When Punishments Don’t Work

22 Mar

Whatever I am, I’m a parent first. I like the little guy. He’s sweet and funny just like me (modest too!) and it’s only really a pain when he exhibits the worst of my characteristics instead of the cool ones. How do I teach him how to be better than me when even I’m not better than me?

It’d be madness, not to mention unfair, to expect from him things I can’t or won’t replicate in myself. Which is why, after three years of sending my child to elementary school, frustrated and angry because I still could not get him to write down his homework assignments, bring home the necessary papers and books, and manage his free time to include homework, I knew I needed to approach the problem from a different angle.

It wasn’t exactly surprising that he avoided homework like the plague. Homework isn’t fun. When I was his age, I hid my assignments in the back of my desk until the teacher finally found them and sent me home with a 2” stack of past-due worksheets. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and the inevitable top-volume lecture I would surely get when I got home, I hid the roll in a hedge on my way home from school. I got caught and mom was furious. She made me show her where I stowed the papers and stood over me in the kitchen while blow-drying the individual sheets (this was in Oregon, so of course it had rained overnight) to make sure I did them all. I cried. It was easily one of the most unpleasant things I can remember having to do in my primary school years, and the only thing I really learned was that it was better to bite the bullet when punishment was due, rather than let things get out of hand.

The punishments I’m willing to dish out don’t really work for my kid. I won’t hit him, and I only send him to his room when he’s being angry or surly and needs to nap/beat up a pillow to get it out of his system. Grounding is annoying to enforce. Taking away privileges like video games or computer time resulted in fits, tears and bargaining, but didn’t actually motivate him to do anything. Getting lectured or otherwise yelled at made him lock down like a stubborn and juvenile barnacle. Gee, I wonder where he gets that from.

I tried reward systems, because the concept of positive reinforcement seemed so infallible. Who doesn’t like prizes and pats on the head, and stickers you can redeem for treats? I bought a packet of star stickers and gave him one whenever he brought home his assignments. That soon became two stars a day, then three or more, because homework was a multi-step task: Bring homework home, bring agenda home (our school gives every student a full-sized agenda book to write assignments and notes in), bring books home if needed, and actually DO the homework. Sometimes he remembered the agenda but not the paperwork; often he dug in his heels and resisted the assignments themselves. I found myself inventing a lot of criteria for what qualified as rewardable behavior and for what a sticker could or should be denied. There was little consistency within the system, either from him or from myself.

TL;DR: It was complicated and ineffective, so I quit. It didn’t help that he asked for rewards that were just ridiculous. I’m not buying an iPhone Touch for an 8 year old because he does his job.

And being a student is most definitely a job. You get up early every weekday to sit in a room with people you didn’t choose to be with, the only thing you have in common being your age, and do boring crap 90% of the time. You get a short lunch break, no recess (they’ve even taken that away from kids today, can you imagine?), and you’re punished for getting distracted from dry lessons and repetitive exercises in a world that is full to the brim with neat distractions.

Is it any wonder that a kid will conveniently “forget” his homework when he has access to Google?

Imagine my facepalm when it finally sank in that the burden of change wasn’t entirely on my son’s shoulders. To effect the change I wanted to see in my son, I would have to make some pretty serious changes as a parent. For example, he performs better when there are schedules to follow, but I’d never properly learned to make or follow schedules myself. I liked looming over his shoulder to make sure he did his homework about as little as he liked doing it, but if I wanted the habit to stick I had to do just that. At the beginning of the school year, sometimes that meant sitting at the kitchen table for four hours or more while he did his assignments and I tried to hide my frustration. The tactic paid off, to a degree. He settled into the mindset that homework was not something to put off until some unknown “later” and would do it willingly when told, with minimal supervision–most of the time. There were few arguments on that point and I counted it as a success, but it didn’t fix everything. There was still the problem of getting him to bring home his assignments on a consistent basis.

The first thing I do when he gets home is a backpack audit. He can’t take off his shoes until I check for everything he needs, because if he forgot anything, I drive him back to the school and make him get it from the classroom. This was a major point of contention through the first quarter of school. By the time Thanksgiving 2010 rolled around I was completely, utterly fed up with having to go to the school three or four times a week to get his assignments. It stole at least 30 minutes from my day (and his) every time, and it was unacceptable. Nothing I tried was working. I needed help.

