Q. When my son broke a school rule, he was made to wash tables and clean the floors in the cafeteria. I was appalled. This is degrading to children. Aren’t there more suitable punishments?
“Degrading?” As in “causing a loss of self-respect; humiliating?” How could a job that is performed every day by honest, hardworking custodians, restaurant workers, cafeteria employees, parents, and caregivers possibly be described as “degrading?” Unless, of course, you think those people lack self respect or humiliate themselves by doing what they do. If that’s what you think, it says a lot more about you than it does about them.
It will shock you to learn that when I am on lunch duty and I remark on how dirty the cafeteria is, there are some students who will actually cheerfully volunteer to help clean it. What is wrong with these urchins? Don’t they realize they are humiliating themselves by deigning to do such menial labor? (Sarcasm very much intended.)
Needless to say, I do not accept your premise. “Work” is not degrading. “Cleaning” is not degrading. What truly degrades people is when they exhibit qualities like arrogance, condescension, and contempt for those who do jobs they believe are beneath them. And those are qualities you are becoming perilously close to modeling for your child.
I am sure I am often guilty of exhibiting those traits myself. Most of us are. And whenever we do, it degrades us. It erodes our character. There are times when we need someone to remind us to get over ourselves. There are times we need someone to say “you are acting like you’re better than others, and you should stop it.”
Maybe that is what the teacher was trying to do for your child. Children are prone to give into their worst characteristics unless adults stop them and teach them to do the right thing. By assigning your child a consequence that most children don’t like — work — the teacher was emphasizing that the rules apply to everyone, even to him, and that he shouldn’t act so high and mighty.
You want another highly degrading quality? Indolence. As in “avoidance of activity or exertion; laziness.” And, boy, is this generation of youth at risk of succumbing to it.
Think about it. What chores are left to kids? We have robot vacuum cleaners and riding lawn mowers, electric dishwashers and gas-powered leaf blowers. Kids do very little anymore that requires physical exertion (and I don’t count pressing text buttons or moving joysticks). And when they are actually engaged in physical exertion, it’s usually not for a common good.
In my experience, students who are raised to believe that certain tasks are beneath their elevated status are the ones most likely to fall into indolence’s quicksand. Show me a student who throws their trash on the classroom floor because “it’s the janitor’s job to pick it up, not mine,” and I will show you an indolent child (and that might be among his best traits). Things get even worse as they carry this trait into adulthood. So maybe by assigning your child a consequence of actual “work,” she is helping him to elude indolence’s grip.
Whatever the reason, she is a brave soul. In today’s culture, teachers loathe to issue consequences out of genuine fear that there will be fallout from angry parents like you, fallout that ends up punishing the teacher far more than the child. So they just let kids act out, break rules, and generally misbehave as a kind of self-preservation. In this scenario, no one wins. Teachers pay the price with unruly classrooms, children pay the price by habituating selfish and impulsive behavior, and parents pay the price by having to bear the burden of children who never grow up.
But not this teacher. She has shown your son the high honor of caring enough about him to assign him a meaningful physical exercise for the school’s common good. She has done this in spite of the consequences to her. And she has done it to help teach him an array of important lessons. Next time, your child may think twice about breaking a rule, and even if he doesn’t, at least he will have learned a little bit about work and cleanliness. In my opinion, the teacher deserves your gratitude, not your grousing.
The opposite of degrading is “ennoblement.” As in “to elevate in excellence or respect.” And I know of one character trait that, paradoxically, might be the most ennobling of them all.
It’s called humility, and we all could apparently use a lot more of it.