Diabolical Materialism

We had another one of those awkward conversations at school recently. The teacher usually starts off by asking if we teach P at home, and I usually say no until the the third time she asks, when I amend my answer to, “Not really on purpose, no. Why?”

The reason I respond to grazed knees by getting my three year old to draw life-sized anatomical diagrams of the human cardiovascular system is extreme social awkwardness, not desire to instill knowledge.

The reason I respond to grazed knees by getting my three year old to draw life-sized anatomical diagrams of the human cardiovascular system is extreme social awkwardness, not desire to instill knowledge.

Then the teacher says something like, “It’s just, the other day he introduced the class to the concept of worker’s collectives.”

And I respond along the lines of, “Yes, well, of course we’ve covered the basics of Marxist philosophy. How else do you convince a four year old to help with the dishes?”

“I’ve always used sticker charts.”

“Well, there’s your problem.”

“Actually, my problem is he wasted a lot of class time arguing that it was dumb for everyone to complete a whole maths worksheet each when they could take one question per student, finish in a tenth of the time, and spend the rest of the afternoon hitting the playground.”

“And did you explain that he’d misunderstood the purpose of the task?”

“No, I drew up a sticker chart.”

“But what did they learn from that?”

“They learned maths.”

P’s teacher has expressed concern he’s going to run into a culture clash next year if he enrols in a Singaporean government school. She’s observed that he’s responded well to sticker charts and wonders if we can’t “coordinate strategies in order to improve consistency”. And, you know, it’s not that I’m opposed to the idea, it’s just, well, yes, actually it sort of is. Not the idea of coordinating strategies to improve consistency, but the idea of, well, sticker charts.

I hate sticker charts. That’s not entirely true: the child inside me hates sticker charts. My mother spent a considerable amount of my childhood trying to tell people that I really wasn’t such a pain in the neck, only they had to stop promising me treats if I behaved, perverse as that sounded.

“I don’t know how to manage her – I’ve tried every reward system in the book!” said my grade three teacher at their first interview, and my mother advised him to stop trying them and we started getting along fine. In grade fourΒ I broke a class reward system in under two weeks by consistently begging to be delivered the punishment rather than the reward whenever the teacher caught me being good. I didn’t enjoy primary school.

The adult in me is conflicted about sticker charts, because on the one hand reward systems are so popular and apparently useful, and on the other hand so viscerally repulsive. I have (in desperation) turned to several such systems in the past and found that they can lead to a) exhausting negotiations for more and better rewards and; b) should the level of rewards not increase at a satisfactory rate, the start of Operation Let’s Misbehave Something Fierce In An Attempt To Get Someone To Bribe Us Quite Heavily To Stop.

But even without these eventualities, one problem remains: every time P does behave well in exchange for a sticker, I lose a tiny bit of respect for him. It’s as if this sticker-fetishism is eroding the definite social relation between us.

PlusΒ I have to give a lecture on how the last reason he should do anything is because someone promised him a sticker and then follow up with my father’s old line about how, in this house, we expect our kids to be good for nothing – which, really, is any amount of doing what he’s told worth that bad a pun?

SoΒ I just don’t know if I can make sticker charts work for me, much less for the school. What should I do? I seem to be at one of those critical junctures in my parenting experience where I could really use at least three more suggestions for how-to books on parenting and perhaps a couple on parent-school relationships (to keep me entertained until the whole phase blows over).

Maybe also some reassurance that the behaviour management policies of Singaporean primary schools aren’t entirely based on stickers – because I’m not sure it’s best for me to start teaching him at home, really on purpose.

The post Diabolical Materialism appeared first at Journeys of the Fabulist as a tribute to Labour Day, 2014.

Diabolical Materialism: On Parents, Teachers and Sticker Charts (and Labour Day)