I have it on good authority that children, even up into adolescence, are not able to understand the concept of consequences. You can tell them that if they leave candles lit in their bedroom, the drapes will catch fire, but they won't understand that until it actually happens; even then, the lesson has only been learned temporarily.
My stepdaughter has been told to be kind with the cat. "Don't be so rough," we say, over and over and over again. It means nothing, since she doesn't FEEL the consequences; they are nebulous, vague. They don't apply to her, or she can't see how she would be negatively impacted by snatching the cat and holding her too snugly. "You'll end up with a cat that runs from you and scratches you," we say, and at the moment, she grasps that. Of course, she says, "I'll be more careful. Sorry." Ten minutes later, the behavior returns, without malice: she can't make the connection between our warning and her subsequent actions.
This occurs to me as an epidemic in the culture. It's not just children who fail to see how their actions affect others, or them; I see this in my (supposedly) adult students all of the time. At the beginning of a semester, I warn them about the consequences of not studying, the consequences of poor attendance, the negative results of ignoring homework and not participating in discussion; and every single semester, around week 13 or so, reality hits. Thirty percent will fail. They can't believe it; they are astounded. It can't possibly be happening--they studied! It becomes my fault (I don't like them; I have some personal issue with them), or the tests' fault, or the textbook's fault, or the fault of the language itself. In their bid to avoid personal responsibility, we enter surreal territory, a desperate landscape where I am the Evil One denying them the water they need to survive. When the bargaining begins, it never focuses on whether or not they have learned the material, on whether or not they can speak, read, write or understand Spanish. "I have to pass this class to get into UCLA," "I need to pass this class or my mom will kill me," or "If I don't pass this class, I'll lose my scholarship."
Of course, we do this dance every semester with the same, lamentable results. They fail, some will petition for a grade change, they won't get it, and by the time I have finally made the bad news sink in, a new semester starts and I start the useless discussion regarding actions and consequences all over again. I suppose that it's normal for me to get depressed, and I do, with regularity. I feel impotent and useless, a talking head that repeats herself endlessly to a deaf audience. I am paid to undergo this tri-annual disappointment, but the money doesn't take away the sting of it. It feels as if I am running in circles, always dragging along students through the new college experience before they are ready for it, before they can understand it.
On a national level, I see the same thing happen. We clearly don't learn from history and are aggressive in our ignorance and willful refusal to think, to contemplate and to revise our behavior. We engage in the same wars again and again, believing that this time the results will be different. The people in power don't listen to the voices of reason and education, since to do so would contradict our image of ourselves as constant innovators and pioneers. Everything we do is by definition different and new and unique, since we are Americans. Ingrained in our collective consciousness is the idea that our actions are always good and right, because we are who we are. The consequences of our foreign policy have nothing to do with our decisions; the blame lies with whoever is the latest scapegoat for our failures.
Don't play rough with the cat. She's almost wild, and she's turning on you. But you won't know that until it's your blood that is shed.