The timeout chair had absolute and unquestioned power in our home. Until they were 4, my kids were horrified at the thought of a timeout.
But even when the timeout chair didn’t preemptively stop a temper tantrum, it still worked magic. A two-minute sentence of silence in it instantly defrayed the tension. When you got up from timeout, the slate was perfectly clean – no ill will lingered. The timeout chair had many powers, but it had no memory.
I miss the timeout chair.
Hell, I simply miss the threat of it persuading my little ones to behave better.
Unfortunately, no such device strikes fear in the heart of a middle-schooler.
Nope, my 7th grader’s miscues aren’t as definitively corrected.
And, yes, they tend to fester.
A year ago, seeing an F on Yosef’s elementary school report card would have been laughable to me. In fact, I was caught completely flat-footed by my son’s recent academic struggles.
If I’m making excuses, I’d say that I had trust that he was performing well in school. After starting 6th grade with two consecutive semesters of straight A’s, I didn’t even bother checking his year-ending grades. Those would have clearly showed a downward slide – a ride that has not relented.
After seeing more F’s this fall, I realized my kid’s failing school. My parenting reaction followed, what I’d assume is, a normal trajectory:
My Kid’s Failing Stage 1: Finding fault
I needed to find the reason for Yosef’s academic slide – like, NOW!
Was the work too hard?
Why didn’t the teachers contact us before it got this bad?
Did the busy, activity-filled life we lead contribute?
I became quickly frustrated that I couldn’t pinpoint the problem – or the solution. The truth, likely, took in a little of these factors.
My Kid’s Failing Stage 2: He loses EVERYTHING!
I quickly turned my attention from finding the cause to attempting to make my son’s life miserable. Yosef was the only “thing” I could think to blame. After all, he did this, no one else. Right?
Now that I’d diagnosed Yosef as the key contributor, I was dead set on levying a punishment that would be forever cemented in his mind when he thought about slacking off again.
First, I snatched his phone. No more communicating with anyone other than US!
Next, I pulled him from all activities. You like football, huh? It’s GONE! GONE, GONE, GONE!
Finally, I relegated him to manual labor. I hope you enjoy lawn mowing, son. And weed pulling, room cleaning, and shelf dusting … the house better be IMMACULATE!
Taking everything was just the tough love he needed. I was really parenting, I thought, for a fleeting moment or two.
My Kid’s Failing Stage 3: What is my punishment teaching him?
When I finally took a breather, I realized that while punishments had quenched the appetite of my anger, they may not be teaching him a life lesson. In fact, nothing I had done in reaction to my son’s poor grades had anything to do with academics.
A simple question echoed in my mind, “Do I have a clue about how an A student becomes an F student seemingly overnight?”
The longer I thought about it, the more I reasoned that quickly jumping into multiple punishments might be a missed opportunity.
My Kid’s Failing Stage 4: I can’t take EVERYTHING away
After having a few more days to think, I decided to soften my approach. I would sit down with Yosef to plan for getting the academic train back on the tracks.
My son and I talked about being organized, not getting behind, openly communicating and how to keep on top of our busy lives. I offered my help and Yosef, finally, agreed that he could use it from time to time. He agreed for daily school check-ins before leaving for any extracurricular activities. I agreed to be more proactive, checking his progress on the school’s online system each night and helping craft a plan for the next day’s priorities.
Our chat felt good – like we were more like trusted colleagues than father and son. It probably helped that in doing so, I didn’t erupt into a screaming, short, blonde version of the late comic Sam Kinison.
As we wrapped up, together, we decided that Yosef could play football. I wanted him to stay active and social.
Understanding the need to have a way to communicate, I allowed him to carry his phone under the stipulation I checked it each day when he arrived home.
Instead of automatically signing Yosef up for all household chores, I limited the manual labor to mostly yard work (which, honestly, I hate anyway).
My Kid’s Failing Stage 5: Trying to mend the fences.
Like most decisions I make on behalf of my kids, I found myself reflecting on the parenting job I’m doing more than obsessing about improving Yosef’s grades. Part of me felt like I’d been too easy – continuing to give my son the benefit of the doubt that he hadn’t earned.
I wondered if my actions would even have an impact on Yosef’s grades and, more importantly, our relationship.
Suddenly, I started to think about working harder to stay informed for my other kids – all of whom are in elementary school where grades seem an afterthought to having fun and trying. I brainstormed about how truly present I am with them each day.
Mostly, though, I thought about having wished away my kids’ early years of limited sleep and diaper changing. I sat longing for the timeout chair to correct any wrongs and erase the cloud of adolescent misbehavior that doesn’t seem to lift.
Parenting an older child is different – requiring more.
Maybe I needed a timeout to realize it.