Should Children ‘Learn From’ or ‘Suffer’ the Consequences of Actions?

Posted July 8th, 2013 by Nicole Dash in Parenting

clippers boy haircutThe young boy must have only been 10 or 11-years-old. His blond wavy hair was the first thing I noticed as he walked into the salon with his father. The back of my head was resting on a sink as I waited for my conditioning treatment to do its magic, so I had a front-and-center view of the entire exchange. Sometimes you can’t help but notice.

The father spoke to the hair stylist on behalf of his son, “Number three clippers all over please.”

The woman smiled brightly and looked at the boy with hair that reminded me of Justin Bieber pre-scandals. She asked the boy, “So you want a buzz cut today?”

The boy simply looked down at his feet and his shoulders slumped. He sat quietly in the chair and shrugged.

“Oh,” is all the woman said as she made eye contact with the father searching for understanding.

The father who sported a military-style buzz cut patted his son on the shoulder and again spoke for him loudly as if he wanted everyone to hear, “YES, it’s about time. He NEEDS it short. It’s JUST what he needs.”

I could feel the tension in the air. No one said another word as the hair stylist pulled out the clippers. The blond magnificent locks fell to the ground like a slow motion scene from a movie. My stomach tightened and I felt as if it was my hair being buzzed off.

I remained silent and tried not to judge or get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feel angry and sad for the boy who clearly did not want to part with his hair. I imagined this was some sort of lesson. Perhaps it was a punishment, or the father’s way to control and/or rein in a boy who was becoming belligerent. Maybe this father really hates what long hair represents. Regardless of the reasons, it was obviously not the boy’s choice. From my vantage point it wasn’t even a compromise.

I am a mother to four. My oldest is a 14-year-old boy who currently wears his hair short, but when he was about 10 years old had the most beautiful long curly hair. It was his form of self-expression. His teammates even nicknamed him Curly. It was part of his identity at the time.

As a parent I have been faced with many scenarios. My children are not perfect. They have lied, broken things out of spite, fought, said curse words, embarrassed me in public, been disrespectful, hit another child, swiped a candy bar from the grocery store (and had to give it back and apologize immediately or face the “police” for stealing), struggled in school, had notes sent home from the teacher for misbehavior, been banned from our community pool (for a day or two), and made poor choices. And I know this is just the beginning. With four children (three of whom are still very young), I understand they will all present their own challenges and my husband and I will have to parent accordingly. We will have to make tough choices. We will have to dole out punishments and be strict. We will have to be the bad guys again and again.

But, one thing we will never do is strip our children of their identities to prove a point. This is cruel and does nothing more than stir the pot of resentment. This is not a solution to a problem. This is not parenting.

I know I sound judgmental. I have not walked in this father’s shoes and I do not know the whole story. I do, however, know the look of a child who is being broken. I understand children in a way that is hard to explain. It is innate in me and is why I choose to care for children for a living. It is why I choose to have a big family. I do not claim to be Mary Poppins, but children are drawn to me wherever I go and if you want to find me at a family function or party, I am usually hanging out with the kids. I simply get them. My own children may drive me into the bathroom to hide or count to ten at times, but other people’s children are so clear to me.

I understand the boundaries. I understand the difference between making your children “learn from” the consequences of their actions and making them “suffer” the consequences. There is a difference.

And as the newly cropped boy with red-rimmed eyes and a stoic expression passed me on the way out of the salon I knew exactly which path his parents had chosen.

Do you believe there is a difference? Is this tough love or overstepping the boundaries of good parenting? Is there a limit to acceptable punishments? Please leave a comment and join the discussion.

Nicole Dash is a writer, blogger and child care business owner who lives in Annandale, VA with her husband and four children. Nicole writes about family, life, parenting and caring for children on her heartfelt blog Tiny Steps Mommy. She also enjoys connecting with her growing community of friends on the Tiny Steps Mommy Facebook page.



10 Responses to “Should Children ‘Learn From’ or ‘Suffer’ the Consequences of Actions?”

  1. Brenda Amaya

    I love all the emotion you made me feel in this post.I agree with you that it is stepping over boundaries,i am sure is hard as a parent to identified where to draw the line but growing up my parents wanted to define who i was by what they said i was, instead of trying to dig deep and help me figure out who i was myself. Self expression is something i plan to encourage on my now 19 month old .

  2. Dawn | The Crispy Sage


    Your post is powerful. I could feel that boy’s pain/shame in such a gut-wrenching way. I am not a parent, but I agree that children need to have a way to stretch into themselves, to figure out who they are, even if it means a few missteps. My parents were gracious enough to allow me tremendous freedom as a child, and I believe that’s part of where my confidence and creativity come from.

    Thank you for sharing such a moving perspective.

