Saturday, June 2, 2012

"Catastrophe Award" for Excuses

ABC news reported on its web site of May 29, 2012 a story about an 8-year-old Arizona girl whose school presented her with a “Catastrophe Award” for apparently having the most excuses for not turning in homework. The award looked like a colorful card, and contained the following message: “You’re Tops! Catastrophe Award.  Awarded to Cassandra Garcia. For Most Excuses for Not Having Homework.” The teacher signed the card “Ms. Plowman,” added the date – May 18, 2012 – and even included a smiley face.

While I agree that students should not be allowed to hide from their responsibilities and failures, the sarcasm seems unnecessary. The mother, understandably, took umbrage.

During an interview with ABC TV affiliate KGUN-TV in Tuscon, the mother, Christina Valdez, is quoted as saying the teacher announced the award in front of the entire class, and the other students laughed at her daughter. When she contacted the school to complain, the principal “blew me off,” Valdez added. “She said it was a joke that was played and that the teachers joke around with the children.” But Valdez told KGUN that she didn’t find any of it funny.

Valdez believes her child was humiliated by her teacher. The mother in her videotaped interview seemed to miss the whole point. She thought the award was “cruel” and that “I think it’s cruel and no child should be given an award like this. It’s disturbing.” It was not clear if the mother recognized that she might have been derelict in her parental obligations for monitoring the child’s school progress. The mother did have her daughter enrolled in an after-school homework assistance program, apparently for a good reason that was not explored in the news report.

 It was also not clear if there was a father on hand or what he might have thought. Given the huge number of fatherless homes in this country, it is a good bet no father was around.

The mother claimed she did not know the girl was failing to do homework. Why not? She could easily have uncovered the falsehood just by asking to see her daughter’s homework. Did she know what was going on in the after-school homework assistance program?

However, having been the father of excuse-making children, I know first-hand that kids will often say they don’t have any homework assigned, when in fact they do. Teacher-parent conferences or even a simple note of inquiry to the teacher is an obvious way to check. My point is that it should not be the teacher’s job to track down all parents and tell them individually how each student is performing homework. Teachers have far too many demands on them as it is. Too many parents treat teachers as baby sitters.

The point is you can expect most kids to make excuses and many cannot be trusted to always tell the truth. Parents must confront their kids about excuse-making and lying. Children may not change as a result, but at least they learn their con is seen for what it is.

Kids don’t do homework for many reasons, and everybody would benefit from uncovering and remedying the cause. Maybe the child doesn’t understand the material, in which case the parent may need to tutor. Maybe the kid doesn’t find the time, in which case parents need to teach better time management, including perhaps restricting TV and the Internet and use of cell phones and electronic toys. Maybe the kid hates school, which is a problem that should not be swept under the rug. Maybe the kid is just plain lazy, in which finding ways to motivate are sorely needed.

But most crucial is the lying and excuse making. This is has a seriously corrosive effect on a child’s character if allowed to run rampant. The teacher and the school are right to confront excuse-making, although their methods are too heavy handed. The harm to the child is that they can get in the habit of making excuses, which is tantamount to failure to accept responsibility and to reap the benefits that would accrue from doing what you are supposed to do. Further damaging is that basic dishonesty is being reinforced when children are allowed to get away with such “little” deceptions. Little lies grow into big ones.

How do you make a child stop making excuses? First, show they are not fooling anyone. If they see their con does not sell, they will try some other tactic, or more hopefully, start doing what they are supposed to do so they won’t have to lie and make excuses.

Confronting excuse-making works with adult students too. I remember my struggles in graduate school with a stern-task master mentoring professor. Somewhere late in my first semester, he  called me to one side and said, “Klemm, you make too many excuses for failing to measure up.” I had not realized this was the case, but upon reflection I saw that I could do better work if I stopped making excuses and confronted my academic deficiencies. I did get better.

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