Q: I think that punishing children (with extreme lengths of grounding, not letting them play little league, making them drop out of their youth group, etc.) for having less than ideal report cards is wrong. I know other parents who think the kids should be punished quite severely for bad grades. What is your opinion?
There’s nothing wrong with taking away privileges for being lazy. In fact, the most successful students have parents who make this a standard operating procedure.
Other parents think that extracurricular privileges are the child’s inalienable rights, no matter how slack they are in school. That’s not good because not only do those kids get a sloppy, half-useful education, they tend to develop sloppy, half-useful habits that evolve into a generally sloppy, half-useful character.
But if you decide to take away privileges for poor academic performance, it needs to be carefully considered. You can’t just look at the report card, shriek, and then start hacking away at all of a child’s activities. Among the questions you should weigh are:
- Why are you taking away the privilege?
Expectations for keeping privileges should be clear and reasonable. It’s generally unrealistic to expect a child to get all A’s, especially if he’s in higher level courses. A’s and B’s might even be pushing it for some. And frequently the final grade isn’t even the best indicator of success. A better standard is effort. If my kids were truly working hard in school, I was happy with any passing grade. If there was doubt, I would ask the teacher what he or she thought I should expect from my child and adjust my expectations accordingly.
- When do you take the privilege away?
Children don’t respond well to surprise punishments, so make the expectation clear from the outset. Don’t use punishment as a way to motivate kids to do better right off the bat; give them an opportunity to correct their own behavior. If you see a progress report with low grades, say “You’ve got until the report card to fix this.”
Develop a hierarchy of penalties. Don’t start with kicking a child off of a sports team − that’s at the most restrictive end of the spectrum. Start softer, like with a loss of cell phone, video games, or after school time with friends. Let them go a month with one of those before ratcheting it up to maybe all screens and then another month before removal from a team or club. Let that be among the last resorts.
- What privileges should be taken?
Since you shouldn’t take away everything all at once (and some things not at all), it’s important to have in mind what kind of adult you want your child to become. Axing some privileges will actually make your child worse off.
For example, as a parent I valued faith and character over intelligence. So no matter how badly my kids performed in school, I would never have taken them away from their youth group or church. Not only did it help them strengthen their beliefs, it also taught them valuable character traits. I felt the same way about family time. But I had no problem restricting them from TV or video games which held only marginal (if any) long-term advantages.
Athletics and the arts were also a little lower than academics. If my daughter had struggled doing her work in school, eventually I might have taken away the privilege of playing in the orchestra so she could devote more time to study. In fact, I did have to take away football from my son. It hurt because I know he enjoyed playing, but in order to keep him focused on what was more important, I had to take away something that was less important. This is one way kids learn what to value.
- How long should privileges be removed?
There has to be a plan to restore the privileges, and it’s good to make kids show change over a marking period. Otherwise they do just enough to get back on the team and then revert to their old ways. You want the exercise of good study skills to become a habit, not a quirk, and that takes time.
- The bottom line:
Any plan for managing academics and activities must be nuanced. Simply taking away all pleasure is not only missing the point, but it’s likely to be counterproductive: they will grow to resent school, learning and eventually, you. Kids have to have peer interaction in order to grow socially. They have to have some free time in order to mature. They benefit from activities that require structure and sportsmanship.
It’s true that children who are allowed to exploit their worst traits with impunity will invariably grow up to be adults who exploit their worst traits with impunity. But it’s also important to remember that you can’t “crate” kids the way you do dogs to get the behavior you want from them. It takes much more care, finesse, consistency and planning. Your poorly devised or carelessly capricious decisions in too light or too harsh a direction will result in bad consequences for everyone.