The Law of Unintended Consequences

If we could look into the future, we might be surprised at the consequences our present actions would have on others. We may not intend the results that occur. Robert Merton, a well-known sociologist in the early 1900’s, stated that the phenomenon of all human actions having at least one unexpected result was so common it could be labelled the “law of unintended consequences”. This “law” operates politics, societies and relationships. A recent example of this occurred in a country trying to exterminate its prolific rat population. A program that was established to pay a bounty for each rat pelt collected had the unexpected consequence of rat farms being developed to take full advantage of the monetary rewards! Or consider the unintended consequences of the technological innovations of Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the World Wide Web. Although it was developed only for publishing and distribution of physics papers, statistical estimates today suggest that there are over two billion users of the World Wide Web in technological communications today.

This law of “unintended consequences” also affects our relationships, especially in parenting. In the light of the recent Stanley Cup riots, the Twelve rules for Developing your Normal Healthy Baby into a Juvenile Delinquent set out by the Houston City police department seem quite relevant. Raising a child to be a juvenile delinquent would not be a goal for any new parent, but it may be the unintended result of certain parenting practices.

Consider Marci’s situation. She wanted to raise her son so that he would have things that she never did, to be a “buddy” to him instead of a disciplinarian and to give him complete freedom in making life choices. In reality, Marci gave Johnny everything he wanted, when he wanted it. She attempted to make up for her own childhood without the experience of designer clothing, expensive vacation trips, and the “toys” her peers had. She and her husband paid hugely for this – with their constant work they neglected and lost their own relationship. In retrospect, Marci realized that by giving her son everything he wanted, she never gave him the opportunity to want something badly enough that he might work for it himself. She had not anticipated the unintended consequences in Johnny’s sense of entitlement and boredom with his life.

Marci did everything for her little boy. Getting him to do his chores was frustrating so she stopped asking. She didn’t realize that her own negligence to enlist his help fostered irresponsibility. She didn’t recognize that a child’s ability to work is learned early, through simple tasks that teach him that work can be enjoyable and rewarding. The unintended consequence of Marci’s lax parenting was Johnny’s lax responsibility, with an expectation that others should provide him with life’s necessities.

Marci and her husband did not expose Johnny to any moral teachings or spiritual guidance, believing instead that he would be able to make those decisions for himself when he “grew up”. Now, as a young adult, he did not know what to believe, let alone why to believe it. When he got into trouble with his teachers, his coaches and eventually the law, Marci took his side, rather than letting him suffer the consequences for his behaviour. Now, seeing Johnny as a young adult, Marci realized that he did not recognize “right” from “wrong”. Johnny had no moral compass to guide his actions and little ability to understand other’s perspectives. Although he had physically become an adult, he was ill-prepared to assume the responsibilities of one.

Marci never anticipated these consequences. Had she been aware that her complacency, her desire to be liked and her conflict avoidance would contribute to Johnny’s delinquency, she may have changed course. Instead, her coddling left her son with an unmerited sense of entitlement, an apathetic work ethic, and a lack of respect for authority figures. Of course Johnny’s behaviour is not entirely due to his parenting. His personality, social connections and the influence of others are also significant. Yet the role of Johnny’s parents, particularly in his younger years, is especially important.

How do we influence the most positive outcomes possible for our children? Here are a few ideas: 1) We need to parent intentionally and proactively. It’s a helpful practise to set aside time once or twice a year to focus on your family’s needs and goals for the next time period. Observe your children. Ask the important questions. Consider their development socially, emotionally, physically and mentally. Evaluate your child’s ability to make decisions, their sense of humour and ability to care for others, their ability to be a good communicator and listener, their ability to discern right from wrong, their ability to fail and cope with failure, their ability to forgive others and to ask for forgiveness, their ability to attempt the impossible, their ability to be a good citizen and whether they feel secure in their parent’s love. Where they are lacking in an area, develop a plan to help them grow in it.

2) Realize as parents we need to be willing to be teachable ourselves. We need to make ourselves accountable to friends and/or family who demonstrate wisdom in their lives and want the best for us. We need to ask questions, read the right books and look for role models that we ourselves can aspire to.

3) Work towards being the persons we want our children to be. We need to set examples for our children in our family and community life. An effective parent makes decisions intentionally, exemplifying the attitudes and teaching the skills that help their children live life fully. There may be unintended consequences in parenting, but with care, consistent evaluation, and positive examples, it is possible these consequences can be good ones.


Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash
The Law of Unintended Consequences
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Joan has provided counselling for marriage, family and individual concerns for over 25 years.  She provides guidance and support for relationship difficulties, reconstructing marriage after an affair, conflict resolution, problem-solving and parent-child relationships.  Joan works with individuals who are dealing with depression, anxiety, loss, trauma recovery and/or experience with assault and abuse.

Joan’s approach depends upon the situation presented, and includes a variety of therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Family Therapy, EMDR and Emotionally Focused Therapy.  Client strengths are emphasized with personal insight and responsibility for growth is encouraged.

Joan’s doctoral dissertation research focused on resilience factors in adversity. She received her master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by two years of specialized clinical training in Chicago.  She is a member of the B.C. College of Psychologists and the B.C. Psychological Association.

Joan enjoys teaching in community, retreat and university settings on topics related to her areas of practice and experience.  Having been married for over thirty years, with four adult children, her approach to relationships and life problems is both realistic and practical.

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