For the sake of full disclosure, my idyllic visit to the Ashland County Fair with the lovely Madelyn Simone and the delightful and determined Elizabeth Holiday didn’t turn out to be quite the "hap-happiest season of all." The animal barns smelled, rowdy cackles and crows greeted us in the poultry barn and the thunderous noise of the dragon roller coaster was overwhelming to our 4-year-old Lizzie. Our balloons escaped into the heavens. I questioned my sanity as we rocked at the top of the rickety Ferris wheel - how could we possibly get rescued if the ride broke down?
With a no-nap day, a sensory overload and a sugar high for which I totally take responsibility, it’s no wonder my precious granddaughter had a meltdown or two during our five-hour visit to the fair. Her behavior needed to be addressed, but as she wailed in the midway, the possible consequences were limited. I threatened to take her to the car if she couldn’t get it together. I looked for a quiet corner for a short time-out. I raised my voice. I thought about the word "spank." I nearly cried along with her. And I wondered if maybe next year, we might just stay at Nana’s house and eat mashed potatoes and gravy on the day of the fair.
The ministry organization I served in for many years had a similar dilemma about consequences. A series of checks and balances were in place on a regional level, including an adherence to work standards and organizational policy. A weekly meeting of regional leadership reviewed requests and concerns and subsequently expected responses in line with policy. One day, a friend shook her head as she exited that weekly meeting, saying: "I wish I had known years ago that I didn’t need to do what headquarters told me to do!" Knowing my friend, her own sense of a moral compass wouldn’t allow her to consistently break the rules, but she recognized the struggle of leadership when faced with the response: "So what? What are you going to do to me?"
When a person utilizes a well-developed moral compass, they ask the questions: who will be helped by what I do? Who will be harmed? When the answer to the first question is "me" and to the second is "everybody else," then we’ve got trouble. Many workplaces are constrained by a lack of enforceable consequences short of termination. "You’re fired" may resonate on reality TV, but it’s not a practical response on a day-to-day basis in the workplace or the family. Neither is "we’re leaving the fair now" only 10 minutes into our visit.
Parenting experts tell us that consequences for poor behavior should be age-appropriate, immediate and enforceable. The consequence should also impact the misbehaver, not the enforcer or other family member. Taking recess away from the entire second grade class because two classmates didn’t finish their lunch on time is not effective punishment. That’s true in the workplace as well. Keeping a less-than-productive employee is tough on the rest of the staff, but a suspension or firing puts a heavier burden on co-workers and supervisor as they take up the slack until a replacement can be hired and trained.
If the breaker-of-the-rules knows there are few consequences for their actions, then why not do what they want? Pop music star Charli XCX blatantly admits the challenge: "I don’t wanna go to school, I just wanna break the rules."
In nursery school, Lizzie learned about making green choices and red choices, an early step in the development of a moral compass. She understands the difference, but still needs encouragement to make green choices, and age-appropriate consequences when she chooses red. Ideally, we expect adults to operate with a mature moral compass, guided by personal values and societal norms. But unless effective consequences are in place, we all pay the price when another’s compass is warped, ignored or non-existent.
Robert Louis Stevenson provides a memorable image: "Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences." Will the menu be bitter or sweet?
— JoAnn Shade, author of "Only in Ashland: Reflections of a Smitten Immigrant," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.