The Joy of Natural Consequences

I’m not a perfect parent; really no one is, but I particularly am not. How do I know that? I’ll give you the first two reasons that come to mind:

  1. When a child (especially the oldest, age five) encounters a natural consequence of poor choices, I am filled with a deep, bubbling glee. Sometimes I manage to refrain from laughing. Sometimes I don’t. Always, I make a point of quickly detailing the cause and effect involved in the situation. I’m pretty sure a perfect parent, or even a really good one, would respond with sympathy and compassion in the discussion of the action and consequence. I don’t manage this.
  2. When a child finds themself* in an uncomfortable circumstance, my first response is not rescue or assistance. My response is to pull out the phone for a picture. Only after it has been duly recorded do I smother my giggles and help them.

    Photo first. Rescue later.

This week, my son has been particularly difficult. I could count on one hand the number of times he’s obeyed immediately this week. Dawdling, forgetting what he’s been told, not hearing what he’s been told, outright disobeying… as many parents can attest, this gets exhausting. Time outs, scoldings, loss of privileges, loss of possessions, vigorous expression of irritation (yes, I’ve been guilty of yelling) — all to no avail. He’s continued to drift through life completely unaware of the instructions of his parents.

That’s why this imperfection of mine has come up, twice in the last two days. Twice now, Niko has been brought up short by an immediate and uncomfortable consequence to his actions. And my glee has overwhelmed me.

We have a creek, a drainage ditch really, running across one end of our property. In summer it’s dry, but in winter it’s full and overflowing from the rainfall. Niko knows he’s not allowed in it. Even with not much water in it, it’s deeper than his boots. With the recent heavy rains, it could actually be dangerous, with its swift flow combined with the slippery rocks on the bottom. So I’ve explicitly told him, of course, not to go in. Multiple times.

Yesterday we had snow. Just a bit, but enough to make the kids enthusiastic about going outside. After approximately thirty minutes’ worth of donning warm clothes, we went down the hill toward the creek, where it’s open and has plenty of space for running. Niko made a beeline for the creek. “Stay out of the creek,” I called, as he raced toward it. “Don’t go into the creek,” I repeated as he continued. I was answered by a liquid plop. He had jumped in.

As I hauled him out, his boots full and his pants soaked to the thighs with icy water, I couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious. “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the creek?”


“And now you have to go inside while Sofie plays.”


“Because you’re soaking wet and your boots are filled with water.”

Wailing with sorrow, he trudged inside with Aaron, while Sofie and I played in the snow for another ten minutes or so. Sadly, I failed to get a photo. All I got was one of Sofie, preparing to throw a handful of snow at the house, an activity made more thrilling by her conviction that she was getting away with something.

Enjoying the snow, minus her soggy brother.

However, this was not the most satisfying such event of the past two days. That honor falls to today’s dramatic demonstration of natural consequences. You see, I’ve been working on a new skill with Niko, one that he really should have learned by now, but which he’s been resisting on the grounds that it’s much too hard to do. What is this terribly difficult skill? Snapping his own pants. Yes, I have been asking my five-year-old to learn to fasten his own pants when getting dressed — a tyrannical demand, to be sure, but what can I say?

Efforts to teach him to snap his pants have been marked with considerable frustration from both of us. He gets floppy-arm syndrome, moaning “I can’t! It’s too hard!” while pawing ineffectually at his waistband. Neither of us have enjoyed these training sessions, but I’ve continued to nag him. “Snap your pants, please!”

Today Niko and Sofia accompanied me down our driveway and to the end of the lane to haul out the trash. They puddle-hopped their way down the road, helped me investigate the mailbox, then splashed back up. Midway up our driveway, as I urged Niko to hurry UP, because I needed him through the gate so I could close it, he obediently broke into a halfhearted jog. As he jogged, his waistband began to slip. “Wait –” I called, but I was too late. The pants plunged to his knees, and he sprawled flat on the muddy gravel.

I was immobilized with mirth. I feel a little bad for this, but I truly could not move, I was trying so hard to keep my laughter from bursting out. He also couldn’t move, bound at the knees as he was by those pants. I finally got myself under control enough to capture a couple of photos, then extended my hand to help him up.

“This is why you should snap your pants,” I pointed out. “Haven’t I been telling you to snap your pants?” Dripping with muddy water, cold and exposed, he nodded reluctantly. “Well,” I told him sternly, “this is why. If you’d snapped your pants, this wouldn’t have happened.” The sternness was spoiled just a little by a snicker I couldn’t restrain. I mean, honestly, it was pretty funny. As you can see:

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why learning to snap your pants is worthwhile.

