I felt a little surge of joy when the dentist recently reported a cavity in one of my 9-year-old’s molars. That’s because I have long suspected she doesn’t always brush her teeth when I send her into the bathroom each morning and night. Sometimes I think she just turns on the water and lets it run for a minute, so it sounds like she’s diligently scraping away the gummy worm residue. Perhaps I am revealing a major flaw in my child-rearing, but I’m not convinced her older brother and sister brush their teeth with any regularity, either; I recently spent two days sharing a room with my eldest daughter in New York City, where I observed–and she admitted–that when she’s tired, she only tackles them in the morning. I wish she’d get a cavity, too.
It’s not that I want their mouths to resemble my own silver-filled monument to the flouride-free 70s. But it’s about time they faced a consequence for something. Lately I have noticed that my dire warnings–“You’re going to be late!” “You’re going to freeze!” “You’re going to be starving!” “You’re going to get an ‘F’!”–never come to pass, completely undermining my “natural consequences” approach to parenting. Rather than nag, cajole or micromanage, I believe in letting the breakfast-skipper go hungry and the procrastinator take a zero on her lab report, under the theory that it’s the only way they’ll figure out how to manage their lives. But what, exactly, do they learn if a classmate hands over a Luna bar in homeroom or the physics teacher graciously grants an extension? They learn that I’m always wrong! They won’t actually starve or fail. At least the dentist proved me right on one score: you will get a cavity if you don’t brush.
Ironically, teachers appear to be the biggest obstacle to my children learning these life lessons. My 8th grade son was recently assigned a poetry project for English class, which involved writing and illustrating a dozen poems in a variety of genres. He had two weeks to complete the project, and I only started bugging him–“You’re not going to finish in time!” “You’re going to get points deducted!”–in the final few days. Even so, he spent the morning it was due frantically concocting lame haikus about household objects, and dashing off sketches to match. He looked so miserable and disappointed in himself that I refrained from piling on. I figured his grade would be punishment enough. Well, so much for natural consequences: the teacher awarded him an A-. “She called it Picassoesque!” he said proudly.
To be fair, I am not blameless in this cycle of cause-and-no-effect. As a closet enabler, I regularly flout my own policies, unable to bear seeing my children suffer–even if it’s their own damn fault. I have, on more than one occasion, purchased a new sweatshirt for a child who insisted “It’s not cold!” when we left the house, stubbornly ignoring my meteorological foresight. I have definitely shared my sandwich with someone who initially said she didn’t want one. And I have turned back with a child who refused to wear the proper footwear on a hike or bike ride. In fact, more often than not, I’m the one who ultimately suffers the consequences of their actions. At a barbecue last weekend, my little daughter–the one with the cavity–kept eating ice cubes out of a cooler filled with drinks, not to mention, grass, pebbles and all sorts of bacteria from the dozens of hands constantly reaching in. “Stop eating the ice!” I warned her, repeatedly. “It’s dirty. It’s going to make you sick!” Chomping away, she ignored me. And yet, who was beside her the next morning, holding her hair as she bent, ashen-faced, over the toilet bowl? Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than right. But at least she won’t be eating ice from a cooler any time soon.