Q. My middle school son recently got in trouble for saying some bad things to the teacher that he shouldn’t have. I’m not excusing that (even though the teacher said some things she shouldn’t have, too). As punishment, the school suspended him for two days. But according to the school discipline policy, he should only have been suspended one day. To make up for the mistake, I’ve asked the school to strike the offense from my son’s record. Is this the right move?
Not even close. Based on your actions, the only “move” you should be concerned with is the imminent move of your son from kid trouble to adult trouble. Here are some things you’ve done to hasten that move:
You start by shifting the blame for your child’s actions. You say you’re not “excusing” your son’s behavior, but you immediately co-blame the teacher because she “said some things she shouldn’t have, too.”
Why do you even care? Are you the teacher’s parent? Are you the principal? If you want to do what’s best for your child, you should place your focus squarely on his actions, not hers. Let’s assume you’re right and the teacher did say some bad things. So what? Do you want your child to learn that it’s okay to be nasty unto others as long as they’re nasty unto you first? Or do you want him to learn respect and self-control no matter what situation he’s in? (Hint: parents of thriving children choose curtain No. 2.)
Spin it forward. Your son is new on the job at a big engineering firm. The rich, powerful, domineering boss comes in to your son’s office and sarcastically berates him for making a sloppy mistake. Is it a good idea for your son to spit back the sarcasm because the boss was being too bossy? Unless you want him to only be able to afford the rent on your finished basement for the rest of his life, you’d better start teaching him how to get along with everyone, even if it means shutting his mouth in the face of rudeness.
The next entity to share blame in this fiasco, according to you, is the school. They apparently did not follow their own policy. This was a mistake on their part. And if you want your son to learn how to elude responsibility for his bad behavior by tracking down small procedural errors and exploiting the loopholes they create, well, 1. you’re in the right country, and 2. expect to be bailing him out of more messes until he finally jumps into one that you aren’t smart enough to get him out of.
In my experience, the best students have parents who make them accept responsibility for acting like jerks. These are the parents who — recognizing that good character is not confined to one area — provide consequences at home on top of what is administered at school. These are also the parents who make their kids swallow their pride and do things like apologize to the people they’ve wronged.
These parents would have been thrilled to learn that the student got two days of suspension instead of the prescribed one for the simple reason that they don’t want their children’s behavior to conform to the lowest common denominator; they want them held to a higher standard of conduct. And that doesn’t happen by crossing their fingers and wishing really hard. It only happens by teaching and modeling those qualities upfront and holding their children accountable when they choose to deviate from them.
Lastly, asking the school to strike the offense from your child’s record reveals that you are overly concerned about labels and under-concerned with your child’s character. Frankly, a child’s school disciplinary record by itself is all but meaningless. I’ve never even seen one. Students generally start each year with a blank slate. The record only comes into play when offenses are committed repeatedly. More importantly, your child actually committed the offense. If the school keeps a record of wrongs, why shouldn’t it apply to your child? Assuming the school made a mistake in following policy in one area, why is your solution to demand that the school fail to follow policy in another?
In this situation, a conscientious parent might have taken the two days of suspension and used them to make their child complete mighty tasks of contemplative hard labor (i.e. raking leaves or scrubbing windows). Then they would have made their son see the teacher privately and offer her his most sincerest apology.
Bailing your child out of small trouble invariably only leads to worse tribulation down the road. Fans of great cinema may remember in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo tried to help his passengers on the Millenium Falcon evade an imperial attack by flying into an asteroid belt. The decision to escape one imminent danger by flying into an even worse one worked out well for Han and his passengers in their fictional universe. I doubt that you, in our real one, will be so lucky.