An Open Letter to Parents: It has taken me 16 years (that’s how old my son is), but I think I have finally come up with a New Year’s resolution that would enable all of us to better shape our children’s growth and development. This year let’s all resolve to allow natural consequence guide the repercussions to our children’s behavior.

I have spent these 16 years trying to give my experience to my child so that this good information will guide his choice of behavior. I have concluded that this attempt has been a horrible failure. There is a theory of learning and behavior modification that states that right thinking will lead to right behavior. Thank goodness this thought prevails or the sale of self-help books would plummet! However, this approach to learning is wrong.

Experience will show that you act your way into right thinking, you do not think your way into right acting. Therefore, it is so difficult to tell children what to do. The consequences of a behavior are a far better teacher than anything we are going to tell them.

Experience in life is about action and consequence. As parents, then, the best we can do is hope that reflection about the consequence will lead to changed behavior. It would be nice if we could simply confer as parents and come up with a Rolodex of behaviors and then list the corresponding natural consequence we would like to impose, but it is rarely that simple. I have found, however, a few principles that help me determine how to correlate consequence with behavior.

First, I try not to “fix” all their problems. I do not help complete school projects the night before they are due, for example. At older ages, I resist managing their calendar. Dentist appointments that conflict with a job or a sporting event are left to the child to deal with. If they need a ride, then certain parameters are offered as the need arises. Second, consequence needs to be related. If the issue with the children is not calling to check in while out with their friends, they will not relate to a consequence of extra chores during the week. Perhaps loss of the cellphone for a couple of weeks makes more sense to them. Finally, allowing the natural consequence needs to be reasonable and safe. If the issue is drinking and driving drunk, it is not safe to let them drive drunk while we wait for the expected wreck or arrest. The safer and more reasonable consequence for driving impaired is not driving.

Love is defined by M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) as “the extension of ourselves for the purpose of nurturing another’s spiritual growth.” I like that. When we set appropriate boundaries and consequences for our children, we are expressing our love for them. It is not love to simply let them do what they want. Our job as parents is to equip our children as they grow to meet the world on their own. They will not always have us there to save them, and it is our job to teach them how to be in this world without a dependency on us. Resolving to rely more on natural consequence will help us do that with them. Happy New Year!