The Punishment of Children

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Last night, my 11-year-old son handed me a typed note with a line for my signature. It read, in so many words, that he was sorry, what he did was not the right choice, and that he could be counted on to do differently going forward. It was addressed to a teacher with whom I have never interacted. My son explained that she is now his math teacher, and he goes to her–with a handful of his regular classmates–for math.

Story goes:

My son arrives to class and finds a yoga ball to sit on. (There are two of these, but the students were restricted from using one of them due to some other students’ misbehavior. Side note: In my opinion, this is sort of like punishing the cheerleaders when the football team loses. I’m not going to diverge too far on that point. Additionally, if a student falls off a yoga ball, he is issued “warnings;” after two, the ball is taken away from that student. My son didn’t know whether the “two warning” rule applied to one class, one day, one week, or the school year.)

In an effort to quiet the students down to start the lesson, this teacher holds up her hand and begins folding her fingers down, one at a time. (For those of you who were raised by parents who used this method of instilling action and/or fear, you are familiar with the technique.)

When the teacher gets to zero, a.k.a, a closed fist, the children settle down. (I asked my son what would have happened had they still been talking. He said, “I don’t know. Maybe she would have counted again?” Seems to me that when a threat has an indiscriminate or unknown consequence, routine compliance will be spotty and usually nearly meaningless.)

My son raises his hand and asks, “Can we try to do the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown in all the different languages possible?” (I know this was what he believes he actually said as the above quote came right off his typed note: the one I was supposed to sign. How’s that for a passive-aggressive way of getting the parents “on board?”)

The teacher, reportedly ignores his question and begins the math lesson. At one point, she herself takes a “seat” on the aforementioned, seemingly confiscated yoga ball. (This is a “do as I say, not as I do” example of role modeling. Side note: she was also, according to my child, “eating pretzels,” despite his understanding of a rule banning that behavior during class.)

While helping another student, the teacher falls off her yoga ball. Only three students see this. One of the three students says, “That’s your first warning,” to which she had no response. (My son said she was unhurt and got right back up “like nothing happened.”) Class goes on, the lesson ends, the kids move on to their next class.

The note I held in my hand, as my son tearfully explained how he had missed ten minutes of his only twenty-minute-long recess period yesterday, concerned the above events which occurred . . . wait for it . . . four fucking days ago, on Friday.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that this matter was addressed. (You might be thinking, “What matter? It doesn’t seem like anything happened.” With this conclusion, I concur.)

Here’s what happened yesterday:

My son and the student who made the “first warning” comment were pulled into the hallway not by the math teacher with poor balance but by their regular teacher. They were told they had each made “inappropriate comments” and would need to “stay in from recess” to write a note of apology. (First, most adults see “inappropriate” as vague and overly broad. Imagine how that registers in the brains of two 11-year-old boys. Second, it wasn’t even the ostensibly offended teacher addressing the matter with them. To be fair, I have no idea whether the math teacher shared the information with the regular teacher in order to get that result. What I do know is that the regular teacher was not in school on Friday and may have, on her own, decided to levy the punishment in order to preserve her reputation, among both students and her peers, as one who has warned her students that when there’s a substitute, there’s no monkey business. Bear in mind, my son was not being reprimanded for behavior which occurred with said substitute but rather with a regular staff member who was present in school to address this matter personally had she wished to.)

My son stayed in from recess, and as quickly as his fingers could fly over the keyboard, typed out an apology (“minimum of twenty words,” he was told) so that he could join his friends outside and get ten minutes of physical activity before being chained to his desk for the remainder of the day. (You probably see how I feel about 5th graders’ lack of fresh air based on my tone.)

I would argue that the typed apology, which on its face read well, had no true remorse embodied in it. This for two reasons: 1) He didn’t believe he did anything wrong–a prerequisite for recognizing how one’s poor behavior affected another; 2) He only wrote what he did because of an imposed obligation which stood as a barrier to getting what he wanted for himself–apologies borne of threat and selfishness tend not to be super meaningful.

In the same way that the school expects the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown to result in rote compliance with silence–due to some looming, though indefinable threat, the demand that a child draft an “I’m sorry for something I didn’t realize was offensive for which you said nothing at the time” means nothing to the pre-adolescent brain.

These methods of “discipline” do not teach children to be “good” for the sake of the learning community as a whole, they teach them the “what’s in it for me” mentality of self-preservation. These sorts of punishments foster little more than the incentive to be selfish under the treat of public embarrassment and shaming.

This way of punishing children ought to have gone out of practice back when schools decided that paddling was no longer “appropriate.” (Read: “abusive” because “appropriate” is a vague euphemism.) However, this on-the-surface “kinder and gentler” approach does utterly nothing to instill thoughtfulness and respect in our children who will eventually be full participants in our society at large.

While I do not condone corporal punishment of children, the report on this incident has got me wondering whether a strict set of rules with clear results might be the better way to “teach children a thing or two on how to behave.” Because I can confidently say a four-day delay in the handing down of a punishment by an authority/messenger did not teach my child a thing about being remorseful over something he considered nothing more than a “joke.”



8 thoughts on “The Punishment of Children

    1. Insightful inquiry, my friend.

      No. Instead, I have scheduled a face-to-face meeting with the math teacher just prior to our previously scheduled parent-teacher conference.

      I’m not one to “sign the line” for expediency or tacit assent.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I really could pull this apart and ride around on my high horse but instead will only ask an obvious question. Only one yoga ball for the whole class? The whole MATH class (not the whole YOGA class)? Did someone forget the memo about bringing enough to share with everyone?

    Forget that your kid had a brilliant idea that could encourage foreign language skills. Maybe because it was MATH class and not a YOGA class or a LANGUAGE class.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. i’d love to know how they think this form of LATE reprimand encourages children to engage in mature discourse… you and i know the kind. “hey you just did something i found offensive. so i’m actually going to tell you i found it offensive (BECAUSE I KNOW YOU CAN’T READ MY MIND) and then you can respond appropriately.” perhaps with an, “i’m sorry you were offended by what i said, but i didn’t actually mean any harm and it was just a joke.” by all means, let’s promote passive aggressive behaviour in an age group that is already having a hard time interacting normally…. glad you didn’t sign the note.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And I think I threw out my shoulder wrestling over the semantics of whether “staying in for recess is not mean to be punitive.” Yes, those words were ACTUALLY said, out loud and with no degree of kidding.


      (I don’t know if “AYFKM” is a legitimate abbreviation. I’m using it though.)


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