So, there you have it. I’m not a perfect parent. I rejoice when natural consequences remove the necessity of scolding and imposing my own mean-mom consequences. I laugh when my kids find themselves in pickles. And I take photos when I should be helping.

And then I post those photos on a public blog.

*The Washington Post‘s Bill Walsh recently wrote a piece, filed in Opinions, regarding this year’s language adaptations. One of them was the surrender to the inevitability of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. That is to say, when a writer needs to refer to an individual, unknown or unidentified, who may be male or female, the WP is now accepting “they” to fill this need. For example, “If a student talks during a test, they will be given a zero.” As Mr. Walsh pointed out, this is a far from new development; it’s been used, he says, by Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the translators of the Bible, to name just a few cases. And it has a precedent: the word “you” was once solely plural, the singular pronouns being “thee” and “thou.” We’ve long since accepted “you” as a singular pronoun. Now that the WP accepts “they” likewise as a singular, I feel perfectly comfortable using it in my own writing. So there.**

**Yes, this addendum was mainly for my mother. You’re welcome.




“White Couch Feeding”

Every now and then something comes along that’s too good not to share. Today my aunt, the mother of six children who are nearly all grown now, shared this delightful collection of ridiculously serene stock family photos that have been realistically captioned by moms. My aunt had a good laugh at it and then shared it with me, remembering that I’m in the middle of parenting my own rambunctious kidlets (though I doubt I’ll ever be able to match her collection of six of them).

My favorite captions:

You were right! Ever since we started White Couch Feeding with Emmett, he’s been eating like a champ.

And this one: IMG_2317.PNG

Click here to see the whole collection.

What They Don’t Tell You

Last week we took a morning to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. At the mall, Aaron took Niko one direction while I took Sofia elsewhere, so I could check off my list for Aaron and get Niko some books.

We’d been shopping about half an hour when I got a text from Aaron: “Niko just did the craziest thing!” Turns out Niko’s bottom had started itching. Right there in the middle of Nordstrom, he shed pants and underwear to get at the itch. Aaron glanced down and was horrified — “What are you DOING?”

“I had an itch,” Niko explained. “That’s what I do when my bottom itches.”

No one tells you to anticipate this sort of thing when you start parenting. I’m sure the parents of one of Niko’s friends didn’t expect to have a conversation with her teacher after school about how she lifted her dress to show Niko her pretty undies. You don’t really think ahead about what you’ll respond should your child shout, upon seeing a pretty Filipino lady, “That lady is BROWN like my friend Jonah!” (“We don’t use people’s skin color to describe them,” you hiss, sinking as low into your seat as possible.)

Nobody tells you to be prepared to have your hand covered in slimy yellow poop while holding your munchkin as you peruse the clearance rack in an upscale department store. No one warns you that you may walk out of a mall bathroom holding the hand of a toddler wearing too-short pants and navel-baring shirt because he peed himself thirty minutes after your last potty stop.

I could continue, ad nauseam, listing all the surprising things about parenting. However, it occurs to me that a) it’s been done before — repeatedly — and, b) many of these “things no one tells you” are actually things that people DO tell you. Read a few articles on a parenting site and you’ll be so overwhelmed by all the “things” that you’ll decide to never have a child…unless it’s too late for you, as it is for me.

No, I’m realizing that there’s no secretive society of parents, all refusing to tell of their embarrassing, disgusting, even hilarious stories. Get us talking, and we won’t shut up. It’s more a matter of listening and applying the stories to oneself — both important factors. The childless listener thinks, “But I have a degree in child development and a background in education. MY children will never push a container of bouncy balls to the ground in a rage and then fling themselves on top of the rolling balls while shrieking ‘I WANT A BLUE BALL!’ My children will always appear well-groomed and happy, and their faces will always be clean, because how hard is it really to manage a child or two for an hour or two in a store?”

Here is what no one wants to believe before having children: Every child is an autonomous being. You can train, you can discipline, you can practice, but you can not control. Children aren’t robots. Trust me. Your child WILL embarrass you. If no one has told you this yet, it’s only because — as my mother told me — this is a universal truth, and those of us who’ve gone through it believe it’s obvious. We can’t tell you the specifics of how this embarrassment will happen, because children are unpredictable, but it will occur. It’s only a question of how.