Sunday, June 18, 2006

Earning Everything

Another phrase that is common in our work is that the kids should “earn privileges”. Many activities, events, later bed times, TV time, use of games, and special treats are earned. This is another part of our thinking that has to change.

Like many aspects of our current system this started as a good idea. The plan was to motivate the children to behave better by showing them that positive behavior led to better things in life than negative behavior. Of course, they probably already knew that, and if they could have changed their behavior they would have.

We don’t have to earn all our positive experiences, thank heavens. We can watch TV whether or not we have been “good” that day. We can stay up as late as we want, or go on a trip. Of course it could be said that we do earn these things by being productive citizens and by making money, but we are not evaluated minute-by-minute as to whether we have earned the right to have fun.

Children should get many things just because they are alive and they are people. These should include many types of fun, treats, extras, and playful times.

We would be better served to look at our children’s problems through the analogy of a physical ailment. Suppose a child named Bob was in a car accident (not his fault- he was in the back seat, just along for the ride). Both his legs were multiply broken. Now he is in a rehab facility and is learning to walk again. Bob is receiving physical therapy, medications, a doctor’s care, and the help of a social worker for the emotional effects of the accident.

The treatment team knows that Bob’s recovery will be slow, involve many ups and downs, and will require effort and patience on their parts and on Bob’s. They do not assume that Bob could just walk better if he wanted to. They do not intervene primarily by setting up rewards for walking long distances and punishments for falling down.

They structure Bob’s day carefully. They encourage him to walk short distances at first, between bars, and then always with someone with him to catch him if he falls. They break the activity of walking down into many little steps and teach them to him one by one. They praise effort, not results. They only expect him to do what they know he can currently do. The physical therapist does not tell Bob that because he falls when he tries to walk a long ways he is not allowed to go on a trip. If Bob needs to go somewhere that is further than he can currently walk, they get him a wheel chair. A trip might be just what he needs to have some fun and get some more hope and energy for his recovery.

They do offer much encouragement, and remind him what is at stake, and try to show him what will be possible as he learns more walking. But they do not make current enjoyment contingent on his daily progress, because they know his progress is affected by many things and is only partially within his control. They know that enjoyment, people who love him and encourage him, and a sense of the possibility of change will get him through the hard, discouraging effort of regaining what should be rightfully his.

Our children are as damaged by trauma as Bob was by his car accident. Their recovery is as slow and difficult and takes as much energy and patience. We should not make them earn activities and privileges. Instead we should provide whatever supports are possible to help them experience the delights of life. We should evaluate their current skills and invite them to do just a tiny bit more than they can currently do easily, with us there to catch them when they fall. With a combination of joy, relationships, and fun our children will have the hope and energy to continue their hard work of growing and changing.

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