The Stick and the Carrot

I’ve been told by other teachers that once you yell at a kid, you’ve lost. At that point, supposedly, they realize there is nothing else you can do to them. I suspect this is true under two conditions: (1) the child is a repeat offender whose exposure to the words “or else” has been greater than the length of his short-term memory, (2) the person doing the yelling stinks at poker.

Yesterday, in an amazingly bad turn of events, I ended up being in charge of dragging 26 hot, tired, cranky children from the bathrooms to the swimming area (a substantial hike across a very busy trail) with the support of two of our assistant counselors. That ratio would seem like a dream in a classroom, perhaps, but a classroom is not a summer camp. The appropriate ratio of adult to child in order to maintain order at camp, when the group is wandering all over the place, is 1:6. 1:8.66 might not seem like that big a difference, but trust me. It is. It’s the difference between order and chaos.

It was inevitable that someone was going to push me to use my scary voice.

Now that I think of it, there maybe a difference between scary voice and yelling. Hollering at a child from a distance never, ever, ever works. Children are excellent at pretending to not hear you. What is extremely effective, I discovered yesterday, is getting uncomfortably close to their face, looking them in the eyes, and saying in the best “Imma cut you” tone you can muster, “You do not want to mess with me right now.” You might need to follow it up with some plausible explanation of why this usually soft and cuddly counselor is hovering on the brink of insanity, such as, “I have to keep too many children safe right now to put up with this behavior.” If you do that, the child will probably require a reiteration of what you expect them to do. “Start walking,” “Hands to yourself,” etc.

If you don’t get a response, you might want to practice your “Crazy-but-also-deadly-serious” face in the mirror a few times. Ninety-eight percent of all children can be bluffed into action, with perhaps only five percent requiring some follow-up conversation. Fortunately for me, yesterday, the two percent who would have seen the gaping hole behind my bluff (namely, that I’m not exactly allowed to pick them up and throw them over my shoulders or throw them in jail for contempt of counselor) were responsible for the incident that required our director and two other counselors to be away from the group reinventing the Code of Hammurabi and were therefore with the other adults, not with my group.

I think the other factor that makes the scary voice effective is knowing when to use it. Kids want  to have their grievances heard. Scary voice is a tool for shutting them down in circumstances when taking the time to listen compassionately to the issue behind the behavior problem is going to endanger the safety of the rest of the group. If you’ve told the group to start walking and everyone but Child X complies, eager to get to swimming, you can’t take the ten minutes you need to persuade Child X, who is sitting on the ground sulking, to tell you all about it while the group walks. You need Child X to start walking thirty seconds ago, before Child Eager Beaver at the head of the line got out of sight and hearing range without noticing you were stuck at the back.

For scary voice to be effective, I think kids have to understand that you are usually a reasonable person who is more than happy to spend twenty minutes listening to their woes. If the scary voice comes out every time a child is acting up, you will lose the battle, if only because their short memories will start to register that scary voice is rarely followed by consequences. (And don’t even get me started on consequences. How is it that, speaking of Hammurabi, human law has been codified for thousands of years, yet teachers and parents seem to have to reinvent the legal system every time we encounter bullying?) Bluffing doesn’t work if the kids know for sure you don’t have an ace.

I was lucky, yesterday, that in the face of several minor medical emergencies and several large behavioral ones that my poker face scary voice never lost its power. Possibly it helped that I really was on the brink of a nuclear meltdown. Kids can sense that, and they’re smart enough to not want to be at the epicenter of the explosion.

Also, and this is just a hunch, but I think my case might have been helped by the fact that I was carrying all the ukuleles. Buy some. They’re better than sticker charts.


One thought on “The Stick and the Carrot

  1. Ahhh, I do not miss those years of teaching. Ask Tom sometime about his experiences with the Upward Bound program he lead and the bus driver (who was not hindered by the ethics/regulations of the relationship). I think it entailed some threats of broken limbs…etc….etc…:) Love you.


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