The wife and I try to find routines for our kids to help them organize their lives. We’ve tried checklists with timelines and schedules so they can understand what needs to happen and when. We’ve tried different formats, printed sheets (that they like to fill with doodles), personal whiteboards (that they like to fill with doodles), sticky notes posted around the house (that they like to fill with doodles). In addition to setting expectations for what we want from them it’s our sincere hope that they also gain an understanding of the steps necessary to go from waking up in the morning to leaving for school with your pants on – this last step is not, sadly, self-evident. Hopefully along the way they also develop a sense of time and how it passes. The ultimate goal being the knowledge, the confidence, and the competence to be 100% responsible for themselves by the time they’re 18.
Perhaps you’ve already gleaned from the examples I’ve provided that our attempts have been met with mixed success. The kids have certainly learned the steps involved in getting out the door in the morning although their ability to read a clock is debatable and the passage of time remains an abstract and impenetrable concept. But when it comes right down to it I have to lay any failure of our systems at my own feet. I can get the process rolling, I can keep it moving for days or sometimes weeks at a stretch, but inevitably I find a way to let the process break down. School has a break and some items from the list become irrelevant, someone has a special project that needs time in the morning schedule, sometimes we sleep in and need to hack our way through the critical path to get out the door on time. These changes happen mostly because I’m capable of letting them happen. I can step in and help get through the extra tasks, I can make decisions that cut corners and allow us to get through the checklist quickly if we’re late for whatever reason. But just because I can step in and make sure the job gets done doesn’t mean I should step in.
The central argument in this case is how are they going to learn if I don’t let them try and fail and learn from their mistakes on their own? In the past I haven’t been able to take myself effectively out of the equation. A large part of me doesn’t want them to fail. I tell myself that they’ll model and learn how to complete tasks by watching the wife and I. They’ve certainly demonstrated an uncanny ability to model behaviors of ours that we DON’T want them to emulate. We haven’t seen it yet but someday one of those positive traits is bound to surface.
However, instead of having to wait and see if they’re ever going to emulate a happy skill; fate has stepped in and forced my hand – or my leg, as the case may be.
On a recent skiing trip I broke my leg. And not a little. After several grotesque surgeries I can look forward to setting off airport metal detectors for years to come. I’ve been looking all over for silver linings and one that I’ve found in this case is the way my recovery is going to limit my ability to step in and meddle with the system. I am forced by physical limitations to adhere to certain routines if I want to heal properly. The circumstances are forcing a certain amount of discipline on the part of both me and the kids. And I can’t step in to rescue them from failure. I’ll give them a hug and a kiss on the head to console them but beyond that we are each on our own.
The first step is to go back to the checklists. As part of my pain management routine I’m on some serious narcotics. It’s good for the pain but when it comes time to focus on tasks they make me very sleepy. One minute I’m typing away at a blog post and the next minute I’m shaking myself awake realizing I’ve just typed several lines of the letter zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
So I can’t trust myself to remember everything that needs to happen. The checklists are a good way to hand off to the kids with the simple instruction to take care of everything on the list and come back to me when it’s done so I can make sure nobody cut any corners. This is especially helpful with our daughter who is deep in a corner-cutting phase. She’s always been headstrong and argumentative but now she’s using those skills to get out of as much unpleasant work as possible. She doesn’t want to do her biography report on Jane Goodall so she moans and drags her feet as if she were on a death march. It’s clear that if she picks up that pencil it will be the final stroke that will lead to her untimely death from graphite poisoning. But with much flogging we persevere and the work gets done.
Needless to say, our lives would be far more pleasant if we could avoid the flogging and the secret to that is failure.
Along with the checklists we need to implement a system of rewards and punishments. If the kids are capable of following the checklists, of tracking their own work and getting the job done in a reasonable amount of time we reward them with the Dopamine DoseTM of their choice.
A brief aside: according to the source of all knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) “Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning.” We came up with the Dopamine DoseTM as a reward for the kids completing their homework in a timely manner.
The most common Dopamine DosesTM are Uncle Roy Stories or various desirable trinkets from that purveyor of Super Awesome novelties, Archie McPhee.
If the kids can’t complete the checklist or waste all their time moping and moaning about how much they don’t want to do their homework they get to face the negative consequences. These are typically not all that harsh: not listening to an audiobook before bed, not getting to pick a movie for pizza and movie night, or watching endless Phineas and Ferb cartoons on a Saturday morning.
Cruel and unusual. Yes, I know.
But there’s an added punishment we’re looking to add to the mix. Failure. Up to now it’s been unacceptable to the wife and I for the kids to not turn in homework on time. We track things closely and make sure that the job gets done. But not any more. We’re still going to give them every opportunity to do the work properly but if they want to drag their feet or “forget” to do something (a personal favorite) we’re not going to bail them out any more. They get to learn what happens when you don’t fulfill your responsibilities.
This is facilitated by the fact that the wife, in addition to her full-time job, is now the boss of my convalescence while I have a physical limitation that prevents me from hopping over to their school bags on a whim and digging through them to make sure that everything that needs to get done is actually getting done.
Having a broken leg full of titanium sucks but if, in some way, it leads to our kids being more responsible, confident, and self-reliant then that’s a silver lining I can be happy with.
John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.