Is this my issue?

Maine radio stations and newspapers have been buzzing this week with discussion about an incident involving a Yarmouth High School student found to be in violation of the school’s athletic honor code. After photos of her holding a beer can were posted on Facebook, she wound up being suspended from the team for three weeks. Her parents then took the matter to the courts where a federal judge refused to grant an injunction.

Consequently, editorial and Internet chat rooms have lit up with opinions flaring on honor codes, student discipline, moral decline, good/bad parenting, etc. While I could easily be drawn into battle over any of the above, the parenting angle has caught my attention.

One thing seems obvious: We parents of current teenagers have a very difficult time allowing our children to struggle. Hence, we want to plow the path in front of them to ensure that they will either not have failures or will recover quickly from them. In her book A Nation of Wimps, Hara Marano observes that even the Helicopter Parent has become passé, having been replaced by the “Snowplow Parent.”

At the same time, our better selves know that struggles and failures are where all of us learn the most. Perhaps you have heard the story of the man walking in the woods who comes across a caterpillar struggling to fight out of a cocoon. Perceiving the caterpillar to be engaged in futile effort, he reaches up and snips the cocoon with a pair of scissors, thereby “freeing” the caterpillar. The caterpillar then plummets to the earth and dies shortly thereafter. The man did not realize that Mother Nature has designed an intentional process whereupon the caterpillar must struggle in the cocoon in order to develop the sufficient muscles to allow its wings to fly its body away as a butterfly. Interference with this process can result in serious long-term damage. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature!

Rather than jump to rescue our kids from their difficulties, all of us will do well to ask a very simple question: Is this really my issue? In this case, both the parents and the students signed an honor code; the student plainly broke the code and must now suffer the consequences. As the Portland Press Herald observed, the time to question the consequences was prior to signing. I am not a big fan of honor codes. We truly lost something when we took the authority out of the hands of individual coaches and transferred it over to the school to make blanket rules. Having been a coach for a long time myself, I see these matters as between the player and the coach. However, it is the parent’s role to spectate, and spectate only.

This incident also reminds me of a story from my own youth that illustrates how things have changed. I was in the sixth grade, had been disrespectful to the substitute teacher, and was caught chewing gum in class. The following day my teacher (who happened to be the principal of the school) returned. Adopting a somber tone, he addressed the class: “I understand we had some problems yesterday. Malcolm, please come forward.” I did as instructed and was then asked to hold out my hand which he proceeded to whack three times with a heavy 18″ wooden ruler. Then he pulled out a small tin case, produced a piece of Ivory Soap, and demanded that I chew it. I deposited the soap in my mouth, lasted 15 seconds, and then burst out of the room and spent 15 minutes at the water fountain rinsing my mouth out.

While I can’t say that either penalty caused me any lasting damage, I would say that both were excessive and would be grounds for a firing today in any Maine school district. (Imagine how the chat rooms would light up over that one!) However, that’s not my point.

I came home after school that day and did not tell my parents what had happened. I did not want them to find out because I was fully aware of the fact that trouble at school meant double trouble at home. A few days passed and then my mother stopped me and said, “Malcolm, I heard an amazing story. I heard that you were caught chewing gum, that you were insubordinate to the substitute teacher, and that you were then forced to chew a bar of soap. Is that true?” Sensing some sympathy from my mother, I boldly replied, “Yeah, it is true!” She stated her belief that I had been subjected to an extremely harsh penalty, one that was not at all fair. I nodded in agreement. Then she asked, “Tell me, did you know that that was the penalty for chewing gum in class?” I said, “Yes, I did.” She paused and then offered a warning about tempting fate. She walked off, and we never discussed it again. If she contacted the school, she never mentioned it.

To be sure, my mother was Old School. Her message to me on that day was simple: If you want to dance, you’ve got to pay the fiddler. So if you don’t want to pay, don’t dance. I doubt that there is one parent in a thousand who would act today as my mother did back in 1966. But rather than get caught up in guessing what you might do in the same circumstance, just continue to ask that question: Is this my issue? If the answer is “no,” then step aside and let your child fight through the difficulties. Know that Mother Nature has a plan in mind. You can help, but don’t interfere.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld