Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reflection Time

It's time to do a little reflecting, in this case on punishment for children. If you were raised in my family, you would have known the topic of this discussion after just reading the title, because "Reflection Time" was, in fact, a type of punishment in our household.

Reflection Time had it's inauguration when I was 15 and went out with some friends who had just graduated that day. I hadn't really ever gone out like this before, and since there wasn't a formal curfew in place at the time, my parents told me to "be reasonable." I thought 1:15 a.m. was perfectly reasonable for a school night! Okay, in all honesty, somewhere around midnight I recognized that I was going to be in big trouble when I got home, but we were at some restaurant like 45 minutes away when I had that thought, and I was with a bunch of people for whom this wasn't an issue, and having never been in a situation like this before, I didn't know what to do.

Similarly, when my parents were lecturing me the next day, they kept pointing out things that any logical person (read: not a teenager) should have taken into account. Like the fact that originally I was given permission to go to Friendly's but they were already closed when we were going to go there. Also, when one of my friends called her parents to make sure the change of plans was acceptable, they told her that it wasn't acceptable and to come home. Both of those things (plus the fact that she called home to check in) should have been a gigantic red flag about what makes a reasonable time to come home.

In lieu of the typical "grounding" that my friends got, my parents got creative and relegated me to "Reflection Time." Reflection Time was essentially grounding, in that I wasn't allowed to go out with my friends anywhere for two weeks, but by calling it Reflection Time, my parents' goal was to make me think about what I had done wrong, and hopefully convince me never to do it again.

Would a typical grounding without the additional emotional element have made the same impression as Reflection Time? I kind of think so, just because it was pretty rare for me to screw up quite so badly and I have always had a fairly strong conscience. I have never needed much to make me feel guilty. (For example, getting rid of stuffed animals as a child was akin to selling my children - I was convinced that they felt the sting of betrayal through their fluffy coats, and the hilt of the knife in their cottony backs.) An interesting development, though, was that my friends all thought my parents were great for giving a punishment that showed so much thought and creativity - I think it must have signified that they cared more than everyone else's grounding parents.

Here's the situation that is causing me to reflect on punishments. Boy #2 woke up surly and hasn't ever shaken it today. He was fighting with everyone in sight by the time I woke up at 7:15, and screaming at everyone to boot. I got him to eat breakfast at 8:00 but only after another screaming fit. When I requested that he get his church clothes on at 9:30 before he was allowed to play a video game, it was a nuclear meltdown, and I told him that he was banned from the computer today. The screaming and kicking didn't end, though, and DH took away the Lego Star Wars CD and told him it was off limits until some time to be determined.

Boy #2 was fine the rest of the morning and at church, but when he came home he barely ate anything and started fighting again. A parent can only be yelled at so many times before they just snap, is my opinion, and Boy #2 got there quickly. The final straw (after many previous straws that I won't get into here) was when #2 was playing Whac-a-Mole, which is a video game that you plug into the tv, and Boy #3 wanted a turn. A turn was given, but then #2 attempted to grab the controller out of #3's hand, which of course he wasn't letting go of. Boy #2 started yelling at #3 and after I told him to let go of it, #2 screamed "Fine!" threw the controller back to #3, and then kicked him as he stomped past.

So now we are faced with the responsibility of punishing our own kids, and it is not easy. We have to find a punishment that fits the crime, that is serious enough to teach a lesson but not Draconian, that I will enforce, and that won't be punishing me.

I spent a long time last year listening to my next door neighbor threaten her kids with the withdrawal of their video gaming privileges for whatever infraction she witnessed. It started to get old, at least in my mind, and I wondered how long the same punishment would be effective. Apparently, forever. It only took owning Lego Star Wars for about 15 minutes before I was ready to threaten to take it away, and it has similarly turned into the punishment du jour at our home.

