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Gathering Nuts, The Wall, and Other Mixed Metaphors For Consequences

I once had a supervisor who gave me some great leadership advice.  I was struggling with how to discipline one of my direct reports who was failing to turn in assignments and show up for meetings.  I was basically letting them get away with it, because I wasn’t saying anything to them about it.  My supervisor wanted to know why I wasn’t calling them out, and I admitted that I didn’t want to come across as judgmental or morally superior.  She said, “Be like Mother Nature.  There’s no moral judgment in nature.  If a squirrel doesn’t gather nuts for winter, no one judges the squirrel as morally inferior.  The squirrel just starves.  You can hold people accountable to the consequences of their actions without passing moral judgment.”
This blew my mind.  To this day, it strikes me as a powerful insight into the nature of effective leadership and parenting.
It’s also really, really hard to do.
I’m pretty good at setting out rules for my child.  We are clear about our expectations, and we are clear about the consequences.  We also hold her to the consequences (at least most of the time).  It’s the not judging part that’s so hard.  Because you know what?  I am nearly always morally disappointed in my child for not making good decisions one-hundred percent of the time.
My child is not of an age where this attitude serves anyone well.  She is developmentally incapable of making logically good choices on any kind of consistent basis.  She’s a few weeks shy of four years old; her brain is literally lacking in the capacity to make logical choices.  My brain, however, is lacking the capacity to comprehend a person not making logical choices.  It makes no sense to me that I would tell a person, “If you do a, then will happen,” then watch that person do a and protest with wailing accusations of meanness and hostility when b follows.  I told you five times in a row that if a then b, so why are you so upset that after you a’d I b’d?  I predicted the future for you!  How can you morally judge me for my honesty, directness, and consistency?
Just as I can’t understand her inability to respect cause-and-effect, her brain is still in the fledgling stages of putting cause-and-effect together.  If I say to her, if a then b, then turn right back around and ask her what will happen if a, she’s as likely to answer “potato.”  It’s not her fault; her brain hasn’t grown up enough.  In fact, the best way for her brain to learn it is to experience b after a over and over again.  So why can’t I manage to stop judging her for all this?
It’s easy to just say, Hey, our brains are just not a good match right now.  But that’s not how it feels when she’s pitching a fit because she’s suffering the consequences I warned her would follow the action she just performed.  Anyone else in my life might deserve the moral judgment that would follow such a situation.  The temptation to say, “Weren’t you listening?  Why can’t you follow directions?  What’s wrong with you?” is really strong.  But this isn’t really helpful with anyone, much less a child who still hasn’t developed cause-and-effect reasoning yet.
What is the purpose in morally judging someone for making decisions with negative consequences?  Aren’t the negative consequences enough?  That seems to be how it works out there in nature; why must we attach moral judgment to things?
I’m trying to withhold my judgment.  I know my child is still learning, and when I heap moral judgment on top of the consequences, I’m actually muddying the lesson.  Because I’m actually teaching that in addition to ba also comes with something else: shame.  Only I’m not saying that out loud, which just adds to the confusion: if a, then b (and this other unnamed thing that feels even worse and doesn’t seem to go away for a long time).  Maybe I should just start saying this out loud: “If you hit me again, I will put you into time out and then stand over you with my arms crossed, shaking my head and quietly judging you.”
Or maybe I need to be kinder to both of us by cutting out the judgment.  Our consequences really are enough.  I don’t want her to go skating on the thin ice of modern life dragging behind her the reproach of a million tear-stained eyes.  She’ll have enough walls to negotiate in the real world without me helping her build a new one (which apparently ends with being drugged and dragged onstage to what you think is a Neo-Nazi riot… or something).  It’s normal for parents to want their children to make good decisions on their own.  But it takes time, patience, and consistency.  My little squirrel hasn’t quite figured out how to gather nuts on her own just yet, but that’s why she still has me.  I just have to trust that she isn’t going to starve and remember that she’s more than just a nut that I have to gather.  She’s her own person and she’s developing on her own.


I Am a Shaken Parent.


Parenting is not the same as having kids.  It’s not even the same as being a parent.  We’re trying our best to muddle our way through, and so far, I think we’re doing good enough.  This site is my attempt to keep myself accountable to reflecting, processing, and learning about myself and my family.  I not only want to share that with you, I want input and reflections from you as well.  It probably does take a village to raise a child, and the internet makes for an awfully large village.  Maybe you will recognize your own family in these posts.  Please feel free to leave comments on your own thoughts and feelings.  God knows we could use all the help and input we can get!

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