Wednesday, October 1, 2008


In Slate today, Emily Bazelon laments her childrens' tendency to lose everything. She thinks it is some failing of their moral fibre over respect for property. In the end, she ends up bailing out her children and replacing lost items. Then she resorts to heavy-handed intervention to try and get things on the right path.

I think that she doesn't quite have the problem sorted out. The goal is not to build a respect for property but to get good habits established. The problem is that, in a world where you constantly remind kids or inquire as to the location of items, you are not doing that. What the child needs to do is sort out how to achieve the goal -- not losing stuff -- on their own taking into account all of the machinations and distractions that might be part of that operation. You just can't know that.

To convince yourself, just watch a forgetful child in action. They start out with an object and have a mission to take it somewhere. All is fine for a few seconds and then something happens. You can observe distraction setting in, the object gets put down and the child moves on. That's it.

You need to have something to focus their attention so that they get past the distraction or if that isn't possible they work out that they have been distracted and get themselves back on the right path. The problem is that they have to work it out, you can't possibly plan out for all contingencies.

Regular readers will recall that our response to this situation with our son was to get seemingly cruel and unusual in threatened punishments. For his lost lunchbox, the threat to replace it with an 'easy to remember' Disney Princess one. It worked a charm despite a later appeal that it was unfair on his friends (who were tempted to tease him and would get in trouble for it). What is more, his lunchbox returns and it is no longer an issue. The point here is that you have to focus them on the goal and to have a plan by which they have to invest more in the activity of 'not losing things' than whatever else happens to be around.