Friday, May 27, 2005

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.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Camping with Kids, Bugs, Frogs, and Other Critters

Where else can you can take a walk in the woods, stop to look at (and exclaim over) everything around you, notice the smallest details, and pick up flowers, sticks, and rocks? Where else can you enjoy falling in the creek - five times! - and catch frogs and get very excited about beetles and tadpoles? Where else can you be stylish in the campground with a pretty dress and a pet bunny? I found all of this and more on a recent camping trip with my 7-year-old boy naturalist and a 3-year-old Princess.

While I set up the rest of the camp, the kids helped in the tent by unpacking the clothes, pillows, blankets, books, and stuffed animals . "Daddy, is there a hop tub here at camping?" my daughter innocently inquired . Huh? Oh - of course - why else would we have a beach towel? I wish there were a hop tub, or even a hot tub, at our campsite. Then it would REALLY be like home.

Something we discovered very quickly is that camping involves lots of bugs. As I told my daughter (repeatedly; she is a bit wiggy about bugs and had to point out every one she saw), "we are outside, the bugs live outside, so we are visiting them in their home." Bedtime was particularly difficult, as the crane flies really loved the lantern hanging from the ceiling of the tent, and flitted about inside bumping into tent walls and little faces indiscriminately. Even once the lights were out, the sound of timy gossamer wings beating on the outside of the tent persisted for a few minutes.

The campground bathroom is also a very interesting place, bug-wise. The same little girl who couldn't go to sleep until ALL the bugs were out of the tent just HAD to examine all the spiders, beetles and crickets who congregated at the bottom of the floor-length urinal (ewww!). I guess they liked the moisture, but c'mon... When I asked her why she was so fascinated with the bugs but didn't like them, she said "I like the bugs, but they scare me!"

Saturday we hiked down to a nice little creek, complete with large flat rocks for lounging and picnicking, small waterfalls for white noise, tadpoles, frogs, and water skippers, and...more bugs! My son pointed out these shiny bright green beetles (he correctly identified them as "tiger beetles" - I think they are more specifically 6-spotted tiger beetles). Anyway, they were everywhere, and whenever my daughter saw one she would excitedly exclaim "hey, Ryan, look a green beetle!" He would then very sweetly answer her "yes, Katy, aren't they pretty?"

Six-Spotted Green Tiger Beetle

Without a doubt, however, the high point of our time at the creek was the frog pool. We waded across the creek and down the opposite bank until we came to a long, narrow cleft in the bedrock next to the creek, filled with mysteriously murky brown water, lilypads, grasses, and two resident frogs. The first one we noticed was a big brown one, sitting on the edge of the pool. I think this was a Green Frog. As we approached, he hopped into the water and we noticed his neighbor, who I think was an American Bullfrog. This amphibian was hiding in a clump of grass next to the pool, just minding his own business until we got too close, when he also hopped into the pool. These froggy antics prompted us to sing "5 little freckled frogs, sitting on a freckled log, eating some most delicious bugs (yum, yum)..." in honor of my daughter's upcoming preschool musical program. We spent probably 20 minutes watching these two frogs swim about and try to hide from us (or maybe escape our singing!).

Green Frog

American Bullfrog

Of course where there are frogs, there are tadpoles, and we found plenty. Right next to the flat rock where we ate our lunch there were two little pools that were just swarming with the little buggers. Of course we went home with about 12 of them in the Tupperware container that originally held part of our lunch. I wonder - how many will survive? What kind are they and how big will they get? Last year we raised tadpoles and it didn't go very well once they became frogs.

Just getting to the creek was fun and interesting - there were flowers to pick and smell and give to each other, bugs to observe, poop to exclaim about, and sticks and rocks to pick up. Nothing helps a hurried adult to slow down and be present like going on a "hike" with two little kids. First of all, they don't walk terribly fast with their short legs. Then there are the requisite side trips to examine and collect interesting specimens of local flora and fauna, count rings on fallen trees, and wonder what kind of animal might live in each little hole in the ground or a tree. On the way back, however, tired legs want to be carried and it's not so fun any more. Funny how something that was almost unbearably interesting in the morning elicits almost no response in the afternoon.

Perhaps the most fascinating animal of the weekend was our mysterious nocturnal visitor with a sweet tooth. Saturday morning we emerged from the tent ("wakeup time, Daddy!" piped my little Princess - no sleeping in at camping!) to find the marshmallow bag on the ground and several of the squat white sugary cylinders scattered about. We were able to salvage enough for the next campfire, but we wondered who had gotten into the marshmallows? Why hadn't s/he gone for the hot dog buns, bread, or bagels in the same bag? We decided we must have been visited by a racoon with a sweet tooth. This critter made a repeat appearance Saturday night (being lazy, I didn't put our food in the car either night - next time I'm taking a latching box for it), when it opened up the tin of hot cocoa mix and put it on the ground near the picnic table. Hmm. This time there were also holes in the bun and bagel bags, and nibbled bagels. It looked like the work of a mouse, but there were no droppings. Still a mystery, especially the (otherwise untouched) opened cocoa container.

Going home from a campout is always bittersweet - there is the desire to stay longer, the sadness at leaving the place that has come to feel like home, and the dread of having to repack the car - balanced by the desire for a soak in hot water, a comfortable bed, and bedtime without the bugs. The best thing about leaving, however, is that there will always be a next time - the forest, creek, frogs and bugs are just out there, waiting patiently, until we come again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Ahab's Quest

Check out the new blog Ahab's Quest, from a good friend and fellow military UU.