A few years ago, I tuned in to a documentary about life in the Alaskan bush, where there are no roads, no stores, no schools. In particular, I was impressed with a 16-year-old girl who lived in the bush with her parents; in one memorable scene, she loaded up her sled, hitched up her dogs, and waved goodbye to Mom and Dad as she pulled away from their log home, off to check her trapping lines. She’d be back in three weeks, give or take.
The purity and freedom enjoyed by that family no doubt had their costs, but in the moment of watching that girl, I could only marvel, “Wow. Really?”
Then there was the time, probably eight years ago, at a toddler playgroup in a local community center, when I witnessed a fabulous single mother urging her ten-year-old son to help out a woman who’d come in, availed herself of the “free” shelf of donated household items, and scored a mattress; watching the woman try to wrestle the mattress out the door, the single mother advised her semi-disinclined son that he should help the woman carry it out and heave it onto her car “because it’s the right thing to do, Tyler.” Impressed, I tucked that phrase away for future use (ruefully musing that its future use entailed renaming my toddler daughter “Tyler”).
These are the scenarios that informed my parenting ideals: 1) Teens covet fur; 2) Mattresses can be gotten for free.
Oh, all right. The parenting lessons I took from these scenarios were more along the lines of “be brave enough to let children head towards Capricious World and trust that they won’t fall through the ice” and “children should learn that the best motivation is intrinsic.”
While I still give these ideals total props (as the kids used to say in 2002)–and I’m all about shoving my wee ‘uns out the front door and locking it in the interest of advancing Ideal #1–I have to say Ideal #2 is harder, especially because the culture around us is designed to reward kids extrinsically for every minor achievement (kids who make it through a teeth cleaning at the dentist without pitching a wobbly are given a bag of gifties on the way out; my daughter’s class collected money for the Red Cross in Haiti and, in acknowledgment of their efforts, were then thrown a pizza and rootbeer float party). I don’t excuse myself from this flawed system, mind you. In fact, I fit quite organically into a deeply-flawed culture, what with being that way myself. I use toys and food as payment for good behavior; in fact, within the last year, I’ve stood next to Paco and offered him a quarter to try just one bite of a food not on his Approved List of Vittles. It went really well.
He tried the stir fry, spit it out, announced “I hate it,” and took the quarter up to his money jar.
The idea of paying kids to do what they should is pretty pervasive, in fact. The other week, report cards came out.
Report card day was when I first started on this series of four posts about how letting kids rub shoulders with that wench, World, causes an erosion of ideals (which, for the purposes of retaining any self respect, I’m calling “compromise”).
Here’s how report card day played out:
Having just finished leading a 4th grade book club session, I ran down the hall and picked up Paco from his classroom. As he and I then loitered outside the 4th grade classroom, waiting for Girl to be released, I chatted with another mother, whose 4th grade son was yanking on her arm, pestering her about what exactly on his report card could be called an “A.” Yes, the kids are given letter grades, so it shouldn’t be hard to discern (although if he couldn’t recognize an “A” when he saw it, odds are there wouldn’t be any on his report); however, only core subjects are given letter grades. All other subjects, such as music and physical education (etc.) are given marks like “at grade level,” “above grade level,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement.” This last grouping of marks was the ground upon which 4th grade Arm Yanker Boy was launching his attack. He negotiated, “At grade level means it’s an ‘A’ because it means I’m just where I should be.” Countering, his mom maintained, “No, an ‘A’ would be more like above grade level.” Tightening down the manipulation, Arm Yanker tried, “But at grade level starts with an ‘A,’ so it would count as an ‘A.’” Sighing exasperatedly, his mom said, “Just wait until tonight, and you and your dad can figure it out.” Then she turned to me and explained, “His dad told him he could have $10 for each ‘A’ he earns.”
The Jocelyn response at this juncture was “BWAAHH??” Calling upon my poker face, I simply replied, “Well, I always got a buck per ‘A’ when I was growing up, so I suppose with changes in the value of the dollar…”
Unrelenting, Arm Yanker kept hammering away at his mother, asking, cajoling, repackaging, until I thought, “Okay, Girl, come on out of your classroom. Mommy isn’t allowed to twist the earlobes of young boys, so she needs to go now.”
Moments later, Girl came out, grabbed her belongings from her locker, and walked out to the parking lot with us, excitedly reporting that she’d just been given her report card and couldn’t wait to open it in the car. When she did, the news was good: straight A’s in all academic subjects, with the small oh-shucks of a B+ in art (as she explained, “That makes sense; I’m not very good at drawing”). Rightly, she was glowing with self pride.
A few hours later, she and I went over to a neighbor’s house to drop something off.
