As an expert on child rearing (joke — I don’t have kids), I understand that the time-out, the grounding, and the taking away of privileges are all ways to teach children about consequences. Hopefully, when you’re practicing consequence-teaching in your own home, you are understanding that each consequence must be meaningful and appropriate, so as to discourage the questionable behavior in the future. (This brings to mind an example that I personally witnessed where a mom reached into the back seat to slap her son on the hand while saying, “don’t hit your brother.”) I think you see my point.

Since I’m not an expert on child rearing, I’m going to switch my focus to adult rearing.  I seem to be wondering lately whether grown-ups can still be taught about consequences.  What do you think?  Is it possible or is it too late?

As adults, we (hopefully) understand that not paying income tax will result in the consequence of interest and penalties.  We (also hopefully) understand that speeding, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident, and allowing the parking meter to expire are also actions which may be subject to consequences.  Other behaviors, while not necessarily illegal or unlawful, can also result in consequences.  Literally, in this past week alone, I learned (yet again) the consequence of not using my microwave correctly, and one of my clients learned that the consequence of having an affair was the end of her marriage.

Do you think consequences depend on our behavior?  Or do you think our behavior depends on consequences?

Perhaps the answer is to first determine whether the consequence is positive or negative.  Positive consequence, also referred to as reinforcement, is generally more successful than negative consequence, or punishment.  What if, after you and your family finish the  Saturday chores, you all go bowling?  That activity is a positive consequence and it is reinforcement of good behavior.  On the other hand, if your report wasn’t turned in by the deadline, you will be facing a negative consequence.  Your punishment is having to go into the office on Saturday to complete it. 

In a perfect world, we’d all be forward-thinking enough to decide whether our actions will result in a punishment or in a reward.  Some people act first without concern about consequences, figuring that if necessary, they can clean up the mess later.  Other people are so concerned about consequences, that they overthink every decision to the point of paralysis.  There’s an episode on The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon can’t decide between a new PlayStation or a new XBox,  which perfectly depicts someone overthinking the potential consequences. 

Our criminal justice system is built upon consequences, yet one look at the overcrowded prisons tells me that the potential for punishment isn’t necessarily a deterrent to illegal acts.   On the other hand, there are many former inmates who’ve been rehabilitated and who are living lawful, productive lives.  Perhaps they are the best illustration of teaching adults about consequences.