I wrote recently that I would prefer to teach empathy than obedience. As some readers pointed out, at issue here is also responsibility. If we focus on teaching children to obey their parents and other adults in their lives, we aren’t teaching them to make responsible decisions for themselves. One of the things I try to emphasize to my children when teaching empathy is that they live in an interconnected world and their actions affect those around them. This is part of teaching responsibility as well.
But all of this does raise a question. What happens if I ask Sally to do something and she doesn’t do it? What happens if I explain to her the importance of doing something and she still refuses? Let’s take the laundry hamper example I used earlier. What do I do if Sally refuses to put her clothes in the laundry hamper even after I explain why putting her clothes in the laundry hamper is important (i.e., so that I can wash her laundry without having to hunt all over the house for it)?
We very rarely use punishment in our house. We do, however, use consequences. Now obviously, “consequences” has been misused by many as simply another label for punishment—and perhaps this really all is just semantics anyway. It is my experience that many families’ use of retribution for disobedience causes fear, and I don’t want that in my family. I don’t want my children to be afraid of facing “consequences” if they mess up. I remember that feeling, and it was wholly negative and not constructive. And besides, it’s not disobedience if children were never required to obey in the first place. So what do I mean when I say we use consequences in our family?
Is anyone familiar with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? I read those books when I was a child, and I think they impacted me more than I ever realized. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a kindly neighborhood lady who teaches children the importance of everything from eating their supper to feeding their pets, not through fear or punishment but through real-world consequences and creative lessons. The books were originally bedtime stories and were written in the 1940s and 1950s. I would probably object to at least some parts if I reread them, but as a child I was absolutely enthralled. Perhaps it was the way Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle treated children that drew me in the most.
I remember very clearly a story in which a mother sends her daughter to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle because the girl refuses to bathe. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells the girl she doesn’t need to bathe if she doesn’t want to, and one night after dirt has collected on the girl’s skin she sprinkles the girl with radish seeds. Over the coming weeks the girl begins to sprout, and finally Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle plucks a radish from her to use for supper. Finally realizing the importance of bathing, the girl tells Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle she wants a bath. The story ends as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle sends the freshly cleaned girl back to her mother. I mean obviously this couldn’t really happen, but still.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle cures children who never want to go to bed by letting them stay up as late as they want. They find themselves so tired during the day they can’t play and have fun, so in the end they accept the necessity of a bedtime. She advises parents of two quarrelsome children to start bickering just as badly as their children, and the children quickly learn just how annoying their fighting was to everyone around them. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle allows a messy child to clutter his room as he likes, until one day he finds he can’t get out of his room because of the mess, and decides that cleaning his room is actually a good idea.So let’s bring this back around to Sally and the laundry hamper. If Sally were to refuse to put her laundry in the hamper even after hearing why it’s important for her to do so, one option would be to wash only the laundry in the hamper, and wait for her to run out of clean clothes. Once her favorite clothes are all dirty or her dresser drawers bare, I would simply explain that her dirty clothes weren’t in the hamper, so I couldn’t wash them. Sally would quickly learn that if she wants her clothes washed so that she can wear them again, she needs to put them in the laundry hamper.
Another option is to go around and collect her clothes myself, but to then explain that this takes up my time and means I don’t have as much time for other things—such as reading a book or making cookies. I’ve done this before with cleaning the living room, which frequently becomes covered with the children’s toys and other refuse of good times. Several months ago, I asked Sally to clean up the mess she and her brother had created in the living room, and she refused. So I cleaned it up myself and then told her I was too tired to play the game she’d been asking me to play with her. She was completely taken aback, and immediately apologized and asked if there was something else I wanted to clean up for her.
Of course, children are also more likely to help with things when it’s cooperative. So, for instance, when doing laundry I could ask her to help me go around the house collecting laundry that might not be in the hamper, with me. Doing things together somehow makes it look less daunting to her, and it also takes me less time (because she’s finally old enough to be actually helpful).
Another thing I’ve done sometimes is simply refusing to help Sally out with something because she just refused to help me out with something else. Let’s say I ask her to pick her jacket up and hang it on the hook and she doesn’t and then asks me for a drink of water, I’ll say “I’m not going to take the time to get you a drink of water if you can’t take the time to hang your jacket up.” When this happens she generally responds by suggesting that I get her water while she hangs up her jacket, which I accept and then we’re good. The idea, though, is to point out that she’s not the only one being asked to do things. In other words, when I ask her to do things I’m not being a dictator or one-sided—she asks me to do things too. We’re a team. We do things for each other.
Notice what is conspicuously absent from all of this—fear and punishment. Learning is still taking place—arguably more learning than would be taking place if my goal were simply to teach Sally to obey me—and Sally is still functioning as a productive member of our family. It actually took me a little while to think of these examples, because Sally is usually willing to help out and sometimes simply volunteers. She likes understanding the “why” behind things I ask of her, but she’s generally willing to contribute, especially if we make it fun and cooperative (unless she’s in the middle of something, and in those cases I’m understanding—I wouldn’t want to stop if I were in the middle of something either!).