Parent educator Jean Ward tells a story about a preschool mother who didn’t let her daughter out of her sight. She obsessively followed Sophie everywhere, but was especially attentive on the playground. Jean tried to persuade this mother to give Sophie more space, but she wouldn’t hear it. When it came time for kindergarten, the mother reluctantly let her daughter go that first day. A couple hours later the school nurse called. Sophie had fallen from the climbing structure and needed a ride to the doctor.
When the parent later reported this to Jean, she said, “My daughter broke her arm because I wasn’t there.”
And Jean answered, “Your daughter broke her arm because you were always there.”
Most things are learned best through real experiences, and in most cases, no amount of adult talk about “being careful” is going to help. Sophie had come to rely on her mother to be there to help her climb and catch her when she fell from the time she started climbing. She hadn’t experienced falling on the small, relatively safe preschooler climber, and so hadn’t developed the requisite caution she would need for the larger elementary school apparatus.
Of course, Sophie may have still broken her arm on the first day of kindergarten, but Jean’s point is well-taken: natural consequences are life’s greatest teacher.
“The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it,” is one of our mantras at Woodland Park. Part of our playground surface is made from the hard stuff, and no amount of warning children to be careful has ever worked as well as a scraped knee or two (or 3 or 4 in some cases) to teach children that they might want to save their wilder play for the gym or the wood chips.
Obviously, it’s not always possible to rely on natural consequences -- we wouldn’t want to use them to teach about the dangers of playing in the street, for instance -- and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be nurturing and sympathetic when a hard lesson is learned. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t warn children about impending danger when we see it coming. What it does mean is that one of our jobs is to let children make their own mistakes and experience the natural consequences of their actions, rather than teaching them to rely on an outside authority to regulate their behavior, if only because we won’t always be there to catch them when they fall.
The law of natural consequences isn’t only for learning about asphalt. I never make children, for instance, put on their coats to go outside even when it’s bitterly cold or pouring rain. If it’s too cold or wet, even 2-year-olds will, on their own, ask for a coat, and eventually learn to anticipate the need in the future.
The natural consequence of eating playdough is a yucky taste.
The natural consequence of playing with water is that you get wet.
The natural consequence of putting gum in your hair is a sticky mess.
The natural consequence of not making it to the toilet in time is soggy undies.
The natural consequence of not eating a snack is hunger.
The natural consequence of using a glue gun is you might get burned.
Sometimes the consequences are products of being a member of a community, and while they may not depend on physics or biology, they’re nonetheless natural.
The natural consequence of not raising your hand at Circle Time is you don’t get a chance to speak.
The natural consequence of knocking over someone else’s block building is that you have to help re-build it.
The natural consequence of breaking a rule is that someone will point at the list of rules and say, “You’re breaking a rule.”
The natural consequence of playing at preschool is that you’re expected to help clean up.
And as one boy learned a couple years ago, the natural consequence of hitting a bigger 2-year-old, no matter how sweet and gentle, is that you might get shoved to the ground, something that didn’t happen when he tried unprovoked hitting on adults.
Some of the natural consequences are too abstract for our youngest kids who are still a few developmental steps away from being able to rely on their capacity for empathy. When a toddler snatches a toy from another child, he simply may not yet be capable of connecting his action with the subsequent tears. At this age they tend to be a classroom full of individual suns around whom the universe revolves, which makes it hard to feel the pain of others. That’s why we must help them by pointing it out, “Suzie is crying because you took her toy.”
The law of natural consequences teaches through pleasure as well as through pain, but it’s only the negative consequences that loving adults often try to eliminate. Of course, we’ll always try to catch a child when we see her falling, but eventually she’ll need to learn about falling on her own. And when it does happen, we empathize and break out the band-aids.
(Re-posted, with editing, from 7/29/09)