Friday, January 10, 2014

Controlled Consequence

Last night, while waiting for EJ's piano lesson to finish up, it became clear that some sort of snafu had occurred with the pick-up for the girl whose lesson is immediately prior. This young lady is a friend of ours, a few years older than our kiddo, and really a great kid, herself. She had her ballet class scheduled for 45 minutes after her piano lesson, and her mom and dad had arranged for a classmate's parent to pick her up on the way and shuttle her from one activity to the other.

As time passed, she did what she could. She called home, to see if there were any messages about this, since she didn't have her ride's phone number. She brought out her bag, and got herself completely dressed and ready, including doing her own perfect ballet bun (wow, I dream of that day). I asked if I could help, and we texted her mom, and then did some sleuthing on our neighborhood parenting board email list to send her ride (another mom I know from local kid activities) an email.

Because the side streets are barely plowed or salted in our neighborhood, we could assume for awhile that the ride's lateness was normal, but by the time EJ was done with her lesson, it was clear that something had gone wrong, and our friend would need some help. We had walked to the lesson, only one block away, so EJ's piano teacher (also a mom) and I made a plan—I would walk home with EJ to our car, and then give the piano teacher a call. If the ride had arrived, we'd just go home, if not, we would bring this girl to ballet.

In the end, the whole errand was (of course) no big deal, even given the roads, because all of these places---our home, the piano teacher's home, and the ballet school—are all in our neighborhood. The girl getting the help was very appreciative, and stayed remarkably calm, given that she wasn't sure what was going on, and was going to be late to class, despite her best efforts.

On the drive over, somewhere between pick-up, and when I got berated by a local mom with a stroller for temporarily blocking the cross-walk so that I could safely get our friend out of our car with all of her school/piano/ballet gear from the trunk, EJ began talking about what happens if you show up late to her class. "If you come really late, like more than 10 minutes, you have to sit out of all the barre exercises." Thinking of how the girl we were driving would feel being reminded of this, I just wanted to tell my kid, "EJ, for goodness sake, SHUSH! YOU AREN'T HELPING!" Instead, I just reminded EJ that sometimes, things are just out of your control, and you do the best you can, like our friend did today, and if you have to suffer consequences because of that...well, you can be confident knowing that you did your best, and you couldn't have made your outcome any different.

This really got me thinking, though. Sure, there are times that lateness is because of children. This is especially true when they are really little, and of course, have no idea of consequence at all; they just know that the best time to soil themselves is immediately after they have been washed, freshly diapered, changed, and put into their coats and hats to leave the house. It is also true that, some mornings, my school-age child moves, as if her wake-up button has not yet been hit, but we are still asking her to down some honey-nut o's and put her homework in her backpack. Most of the time though—in most circumstances relating to timeliness—kids have very little control over their outcome. They can't gauge traffic to assess whether an earlier start time is needed, they can't make decisions over route if they do get into a mess, they can't control the speed of the vehicle, they can't speed up their siblings actions, etc. They are, in all senses of the phrase, "along for the ride."

I don't have a problem with kids learning that, sometimes, even if you do everything you can, you are late, and you miss out; if you show up late to a movie, you may not get in, or you may miss the critical beginning, for instance. Lesson learned. I don't entirely understand, though, how marking "tardy" for little kids, then making it impossible for them to be student of the month if they have tardies, makes any sense. I can see how, at ballet, once they are in the middle of an exercise, the best approach is to wait until the next one to join in, but I also noted from the anxious tone in my daughter's voice that she understood this to be punitive, not practical.

Then I started thinking more about our education system's zealousness for national test scores, and how our kids—kids that just get up, eat their cereal, brush their teeth, and then go to school and work hard—are somehow having to deal with consequences of wide-scale reform based only on outcomes, with pressure to "rise up" two grade levels to meet new common core standards "in time for the test," and less time during the school day spent in play/creative pursuits/any subject excluded from the tests (read: social studies or science). For the first time in the entire history of our kid attending school, this week she asked us not to send her back at the end of break, saying, "It is just so much work, and no breaks, Mom. We have silent lunches, because we are too chatty, and we only have short recesses most days, no other time to rest or do stuff we think is interesting."

I bet the lunch room is loud, with 30-40 kids in every class. I bet they are wound up, too, because they have to cram so much instruction into every minute of the day, leaving little time for letting off steam. And I bet that recess seems short, especially now that it is too cold to run around outside. What are we teaching kids about consequences? Sure, if you are chatty, you need to stop talking, but WHY are they so chatty? Is that because they are just naughty, non-compliant kids?

I know that some folks reading this, looking from the outside in, might take the hard line approach: kids should be working hard, and they should understand that life is difficult, and they can't be coddled or protected from every little hurt by their mommies. Fair enough. I wonder though, as college professors report that moms and dads are calling in on behalf of their 19-year old kids, asking for extensions to deadlines, or "second chances" on grades, if that is simply because those kids were coddled. I'm sure that is some of it, but watching my eight-year old kid struggle to complete 6-8 hours of multiple sheets of homework on a weekend—a kid who gets good grades and performs well-above grade level—tells me that parents and kids may be trained from the start to respond to work expectations that exceed reasonableness for a child's maturity, development, or organizational skills, and thus, require parental intervention just to comply.

If children have workloads that are beyond their ability to complete, and schedules that are beyond their ability to manage, and expectations that are external to their motivation, without any way to feel incremental success or failure based on their own thinking or creativity, why on earth would we think that we are developing ability to handle consequences in a real way as adults?

Developing a sense of capability comes from handling successively more difficult tasks based on appropriate developmental expectations, giving kids room to learn from mistakes without fear of punishment, and encouraging creative ways to solve problems and take on new challenges. It comes from freedom, which kids might call "play" or "rest" at school, but is really so much more. It comes from connecting action-to-reaction in a thoughtful way, and showing them, with choices within their span of control, how they can create better outcomes. Study = do better on your spelling test. Use manners = receive better service. Try something new and fail = learn from your mistake, and try again.

Last night, our friend handled the stress of not knowing how/when/if she was going to make it to her next activity beautifully, and I really hope that they did not give her a hard time when she got there, especially since there is no learning from being hassled about something you couldn't fix. Scratch that: in that situation, you can learn, "It doesn't matter what I do, if there is a problem, it is my fault." Please, let that not be what all these blasted "educational goals" are teaching our kids, because from my perspective, all those goals can do is discourage the belief that learning is something we can control, enjoy, and embrace for a lifetime, and is not based on outcome, but rather, on practice.

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