I believe 12-year-old Jackeline learned a lesson last week, or at least I hope so. Our dear fifth grader has been struggling mightily to find a good work ethic in school, and quite frankly Darwin and I had not found a technique that has made any difference other than that of growing the dark circles under our eyes. We had tried the well-intentioned lectures and advice, sincere moments of prayer, hugs of encouragement and warmth, washing her mouth out with soap, taking away movies/art class/choir practice/other privileges in response to bad behavior, adding boring chores such as washing the walls of different buildings on our property, and even having special celebrations and awards for those who are making the effort in school, but all to no avail. No attitude change, no repentance, no newfound work ethic or desire in school.
So, as I’m knee-deep in reading a fantastic parenting book (Loving Our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk), I found new inspiration with our pre-teen who is headed for a rough course in life if she doesn’t get her act together. I devised a plan and invited my husband Darwin to execute it with me. We passed by our school building around 10:30am, knocking on the door of the room that holds 7 students (3 of our own kids and 4 from our local community) and 1 teacher, hoping to catch Jackeline in her own trap. I informed the teacher with a big smile that we were merely stopping by to see how Jackeline was doing, and when the teacher hesitated in her response, I knew we had her! With dread in her voice, the teacher informed us that, again, Jackeline had refused to do her classwork, had hit her desk in defiance, and wouldn’t stop complaining the whole morning.
As if the teacher had told me, “Stop by my office at noon and I’ll give you a bag of chocolates,” I said cheerfully, “Ok great! Let’s go, Jackeline.”
Jackeline looked at me suspiciously as her thoughts read ‘Let’s go?’ Where to? It’s freaking me out how you’re smiling at me like that. Why don’t you look disappointed in me? Aren’t you supposed to be mad that I don’t make even the smallest effort is school ever? I mean, it’s disgraceful that I don’t even care about my own future! Another lecture would do me good, or at least take away all my privileges. That always seems to work.
I motioned excitedly with my arm that she follow us, so she got up from her desk, leaving behind her school materials that had already been out of use virtually the whole morning, and she began trailing sluggishly behind Darwin and I as we crossed our large front yard, went through the gate, and headed up the path to the large open-air structure that used to serve as our chicken run but now is used as a stable for Darwin’s cows.
As we arrived – me with a visible spring in my step, grateful and excited for this wonderful opportunity to try something new in the pioneer journey of teaching a vital lesson to this young woman we love – I kindly explained (again, with the tone of voice that a mother would use with her daughter to say, “Auntie Carol just dropped off a $50 check for your birthday and said that she’s going to invite you to vacation at the beach with her and your cousins next weekend!”) that since she obviously doesn’t want to be in school, then we’ll respect her freedom of choice and allow her to work.
Oh, if looks could kill! (And I’m not talking about ours!)
As we stood in the middle of the structure’s small enclosed yard with various fenceposts leaning over or having fallen down altogether, we explained how she would be working with a machete to remove the chicken wire of the entire perimeter (a job that’s needed to get done for months, but we haven’t had time to do it), putting all the wire together in a big pile and then organizing the various pieces of wood, old tires, etc that were lying about. More than a couple times as we walked around the enclosed area, I had to warn, “Watch your step, Jackeline! There’s a heap of cow poo right there.”
Her face and body language radiated mad, which only further confirmed that we had finally found a consequence that just might get under her skin. (And, hey, no fake tears for once!) We handed the machete to her after Darwin gave her a quick demo of how to whack away at the posts, removing the chicken wire, and we allowed her to change into work clothes and fill a water bottle before returning to spend the time necessary until the job was finished.
We cheerfully reminded her that we loved her and wished her well on her new work project, leaving promptly.
As Darwin and I returned to the office to finish the preparations for that day’s Bible study, I peeked out the window several times to see how our young worker was progressing. The poor girl was very confused – she was sitting down!
A couple hours later as we were serving lunch to about 30 or so people who had come to Bible study, I served up a bowl of lukewarm beans for our fence-repairer and walked with that same bounce in my step out to the chicken run for the second time that morning. As she saw me approaching, she quickly stood up and pretended to be working on a fence post, looking at me as if I was about to chew her butt for her laziness. My response: a peppy, loving, “Hey! There you are! Enjoy your lunch! Let me know if you need to fill up your water bottle again.”
I handed off the plastic bowl of beans, turned around, and left.
I think at that point she realized that going on strike wasn’t going to get her anywhere (or reel me in and trap me in some power struggle or futile discussion of morals and work ethics).
An hour or so later, a young neighbor of ours who had been at our home for lunch and the Bible study, looked at me and said in a concerned tone of voice, “Uh, Jennifer? Jackeline’s sure been out in the chicken run for quite a while…”
I smiled and said, “Yup! Sure has! You want to play soccer?”
Well, at some point that afternoon our young worker got up off her rear and started taking down fenceposts, and she did a pretty darn good job. About four-and-a-half hours after we first dropped her off there, she finished the job like a champ and came clogging in through the front gate with a bit less energy and a bit more accomplishment than she had had that morning.
Nothing is a cure-all, but since that day we have had a bit more success with the general attitude of our beloved fifth-grader, and the teacher even had a positive report about her general work ethic in school the next day.
Thank you, author Danny Silk, for your wonderful (and fun!) parenting advice! Glory to God!