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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, December 21, 2008

One of my earliest memories is cooking with my mother, or, rather, watching her cook. I was particularly attentive because she had announced she was going to make taffy, one of my core food groups. And I know I was young, because I remember looking up at the pot full of liquefying sugar as it heated high above me on the stove.

When the mixture had melted into an opalescent stew, my mother set the pot on the kitchen table to cool. "Be careful," she said as she walked over to the sink to rinse the wooden cooking spoon. "It is very, very hot."

Funny, I thought, it doesn't look hot. There were no roiling bubbles, no red-hot glow. How could something that appeared so benign be dangerous? And, besides, what did my mother mean by "very, very hot"?

One way to find out: Give the contents of the pot a quick, experimental poke with just the very tippy tip of my little index finger.

Turns out that one of the properties of melted sugar is a Super Glue-like propensity to bond with human flesh. Super Glue that happens to be heated to 366.8 degrees Fahrenheit. It was like sticking your finger into a wall socket. Except that when my body automatically withdrew my hand at hyper-speed, the pain didn't stop, or even diminish. It shrieked through my arm and exploded in my brain, and kept exploding for what seemed like an eternity.

And thus I learned what "very, very hot" meant, and was thenceforth incentivised toward experimental caution, especially when my instruments included parts of my own personal body.

This is exactly what the family coach in Karen Houppert's cover story (See Page 8) means by allowing kids to learn by "natural consequences." The coach warned about being the kind of parents "who hover around, and any time the kids have trouble, they go and rescue them." If they never get burned, they'll never really learn. In theory, I believe and support that. But as a parent, I'm tormented by it.

Yes, you want them to have the freedom to fail, but not if the natural consequence of failure might be permanent. In an era when a few B's and C's in 10th grade can pretty much eliminate someone's chances of getting into a top-quality college, should you let the super-smart 15-year-old who refuses to study learn the hard way? And what about allowing kids to innocently blow off some steam by engaging in pickup games of tackle football, without pads? That almost cost my son knee surgery and long-term disability.

Of course, there's no way you can keep your children from ever getting burned, nor should you try. All you can do is hope that what burns them won't stick.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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