Written by: James Lee – Head of School
October 1991, I recall walking along the corridor within the hallways of the Sid Smith Building located just southwest of St. George and Harbord street, University of Toronto, to view my first test score in a Linear Algebra course. After walking around the concourse, I finally found the glassed bulletin board with a large list of student numbers and grades. As I used my finger to track the numbers, I finally located my student number, followed by a big gulp, shortness of breath and stunned look. I double-checked my student card to see if I read my number correctly, and as it turned out, I received my lowest grade so far in my early years of post-secondary education. It was a mark very close to failure and a grade that really sparked my emotions, frustrations, worry and stress levels all within a matter of minutes of confirming the results. What did I learn from this? What did I do? The key frame of reference is “I.” Ideally, a lack of preparation for a mid-term test, may usually result in a disappointing grade. A lack of effort in a Science project may result in a disappointing outcome. As I reach closer and closer to my third decade of educational experience, I often get asked, “what has changed or evolved in education over your three decades?” I can pinpoint many obvious observations, such as educational tools, instructional delivery methods, technology, school divisional models and curriculum content. I also believe, that what has shifted in my opinion, is the diminishing support and understanding of natural consequences and the growing level of student anxiety that exists as they transition to higher levels of education from adolescents to adulthood. At times, I often reflect and ask why parents, educators and adults, choose to interfere with a child’s natural set of consequences at school, at home or in life? What is the impact? What do children learn and what habits are they forming in the end and carry into their adulthood?
Dr. Alex Russell, a child psychologist in Toronto and the author of the book, “Drop The Worry Ball,” states that parenting has shifted and that the adults today, too often, interfere with the natural consequences and growth of their children. In his book, he explains that children eventually build their confidence and long-term coping skills when they connect their behaviour choices to the natural set of consequences that follow, and learn to deal with the struggles and disappointments that foster a growing level of resiliency and natural problem-solving experiences over time. On occasion, I have witnessed in my educational journey, situations that involved anti-social behaviour, involving both students and adults, where the true dilemma or problems arise when the adults refuse to see their child experience natural consequences. For example, a child who comes home upset because they were not permitted to play on a hockey team as a result of inappropriate behaviour the game before, becomes confused when they see their parents arguing with other adults or coaches, and disagreeing with the decision based on their child’s emotional response rather than the facts, evidence or merits of the situation. When these cases get multiplied, the lesson that adolescents learn at a very young age are that solutions will generally originate from the parent during difficult but not catastrophic moments in their lives, and an intrinsic message that gets fostered in children is that they are incompetent and cannot manage or deal with difficult or challenging situations based on the decisions that they have made.
It’s important for children to take ownership of their decisions and understand that there are natural consequences in life. Natural consequences provide a clearer understanding of their own choices without the unjustified interference of external parties. I am not a medical expert and understand that there are many factors in life that contribute to stress and anxiety. I do believe that one component that adds to their stress and well being would be the lack of trust and natural consequences that children experience going through their formative years of education. I will never forget, back in the early 2000s, reading an article in the Globe and Mail that described a freshman at Queens University where there was a debate over his grade. The debate was not between the student and the professor. The debate was between the parent and the professor.
As a parent, I try to resist stepping in or interfering with natural consequences, given that it may impact me at times watching our children struggle but not in the end. In paraphrasing the words of Dr. Alex Russell – as long as the consequences are NOT catastrophic, support your child and resist interfering with natural consequences. In times of uncertainty or challenge, adolescent children always look to adults to see how they respond when dealing with difficult situations or adversity. Yes, as a parent, always ask yourself, what are you teaching your child? Aside from catastrophic situations, let them know that they will be fine, guide or assist with support systems where needed, and let them know that they can deal with this. This is life, and natural consequences (good or bad) are a part of life, in my opinion, that defines a pathway based on the decisions that are made, and the merit or value of taking responsibility and ownership of what you did and what you’ve learned that will remain with you going forward. It provides a valuable lens in life that will guide you and hopefully give way, to a more meaningful reference base when you are faced with challenges that may have heightened a level of stress or anxiety in past situations but over time, provides a perspective and insight that maintains a level of calmness, purpose and generates a more consistent, and solutions-focused approach in life-based on experiencing and learning from natural consequences.