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Gum and punishment
Rules that aren’t enforced reward kids who break them and punish children who obey.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
I’m tired of my son getting detentions for stupid stuff like gum. Teachers need to stop focusing on punishment and focus on what’s important.
Easy, fella. Gum isn’t “stupid stuff” to me. We’ll talk about the punitive part in a moment, but first, let’s get a few things straight about gum.
At best, gum in school is like pee in the pool. It might not really hurt anyone, but it’s disgusting and rude. At worst, gum does a lot more damage than pee. I’ve experienced both, and I’d prefer swimming rapidly through a warm spot to burying my fingers in a fresh wad of saliva-infused Bubblicious while trying to move a desk.
There’s more: pee in the pool doesn’t stain, but gum attaches itself to classroom floors and furniture. When pee goes in the urinal, it flushes away; gum must be pulled out manually. You might walk through a puddle of pee without even realizing it; step into gum, and it can stick to your shoes for weeks while you track it through car and home.
In more formal settings, gum is considered crude and unprofessional. Can you imagine participating in a job interview while chomping gum?
I can think of a dozen reasons to forbid gum in school, but only one reason to allow it: kids like it. Maybe I’m not the average dude, but in my opinion, school isn’t about giving kids everything they like; it’s about educating them. Permitting something that contributes to a dirty, sticky, sloppy environment doesn’t help the cause.
Some people will say, “Kids only stick it under desks or on the ground because it’s outlawed. If it were allowed, they would dispose of it properly.” These people have clearly never taught in an actual school (or perhaps even met an actual child). Kids dispose of gum inappropriately because they are lazy, not to avoid punishment. Should you require verification, I invite you to run your fingers beneath the student desks of my colleagues who allow kids to chew with impunity.
Now, on to more philosophical concerns.
It seems to bother you that your son is being punished for an offense you deem minor. However, the punishment seems equally minor; detention is not a very harsh sentence.
But what would be your alternative? Getting rid of the gum rule altogether (and, presumably, all rules you don’t like)? I’ve known principals who’ve tried this, but they always reverse course when the results showcase why the rule was enacted to begin with.
Or would you keep the rule, but provide no punishment for breaking it? This would harm the child and the school. Rules that aren’t enforced reward kids who break them and punish children who obey. That confuses good kids and creates an environment where disobedience is encouraged.
Suppose your neighborhood speed limit is 25, but police decide not to enforce it. Drivers who enjoy speeding will go as fast as they like. The limit will exist only for good citizens; they’ll drive 25 like saps while cool speeders whiz by. It doesn’t even make the non-speeders safer because they can easily be t-boned by a lawbreaker.
That’s the sort of thing happening in the nation’s worst schools, where serious offenses like sexual harassment of students and verbal assaults on teachers are the norm. Teachers there don’t bother enforcing smaller rules like gum, tardies, and profanity. The result is a kind of academic anarchy where few students learn, and few teachers remain on the job.
It’s fundamental: if you have a rule, you must enforce it. Kids are too young to be persuaded by adult prattle on the social benefits of complying with laws you dislike. They’re more readily convinced by detention — and that’s okay because the principle of “bad actions = bad consequences” will comport with their conscience and linger into adulthood.
Finally, you state, “Teachers need to stop focusing on punishment and focus on what’s important.” We agree. That’s why I recommend joining the solution rather than the problem: if parents will reinforce school rules by adding support and pressure at home, teachers can pay more attention to teaching in school.
I’ll chomp to that.
Read the original column here.
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