My 7th grader developed a bad habit this school year: not bringing his book bag home from school. It started out innocently enough, leaving it in his locker on Fridays because he had no homework over the weekend. Then with my “systems-thinking” son, it morphed quickly into not bringing it home on any days he was homework-free (which miraculously seems to be very often this school year for some reason, not that I’m complaining!). Up until last week, I did not have much to say about his book bag choices. I can understand his point – why carry a book bag home (he walks home from school) when you have no homework to do?
However, last week the reasons why he should bring his book bag home became crystal clear. When he was going to bed one night, I sat in his room while he finished up brushing his teeth. As he came in, he remembered that he had a form I needed to sign for school. He asked me to sign it when I left his room, but I was not going to take on the responsibility of remembering it when I went downstairs, so I asked him to go and get it right then. When he went down to get the paper, he realized that he must have left his book bag at school – possibly outside where he was throwing a football around with his friends after school. This was obviously not a very good turn of events. Another domino effect from him not bringing his book bag home was that he had worn pants over shorts to school several chilly mornings and then left the pants in his locker when he went to gym class. But because he was not bringing a book bag home, the number of pants in his locker was growing. I talked to him about this several days prior also and let him know that we were not going out to buy him new pants – he needed to figure out a plan for bringing home the ones that were in his locker at school. This is how I now “handle” my pre-teen. When an issue arises, we talk about the issue and I help him to figure out a way to solve his own problem. And there is no need for issuing punishments, lectures, or the like. And as he always does, he figured out this pants problem. Unfortunately, this was the day he decided to bring home his book bag stuffed full with the paper I needed to sign along with all of the pants from his locker. Now, we suddenly had a bigger problem on our hands; no paper and no pants – the domino effect of his choices was growing.
In that moment, we had a problem to solve. I used very few words – only just what I needed to say. There was no time for lecturing or talking about what had gone wrong or any of it. We had to try to solve the problem at hand. What to do about it moving forward could come later. I had my husband drive him to school in the pitch darkness at 9:30pm to look for his book bag. A half hour later, they came home with no book bag. The flashlight he took was not very good and did not help him to find it. So at 10:00 pm, he and I took two better flashlights and went back to the school to look around. I let him know that if we could not find it in the dark he would be leaving for school 30 minutes early the next day to look for it in the daylight (natural consequences). We searched the entire field from one end of the school, behind it and around to the other end and came up with no book bag. All along the way, he was retracing his steps and meticulously describing to me his actions on the way home from school. As he described what he had done that day, I realized first of all how well he self-regulates after school with his friends. He brings a football to school every morning so that he and his friends can play catch after school as they mosey home. This helps them to release steam and pent up energy from sitting in classes all day. That is a good thing. But losing his book bag is not a good thing.
The one other place my son thought he could have left his book bag was in the office after school. The day before, his friend took his unlocked bike into the lost and found in the office thinking my son had left it there and walked home by mistake. It turned out that he was actually staying after school for basketball and had not left his bike. So after school this next day, he stopped in the office to get his bike. Could his book bag have been there all afternoon? As we came around to the front of the school after searching outside, I saw that the custodian was still there. I decided to take our chances and ring the door bell. After a few minutes, the very kind man came to the door and let us come in when I explained our dilemma. He walked us to the office and let us in and guess what we found sitting right there in the lost and found? When my son saw his book bag, he suddenly realized that he had put it down on the floor as he tried to maneuver his bike out of the office and left it right where he sat it down.
When we got home, he put all of his pants in the hamper, and I signed the form for him. Then, even though it was already 10:30pm, my husband and I sat down with him to talk about the events of the evening and the domino effect of his choices. Given that he is what I call a “systems thinker” he can see the entire picture and see the cracks in any given system, so it was pretty easy for him to see where his choice of leaving his book bag at school left cracks in his system that failed him. I helped him to see that he needed to re-evaluate and re-adjust his system to figure out how it can support him. He came to the realization BY HIMSELF that it is most helpful and practical for him to bring his book bag home every day, even if he has no homework. He understood that being out of the habit of feeling the weight of his book bag made it so that his body did not set off an alarm when he left the office with his bike and no book bag. He also understood that not bringing his book bag home daily caused him to have to wear pants to school earlier that week that were too short for him because all of his good pants were in his locker at school.
Now, my “former” parenting self might have doled out a huge punishment for his mistake (loss of phone privileges, screen time, grounding from being with friends, etc. – all of these are ways that we tend to “punish” or “discipline” pre-teens). I could have lectured and yelled, threatened and shamed. I could have made him give me money to pay for all the pants he left at school. And I could have refused to help him find his book bag. It was his problem after all, right? All of these tactics may have forced him to bring his book bag home with him every day, but at what cost? He would resent me the entire time, he would not have learned from his mistake, and he would not be intrinsically motivated to bring his book bag home. And most importantly, he would focus on what an awful, mean mom I am and not the real issue which is the fact that he was not making choices that were in his best interest. And what would happen the next time he forgot to bring it home? More punishments, more yelling, more lectures, more shaming. And what does all of this lead to? LESS CONNECTION, when what I work so hard for is MORE CONNECTION. The awesome thing about this story is that the entire time he and I were looking for his book bag at school that night, instead of feeling angry, resentful and furious, I felt very connected to him. I was literally walking alongside of him as he tried to solve his problem. That is exactly where I see myself as a parent.
How has this situation turned out thus far? He has brought his book bag home every single day since that night and I have never had to remind him and he has not forgotten anything else important at school. He has also not set his book bag down and left it anywhere. And all of this was accomplished WITHOUT the use of punishments, external, parent-imposed consequences, lectures, yelling or shaming. His focus is simply on doing what serves him best – bringing his book bag home daily.
I see my biggest role as the mother of a pre-teen and as a parent in general to be a support person, standing beside my children and guiding them as they learn how to make choices that will help them to be successful. Sometimes I have to give more support and sometimes less. But we are in this life together. I am their biggest cheerleader. They are their own unique beings and their lives are not mine to mold and sculpt as I see fit. I am simply here to hand them the tools to sculpt the lives that they want to live – in all ways.