The problem is, it works. It is the only thing that Boy #2 puts any value on, other than candy. But we can't take away candy, since he has to have it first, and if he has it, it's already been eaten. So candy is the bribe, and now Lego Star Wars is the threat. (DH and I went to a lecture on parenting by a psychologist who specializes in parents and children, and he said it was perfectly acceptable to bribe, so we happily embrace that dogma.) Boy #2 has always been hard to get to do things he doesn't want to do, because he was never easily swayed by the removal of privileges. Until Lego Star Wars came along, that is.

So we took away all computer and video game privileges for a week. And I feel horrible about it. I felt horrible immediately, although I can't tell whether it's because of the punishment being too harsh or because I wish that I hadn't gotten so mad at him in the first place. If he didn't push my buttons so well, would I have gotten so mad that I took away the thing he likes most?

What about my role in the situation? Have I given him enough guidance to help him learn how not to behave? If my parents had said "Be home at 11" I have little doubt that I would have told my friends I needed to be home by 11, and they would have been respectful of that, I think. Of course, all of us were new at the teenager-going-out situation, after that there was no chance that my parents would let any of their kids decide what a reasonable time to be home was. So what is my responsibility here?

DH and I talked about it, and it seems like the day that starts badly never gets better, so we decided to institute an Eat-First-Play-After rule for first thing in the morning, not knowing if this is going to solve the problem but it shouldn't hurt. My poor kids, having to deal with parents feeling their way through parenting. The only upside is that my parents were learning on me, and it took me until I was like 30 and doing it myself to realize it. So maybe it won't scar him too much!

Today is now Tuesday, and here's the update. We've had two days of all the boys playing outside for hours at a time. Boy #2 has eaten breakfast immediately after waking for the last two days, and has had no complaints or fights about it at all. Could it be that by letting him decide to "be reasonable" about when he ate breakfast was too much responsibility for him? Possibly, but it could still just be a novelty, the jury's still out. Today he was a little grouchy when he had to run errands with me instead of playing with friends, but nothing that I couldn't handle. Another bonus, he doesn't complain at all, not for one single second, about not being able to play his video games. I'm not sure what lesson to take out of all of this reflecting, all I know is that it's really hard to be a parent!


Tim said...

ok, i think this was designed by the "Big Guy" but RIGHT before i read this blog article I read an article about parents, bribes, rewards, etc. I mean stright from one to the other. it was an excellent article. Nothing you havent heard or thought about im sure. But you never know. so here it is, its worth reading (and im not a parent and I thought it was good, that says something) But I'm impressed with things of little or no significant value. so i guess that shows you exactly where I lie on the parenting thing, or does it? im not sure, i just seemed to start typing without previous thought. just thought I'd throw this your way. :)

Tim said...


Drake Steel said...

I have several thoughts on this subject:

Thought #1: It wasn't 1:15, it was more like 2:10am when you got in. And I woke up at about midnight when you called. I asked mom what was up and she said that you went to a movie and then to Friendly's. I was thinking that Friendly's closed at 11pm which is where the goofup started. Its also the generic starting point of hanging around older kids. They aren't in high school anymore so they get younger kids in trouble. So as is always the case with, my child is missing, my first impulse is to be grateful that you were alright, my second is to do something violent to make sure the thing isn't repeated.

Thought #2: There are no micro answers to this kind of thing. But there are loads of macro answers! For instance, macro answer: You should be at home or identifiable by a time like midnight. The reasons for not getting there by that time may or may not vary and how you deal with them similarly vary (thats the micro bit.) The car broke down, your friend got lost, or whatever. All things aren't of equal importance but there are big things to watch and little things. Knowing your 15 year old child is not home at midnight is about the biggest. Sitting on an Ipod is amoung the littlest.

Thought #3: Punishment sucks. Both to be the one who meets it out and the person recieving it. But until we can come up with another scheme to get children's attention (and by children it can mean the people who haven't used sippy cups in the past couple years or consultants that don't return emails to prove that they are still alive...) its the about the only tool we have. Its much more fun to do other motivation things to get results. Tragically sometimes it just has to be hammertime.