Paddles and Point Chains.

Second grade, I think.  1979.

I remember the discomfort in the classroom.  Thick, humid silence among the students, occasionally perforated by a sharp whisper or a quiet titter of laughter.  Richard Owens was being led out of the classroom … again … by a man with wiry hair and thick hands.  We all knew what was going to happen next, and what was propped against the wall outside the classroom.  It was long and sturdy and made of polished wood.  The whispers among the hallways claimed that the instrument was perforated for aerodynamic effect, but schools are full of legends such as this.

Some of us watched the door that Richard was being led to, while others (in fear of being called out to join him) kept our noses in some imaginary project until it was over.  The man with the wiry hair and the wrecking ball hands escorted the grinning Richard into the unseen hallway and closed the door behind him with a gentle click that sounded like a gunshot in the silence of the carpetless, cinderblock room.  They seemed to take the air with them as they left the room.

It is very possible that the teacher began to talk again, but if she did, no one was listening.  We all held our breaths as she vaguely wah-wah-wah’d away in the front of the class.  And a few seconds later we heard it.  A thick thwak!, muffled by the closed door, followed by a skittery yelp.  Then silence.  A few minutes later, the door quietly opened, and Richard Owens entered with the same grin on his face.  But the grin was forced, and his eyes were red and watery.  If we would have dared to move, we could have reached out and scooped up the silence with a cupped hand.  All eyes were on Richard, even if they weren’t.  He moved, slowly, bathed in his invisible dirty spotlight, across the room toward his empty desk.

“That ain’t hurt,” he postured.

Liar, we all thought silently.

Looking back on these moments (and there were many nearly identical moments involving Richard Owens and the burly disciplinarian), I can say with confidence that Richard’s silent cross from the classroom door back to his empty desk remains the most potent example of a walk of shame that I can conjure from my 39 years of life.   And the kid was in second grade.

* * *

Fast forward from 1979 to 2012.

The disciplinary culture in our schools have evolved from Paddles to Charts.  Somewhere between 1979 and the new millennium, the anti-spanking movement gained steam, and decision makers began to believe that this kind of grade school corporal punishment was no longer appropriate for schools.  So the paddle has been retired and the “chart” has begun its reign.

My first grader’s life is now wholly subject to measurement in charts.  In his classroom, he has a Point chain which begins at zero every day, and throughout the day, the child has opportunities to move up and down the chain.  If the student lands on a +3 for the day, he gets to dip his hand into the treat box at the end of the day.  If he gets above 10 points for the week, he gets a prize to take home.  If the student is on a -1 before recess, he misses 5 minutes of recess time.  If he lands on a -2 or below, a “Think Sheet” goes home to the parents.

My kid has taken to the charts like gangbusters.  His behavior is that of a typical 6.5 year-old and he lands most days on a +1, with the occasional 0 and the occasional +3.  But he loves the process of the charts, and the excitement of the rewards and due to his enthusiasm, we have instituted a similar behavior chain on our refrigerator at home.  We follow along with his points accumulated during the week at school, and provide opportunities for home “moveups” and “movedowns” for behavior, cooperation and kindness at home.

In addition to the Points Chain, the school sends home homework charts, reading charts, teethbrushing charts, etc, and at the end of every completed chart is some sort of tangible reward: a trip to Six Flags, a free movie ticket, a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.  Clearly the students love this kind of intensive reward system, and the “walks of shame” endured by the likes of Richard Owens are gone from school culture.  Kids are given opportunities to see rewards for good decisions and behavior, and see some peer-centered consequences when they decide to step out of line.

This is a good thing.  Right?

It seems to be working on a practical level.  But lately, on a philosophical level … I’ve become skeptical.  What is a constant system of “rewards” doing to the real-world expectations of our young people as they journey toward adulthood?  Does this system really resemble the adult world they are moving towards?  I worry that the answer is a definitive . . . “no.”

Look at our culture today.  Americans have a terrible addiction to credit, which is another term for “spending money we don’t have.”  Half of our nation bought homes in the last 15 years that they, in reality, could never afford in their wildest dreams.  These decisions led to a nation in default, which largely jump started the financial collapse and subsequent recession.  Credit card debt is out of control . . . but most people with massive consumer debt are surrounded by high dollar gadgets that they could never purchase outright.  The way we currently spend and manage money in our culture is wildly different from the way our parents did.  Why is this?

If you watch commercial television for 20 minutes with a critical eye, the reason comes out loud and clear.  Buy this because … you’ve earned it.  You deserve it.  Nothing else matters.  

You’ve been good.  Reward yourself.

(fine print: worry about how you’ll pay for it . . . later.)

We have countless college students who are doing everything they were ever told to do and are graduating from college with straight A’s, reputable degrees, thousands of dollars of school loans and not a job prospect anywhere.  Our societal reality is this: many good people work hard their entire lives and never get rich.  Some work hard their entire lives and lose their jobs and their homes.  Good work, good decisions and good behavior do not always produce a tangible reward, and the current political soundbite claiming that “the rich work hard and the poor are lazy” is a stupid fallacy that I’m afraid these reward systems are subtly perpetuating.

Adults make bad decisions all the time.  In fact, I feel the effect of this “culture of entitlement” on a daily basis.  Every bad decision I have made in my adult life (and I’ve made many) can be traced back to my own dejected sense that “I’ve earned this.  I work hard. I deserve it.”  You can justify anything with that line if you believe it hard enough.

So I worry about my kids and their friends.  Are these reward systems setting our average children up for massive disappointment?  Are the reward systems making it harder to teach our future world leaders that “good work is its own reward?”  Good work, good decisions and good behavior do not always produce a tangible reward, but they do always produce a better society.  Why does no one spout this from the podiums?  Are we so irrationally afraid of anything that even remotely resembles “socialism” that we can no longer talk about the necessity of good citizenship for the greater good?  How do I teach my child that being kind to his sister is something that is important no matter what the Point Chain says?

Our culture has become overly focused on the entitlement and the achievement of the individual.  When I was growing up (paddles and all), the word citizenship was used constantly and with integrity.  My own crawl up the point chain was less important than how my decisions and behavior affected those around me.  It was a large part of my job as a student to learn to be a good citizen.  When did we abandon this as an educational and even more importantly, as a national value?

Are we really OK with raising kids that are motivated solely by the solitary quest to fulfill their own sense of entitlement?

I hope not.