Consequences are not given

My 10-year-old kid leaves the lights on. I keep reminding him to turn them off. He still keeps leaving them on. What to do?

The mainstream advice in this situation is to punish this behavior to change it. That may conjure up physical punishment and old-school spanking, which still has its proponents, but is largely out of favor these days. But even if the word punish itself is not used, most advice is really no different. Maybe it’s called a “consequence” instead, or a “logical consequence”, or a “natural consequence”. The point is this: am I going to enact a rule or respond in a way that must be enforced by using my power over the child? If so, there is no substantial difference between this approach and punishment.

Consider these examples of “consequences”: taking away the kid’s right to watch TV or use their phone. Or the “logical consequence” of giving them a fine, say asking them to pay (part of) the electric bill. Or, as Conscious Parenting coach Shefali Tsabary recommends as a “natural consequence”: remove the light bulbs, thereby depriving the child (and others) from light.

No matter what they are called, the only way such responses can be effective in producing a change is by force, physical and psychological, of the parent. After all, if someone removes (steals?) the bulbs in my room, my immediate response is to protest to reinstall the bulbs.

There are good moral arguments why using power over people to restrict their choice and force them to change is unethical. And the fact that children are more vulnerable and less powerful, both physically and psychologically, only makes these arguments stronger. However, even at a practical level, using power to get our way is a sure way to damage the trust in the relationship and grow resentment instead.

Consequences are not given nor enforced—punishments are. The natural consequence of the child leaving the lights on is that the lights use power when no one seems to need them. Your electric bill might be affected. But no one enforces these natural consequences. They happen on their own.

So, if I don’t want to use power on my child, what is the alternative? Do nothing and leave the lights on? Turn them off myself whenever I see they are left on? This would be ok if I’m truly not bothered and not conflicted about the lights being left on. And if I am, maybe I can work on myself not to be bothered: take deep breaths, meditate, calm my mind. Maybe. But this can only go so far if there are deeper underlying reasons for my unsettled feelings. If I’m bothered because I’m stressed about my electric bill, I’m going to keep feeling conflicted and perhaps even resentful if I can’t address my need for financial security. Without that, I will just be forcing myself not to care about the waste. And that’s no good either.

There is a third way that does not force the child or myself to do things we do not like. And it starts by acknowledging there is a conflict, expressing it authentically, listening actively to understand empathically, and creating solutions that work for everyone.

It may go something like this:

Parent — Hey, I’ve been reminding you to turn the lights off in your room but I found them on again this morning. Can we talk about it?
Child — Sure.
Parent — So, I’m concerned that leaving the lights on is wasting energy and increasing our electric bill.
Child — Yes, you have told me that and I have been trying to turn them off. But I still forget sometimes.
Parent — You’re trying your best not to leave them on but it doesn’t always work.
Child — Yes, it’s just hard to remember in the middle of everything else, like when I’m rushing to get out the door in the morning.
Parent — I see. Honestly, it’s hard for me too. Sometimes I find that I have left the lights on in some places when I come back from work.
Child — I don’t see why it’s such a big deal anyway.
Parent — You think it may not be really that important to leave the lights on.
Child — Yes. Like, how much does it even cost?
Parent — That’s a good question. Maybe we can figure it out. I’d guess that you’re right it doesn’t matter if we leave a single light on once in a while. But if we are not paying attention and leave many lights on regularly, it’s gonna add up.
Child — Ok. But I am paying attention.
Parent — Yes, I see that now. And that’s reassuring. Thank you! I’m also thinking of investing in LED lights so that’ll reduce the impact on our bill.
Child — Oh, I know! I saw these motion-sensitive switches at my friend’s house that turn off by themselves.
Parent — Yeah, that’s a good idea. They used to be kind of expensive but I think they’re getting cheaper now. I’ll look into them.
Child — That’ll be cool. So much easier.
Parent — Great. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this!
Child — Of course!

You might say that the parent did not really get what they wanted and the child did not actually change their behavior. Yes, as it turned out in this dialogue, the parent realized that while the child is not convinced this is a big deal, they have been trying their best to accommodate the parent’s wish; that even the parent leaves the lights on sometimes; that, indeed, it is not clear if leaving the lights on occasionally has a real impact on the electric bill; that there are other ways of addressing concerns about the bill, like switching to LED lights and motion-sensitive switches. That, in sum, the parent was no longer stressed about their finances, and no longer had good reason to continue with their reminders and requests.

Often, being open and honest can also help us grow out of our own insecurities. For example, this conversation might naturally continue as:

Parent — You know, I have kind of a reflexive reaction to lights being left on, because when I was a kid my parents really went after me for it. I even got spanked once.
Child — Wow! That’s extreme.
Parent — Yeah, it was. So, I’ve internalized some of that. I will never punish or force you like that.
Child — I know you won’t. Sometimes I feel like you’re pressuring me, but I know you’re doing your best.
Parent — Ok. That’s good to know. I’ll be more mindful not to pressure you into doing things either.

By keeping our conversations and ourselves honest and authentic, we can go deeper and uncover new ground to tread on, instead of staying stuck in the mud of our past.

Authentic expressions of open minds and empathic hearts will keep the lights on in our connections.



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