Natural Consequences Are Painful to Observe

“I think I’m going to miss you guys a little, but mostly it will be really fun.”  These were Daniel’s parting words as he left with his grandparents for a week-long trip to Yellowstone.

Elderhostel, recently re-named Road Scholar, organizes numerous trips for seniors, many of which my parents have thoroughly enjoyed over the past 15 years.  A few years back fellow participants enlightened my parents about trips designed for grandparents and one or two of their grandchildren (between ages 8 and 12).  These adventures are known to be some of the best Road Scholar offers.

Stephen took the first grandparent/grandchild trip with my father and stepmother last summer.

Destination:  Grand Canyon

Length:  5 days

Activities included:  hiking, train trip, boat trip, and swimming

There were also hands-on classes with naturalists.  A high point was building the sediment layers of the Grand Canyon using play dough in shades of red, orange, and tan.  They were even given various fossils to stick into the correct rock layers.

Daniel’s time in Yellowstone will include bicycling, horseback riding, and kayaking.  Also on the trip is my stepsister Lisa’s oldest son, Grant.  Living in separate parts of the U.S., the boys hadn’t spent time together in the last 5 years, so Daniel (who you’ll recall is one of my extroverted children) was thrilled by this prospect.  And indeed the boys got along swimmingly during the days they spent in Boulder before leaving for West Yellowstone.

Daniel was overjoyed to spend 24 hours a day with Grant.  The boys’ interests matched up like cog and chain on a bicycle, an apt description since we spent much time on bikes each day.  We rode to get groceries, to show Grant a large prairie dog community, to visit the used bookstore to stock up for the car trip.

The only problem came when it was time pack up for departure.  Daniel had one eye on packing and the other on what Grant was doing across the room.  Even when Grant was out of the room, full-focus eluded our Daniel.

Todd and I looked at Montana’s upcoming weather.  Highs in the 60s, lows in the 30s, with some clouds and rain.  Not exactly easy summer weather.  Because of this we ended up doing most of Daniel’s packing for him.  Right here, the experts would probably tell me I should have left this to Daniel.

But here’s the deal.  I can’t seem to let my kids experience natural and logical consequences when it comes to warmth and thirst.  These are such core survival matters that it’s hard for me to let the kids fail or suffer from their mistakes in these areas.  Yet, I look around and other people don’t regularly struggle with these lessons for their kids.  Why me?

One theory.  When I was a kid my stepfather, Dan, owned an outdoor equipment and camping store called Appalachian Outfitters.  He opened this store long before REI dominated the scene.  Appalachian Outfitters was the place in the DC area where you went when you wanted to start doing more serious hiking or rock climbing, for example.  You’d walk in and be advised by an employee who had just returned from climbing Everest.

It was a cool place, and when I was old enough Dan recruited me to work there.  After enduring a summer of counting inventory in the dim, dusty warehouse, I was promoted to the clothing and hiking boot section of the store.

Appalachian Outfitters was one of those local businesses that took pride in customer service.  I was trained extensively on fitting people with the correct shoes and boots for their needs, and teaching them the difference between down, thinsulate, polypropylene, wool, 60/40 cloth, nylon,  and gore-tex.

Before I began to work at my stepfather’s store, he’d often have to badger me to wear a hat in the winter.

“You know you lose 99% of your body’s heat through your head,” he’d admonish.

“But Dan, I just curled my bangs!”

I’m not sure Dan was aware of it, but my working at his store was nearly a perfect solution.  Once I started educating others about how to stay warm and dry in the elements, I took the message to heart.

Research shows that if you can get a child to teach something to another, they will learn the lesson best themselves.  That’s the thinking behind “group work” at school, everyone learns from it (though it also seems many don’t enjoy it).  The same idea is used to explain why first children tend to have slightly higher IQ scores than their siblings.  They spend so much time “teaching” their younger brothers and sisters.

So working at Appalachian Outfitters laid the groundwork for my future challenges when it came to letting my kids compromise their “warmth” due to poor clothing choices.

As for my issue with thirst, it may be related to spending my childhood in humid Virginia.  Yeah we got thirsty, but there was so much moisture in the air that simply breathing practically met your liquid needs on hot days.  Then I moved to the Mountain West, land of no humidity, and I was suddenly thirsty a lot.  I noticed people carrying around water bottles and soon became a convert.  But the Virginia kid in me is still a bit worried I’ll be caught without needed water at some point in this partial-desert.   So, of course, I transfer this little anxiety to my kids.

Daniel and his escorts left for Yellowstone two days ago.  A few hours after they left, I saw Daniel’s fleece jacket on the floor of his room.  I’d carefully explained to my distracted child that on this trip “his warm outer layers would be a fleece and a gore-tex shell.”  Now he was minus the fleece.

Daniel will, therefore, be experiencing what many parenting books refer to as natural consequences.   As psychologist Lynn Clark writes, nature does the punishing for the poor choice, not the parent.

What Clark does not explain is how uncomfortable it is to watch this outcome unfold.  When the consequences are not a problem for me – falling into a chilly stream in summertime when you weren’t being careful at the edge, not eating enough dinner and being hungry later, forgetting your homework and suffering your teacher’s wrath, I do fine.  I can let my kids struggle (and learn the vital life lessons) while remaining fairly calm.

But with warmth and thirst issues, I’m sitting on my hands, and talking myself down.  Luckily by the time I’d learned of the forgotten fleece, said child was 100 miles away.  I called my parents later and I’m proud to say that I did not beg them to buy another fleece.  Instead I urged them to let Daniel suffer a bit.  Daniel could always wear multiple layers of long-sleeve t-shirts from his suitcase.

So, I did it.  Daniel is on a cold trip in Yellowstone without a fleece and hopefully he’ll learn a lesson about careful packing (against a backdrop of having an amazing time with his cousin and grandparents).

Oh, and did I mention that when Daniel first called home, he had yet to realize he didn’t have his fleece?  (He’d been in the car for much of the prior day.)  But he did complain, “You didn’t fill up my water bottle!”  Another natural consequence followed, no doubt.  I merely said, “I’m sure you figured something out.”  Perhaps I’m slowly improving.



Psychologist and parent Lori Gottlieb just wrote a great article in The Atlantic titled, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the Obsession with our Kids’ Happiness May Be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.”   It discusses similar issues of letting our kids experience life’s hard knocks.

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4 Responses to Natural Consequences Are Painful to Observe

  1. Oh wow, what an awesome program. This is right up my parents’ alley!

  2. Lisa says:

    Grant (I like how you stuck with the President theme…) and Stephen had an awesome time! I can’t wait to hear more about their adventures, though I was filled in with much detail every day. I didn’t work at Appalachian Outfitters, but you must have taught me something, because we did pack a fleece! 🙂 Thank you for the camp out and many other adventures you provided for Grant. I miss him like crazy!

  3. Janet says:

    Fortunately the weather wasn’t as bad as predicted, and the kayak company provided fleeces if needed. Daniel was a super partner in kayaking. We landed well before the rest of the “fleet” and had a great time during our adventure together.

  4. Good for you for allowing him to have the natural consequence!

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