  3. Christy C A

    Beautifully written, I also feel the boy’s – and your – pain and embarrassment here. This is a question I am struggling with myself these days as my only child is 3, and has entered that time when discipline is necessary or we risk allowing her to become more like Veruca Salt than the angel we’ve known up to now.

    A few well-dispensed time outs are miraculous – she always seems happier once she knows where the definitive boundaries are (after the tears dry of course), and that’s good. But aside from that, these days I feel as though we’re constantly harping on her – with good intentions – and I struggle to see the line between letting her know what’s appropriate and not appropriate versus accidentally imparting the message that she’s “not good enough” or “always wrong”. At a time when she is pushing and pushing at the boundaries, when a little give on my part can result in massive amounts of taking it as far as she can on hers, I’m alarmed that she’s recently started apologizing for almost everything she says. (Yet her apologies are 90% meaningless, she’ll say “Sorry” while doing the thing she’s apologizing for.) Oops. This is my own version of “learn” versus “suffer”.

    Regardless, I completely agree with you on the self-identity part. And I hated when my mother forced any haircut on me as a kid, whether as punishment or in the interests of “looking good” for other people. So I try not to do the same to my child.

  4. Melissa

    This is beautifully written. My oldest is just three, so I’m sure my parenting philosophy will develop with her, but I believe strongly that children don’t need discipline in the form of punitive action – they need love, support and empathy to help them develop inner discipline. They’re so much more inclined to accept our guidance, too, when they feel loved and respected by us, just as they are – long hair or short. We have to trust them to learn from the natural consequences of their actions, which usually make them feel bad enough, without any need for shame from their parents.
    Melissa recently posted…Celebrating Independence DayMy Profile

  5. The Unhinged Mom

    For me, a mom of 2 young girls, this can be a hard decision at times. You don’t want to totally break your kid’s spirit, but sometimes they have done something so unbelievable that they must have a lesson or some sort of consequence to their actions. I do believe in letting my kids create their own identity, so I do wonder why this dad took his anger out on the kid’s hair. For me, I usually find some other thing to take a way as a way to punish them… A play date, a planned outing with their friends. A something that they have been looking forward to and will totally hate, but something that is easily replaced and not quite as detrimental.

  6. Shelly

    It doesn’t “sound judgmental”, it is judgmental. I grew up in a home with a scary, overbearing parent. I get it. But not every parent who loses their cool or makes a mistake is “that” parent. We have all of what, 15 minutes worth of the story? Maybe this man is cruel, overbearing, and chooses to humiliate his children or force them to look a certain way. There is an equal chance that the boy did something terrible. Maybe he cut another person’s hair, maybe he bullied someone about their hair. Maybe he did one of a hundred other things that made his dad lose his cool, raise his voice louder than he realized, and take an extreme measure. Perhaps his slumped shoulders and red eyes were due as much to his regret over getting caught as anger at his dad. The kid was obviously allowed control over his hair long enough for it to be long and styled a certain way. So something must have sparked that visit to the salon and there are too many possibilities of what that was to pass judgement.
    It’s so easy to judge another parent, especially out in public. What if we, as fellow parents, try to help out, step in if something is really over the line, or talk to the kid before we make decide another parent is doing it all wrong? Would that be more helpful to us all?

    • Kristi

      I tend to agree with Shelly. We have no idea what was going on. I am big on letting my kids find their own identity. I believe they need the room and freedom to grow and figure it out on their own. However, we don’t know what happened here. We don’t know what pushed this father over this particular cliff. We haven’t walked a mile in his shoes, and until we do, we have no right to rush to judgement on him.
      Kristi recently posted…TOS Crew Review: Dig-It GamesMy Profile

  7. Leslie

    I believe in “natural consequences” so cutting hair as a punishment doesn’t make sense to me. Regarding hair, I try to stick to Barbara Coloroso’s philosophy: “It’s not life-threatening, it’s not morally threatening, it’s not unhealthy” so let the child choose. My kids have been in Catholic school, so school rules have dictated the length of their hair and it has not been as issue. I homeschooled my oldest son for one year and he grew his hair very long. My husband hated it but he knew it had to come off when he went back to school so he endured it. The same son dyed his hair red after high school and grew it long but ultimately on his own went back to his natural color and a more conservative style. With three teenagers under my belt I can assure you–and I wish I could tell the dad in your story–that hair is a battle that is not worth fighting.
    Leslie recently posted…Dear Mom in the PewMy Profile

  8. Dawn

    Wow, that would have been very hard to watch. Regardless of the father’s reasoning, this was not a “heat of the moment” kind of situation, but a planned response. So why the over-the-top reactions from the father in a public setting? That makes me seriously question what he’s like in the actual moment of stress, and not in the public eye.

    Thanks for sharing this story and your perspective, Nicole, and welcome to TDCM!
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