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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1997 Issue #44

(and consequences)
by: Lon Woodbury 

The more we control a child’s environment, the freer he or she becomes.” 

At first glance, this seems a paradoxical statement, especially in our era of emphasis on rights and individual freedoms for all. The statement does make sense, however, when considering the child with behavioral/emotional problems. 

The out-of-control child has often claimed the freedom to do anything he/she wants. This claimed freedom, with no sense of responsibility or accountability, often results in disapproval, conflict, and failure. The child usually has no idea of the source of the problem. 

This out-of-control child is only freed from this downward spiral when he/she learns actions have consequences, and this lesson is best taught through a structured environment where consequences are clear. 

Learning the lesson of cause and effect through a properly structured environment, the child (or adult) is then free to pick the consequences he or she wants. Without learning this lesson, a child’s (or adult’s) life is controlled by events and circumstances beyond his/her direct control, and the child’s life is anything but free. The ability to predict consequences is the basis of civilized behavior, and teaching that ability is not only what good parenting is about, but is also what emotional growth schools and programs are about. 

Professionals in the emotional growth school and program field talk a lot about structure. Schools and programs are frequently categorized based on how tight the structure is, and students are often referred by educational consultants based on how much structure the child needs in order to learn how to be a responsible adult. 

The mirror image way of looking at this is to ask how much intervention is needed. For example, a child who is totally out of control needs much more intervention and structure created for him/her than the child who is only under-performing at school. There is a point where the structure or intervention needed by a specific child is beyond the capability of the home, and this is when a residential structured school or program must be found. 

Structure is the rules, regulations, laws, agreements and understandings a person lives with. Exactly what they are defines the kind of community or society a person lives in. 

When child professionals talk about a tight structure, they have in mind an environment so constructed that consequences of actions are immediate, consistent, and appropriate. In a tight structure, the choices a child must make are obvious, and consequences are clear. 

A properly developed structure usually allows the consequences to be natural and thus more easily accepted by the child. This has obvious advantages over a structure depending on punishment and rewards from an authority figure. The reason being is any authority figure can be rejected by the child as arbitrary or playing favorites, and sometimes this is deserved. It is the quality of clear, obvious and natural consequences that has made responsible wilderness programs so popular in recent years. 

American society has a definite structure. It is a relatively loose structure that assumes each person has an adult level of maturity, based on an ability to predict the consequences of choices and actions. 

In our free society, the people’s ability to make good choices is what the founders of this country referred to as self government. They actually maintained that our system of limited government could only work as designed if the citizens maintained a high level of self government, i.e. an adult maturity to choose good consequences. 

The range of possible choices of a person living in American society is almost infinite. But, the mature person will avoid certain choices because he/she wants to avoid the probable consequences. 

The range of possible choices is wide even for American adolescents who are still legally responsible to the restrictions set by their parents. The relative looseness of this structure (freedom), and the range of possible choices, is unfortunately a fertile field for an adolescent tending toward manipulation, dodging personal responsibility, and into thrills and instant gratification. 

It is the manipulative child who needs intervention to help him/her learn how to protect themselves from unwanted, and sometimes deadly, consequences. They need to learn, from personal experience, how to make constructive choices rather than self-destructive choices, and why choices are important. It is the child who is psychologically intact, but making apparently “irrational, self-destructive decisions”, that caused the founding of many of the emotional growth schools and programs. Although these schools and programs have counseling and some of the elements of treatment centers, the primary purpose is to help the child grow up to age appropriate behavior by helping them LEARN how to make better decisions, rather than to simply CURE them. 

All children need to grow emotionally, and most attain that emotional growth, and the ability to benefit from freedom, through family living. For those teenagers who missed the original lessons in how actions have consequences and need another try, the emotional growth schools and programs were created. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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