Most parents I know are familiar with the term "natural consequences." Ask them to tell you about the last time they allowed their child to receive them, and they get very quiet.
I was talking to a mom the other day whose son was flunking his high school math class. She was in full panic mode trying to find a tutor who would work with her son daily to get his grade up to passing before the semester ended. She was willing to spend lots of money and lots of her time to fix his problem. She was also freaking out, and believed that if he flunked this one class for one semester, he would ruin his chances of becoming an engineer.
No wonder her son hid his failing grade from her.
This mom was shocked when I told her that my high school son failed his math class last year and I didn't do anything about it. Well I did do one thing: I told him he had to retake the entire year of math. So he did; and he is. It's a lot easier this time around because the concepts are clearer to him. He will have a much stronger ability to do calculus now. It's not terrible that he had to retake it and I am not a bad parent for simply shrugging and saying, "Well, since you declined to get help or do the homework, you made a choice and this is the consequence." He, being my son, shrugged back and said, "OK."
My son is not a fan of high school and its scattered norms and practices. His chemistry teacher has a rule that if you can do well on tests and quizzes, then you don't have to do the note cards and practice work. His U.S. Society teacher on the other hand, wanted the students (in 11th grade!) to color in a map of the United States. My son refused. He said "I learned my states in second grade and will ace the test — I know the content but he wants to punish me for not doing the practice to take the test." Basically, one teacher has high expectations for understanding the material and the other has high expectations for compliance. This makes dealing with consequences at school more confusing.
My son has a D in the U.S. Society because of the map work even though he has aced every test. He is willing to get a low grade which will affect his GPA and possibly college entrance because he feels so strongly about the incredibly inconsistent expectations and about holding onto his sense of justice and honor.
I have to admit, I waver and want to jump in and solve his problems. I want to talk to the teacher and principal and say that being penalized for not doing something that my son can prove he can do is wrong. But I haven't and I hope I won't. This is his path, his education, his consequences.
Yes, he may apply to colleges that look at his inconsistent grades and variable GPA and make assumptions about who he is and what he can or cannot do. Believe me, we have had this conversation many times. I say a high GPA with advanced classes will give you more options for college. He says, "I don't want to go to a college that judges me on my GPA. My GPA is not me." He has a point and more precisely, it's his point and his stand and again, his consequences. He may not get into the college of his choice because he was not willing to sacrifice his principles for an arbitrary rating. And he may get in because of his choice. And he may get in after he gets an Associates Degree at the community college.
I told most of this story to the mom whose son was failing his math class. I urged her not to determine her son's future by the failure of one hard class. I suggested she slow down, take a deep breath and look at their options (she was not going to let him figure it out on his own). Their options include retaking the class, getting a tutor, switching out of the advanced class, or he could fail. I also urged her to not pressure him to be expected to enter a highly academic and competitive college right out of high school. There are so many ways to achieve our dreams. He could start at a community or state college and learn how to be in college and increase his academic skills before applying to a rigorous engineering program, for instance.
I think natural consequences also have to take into account the person who is making the choice: in this case, our 11th grade sons. Maybe they need more time to be ready for college — a consequence of their development and conditions (both had mild learning difficulties). Maybe they need to find a balance that works for them and wasn't imposed on them by their parents or school — a consequence of how they handle stress and their emotional maturity. Maybe they need to fail and realize that sometimes we need help and that it is OK to ask for and receive it. I don't think they need their parents to swoop in and fix the issue. We parents don't have to keep pushing the boulder back up the hill. We can just let it roll down and find a resting spot at the bottom of the hill.
We can, but do we?
The other mom is making dozens of calls to get her son help to pass the class. My son just told me he thought he could pull a C for the semester since he tests so well and wrote a great essay. He is figuring it out and I have no doubt that he will find a college that works for him. Each year, he can see better how his choices have consequences and he knows he is the one responsible. He can see it in the small ways — if he doesn't make lunch, he doesn't eat lunch. If he misses the bus because he is chatting, he will be late. I don't make his lunch or go pick him up.
I'm too busy dealing with my own consequences.