Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More on Natural and Logical Consequences

Okay, so I  promised one of my favorite stories on natural consequences. Stop me if you've heard this.

No? Then here goes.

In our house we talk a lot about choices and options. I'm a firm believer in giving kids every possible, reasonable choice. But with that freedom comes responsibility.

My kids know without a doubt that they can make their own choices, and along with them come the responsibilities - and consequences - of those choices.

Case in point. When S was about 6 years old, we all decided to go on a 3-mile hike to find a geocache in the woods. We'd be hiking over gravel and rock trails and through weeds, right along with the Texas critters. S decided she wanted to wear her favorite flip-flops. Pink, plastic flip-flops.

We talked about how long the hike was and what kind of ground we'd be walking on. We discussed how no one was going to carry her if her feet got scratched, she got blisters, or she got tired. I told her that I thought it was not a wise choice, but I also told her it was her choice. If she chose to wear them, that was her choice and her responsibility to see it through to the end of the hike.

No, I wasn't willing to carry an extra pair of shoes. I was already carrying water bottles, first aid, snacks, and other assorted mommy things. No, no one else would be willing to carry another pair of shoes for her, since it was her choice to start out with inadequate equipment. And as it turns out ... no, she wasn't willing to carry an extra pair either. 

Of course, she decided to wear the stupid pink flip-flops. (Did I mention that she's my headstrong one?) She agreed that she was on her own and seemed perfectly fine with it.

Gee, I'll give you one guess as to what happened. About a mile away from the car on the way back, she developed blisters. It was sheer torture for me to watch her hobble her way back to the car, alternating between going barefoot on sharp stones and wearing plastic on fresh blisters, heaving big, deep sobs. 

I got a lot of flak from friends for letting her suffer. Lots of people thought I was unduly harsh. Maybe I was. It was one of the toughest things I've done.

But you know what? From that point forward, she's always had adequate footwear for any situation. Even today, she'll pick practicality over fashion if there's a pressing need to do so. 

What's more, this one episode bled over into virtually every other potential power struggle. We virtually never have them, even now 5 years later.

But what if I'd relented at the last minute and carried her to the car? What would she have learned? For one, she would have learned that she doesn't really have to think for herself, because some authority figure will take care of her. For another, she wouldn't have learned how to be prepared for future excursions. And there are lots of other things she learned, not the least of which was that she was strong enough to power her way through a difficult situation and come out okay on the other side. She also learned that she has people who love her and will stand by her, even when she makes a stupid choice.

You know the really funny thing? Now, all these years later, she doesn't remember that episode. But the lessons she learned became so ingrained in her brain that they became a part of who she is.

There's another thing about natural/logical consequences that I think many people miss. By letting a child make a choice and live by the results, you're telling that child that you respect her. If you always are prepared for her choice to fail (e.g., if I'd sneaked in an extra pair of shoes into my backpack), then you're telling her that you didn't have faith in her. You didn't believe that she was smart enough to make a choice that would work. It's kind of like the mom who remakes the bed after their child has made it. What she's telling that kid is "your best isn't good enough." 

I want our kids to learn good choices and responsibility at an early age, when the consequences are minor, rather than have them wait until they're old enough that the consequences of poor choices can be deadly. When a young child gets a few blisters from a poor choice - even after being given all the pertinent information - she's uncomfortable for a few days. When a newly driving teenager makes poor choices - especially if she's never been given the opportunity to live with the true (natural) consequences - she or her friends could end up with consequences that will change their lives in devastating ways.

Information is power. With every natural consequence my child gets, she has learned a bit more about the world. She's added something to her storehouse of information, which I hope will serve her well through her life.


  1. Excellent post. Sometimes you have to be "tough". Better they learn the natural and logical consequences in a controlled environment where you can make sure life and limb are not compromised than to have to figure it out at age thirty.

    Respect: yes, we parents must give respect - we can't just demand it.

    That being said, can I send my kids to you for intense training? I promise I'll take them back just as soon as you make them perfect. :)

  2. Era, get in line. :)

    I tried out my calm voice today (maybe for the first time, haha). One of mine loves throwing the snack napkin on the floor from the couch when done, having it there obviously offends his sensibilities. Yes, I let them snack on the couch. Today (for the 421st time) I asked him to pick it up. He refused. Then I calmly said, 'Ok, if you don't pick it up and put it in the laundry, I may put it back in the drawer and think it is a clean napkin and you might wipe your face on a dirty napkin next time." Before I could turn around the napkin was gone.

  3. I got in line first. I am first, me first. But anyway :), Camille, you have guts. I wouldn't have been able to have enough conviction in my theory to emotionally be able to achieve that. to me, it seems that when I have succeded at this (like keeping him home when he delayed for the nth time getting ready in the morning) the learning lasted for a while in his memory and then FADED! --Deepa

  4. Hey, Era, maybe we can switch for a while? I'm sure my kids would like a break from me. :)

    Raji, love that story! I wonder if it'll stick?

    Deepa, yeah, it was tough. But this wasn't the first time she and I had had a battle of the wills. I was at the end of my rope. Fortunately, it worked. And yes, the memory often fades--it takes constant reinforcement, but they eventually get it.