Crime and Punishment
I read an article this morning about a fourth-grader whose punishment for not doing her schoolwork was picking up rocks in front of the school. A teacher who protested this punishment to the principal and helped her with her rock-picking was fired, leading seven other teachers to resign in solidarity. Now there are only two classroom teachers left - way to go "law and order" principal.
This story reminds me of something that happened when I was in high school. I got in trouble for being involved with some Everclear finding its way into the prom punch - well, rather deeply involved - and I was given the choice of picking up trash around the school every morning for a month or being suspended. I chose the trash. There were no teachers who protested MY punishment, as far as I know. But what does picking up trash have to do with spiking the prom punch, and what does picking up rocks have to do with not doing schoolwork?
I am uncomfortable with our society's tradition of retributive punishment. I see it as an unsophisticated and somewhat unimaginative means for the system or authority figures ("The Man") to coercively and vengefully influence or control the actions of others. I prefer a more highly evolved and mature concept of self-discipline and natural consequences - I am the only one responsible for my behavior, and there are consequences for everything I do (positive and negative). Nobody else can decide what is right and wrong for me, and it is certainly not someone else's place to decide how to "punish" me when I do wrong. If I am a mature, rational person, I will learn from my mistakes and the natural consequences of my actions, and avoid repeating the behavior that resulted in them.
Unfortunately, this approach does not necessarily work with children. As a parent, I have tried valiantly to avoid "punishment" in favor of consequences - trying to help my children learn the difference and control their own actions. It's not always easy. We have arrived at a "system" where good behavior is rewarded by increased priveleges, and misbehavior leads to priveleges being taken away. It seems to work well - most of the time - and it's most effective when a child can see an immediate and obvious consequence for her actions. For example, when my daughter whines or begs or demands, she does not get what she asks for; if she asks politely with a complete sentence, however, a parent literally jumps to give her what she wants. Of course with a child of 3, this approach requires repetition. Continuous repetition.
Dealing with the school system, however, adds another level of complexity to a parent's delicate interactions with older children. Recently my son was sent to the principal's office for hitting another student (it was his best friend, and I think it was mostly a tempest in a teapot - not that there is any excuse for hitting). Besides that, he knows now that if he does something like this again, he may not be able to come back to this school (which he likes) next year. That got his attention.
Now comes the parental dilemma: do we still take him to the zoo next week with his sister's class, as promised? The "deal" was that if he could remember to turn in his homework every week for three weeks (a problem area), he could go. My first reaction was to think that such a serious breach of school rules (and our standards for treating others), there should be some BIG consequences! The more I thought about it, however, the more that seemed like piling on. He'd already had a trip to the principal's office and separation from his friends for half a day, and the possibility of being asked to leave the school.
I think we'll take him along.