Monday, May 13, 2013

Unnatural Consequences

When our daughter Josephine was a young 3-year-old we purchased expensive front row seats to attend a classical music performance. It wasn't a special "family" performance, but she had become a fan of the late Vladimir Horowitz via video and this concert featured, not Horowitz of course, but an up-and-comer that many said had great potential. We were all excited for it, and in Josephine's case, probably too excited: she simply couldn't stop talking, even once the performance began.

When my whispered urges and cajoling didn't have the desired effect, my embarrassment mounting, I turned to threats: "If you don't stop talking, we'll have to leave." When that didn't work, I went the punitive route: "If you don't stop talking, we'll have to leave and you won't get to chew any gum for three days." She was very into chewing gum at the time.

As we eventually packed up and slinked out of the concert hall, I was fuming. In contrast, Josephine seemed, frankly, happy as a lark. I said, "We had to leave that expensive piano concert because you couldn't stop talking. It was ruining the show for everyone." I'd never resorted to punishment before, but in the moment, to this inexperienced and agitated parent, that seemed like the proper course. I wasn't even sure she knew what the word "punishment" meant. I said, "You are going to get a punishment. I told you if you kept talking you wouldn't get any gum for three days. We had to leave, so no gum for three days."

This got her attention, "Why?"

"Because you were talking in the concert."

"Three days is too long."

"I told you that if you didn't stop talking you would get a punishment of no gum for three days."


"Because you were ruining the concert for the other people."

"But I like chewing gum."

This conversation went on like this all the way home. Me trying to draw the connection between no gum and talking in the concert, while she just wanted to talk about no gum, completely unable, it seemed, to comprehend what one had to do with the other. Yes, she understood that you can't talk in a show and understood why we had left. That's what I wanted our conversation to be about. She, however, was only interested in talking about gum, why it had to be three days, and why her dad was taking it away, apparently completely baffled by this entirely unnatural consequence.

That was our family's first and last foray into the world of punishment. I think we got lucky. The lesson I learned was to not buy expensive concert tickets for a young 3-year-old: being able to sit quietly in the front row isn't necessarily in the skill set of young children.

We stuck with the three day gum punishment because we didn't know what else to do. Every conversation we had during that enforced hiatus would turn to the subject of gum. Not long ago, I reminded my now 16-year-old of this episode. She remembered the punishment, but nothing else, which didn't surprise me at all.

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Sara said...

Interesting. I assume the natural consequence was already enforced - that you had to leave the concert. The problem (for you) is that for her that wasn't a negative, as she was probably about done with what she could handle... I've found following natural consequences to be much harder on myself than on my son, although they really do have an impact on his future choices.

Holly said...

That too often is the problem with punishment. Supposedly, it is to teach a lesson about behavior. Unfortunately, it turns out that what kids remember is that their parents did/said this or that, and how upset they were. Not exactly the original intent.

Jessica Leigh said...

Great story. I am a pianist and played many many recitals growing up. One time at about age seven I was chit chatting with a friend while waiting impatiently for my turn to perform. My dad hauled me out of the theatre and I had to sit in the van for about 20 minutes until it was my turn to play. I quickly learned respect for the performer. From then on I always show ultimate respect in any setting where the viewer should be quiet. What slays me now are the adults that loudly talk or whisper during shows or even at the movies, someone should take their gum away ;) jk.