So if some of you are not aware, there is a bizarre new trend going around among teens called “The Tide Pod Challenge.” The challenge is to film yourself biting into and/or ingesting one of the pods containing concentrated Tide laundry detergent then post the video on the internet. Thankfully, YouTube has inserted some common sense into the equation and banned any such videos which has started to somewhat subdue the movement. Let’s all pause for a second and thank whatever deity we either ascribe or don’t ascribe to for that.
Now I would like to sit back with a sound “Harrumph!” and say that I would never have been stupid enough in my adolescent years to do anything so foolhardy. However, I have clear memories of snorting half a packet of Crystal Light lemonade powder then through watery eyes and sneezing, looking at two of my buddies and saying, “Ok, your turn.” So I can honestly say that there is a very sound possibility that I might have tried it had Tide Pods been around in my youth.
This brings me to my story of the day and the lesson that I take away from it. It was the summer of 2015. I was running the summer reading program with two or three other teachers from the school. Our school’s location is walking distance to the West Side Market in Cleveland. We decided to take our summer reading kids on a walking field trip there. We were going to teach them math dealing with money in a real life situation, delayed gratification in not buying the first apple, orange, or watermelon that they saw but waiting for a better price later, etc. All the kids brought $3 and we set out.
When we got into the heart of the market, we came to the Campbell’s Sweets Factory. Their booth was filled with all sorts of sweet things. They had many different popcorn varieties, unique candies, cookies, cupcakes,….and chocolate covered jalapeño peppers. The jalapeños caught the eye of one of the young boys in the group and he immediately ran up to me asking if he could buy one. I told him that they were $2.50 and if he bought one that he would probably not have enough money for anything else. He insisted that he wanted one despite my advice to the contrary. We went back and forth for about a minute. Then finally I said, “How about this, we’ll go through the rest of the market. If, at the end, you haven’t seen anything you want more than that chocolate covered jalapeño, then I’ll bring you back here and you can get it.” We spent the next hour or so walking through the market examining different vendors. We passed butchers and bakers, seafood and soulfood, Hungarian and Honduran, and all sorts of other things for sale. The entire time, he kept his three dollars pressed firmly into the palm of his hand. He denied himself everything else to go back to get the chocolate covered jalapeño that he was so sure he wanted.
We all sat down to eat whatever we had bought in the market. I watched him as he slowly nibbled some of the chocolate off the outside of the jalapeño. He could feel a slight burn I could tell, but was not about go without truly trying it. He paused from eating the chocolate, examined the pepper, then bit off about an inch and a half of the pepper and started chewing. It took about ten seconds for the heat to register in his mouth and he ran over to the trash can and spit out the chewed jalapeño but the damage was already done. He spent the next thirty minutes with watery eyes trying to rinse his mouth out (Yes, we gave him milk and bread. I’m not a monster) before he finally got to the point that he didn’t feel his mouth was going to fall off into the Cuyahoga River. At that point, he came up to me and said, “You were right Mr. Steidl, I didn’t want that.”
This brings me to the teaching and parenting lesson that I learned from this particular experience. Sometimes, we simply have to allow children to learn through experiencing pain or through their own failures. John Wayne taught this lesson in his movie Hondo. In it, there is a boy named Johnny who really wants to pet Hondo’s dog Sam. Johnny twice asks Hondo (Wayne) if he can pet Sam. Both times Hondo tells him not to. Finally, when Johnny asks a third time, Hondo replies, “I told you twice not to, but you do what you want to do.” When Johnny tries to pet Sam, the dog bites him. Johnny’s mother is upset at Hondo and confronts him. Hondo says in perfect John Wayne fashion, “People learn when they get bit. The boy just learned.”
I think that most students have an innate desire to experience things for themselves. As they mature and become more self-reliant, they want to know things because they did it, not just because someone told them so. For some children, this starts very young. My two sons, ages 3 and 2, are already this way. When I’m making pancakes on the skillet, they want to touch it. No matter how many times I tell them that it’s hot and it will burn them, at some point, they are going to try to touch it to experience it for themselves. So the challenge then becomes, in both teaching and parenting, to allow children to experience pain, to “get bit” sometimes, in order to know things for sure and believe them while avoiding catastrophic injury.
I believe one of the ways to do this is to provide environments that allow students to safely experience risk. It’s about allowing them to fail while providing support and guidance when they do. When children do not have that environment, they are left with a sense of wondering and doubt. At some point they will test things for themselves. So, although it is scary and challenging, I truly believe it is crucial as both teachers and parents to embrace that challenge and give children freedom, in most cases, to experience things for themselves.