Why does the word consequence always conjure thoughts of its connotations rather than its primary meaning? Maybe because we usually only hear it from those in authority. An ad agency marketing a product by saying, “Here are the consequences of your action” (buying their product) sounds ridiculous, even though what they do tell us – it’ll make your insert body part here look amazing – is actually telling us the consequence (or at least the one they know you want)!
A little over a decade ago, I was amazed when the principal at the public elementary at which I taught banned any and all forms of punishment for undesirable behavior. Instead, we were to build a “refocusing area” in our room. When a child caused a disturbance, we were to send that child to this area where he could refocus attention on maps or puzzles or something of that nature to take his mind off of whatever got him upset in the first place. “I can’t tell him what he’s doing is wrong?” I remember being quite perplexed.
I’ve been here at Lawton Academy ever since, and I thought this idea had gone by the wayside. So, you can imagine my concern to find that it is alive and well in many day cares around town. Consequence doesn’t have a negative connotation at these places… it’s not even considered. Wow! Is the kid supposed to innately know that he shouldn’t do a certain action? How in the world does he “learn better”? Increasingly, we are seeing tantrums to get one’s way in our youngest students.
Equally distressing is the rally cry of the helicopter parent who informs the teacher that her child should not be held accountable for bad behavior because of insert stresser of the day here. Stress shares the burden of only being used in its connotative form.
So about now, you might be thinking I’ve baited and switched; this is really a piece about discipline. I would like to see children receive discipline for bad behavior… it certainly makes my job easier. In fact, when I see a parent disciplining a toddler in the midst of a tantrum, I thank them; conversely, when I see a parent give in, I mutter sarcastically, “Oh, her teachers are gonna love her!” (Usually only loud enough that I feel better but they can’t hear me, though!)
But what I really want to address is the inability of consequences to affect much change nowadays. When I was a kid, we had a few standard assemblies every year: don’t smoke, don’t take drugs, here’s what to expect when you get your period, and that embarrassing tablet that showed the plaque on your teeth. Now the kids are bombarded with warning messages: Stranger Danger, substance abuse, protect your body, internet safety, and the list goes on. I find myself wondering if kids haven’t said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. It’s all dangerous.” And then put their headphones back on to at least signal that they are ignoring us.
In the same vein is the lack of effect of good consequences. Ahh, for the good old days when a star sticker meant the world. Let’s face it: the reward for working hard in school is not incredibly tangible until we’re just about to leave. So teachers turn to small rewards that will motivate in the meantime. Rewards, in and of themselves, are not a bad motivation. After all, we work harder for a bonus or an extra day off. The problem is that nowadays everything is reward-driven. The kids are earning badges on computer learning sites, trophies for participation in sports, and money for A’s on report cards. I’ve had students look at my offer for a reward and say, “Ehh. That’s okay.” If there was some inkling that the thought behind that judgmental nod was, “No thanks, Mrs. Smith. I don’t do this for the rewards,” I wouldn’t be too concerned. It’s more like a “Is that it? I’ll pass” statement. How is a teacher’s reward supposed to compete with an iPhone or a $60 set of headphones or the latest tablet and apps?
When consequences become inconsequential, society reacts with a knee jerk. The grade schooler who shoplifts gets prosecuted; the middle school practical joker who dials 911 and hangs up gets a $750 ticket. It’ll be interesting twenty years down the road to evaluate the consequences of this reaction.