As we stood there, chatting, the subject of report cards came up, for their household that evening was being plagued by—get this—a 4th grade boy (theirs) who was yammering, hammering, negotiating, cajoling, and marketing his report card, trying to sell it as a document containing straight A’s.
…because his dad had offered him $100 for getting straight A’s, rationalizing, “Well, that’s what my dad gave me when I was growing up, if I got straight A’s.” And, as Cajoling Boy kept telling his beleaguered mother while dad was off at work, “I really want that $100!”
The rub was that his report card featured letters that come a little later in the alphabet than A. Apparently, his mom was supposed to help will them into A’s before Dad got home. Mostly, Mom was willing herself towards a cocktail before Dad got home.
Standing in their foyer, witnessing the grades drama, our daughter, she of straight A’s (beceptin’ Art), looked bemused. Nonplussed. A little taken aback.
A few minutes later, as we walked home, she announced that she couldn’t imagine getting $100 for good grades, wondering, with a delightful lack of imagination, “What would I do with $100?” Simultaneously, she marveled that there are kids who get handed $100 by their parents.
Friends, this was my moment to affirm her thinking. I trotted out a long-shelved phrase and, in agreeing with her that getting good grades** is its own reward, I told her kids should try hard in school because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Lest you think that moment of moral superiority lasted or that I’m going to give you an inspirational tale of How to Raise Children—
remember, I’m a bit of a contradictory piece of work.
Thus, a moment after counseling my daughter that her best effort was inherently its own reward, I also mentioned, “You know, when I was growing up, I got a dollar for every ‘A’.”
Extending that idea—because some part of me felt the impulse to give my daughter something for pleasing her teacher (you can shake hands with My Crazy right about now; be sure to hit the hand sanitizer afterwards, though)—I told Girl, “If we gave you the same, about a dollar per ‘A,’ that would be roughly the cost of a new book, and I will never object to buying you a book, so if you’d feel left out not getting something for your good results, I’ll buy you a book.”
Her response indicated that her A’s may have been, in fact, aptly rewarded:
“Or shoes?” she asked.
Unfortunately for the moral of this tale, which has suddenly hit the skids, I’m all about irrational thinking, saying one thing and then doing another, subsequently making my husband splutter (“I never got anything for good grades because I didn’t need to get anything for good grades“)–oh, and I’m also all about capitalizing on the commonalities that will link my girl and me in the next few years, understanding that she is a year and a half away from middle school, Age of Appearances, and therefore I can make the case that laying a good foundation of shoes is, on some level, setting her up for middle school success, and—oh, yes, this too!–understanding that I’m thirty years away from middle school and still not over the power of shoes to make any bad situation feel just one grunt better, I said, “Yea, shoes would work for me.”
Hence, it would seem that trying to do well isn’t its own reward in our household, but, rather, trying to do well is best acknowledged by a new pair of fluffy Ugg-type slippers (which is what 4th grade girls at her school are wearing with their jeans).
The truth is that there are about ten more paragraphs to the shoe segment of this story, and if I wrote them out, you’d see me striking a deal with Girl that I will give her $6 towards a pair of the special slippers, but she has to pay the rest…and that she can’t tell her brother, as he is the original negotiator/cajoler for external rewards, but he doesn’t get letter grades yet in 1st grade, and so she just has to tell him she’s buying the slippers for herself…and then she doesn’t keep her mouth shut…and then Paco comes to me and asks what he gets for being above grade level on his report card…and then I tell Girl she’s not getting any money from me now because she blabbed…and then she cries and apologizes…and then two days pass…and then I recant and tell her I’ll pitch in some money after all…and so we go to about ten stores and finally find a pair on clearance for $9…which causes me to think the Girl can just cover such a cheap cost all on her own…and so, as of this writing, she has her slippers and paid for them herself, and since she’s so over the moon about them, it hasn’t occurred to her to say, “Hey, Mom, were you going to pay me back $6 for the slippers, since I got six ‘A’s?”
All of this causes me to note that Sir Walter Scott actually had no idea of how knotted “a tangled web” could get, and he really should just come to my house around report card time if he ever decides, from the grave, to revise “Marmion.”
Ultimately, I admit that I, the parent who started out with ideals, was the Agent of Tangling in this situation. Mostly, though, I’m impressed that we made it through report card week without me presenting my parental talk entitled “And Whenever You Feel Bad in Life, There Is No Solace Like Eating Ice Cream Straight Out of the Carton.”
**As someone who is in the business of awarding grades, I’m well aware of how inaccurate a reflection of skill and ability a letter can be. That, combined with the pressures public schools feel due to No Child Left Behind and other systems of accountability (my sense is that teachers give the lowest possible grade in the fall and give the highest possible grade in the spring, to illustrate improvement), pretty much makes me roll my eyes at grades. Grades are like Paris Hilton: all for show, with not much wrapped up inside.