Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?
– M. Scott Peck
We’ve been teaching Nick, now eleven, about garbage. Specifically, how to take it out. If you’re a parent, you know.
The deal is, Nick is supposed to empty wastebaskets around the house whenever they’re full, which he puts off whenever he can.
It goes like this:
Me: “Trash needs to go out now.”
Nick: “When I’m done with my screen time.”
The end of screen time stretches into guitar practice, soft-sword making, audiobook listening. Pretty soon it’s dark.
It goes like this:
Me: “Garbage. Out. Now.”
Nick: “It’s dark. You need to come with me.”
We live in a safe neighborhood. There is no earthly reason for me to accompany Nick on a trip from the front door to the side of the house and back. I tell him this. And while I’m at it I tell him it’s his own fault it’s dark. It wouldn’t have been dark if he hadn’t procrastinated all day.
“I didn’t,” he says. “I need to do all those things.”
“What you need,” I say, “Is to learn time management.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” he says.
I got a brilliant idea. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Road Less Traveled, a self-help book by Scott Peck that went viral a generation ago? What remains remarkable about the book is its first 80 pages, devoted to discipline. When I first stumbled on the book, I hadn’t realized discipline had anything to do with self-help.
In one memorable section, Peck told the story of how, while a psychiatry resident in the military, he learned to take responsibility for his own problems.
The conscientious young Dr. Peck had been spending extra time with his patients and soon found himself overwhelmed. So he went to his boss, Dr. Mac Badgely, and explained how his dedication had resulted in his working longer hours than the other residents. He asked for relief.
“You do have a problem,” Mac Badgely said.
Yes, Scott Peck explained. That’s why I’ve come to you.
“I agree with you,” Dr. Badgely said. “You do have a problem. Specifically, you have a problem with time. It’s not my problem. It’s your problem. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”
I read the section aloud to Nick, including Peck’s summation:
I turned and strode out of Mac’s office, furious. And I stayed furious. I hated Mac Badgely. For three months I hated him. I felt he had a severe character disorder . . . . But after three months I somehow came to see that Mac was right, that it was I, not he, who had the character disorder. My time was my responsibility. It was up to me and me alone to decide how I wanted to use and order my time.
“See,” I said to Nick, triumphant.
“You think I have a character disorder,” he said.
“You’re too young to have a character disorder,” I said. “I should read more of this book to you at bedtime.”
“I never want to see that book again,” he said.
Did I say brilliant?
I left the book out on a table. For the next week, every time Nick walked by it he’d make a face.
One afternoon he said, “You’re not still going to read me that at bedtime, are you?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said.
“I want you to.”
“Sure you do.”
“Really,” he said.
The parts of the book he likes are the stories, not the sermons. Fortunately, there’s lots of stories. I can’t say it’s producing a complete turnaround, but things are looking up. If it were up to me, he’d take the trash out when it needed to be taken out. Instead he takes it when it’s dark, just before bedtime. But he doesn’t ask me to go with him.
“What if it got too close to bedtime,” he said, “And there wasn’t time to take it out?”
“I guess that would mean you’d need help managing your time,” I said.
“No screen time?”
“No. Just no screen time until you took the garbage out,” I said. “If it got too close to bed, then no screens.”
Used to be I would have immediately resorted to no screen time. But I’ve been working on the difference between consequences and effective guidance.
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Truths about Consequences. There is no better wisdom on consequences than this. Believe me, I’ve looked.
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