Should Your Kids Pay for Their Mistakes?

So previously, I shared a story from the Way-Back Machine, when my heretofore Little Angels did something bad—jaw-droppingly bad, in fact. They vandalized somebody else’s property, then kept it quiet till one of their friends confessed in a fit of conscience.

(My wife and I are both journalists by training, so one thing we’ve always tried to instill in our kids is an idea that no story ever stays untold for long. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has brought up something the boys would prefer we didn’t know, then launched into the well-worn reminder: “How many times do we need to tell you? We always find out.“)

So the big question I’ve had over the ensuing years has to do with punishment. Should we as parents have been more punitive?

I spoke to Jedd Hafer, of the Love and Logic Institute, an organization which helps parents. Rather than try to explain Love and Logic, I’ll share Jedd’s response to the episode:

I love the tractor story. What a great example of how kids learn from modeling and that values are often ‘caught’ rather than taught. I’ve been busted myself with my kids picking up things I hoped they weren’t noticing.

In this situation, Love and Logic might ask if the kids could’ve done extra chores and odd jobs (for the next 100 years) to raise the money for the damage. When kids cause a problem, we expect them to solve it: [with sadness and empathy] “Wow, that’s a lot of money to pay for that tractor, guys. How are you planning on paying for it?” Now, they have to think about, worry about and sweat about solving the problem.

Obviously, with their young ages, we might help them out a bit, but the key is that they get the message “when you cause a problem, you are expected to solve it—not because we are mad at you, but because we love you and want you to succeed out in the world. We want you to be an expert problem-solver.”

You are certainly correct that we’d take it more seriously if the kids hurt a person or animal. We would still want to foster empathy for the victims (neighbors) so we might ask the kids (during calm times) how they feel when their stuff gets broken.

I love that they had to face the police. That’s what happens out there in the real world when you break the law. I bet that sticks with them. And you are so right—experiencing the consequences of our not-so-bright [boy] ideas is the best teacher of all.

Looking back, I think I missed an opportunity to teach a lesson about consequences, because I decided the costs involved were simply too big, and they were too young to be burdened with sweating about dollars.

Today, with my children now teens, my perspective is different. My 16-year-old recently passed the driver’s test and received his license. He isn’t paying all of his insurance, but a substantial amount. When he recently punched a hole in a basement wall (that’s another story), he had to figure out how to patch it, not me. And my 14-year-old who loves his summer camp? He asked if he could stay a second week there, and we said fine—if he paid for it. He’s working on it, mostly by requesting that presents throughout the year—birthdays and such—be turned into dedicated cash gifts, and doing a little child-sitting (he took a class to be better-prepared).

In each instance, they are taking responsibility for their needs and desires. It’s a step toward that day when they’ll move out from under our roof and make their way in the world. And that’s at least one of the goals here, isn’t it? To prepare them to set their own course.

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