The Power of Natural Consequences

When I was about 17 years old, I wasn’t afraid of anything.  I was invincible.  Nothing scared me, except for the police.  I was deathly afraid of getting pulled over while driving, despite being a very safe teen driver.  I feel like that might be a bit of an oxymoron, teen driver; however, I was a relatively safe and cautious young driver because I was afraid of getting in trouble with the law.  Whenever I saw a parked police car, I slowed down to almost a crawl, even on the highway.

In the area in which I grew up, border patrol stops were common.  They would stop every car and check inside to be sure people weren’t smuggling drugs or people across state or country borders.  It was a common occurrence in the upper valley area.  I had seen these kinds of checkpoints on many occasions growing up.  I knew exactly how to react and what to do.  Despite this, after getting out of work late one evening, and knowing that there was a border patrol checkpoint on the highway, I decided to take a different route home.  While this route was much longer and out of my way, it prevented me from having to get on the highway, thus, missing the border patrol stop.  The fear for me was real back then.  As I took this alternate way to get back to my house from work, I ended up getting a flat tire.  You see, I wasn’t particularly familiar with this the route and all of its turns.  So, when I took a sharp turn, I hit the curb, which sliced my tire, causing it to deflate.  As soon as it happened, I was so upset with myself.  Because I had let my fear get to me, I had gotten a flat tire.  The moral of this story is, don’t listen to those strange voices in your head that tell you to make bizarre choices simply to avoid getting in trouble.  Lesson learned for me, as I never took that long cut home again.  The natural consequence of getting a flat tire taught me to ignore that particular fear in the future.  Now if only I could learn to ignore my other irrational fears, all would be well in the world.

Natural consequences are my favorite as a father and teacher.  Rather than having to lecture students or provide them with consequences that may seem fitting, their choices can naturally provide them consequences while also, hopefully, teaching them an important lesson: Don’t do dumb things.  Although not every action comes with its own built-in natural consequence, some things do, as long as the teacher or caregiver is prepared to allow the child to make his or her own choices.  Sometimes as parents and teachers, we are over-protective and don’t allow our children to learn from their choices. We tend to try and shelter children from harm.  Rather than let a student figure out what happens when they eat glue, we constantly monitor the students and remind them not to eat the glue.  What we need to do is allow children to make choices that might not be the ones we would choose for them, but one’s that provide them with freedom so that they can learn from their mistakes.  Choices with natural consequences are perfect for doing just that.

Yesterday in the classroom, I was finally able to take my students back outside so that they could visit their assigned forest plot.  As the weather has been cold and rainy for the past several weeks, and since the snow just recently melted in some places on campus, the students have been unable to observe their forest plots.  So, I needed to capitalize on yesterday’s moderately good weather.  Now, because of the crazy unspring like weather we’ve been having in recent months, I knew that the forest would be a bit damp and mucky.  So, I told the students to be sure they borrowed boots from the classroom so that their feet wouldn’t get wet.  While a few students took me up on the offer, a fair amount of the boys seemed to think like I once did, that they were invincible.  Their feet will never get wet.  Oh how sorely mistaken they were.  Three students wearing sneakers or dress shoes stepped right into a giant puddle or muddy bog, completely soaking their socks and shoes.  Those students, of course, immediately came running to me when this happened, begging to go back to their room to change.  I reminded them of the school rule that no students may return to the dorms during the academic morning.  Being the teachable moment kind of teacher, I then responded with, “Why didn’t you borrow a pair of boots from the classroom?”  They then responded back with, “I didn’t think it would be this wet.”  Of course they didn’t because they are impenetrable.  Oh to be young again.

Walking back to the classroom with one of the students who had drenched feet, we discussed the idea of natural consequences.  He asked me why he couldn’t go back to his room to change.  I reminded him, again, of the school rule and added, “Having to sit in wet shoes and socks for 30 minutes will hopefully teach you a valuable lesson so that next week when we go outside to visit our forest plots again, you will remember to borrow boots from the classroom so that you don’t get wet feet.”  He didn’t have a witty comeback for that.  He just slowly moped back to the classroom.  While I always want to help and support my students in every way possible, breaking the rules for this student or forcing him to wear boots outside would prevent any actual learning from happening for him.  He needs to see that when he chooses to wear sneakers outside in the forest, they will get wet.  Now he knows.  I don’t like to see students suffer, ever, but they do need to learn, and clearly, my words of encouragement and suggestion did not help.  So, natural consequences it was.   I’m hopeful that these students who had to sit through the final 30 minutes of class with wet shoes will remember this experience next week when we go outside to observe the forest.  Perhaps they will heed my advice to wear boots.  I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how powerful natural consequences truly are.


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