As Principal I speak with a number of individual students, small groups, class groups and whole year levels about behaviour expectations and the consequences of behaviour choices. In many instances, follow-up conversations with parents and teachers have taken place.
Understandably, children’s behaviour – their own or that of others - can be of great concern to parents. It is not uncommon for parents to become more stressed, upset or angry than the children involved, and when this happens, the situation tends to become more complicated. Nevertheless, there is always much to be learned, by everyone involved, from such circumstances.
I share this story about Choice and Consequence with you:
‘Five wise men got lost in the forest.
The first one said: - I will go left – my intuition tells me that.
The second one said: - I will go right – there is a reason why right comes from the word rightness.
The third one said: - I will go back – we came from there, it means I will go out from the forest.
The fourth one said: - I will go straight – we should move forward, the forest will end and something new will open.
The fifth said: - You are all wrong. There is a better solution. Wait for me. He found the tallest tree and climbed into it.
While he was climbing everyone else scattered towards their own sides. From above he saw where they should go to leave the forest faster. Now he could even see in what order the other wise men would reach the end of the forest. He climbed higher and saw the shortest way. He understood the problem and found the best solution! He knew that he did everything right. And the others were wrong.
They were stubborn and they didn’t listen to him. He was the real Wise Man! But he was wrong. Everyone was right. The one who went left, found himself in the thicket. He had to starve and fight with wild animals. But he learned how to survive in the forest; he became a part of the forest and could teach others the same. The one who went right, met thieves. They took everything from him and made him steal with them. But after some time, he had woken up something in those thieves that they had forgotten – humanity and compassion. The remorse was so strong in some of them, that they also became wise men. The one who went back, made a pathway through the forest, which soon became a road for those who wanted to walk in the forest without being afraid of getting lost. The one who went straight, became a pioneer. He visited new places and opened wonderful new opportunities. The one who climbed into the tree, became a specialist at finding shortcuts. People turned to him when they wanted to find the fastest way to deal with their problems, even if it didn’t lead to any great personal development. This is how the five wise men reached their destiny.’
Briefly, this story illustrates a few of life’s realities. Stuff happens, decisions are made and certain consequences follow. Some choices are seen as ‘right’; some as ‘wrong’. Values are placed on choices made. If it is avoidable, responsibility may be denied or excuses made or the blame shifted to others. Even when the consequence is unavoidable, bemoaning the outcome or calling it unfair can follow. We learn little or nothing from the whole experience.
Children can be masters of this sort of self-deception. They also are pretty good at convincing parents that their versions of events are the true and accurate versions. This is not as outrageous as it sounds really. Children are like the rest of us. Who really wants to own up, tell the whole truth and potentially expose oneself to criticism and punishment and, what we believe, may be a lessening in the eyes of those we love? And yet that is exactly what is required in order to grow towards moral maturity and responsible adulthood.
It is the role of parents and teachers, then, to use wisdom and detachment to calmly get to the truth, have children own and take responsibility for their actions and to accept the consequence that follows. It is our role to help them learn from their choices. That’s what childhood is about – learning and growing into caring, responsible maturity. Over-protecting and defending children in such circumstances does not honour or assist their journey. It’s worth remembering that children who experience some form of bullying often come out stronger and more resourceful because they have experienced difficulties and they know they can defeat them.
In the story, we are shown that each wise man made a choice and each suffered the consequence of that choice. The man who climbed the tree thought he was the wisest as he avoided the pitfalls that befell the others; however, it is not always those who pass trouble-free through childhood who are best prepared for what lies ahead. Each wise man was prepared to learn a valuable character lesson from his ‘mistake’ and, accordingly, became stronger and better-equipped for the future. They did not give into despair, believe poorly of themselves or give up.
I believe that we should view the mistakes made by children in the same way. Yes, we do all we can to teach children to make wise and appropriate choices but ‘stuff happens’ and mistakes are made. That’s pretty normal. To give children the idea that perfection is expected – in one’s own children or in other people’s - is to set them up for failure and low self-esteem, to say the least. Here is a far more positive and realistic message to give children:
‘You are not perfect but you are capable, caring and resilient and we love you, mistakes and all. You will make mistakes but when you do, take responsibility for them bravely, make amends sincerely for the harm you’ve caused, learn your lesson well and move on with hope and confidence.’
In this way, good things can come, even when the road taken leads to thicket or thieves.