Consequences: What Are They For?

I happened upon a post from The Path Less Taken. Folks, this is one of those that, when you are having that rough moment, you read and read and read until you feel relieved of the burden of anger and frustration. I’m new to this blog, but I will certainly be checking back to see what else there is going on there.

The post is called: Why I Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk. It talks about what matters. For her:

I’m not mad when someone spills.
I’m not mad when someone makes a mess.
I’m not mad when something gets broken.
I’m not mad when my kids act like kids.

This brought up the conversation about consequences. I felt inspired to write the following musings of my own:

I’ve been thinking a lot on consequences, I keep coming back to the fact that things are never as black and white as they might seem. I mean that children have lots of reasons why they do things. How can I give my child a consequence for trying to learn something? Even as a teacher of adolescents, I have learned to ask before barging through to consequences. I can’t tell you how many times things seemed open and shut, but after dialogue I learned I was holding many assumptions about motivation and causation.

I am not saying consequences aren’t part of raising children, I’m just cautioning (myself) against jumping to that step before figuring out what is actually going on. Our children are like us: complex human beings. I think the relationship and learning opportunities created for all can be worth asking the question, and it can also make any consequences that may follow make more sense and have more meaning. Sometimes when I am out in public, I feel pressure to “teach my child right and wrong,” when I am really going for learning with (and about) my child. 

I hope I’m not losing meaning in semantics…..

Here’s a situation that slapped me in the face and taught me to think twice before doling out consequences with my power:

I had a tough math class, tough because they came in the first day telling me they were going to be talking all the time because they are dumb because they were the kids always in the “dumb math class.” After a while of getting a positive, strong community of learners going we made a lot of progress, but were hitting this wall sometimes still. I asked for honest feedback from the kids: What did they like? What kinds of activities did they feel like they learned best from? What makes learning hard? Do they feel safe? I took all their feedback about what to learn and how to learn and came up with this lesson that incorporated a lot of what they had to say. I worked my butt off.

The lesson began, using computers since that was one thing they wanted more of. From the moment they opened the computers there was a ruckus. This was our worst class ever. I could feel myself losing it, but I had just read this book called Compassionate Classroom. Instead of getting tough and launching into consequences, I stopped and said, “I am feeling frustrated because I worked hard to create something based on the feedback you gave me and we just had what I feel like was the worst class yet. What happened?” It immediately came out, and I was struck by what I heard.

When some students were able to log in earlier than others and thus begin and complete their work faster, the students whose computers logged in slowly felt behind and frustrated because they couldn’t do anything about it. They were frustrated because they believed they could do the work but it felt like they were looking dumb for something that was out of their control. We had a great conversation about creating a safe and productive community, and they decided to come up with some guidelines for computer use. We never had a single problem with computers again, and the general vibe in the classroom was decidedly more open and supportive after the children voiced their hurts and worries to each other. (I, of course, have gone on to advocate for untracked math classes and more differentiated learning/teaching, knowing the wounds and habits exist into adulthood.)

Consequences are a natural part of life and living. Children can and will and should learn this. They also have a right to the respect of including them in the process. When a child feels truly heard even in their worst and darkest moments, they can feel free to fully learn from life all the lessons it has to offer. They can know for sure that they matter and are loved. That seems like a good lesson to learn….

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