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When Punishment Goes Nowhere, Maybe It Goes Somewhere

photo-4 copyMy son is averse to the influence of rewards and punishments. So much for Behaviorism. My son’s way of being-in-the-world single-handedly dismisses B.F. Skinner’s life’s work.

After pulling our hair out during his first year of high-school, his mother and I decided we needed a new approach for his sophomore year. It was akin to my parents’ approach with me. School’s your job. You need to earn A’s and B’s and, if you do, we’ll give you a little something something. But if you get one C or worse, punishments. Before we began, we asked him straight up: Do you think you are capable of getting all A’s and B’s? Yes. So you don’t think that we’re asking you to do more than you’re capable of doing? No.

Very well then.

Here’s where things diverge in terms of the generation gap. The key to motivating me was the threat of being grounded. The last thing I wanted to be when I was 15 was dead. The 2nd to the last thing was INSIDE the house. My friends meant everything to me back then and there was also that nicotine addiction to satisfy, and my parents were so lame with all their “You’re too young to smoke” restrictions. Being home was not cool. So if I got a C – and I think I only did once – I was not allowed to leave the house until the next report card, 9 weeks later, and it was full of only A’s and B’s again.

But the problem with my son is that the young man simply doesn’t leave the house. The way these damn kinds today (shaking my cane) have and maintain friendships is via social media, which I’m not judging as a phenomenon in and of itself, but this new mode of social experience effectively does away with the negative impact of being grounded as a punishment. Indeed, he’s already grounded.

But the solution is simple, right? We’ll institute a new form of grounding called “Techno-Grounding”. If he gets a C or worse, we’ll take the smartphone, laptop, and no more X-Box because a large portion of my son’s social life occurs through a headset and the shared world of a mutually played video game. And no more TV either because my son, in the past, has expressed amazing resilience to being punished. He isn’t phased. He is not bothered. In fact, he just shrugs in reaction to being punished and says Okay, which is to say that he doesn’t succumb to the punishment with resistance and suffering and the resultant construction of character that ought to spring therefrom. But this aggressive new form of “Techno-Grounding” will work, right? Of course it will.

Got his report card and he failed Computer Science. Dude, you are so techno-grounded.

Now, I can’t say that he’s happy. Like the rest of the world, he’s pretty glued to his phone. But, as I described above, he’s a long way from having his world rocked. We’re 2 weeks deep into the new quarter and his grades are still littered with C’s and he seems to always have one F because F’s really ramp up the drama.

But you know what he does? The kid has the nerve to simply adapt to his lack of technological access and start reading voraciously again like he did before all the puberty and angst. Now I don’t know about you but, in terms of punishing a kid, you will never hear me say “HEY! HEY YOU! PUT DOWN THAT BOOK RIGHT NOW!” It’s just not going to happen. In 2 weeks, he’s read Going Bovine, Fade to Blue, a couple books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a bunch of Gaiman, and a couple days ago he pulled Confederacy of Dunces off the shelf and, within a few pages, I heard him laughing. Failing Computer Science may just be the best damn thing that ever happened to him.

Which leads me to a subversive theory. What if, lurking inside my son’s motives for botching up his grades, is a kind of unconscious wisdom that seeks to shed the veneer of an active addiction to technology and get down to the serious business of reading Pulitzer Prize winning novels? I mean, sure, he could get good grades in school AND read great books, but what if it wasn’t within his power to get it done all by himself? What if he needed his parents to take all his stuff away before his identity as a serious reader could emerge?

Who can know for sure why we or our kids do anything? It’s probably pretty complicated. But I started asking these questions as I wondered about other options for punishment that might evoke better grades. My son doesn’t move very much. I considered making him go running with me. Maybe his aversion to exercise would propel him to his studies. But probably not. I imagined him dragging his feet at first, trudging along. And then, as he gained endurance and speed, I imagined him looking forward to our runs. We’d probably talk more, get to know each other better, and I discovered yet another benefit emerging from my son’s poor grades.

So I’m going to take him and his sister out for a run because running is awesome. As for how to get him to care more about his school performance, his mother and I remain at a loss. But I know this much. The kid is resilient. He does the best with what he has. When you give him lemons, he says Hey! Nice lemons! and, in the end, that skill – that ability to adjust to what life throws at you – will undoubtedly prove a lot more valuable than a B in Computer Science.
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