On Consequences

The word “consequence” seems to trigger strong reactions from people, particularly in the context of adult-child relationships and school power dynamics.

Over and over, I have found myself clarifying that “consequence” is not the same as “punishment.” A consequence is simply the effect brought about by a decision or pattern of decisions. We tend to discuss undesirable consequences most frequently: if I don’t dress for the weather, I’ll be uncomfortable; if I break my word, others won’t trust me; if I don’t learn another language, I won’t be able to travel as independently or make as many friends as I otherwise would. However, there can be desirable consequences, too! If I exercise regularly, I’ll get stronger; if I call my mom, she’ll be happy and she won’t worry about me; if I play with a team, we can do more and stress less than we would solo. Consequences aren’t good or bad inherently. They just are.

Natural consequences, anyway. So what about contrived consequences? Constructed ones? Those artificially implemented…like the classic “if you don’t eat all your dinner, then you cannot have dessert?” These are trickier, mostly because this is where there is potential for punishments to masquerade as consequences. When the “consequence” created isn’t related to the decision made, it’s a punishment. When its intention is solely to demonstrate who has power over whom in a situation, it’s a punishment (and bullying). Unfortunately, these are the two kinds of punishments that most people seem to think of when they hear discussion of “consequences.”

As a facilitator, I deal in consequences quite a bit. It’s my job to reflect students’ decisions to them, framing those decisions as catalysts for their consequences. Some facilitators do this mostly during intention-setting and reflection conversations (“You didn’t eat lunch and now you feel angry? Maybe your hunger is causing your anger. What different choice can you make tomorrow so you don’t get hangry?”). I do this, but I also mention consequences as a type or redirection or invitation to thoughtfulness. Those moments usually sound like “You can break your student agreement, but then you’ll have to go to school somewhere else, where you will probably have much less freedom” or “If you yell at your friend, he may not want to play with you anymore” or “You can eat whatever you want for lunch. If you eat only sugary things, you will run out of energy more quickly than if you eat savory things.” I often find it really amusing to play the game of of course you can do X so long as you are ready for consequence Y, but I play because I want kids to know the power of their decisions and the importance of thinking about what effects their actions may have.

Sometimes, though, the natural consequence of an action is really undesirable. Like the school getting shut down (if we leave lots of crumbs around and invite the mice to overrun the school) or someone getting hurt. In those cases, it is the responsibility of the community to protect itself and its members by creating artificial consequences that motivate a change in decision-making before the big, scary natural consequence kicks in.

People sometimes get awkward about creating consequences. They worry about ‘being mean’ or misusing their authority. These worries are unfounded if those creating the consequences focus on their intent (to protect themselves and the community by supporting positive change) and keep the consequence relevant to the situation. For example, if I’m saying inappropriate things to strangers during park trips, the natural consequences include my peers feeling unsafe with me and my inviting a stranger to get angry and retaliate. For their and my safety, my community needs to create a consequence that will motivate me to change my behavior. Banning me from the computer for a week would be a punishment, and I may check my language to avoid the discomfort of the punishment. But…it doesn’t address my behavior. Revoking my permission to go on trips until I demonstrate that I can be trusted to regulate my language would make much more sense; it’s directly related to the problematic situation, addresses the problem behavior, and protects me/others from the natural consequences that are imminent if my behavior continues.

So, to recap: understanding that our decisions invite natural consequence can be really empowering, learning the connection between their decisions and the consequences that arise is important for young humans, and constructing preventative consequences is the responsibility of those in relationship with each other…and is often the most compassionate, supportive thing to do when problems arise.

I hope you’ve gained some clarity as a consequence of taking time to read this 😉

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