it the first time.) Saying all the mom-stuff like “How long have you had to do this project, and why did you wait until the last minute,” didn’t help the cause at all. Instead it just added to Son1’s utter terror. He began to cry hard. Do you know that cry? The ugly one where the snot starts to river out of their noses and into the little divits above their lips. The one where the tears have enough gusto to make it not only down their cheeks but to roll over their necks and onto their clavicles. The one where it is so impossible to take a breath from the heaving that they begin to cough which in turn makes them gag, which then of course leads to a mucousy puke right on the carpet of your bedroom floor. Yes…THAT cry.
Trying to decipher some sort of understandable language during this crying spectacle, my mom-ears detected horrific words like “trouble” and “teacher” and “missing” and “recess.”
When my children were in this state a mountainous force of making it better filled every crevice of me. I hated to see Son1 so beside himself. I couldn’t bear the thought of him up all night–sick with worry–anticipating the trouble he was going to be in with that “mean ol’ teacher. It tore me to shreds that he’d be embarrassed in front of his friends when they all skipped on out of the lunchroom door for recess while he trudged back to the classroom—a prisoner with his privileges taken away…
So fifteen minutes later, I found myself barreling down aisles in Walmart (back in the clothes I had worn all day) frantically grabbing bags of popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, puffy paint, miniature dollhouse furniture and any other craft item I could think of that would assist my panic-stricken nine year old in completing his diorama that would serve as proof that he did indeed read The Spiderwick Chronicles.
At 10:30pm, Son1 and I were in full-on artistic mode as we sketched and decided how we could make the most spectacular diorama in the class in just a few hours. His “mommy-I-need-you” attitude was quickly replaced by a “let-me-just-slop-something-together-quickly-so-I-can-go-to-sleep” attitude. But I was having none of that. He was going to do his best. He wasn’t going to bring in a project that was half-assed. Over my dead body. After all, I didn’t want the teacher to think we didn’t care about his work ethic!
So I bore down on him, barking orders, re-cutting and re-gluing where I thought it necessary. All the while he whined and yelled and threw his torso down on to the dining room table. He rubbed his eyes and did exaggerated stretches. He cried giant plopping tears that landed on the construction paper immediately wrinkling it. He continued his tirades until I finally relented and let him go to sleep. After all, he did MOST of the project. I swatted him on the bottom and scooted him down the hall. Again saying all the things that “moms” should say—all the things I always said previously when this would happen and every time after– “Next time you can’t wait until the last minute. Then we won’t have all this trouble.” After he was tucked into his bed, I immediately returned to the dining room to put the finishing touches on the project so that it would be something he wasn’t ashamed of taking in to school the next day. Afterward, I did what “every mom should do” and cleaned up the craft disaster, scrubbing the table to remove glue spots and trying to retrieve wayward glitter.
That night and many others like it, the book stayed closed on the nightstand. My muscles, bones and mind ached with exhaustion, and the oft dreamt of pajamas stayed in a heap on the floor next to the bed. Too weary to put them on, I fell asleep in my clothes. But I slept contently because to be honest I felt like supermom at moments like these, saving my child from the evils of the world. Horrible evils liked deadlines and rules and teachers who punish by taking recess away.
“Spare the rod—Spoil the child.” Now, I don’t want you to think that I am advocating spanking. As you can see from the story above…there was nothing like that going on. Not at all. In this case the rod is metaphorical. Here I could substitute the word “rod” with “disappointment” or “discomfort”…perhaps the phrase “natural consequences” is better. Yes…spare natural consequences– spoil the child. We all do this as moms, don’t we? Well, I know that I did all too much. I was bound and determined to keep my children happy—happy all the time. I couldn’t bear to have them experience a negative emotion that might come from mistakes that they had made, or from life’s moments of unfairness. The homework story told above happened over and over in my household in all facets of my children’s lives. They waited until the last minute to prepare for tests, for sports try-outs, for snack day. Each time they would magically realize that they forgot usually at bedtime or a few hours later when they woke up in a cold sweat.
Sometimes it would be as we were getting in the car to go to school. One or the other would yell out something like “Oh yeah! It’s my snack day. I was supposed to bring 25 cupcakes.” Each time I rescued them, making the flashcards that they should have made, drilling facts, baking treats that rivaled Martha Stewart until the wee hours of the morning. One time I even called a coach to ask for more time for Son2 to prepare for a try-out. I can’t tell you how many times I would leave work to bring one or the other son a lunch that remained on the kitchen counter instead of in their bag, or how many times I lugged a baritone sax up the basement stairs and into my car’s trunk, back out of the trunk, down the long school sidewalk and into the bandroom to an awaiting Son1 who just couldn’t seem to remember it, even though lessons were every Tuesday.
