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Hitting home

Sometimes more than a gentle nudge is needed to help kids grow


"Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change."-Tony Robbins

Dealing with children, "change" is part and parcel of what we do. As parents, trying to get our children to become productive, civilized members of society is the goal. As teachers, trying to get students to overcome their innate inertness and shed their ignorance is the goal. And, as a coach, trying to get kids to discipline their energies to work together to accomplish more than they can on their own is the goal.

The question, and my great struggle in all three roles, is what sort of pain can I leverage to accomplish any of the above goals.

Of course, I'm not talking about inflicting actual, physical pain. We're not allowed to do that any more. No, in these wiser, more enlightened days, we have to create other kinds of pain. Every parent knows how "painful" it is for a child to have privileges taken away from them. The hope is that missing out on something fun creates a mental file folder for the child that reminds them to change. And if you really want to hear a child wail as if you were delivering a Marquis de Sade-like punishment, take their phone away from them. You can practically hear the strains of a Dies Irae playing.

My fellow musician - and noted author - Jim Fay would tell you that the only kind of pain that works is the pain of a natural consequence. That the "loving and logical" approach is to have the fortitude, as a parent/teacher/coach to NOT get involved and let the child learn from what happens to them, or, at the very least, to make sure that your involvement is only so much as to deliver that "painful" consequence.

Other kinds of pain in the arsenal are a little bit down the ladder. There's yelling. And I'm not even talking about some sort of prolonged, in-your-face tirade-just a short, pointed statement is usually enough. Sometimes, raising your voice gets a kid's attention and makes a point with a certain punctuation. There is also the brutally honest assessment, which absolutely terrifies some kids. A step down, even from that, would be the classic "stern look." It works on some children - my children tell me I have an expression that is quite scary.

Doesn't seem to have scared off the boyfriends, though.

I know there are people out there who are thinking that this should be a moot point, that a child who needs correction should be pulled aside and calmly, rationally, in completely non-offensive and de-escalating terms, have the error of their ways explained to them and politely asked to return to the established norms of behavior.


The problem I run in to is one of urgency: sometimes, there's just not enough time to calmly make my point; sometimes, I need to get my kid's attention before they get themselves into danger; sometimes, the need to rein a kid in quickly is more important than proper technique, and getting their attention may require more than one quick word.

Or, so I tell myself.

I try to remind myself, when I see parents in the store at the end of their ropes, of what a challenge it is for me, too. I marvel at my fellow teachers who have such a relationship with kids that they never seem to have to escalate at all. And I remember fondly coaches who were endlessly patient and calm.

But I also remember there were times in my life when I needed much more than a gentle nudge, and I also remember that even Jesus Christ lost his temper in the temple.

Dealing with kids is a challenge, and I fail more than I succeed. My best hope is that all the kids I deal with come, in time, to understand that whatever "pain" I may have resorted to is just about inducing change. Nothing personal - just the job, as it were.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com

Michael Alcorn


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