Flaunting punishment like a badge of honor
Things we mean for kids to view disgracefully, they see as a source of pride.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
At my child’s elementary school, when a student dresses inappropriately, they make the student wear a bright red shirt all day. Does stigmatizing kids like this really deter them from breaking a rule? My son has had to wear it three times already this year and doesn’t seem phased.
It generally doesn’t work. To help explain why, we may find Aesop’s fable of The Mischievous Dog instructive:
There was once a dog who would nip at people, so his master tied a wooden clog around his neck to warn others and help prevent him from biting. The dog considered the clog a reward. He dragged it around loudly and proudly, using it to attract attention. Eventually, an older dog told him the clog was not a reward but a disgrace, and he would be wise to lay low so everyone wouldn’t know what a bad dog he was. The moral of the story: notoriety is not fame.
Kids are much like the mischievous dog. Things we mean for them to view disgracefully they see as a source of pride. A past student of mine was once arrested for something rather serious and had to wear an ankle tracker. He showed it off to every student and teacher he could find, boastful and unabashed by the crime that had earned it.
You and I, like the old dog in the fable, would keep such a device under wraps. But children and adolescents play by a different set of principles, which leads to at least three problems with the use of a stigma like wooden clogs and red shirts.
One is that kids who genuinely are embarrassed will often feign the opposite as a defense mechanism. If you’ve ever seen a kid trip, then rise quickly, saying, “I meant to do that,” it’s the same dynamic.
Two is that kids love to be special, like the mischievous dog. The left-handed child is often proud of his rare attribute and will be the first person to point it out. Kids love to be the oldest (or youngest) in the class. This isn’t true of all qualities and all kids, of course, but it is frequently the case.
When I first started teaching, we had to create hall passes. Most teachers used doodads, keychains, or laminated tickets with their names printed on them. Kids carried these to indicate they had permission from that teacher to be out of the room.
I learned quickly that kids would much rather be outside the classroom than inside, so I tried to devise a pass that might deter them. I found a hideous old Hawaiian shirt and inscribed “Stallings’ Pass” on the back in big black Sharpie. They didn’t have to wear the shirt, just carry it. I thought it was perfect. Who would want to haul that grungy thing around?
Everyone, I soon found out. They were lining up to put it on and strut around the halls, waving at their friends in windows. You never know with kids. In some circumstances, they deplore appearing different, but in others, it’s a badge of honor.
This brings us to three, and here we find Aesop’s fable very badly dated. Today, notoriety is, in fact, fame. Likes are likes and followers are followers, and kids reared by social media don’t much care how they are acquired. Whether it’s from sharing a talent or feasting on poisonous Tide pods, it’s all much-coveted attention. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Fame and notoriety are equivalent.
All of that means stigmatization as a punishment will inevitably backfire. Thus, removing an attention-seeker from the classroom is a much better consequence than sending him back with a lollipop, inviting him to captivate an audience in a “Restorative Circle,” or emblazoning him with a scarlet letter (er, shirt).
It’s also why a better policy for your school would probably be to have the child call for a change of clothes then wait quietly in a detention room until an inconvenienced mom or dad arrives with appropriate attire.
Read the original column here.
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