The more it happened, the angrier and more resentful I became. I yelled and swore profusely. “God damn it! I just don’t get why you can’t do things in a timely manner.” Or I tried to use guilt to leverage them “I do work you know!? Did you ever consider how inconvenient it is for me to keep using my breaks for YOU!?” I’d punish– “If I have to leave school again, if I have to stay up late to help you with a project, if you wait until the last minute again, if you don’t remember to tell me important stuff, if I have to call so and so because you didn’t prepare–then you will lose television for a week. You will lose the privilege of going outside this weekend. You will be grounded from all video and computer games.”
Despite all of that, the anger, the yelling, the fits and yes, even the punishment, those boys just couldn’t seem to learn how to get organized, to think ahead or work their hardest. All the while I continued to rescue—unhappily—but rescue no less. Looking back there were so many reasons and intentions for this rescue role I played. First there was my need to look like a competent mom. A kid who goes to school without his homework (who has a teacher for a mom by the way) doesn’t say much about the parent at home, at least in my warped mind. Then of course there was the fact that certain moms like me can be blinded by a good ugly cry from one of her offspring. I mean those big ol’ tears could get me every time. However, I guess the number one reason that I had a compulsion to rescue those sons of mine, the reason I am horrified to admit, is because of that all powerful mom guilt.
Mom-guilt. Every mom has it, only differing in its place of origin. For me, mine came from the fact that my boys were products of divorce. Okay…I guess I am not being completely honest. If I was really spilling my guts here, I’d have to say that my big bad ol’ mom-guilt came from the fact that my sons were products of their father period, and because of that, I was determined to be sure that they led a charmed life in any way shape or form. I guess because they got the short end of the stick when it came to fathers, I wanted to be sure that they felt warm fuzzies in all other areas of their lives.
The problem with this type of parenting is two-fold. Although sparing my children from any ill-feelings the world had to offer appeased them in the moment and made me feel like superwoman, what I could not foresee was what the long term effects would be. First of all, even though they are close to adulthood, both boys still expect me to rescue them. In fact, they demand it. As they got older the assumption that I’d just drop everything to deal with their current emergencies was rooted like a 100 year old tree. If I couldn’t repair, help or deliver, if I couldn’t fix the problem (or wouldn’t now that I am older) they’d be incredulous, irate, even completely aggressive in their insistence that I respond to their needs immediately. Son1 would even go as far as to bellow, “You’re my mom! It’s your job!”
But that’s not correct. It isn’t my job or any other mother’s to rescue their children from the “evils” of the world. It is our job to prepare them for the evils of the world, to teach them strategies so that they don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. What I should have done that fateful craft night (because it had happened numerous times before) was to let him face the consequences of his actions. Now stop gasping. I know. I know. It is a difficult task sending our children to the lions. But all the rescuing I did didn’t prepare them for their lives as adults or the real world in any away shape or form.
It is common sense isn’t it? Life is tough. Bad things happen, we make mistakes, and as adults we have to face the music that comes with that. When we forget to fill out paper work for our job or wake up late, if we don’t prepare well for certain tasks that are required of us, there won’t be anyone there to rescue us. When we make mistakes we experience consequences. And so should it be for our children. Consequences are a part of life and it is our task to teach our children that they are not immune to them. The faster they learn that shirking their duties causes less then pleasant circumstances, the more likely that they will work hard to be responsible. As long as I kept rescuing those boys, no amount of my carrying on was going to have an effect. They needed the natural consequences that come with the choices that they made along the way. Don’t do your homework? Face the teacher the next day. Forget your lunch? Go hungry. Don’t bring your band instrument to school? Sit while everyone else plays. Don’t prepare for a sports tryout? Don’t make the team. Natural consequences, more than yelling, cajoling, punishing, threatening and guilting would have motivated Son1 and Son2 to seek other pathways and know that mom wasn’t going to do it for them. By allowing them to feel what it was like to experience the consequences of their mistakes, of their lack of preparation and organization, an important sense of urgency would have become an integral part of my sons’ personalities and perhaps spared us many moments of anger and ire, and the mom-guilt that comes with the knowledge that their lack of preparedness for the challenges of the world, rests heavily on my own shoulders.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Logan has lived in Glens Falls, NY all her life. By day, she is an educator with 20 years experience, a mom to Aidan and Gannan, her two teenage boys, a new mommy to a beautiful daughter, Ila, and wife to the love of her life, Jeffrey. By night, weekends and any spare time she can find, Logan writes. She loves memoir and also adores writing essays about the challenges of parenthood. This year she started a parenting blog called A Muddled Mother, an honest place where mothers aren’t afraid to speak of the complications and difficulties that we all inevitably experience. Logan has been published in various children’s and parenting magazines including Today’s Motherhood, Eye on Education, Faces, and Appleseed.