When you make a vow to the Eternal your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternalyour God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Eternal your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.
The verses quoted above offer one of many directives given to the Israelites in Parashat Ki Teitzei, which deals with their relationships with each other, with strangers, with the land and with God. The passage clearly pertains to the Israelites relationship with God, but if we look at it through the lens of a parent-child relationship, then it is a very powerful message for mindful parenting. Thinking of the parashah in this way offers us a great opportunity to look at the importance of consequences. As adults, we realize that our actions have consequences. This is a vital lesson that we attempt to teach our children as they mature into responsible and thoughtful adults.
We want to suggest that you consider two different types of consequences, as suggested by Dr. Robert Brooks www.drrobertbrooks.com, one of today's leading theorists on the themes of resilience, self-esteem, motivation and family relationships.
Dr. Brooks writes about the "natural consequences" that occur without any intervention on the part of parents. They are ideal for teaching children what happens when they make choices. For example, if a child brings lunch to school but dumps most of it into the trash, then he could have a very grumbly tummy well before he's given another chance to eat, a natural outcome of his decision to toss his lunch in the trash. Or, if a child brings a favorite toy to school and inadvertently leaves it there when she goes home at the end of the day, then she won't have it until she returns to school the next day. Again, this is the natural result of something she did (or didn't do). If we suggest that our child disassemble his block structure before the family dog is let back into the house or that he build it on a table, away from the dog's reach, but he neglects to follow our advice, then he will suffer the consequences if the dog knocks over the block structure.
Of course, we don't want to see our children put in any danger, and we would act accordingly if that were the case. We certainly wouldn't allow a child to touch a hot stove knowing full well that he or she would get hurt. We wouldn't allow our children to go to the beach without wearing sun-block, knowing that they could get sunburned. Personal safety is an area where we often know better and are charged with the responsibility of applying that knowledge. Just like any tool in the kit, natural consequences have to be the right fit for the job. Also, the role of natural consequences varies by your child's age. As your children mature, they may be more effective in certain situations than others.
Another type of consequence to which Dr. Brooks refers is called "logical consequences." Logical consequences require parental action rather than inaction in response to a situation. These can be a result of guidelines and rules you set up as a parent. According to Dr. Brooks, when you explain these consequences to your children, it isn't necessary for you to be harsh. But, it is important that you be consistent.
For example, you explain to your children that they must put away their toys by a certain time. If they aren't put away by this declared time, then those toys will not be available the next night. (This is one example of parameters that ultimately are determined by the parent.) Once this is explained, it is very important that you stick to your rules. If the toys aren't put away that night by 7 P.M., then you must remember your admonition the next night. Again, the specific parameters of these consequences must be age appropriate. It may help to start with things that you are sure your children understand, something you have practiced. If they can't tell time, then 7 p.m. won't be very meaningful to them, but "before bath time" might be. Once you have established the parameters, no amount of cajoling or whining on the part of your children should change your mind. By allowing your children to experience what happens when they decide to behave in a certain way, despite your clear explanation of the rules, you are in fact helping them move towards a greater understanding of the effect of consequences on their lives.
This is where the words of Parashat Ki Teitzei ring true. In setting guidelines for your children in this way, you are setting up consequences for yourself in terms of follow through. Once the words pass your lips, you must face the consequences of the lesson you are teaching by holding the line you set forth. If you don't keep the promise of the consequence, then you may be doing more harm than good by attempting to guide your child in this way. In this light, it is clear that there are times that this tool will be the right one and times that it will not. If you can't stand firm, then it may be better to not make the vow but instead choose another tool from your kit with which to deal with the situation at hand.
One of the most difficult things about raising children is making decisions that might cause them to feel bad or uncomfortable, or to suffer in the case of difficult consequences. But as Parashat Ki Teitzei continues to teach us, there is justice and balance when we make thoughtful, heartfelt and carefully considered choices. Every parent or teacher can do it. Just think of the consequences if we don't!
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
- Have you ever told your children about tough consequences you faced for something you did or did not do?
- Can you recall a situation when, as a parent, you consciously stood back and allowed a natural consequence teach your child a lesson?
- Can you think of a time when you made a disciplinary statement to your child with which you weren't prepared to follow through? What would you do differently in the same situation?
Questions for Children:
- What happens when you don't eat your breakfast?
- Why do your parents ask you to put your toys away?
- Why is it important to listen to what our teachers and parents tell us to do?