Enter Marty. He’s a probation officer who works with juvenile offenders, providing supervision, case management and treatment to kids with problems that dwarf most anything me and my son will ever encounter during his school years (knock on wood). He’s also awesome.

I was upset after a long, frustrating week spent driving to and from the school. Holidays were coming, grades were falling, and we just didn’t have that kind of time to waste. Does anyone, really? I told Marty I was having trouble, and because he’s a nice guy who might actually be physically incapable of refusing help to people who need it, he gave me some advice.

First, a smart kid (and my goodness, the boy is smart) will be able to exploit most reward systems to get the desired reward out of a minimum of effort. I definitely saw this in practice when he would rush through the homework, guess every answer, and try to claim a star for it. It taught him that exploitation was just as important as effort, if not more so. My best bet, Marty told me, was to pare down his baseline privileges to a minimum and allow him to earn them back.

Sit him down and say, “We’re gonna try something new. You can’t forget your homework like this anymore. I want you to help me figure out how to fix this. I’m the mom, I’m in charge, but it’s your plan so you should help me design it.” Write it up as a chart and post it where everyone in the house can see it.

That afternoon I called for a family meeting. At the kitchen table, we talked about how everyone has basic jobs in life and I took notes. At the top of the paper, I wrote Ethan’s Jobs and underlined it. I asked him what his jobs were and he did a pretty good job of listing them; I expounded on and clarified them in places, writing everything down in my notebook where he could see.

Next, we went over the concept of privileges. He was entitled to basic things like meals, and because I’m all about cultivating a strong reading habit, access to books and reading material. I asked him to help me write a list of things that he enjoys doing but aren’t really necessary. He opted to call them “treasures” instead of privileges, which suited me just fine, and I wrote them all down, adding some of my own.

I explained that privileges were special because people have to earn them. If they don’t do what’s expected of them, they can’t expect to be given all the things they want. People who expect privileges without accepting responsibility, I said, have what’s called a false sense of entitlement. (I’m 100% sure the term sailed over his head. It’s okay, though. I’ll be sure to remind him.) Then I told him that as long as he completed the tasks on his list every day, he could earn his “treasures.”

The meeting went well. Helping to put the contract together was an empowering experience for him and he agreed that the terms were fair. In the end a single sheet of paper outlined what was expected of him. We stuck it on the fridge (he added in ‘being a chef’ later because he likes helping with dinner).

It wasn’t an instant fix. I had to follow up with him every day, and I checked in with Marty every so often to make sure we were still on track. After about a month of being consistent and firm about withholding privileges (and awarding them when deserved), miracle of miracles, the habit stuck. He still genuinely forgets things from time to time, but I take it in stride and try to show mercy when it’s warranted. After all, he’s just a kid, and he’s already light-years ahead of where I was at his age.

I’m so proud of him.


7 Responses to “When Punishments Don’t Work”

  1. Claire March 23, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Not to mention Ethan is adorable!

    • Verdus March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

      I would’ve opted for “hilarious”, but that works too. 🙂

    • Bika March 23, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

      He’s handsome like his daddy 😉

  2. Gramma March 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    OK, I forgot about the “homework bush”, nor do I recall blowdrying it, but it does sound like me. I wish I had my own Marty back then, but alas, my role models were even scarier than me…sorry. I am SO happy that you’ve found something that works, and am wondering if you could ask Marty how to adapt this method to adult males…just sayin. And yes, my grandson is a genius…he takes after his momma. How else can you describe a child who, when faced with a question he cannot answer, [pulls something out of his arse ALWAYS prefaced with “Well, you see….”

    • Bika March 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

      He has a real “spirit of invention,” I guess you could say. He doesn’t get to lie, though. Mama doesn’t play that.

      Parenting is damn hard. I probably would’ve done the same thing (I check in with the teacher often and clean his desk out at least once every two weeks, just to avoid having that issue). I’m lucky to be where I am and have the friends & resources I do.

      Also, I’m not a genius. No genius would ever think it was a good idea to cut down a sapling by pinning it to the ground with her foot, then sawing through it on the root side of her shoe. I almost knocked my eye out! Very dumb.

      • Gramma March 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

        Genius is not always accompanied by “street smarts”….


  1. Parenting & Procrastination | Bika Central - March 24, 2011

    […] plug for my Divas post. It went up yesterday, but so did my baby pulp, and I forgot to mention it: When Punishments Don’t Work. It’s a fairly accurate summary of how I learned to be a better parent this school year and […]

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