Questioning natural consequences

Mary Ann Baiyor

From the archives: The original post was posted on the Radical Unschoolers’ List on 19th December, 1998

I used to be a big advocate of natural consequences. After unschooling for 2 1/2 years, I’m beginning to question a lot of the reasoning behind the idea of natural consequences.

Let me set up a hypothetical situation: a child knocks over her glass of juice, splattering it all over the floor and table. “Natural consequences” says that the child should be responsible for cleaning up this mess. The logic behind this approach is that unless the child cleans up the mess, they don’t learn that they’re not supposed to go around making messes. Also, the parent, by not assisting in the clean-up, teaches the child that she must take responsibility for cleaning up her own messes.

In this example, it seems to me that the presumption of the natural consequences approach is:

a) children must be taught not to make a mess, and
b) children must be taught to take responsibility for their actions.

As Teresa wrote so eloquently in her post (excerpted below), I prefer to assume that my child wants to become a responsible, caring individual who contributes to the good of the community. If I assume that to be the case, then I don’t need “natural consequences” to teach these things to my child.

I like the idea of handling the situation as though an adult friend were in the situation. If a friend knocked over their cup, of course I would help clean it up. Why should the way I treat my child be any different?

One last thought: it seems to me that there is a parallel between unschooling versus schooling and working with a child to get her needs (and the parent’s) met and natural consequences. The presumption of most institutional education is that children must be taught or they will never learn. The assumption is that without incentives, bribes, threatened punishments, etc. a child would never choose to learn about the myriad of things they need to function in this world. This seems similar to the presumption behind natural consequences: without parent’s active teaching of these lessons, children will not learn to be functioning, capable members of society.

Teresa Pitman wrote:

One message I got from this book is that people innately desire to become responsible, to have caring relationships and to work as part of a community. If this is true, then our job as parents is not to train our children to be any of these things, because they will do them naturally. Our job is more to meet those needs they are not able to meet on their own, and to not disrupt their natural process of growing up.
           I think many of us still struggle with the idea that unless we MAKE our kids do things they will never do anything good but just be bad, lazy, horrible people. I’m exaggerating here, but I know that’s basically what my parents believed, and I know that’s what some religions teach. It’s been a big step forward for me to understand that my kids want to be responsible, contributing, loving people and that any efforts on my part to push them in that direction are more likely to de-rail that process than help it.

Mary Ann Baiyor, 1998, ‘Questioning natural consequences’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/questioning-natural-consequences/