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Adolescence and Learning from Experience

"Consequential Learning" lets consequences of choices inform decision making

Although not exactly the parent’s words, this was the spirit of what she said.

“I don’t raise teenagers like their lives are mine to manage. I never have. I manage myself as a parent and I raise young people who someday soon will have to manage themselves as independent adults. This means I know my limits. What I choose to do and say and set as a parent is up to me. How they choose to respond and act on their own is up to them. I can inform their choices, but I can’t control them, so I don’t get into arguments about who’s in charge of their lives. No contest. They are. What I can do, however, and what I always try to do, is help them connect the dots – between the actions they take and the outcomes they get. That's Reality Education, that’s how they grow responsibility, and that’s my responsibility to help them learn.”

This struck me as a pretty practical approach to parenting: help the adolescent focus on the choice/consequence connections in their lives. This is when the notion of “Consequential Parenting” came to mind: one job of parents is to help the teenager confront and learn from the consequences of her or his choices both for good and ill.

I believe the essence of self-management for parents to teach their adolescent in preparation for adult independence is thoughtful decision- making. One must be reflective (“What happened the last time?”), predictive (“What might happen this time?”), and receptive (“What have I been told?”) Stopping to consider what is a wise decision takes time, and that is part of the problem.

Time to think can be hard to take in adolescence when impatience, impulsiveness, urgency, pressure from peers, and inability to postpone gratification are all urging “act now while you can!” Compared to children and adults, adolescents often seem to have a higher speed of life. They are in a hurry to grow up faster. They don’t want to miss out or be left out, they don’t want life to pass them by, they want to give everything a try, they want to keep up with companions and the competition and not lag behind.

Just like substance intoxication can intensify the moment, adolescent excitement can also create a Tyranny of Now. So, preoccupied with satisfying some present want or need, the young person can give no thought to what happened before or might come after, truly surprised when they get hurt or caught or into trouble. The urgent order of the moment seems to be: “Full speed ahead and ignore the risks!” And at some points, sooner or later, most adolescents will “crash,” regretting a result they could have foreseen and avoided, if only they had stopped long enough to take time and think how freedom of choice is never free of consequences.

To parents, this can seem contradictory. After all, if an adolescent can delay them forever, if she can continually procrastinate and put off what she doesn’t like doing, why can’t she delay herself long enough to think about complicated choices in her life? The answer may be that delay in service of resistance is a lot easier for an adolescent to mount than delay in the face of temptation is to tolerate.

Sometimes parents can encourage the young person to routinely practice delaying an important decision for literally just a minute to consult judgment by taking “The Quick Thinking Test,” a short exercise in choice/consequence, consequential thinking. This means raising and answering three brief questions: “Why would I want to do this?” “What are the harmful possibilities involved?” “Are the rewards worth the risks?” A lot of the troubles I see teenagers get into are NOT a function of some inability to think; it is a function of not taking the time to think. Their judgment is fine; they are just not consulting it to full advantage. “I knew better; I just wasn’t thinking!” is often a true confession.

So what might parents want to explain about how one’s passage through life unfolds? They can talk about how experience proceeds like an endless chain of personal choice linked to some consequence (a person having more control over choice than outcome), and how everyone’s path is ruled by the larger play of happenstance (over which a person has no control at all.) So parents might say: “Leading your life is a mix of figuring out how go with the flow of chance and circumstance that you can’t command or change; and then going your own best way to the degree freedom of choice allows, always facing consequences, learning from experience as you grow.” People who won’t or can’t connect choices with consequences are learning disabled.

Now consider three kinds of consequences – natural, social, and parental in an adolescent’s life.

A time for Natural consequences could be when an un-mindful action leads to an unwanted outcome – texting while driving takes the new driver’s eyes off the road, the car rear-ending the one ahead which had come to a sudden stop. Inattention can be costly.

A time for Social consequences could be when a regulation or law is intentionally broken -- older peers pass a shoplifted CD to the youngest of their number who gets detained outside the store with stolen goods. Law breaking can be costly.

A time for Parental consequences could be when a family condition that has been agreed to goes unmet – a high school junior refuses to answer repeated parental cell phone calls when out two hours later than curfew, and gone is cell phone use for a couple of weeks. Broken family commitments can be costly.

In each case, present consequence can inform future choice and a corrective lesson can be learned.

But suppose what consequences have to teach are denied by well-meaning parents who don’t want to see their teenager made unhappy or hurt by the error of his ways. “Oh he’s really a good kid. He means well. Let him off. He’ll know better the next time. He promised.” Sometimes it’s hard for parents to let unhappy consequences of unfortunate choices bite.

And sometimes, the young person’s “promise” may hold, but also maybe not. Bad consequences can inspire more reform than good intent. In this instance, protecting their teenager from the consequences of mistake or misbehavior runs the risk of preventing him from learning what he needs to know, and worse, he may have to profit from even harder experience later on. For example, having been spared from facing substance use education, community service, and other consequences for a Minor in Possession charge as a sophomore in high school may clear the way for the young person to dare driving under the influence after Prom senior year.

A common way that parental consequences for a violation miscarry is when parents couple a corrective consequence with criticism, when correction is critical enough. Sensitive to parental disapproval, the adolescent feels hurt and angry when parents attack his character. “How could you make such a thoughtless, stupid choice?” So now, when I ask the teenager why she is grounded for the weekend, I get this reply: “My parents were angry at me again!” And she missed the lesson about the choice/consequence connection parents were trying to teach. Better parents should have responded in a non-evaluative manner: “We disagree with the choice you have made, this is why, this is what needs to happen in consequence, and this is what we hope you will learn.”

Finally, what might be major components of Consequential Parenting? Three come to mind.

First, there is the issue of Accepting Responsibility: “You rise and fall based on the choices you make and facing the consequences you get, so you must own your decisions and confront the outcomes.”

Second, there is the issue of Predictive Thinking: “When considering a serious choice, you need to anticipate possible consequences that might occur, weighing your decision accordingly before you make it.”

Third, there is the issue of Reflective Learning: “Whatever consequence occurs from any choice you make, you need the outcome to instruct your present understanding and inform your future decision making.”

I don’t think the parent paraphrased as the outset of this blog would have claimed that “Consequential Parenting” of adolescents was the whole parenting story. She was too well-versed and wise and loving for that. However, I do believe that focusing a lot of her attention on the teenager’s choice/consequence connection, as she faithfully did, was helpful piece of the parenting puzzle.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Learning to Speak Up