A mom in Florida, tired of her teenage son’s bad grades, decided the only way to motivate him to improve was to humiliate him. She drove him to a busy street corner, made him get out of the car and walk around with a body-size sign which read, “GPA 122…honk if I need an education.” I get her reason for doing it. She felt desperate, unable to find any other way to motivate her son to do well in school. She’d tried helping him with homework, grounding him, lecturing, taking away his phone and other privileges, but nothing worked. When she and the boy’s father, both of whom failed to finish high school, took their son into the principal’s office to discuss the problem and the boy ignored them all, the mom had enough. That’s when she got the idea for the sign. But honestly, when has humiliation ever worked on anyone to get them to do anything you wanted them to do? Getting a teen (or in my case a tween) to do anything you want them to do, when you want them to do it, can be next to impossible without Herculean effort. Getting a teenage boy with school issues to do better in class by parading his failure on the street corner and having cars honk at him – not a great plan. It certainly won’t be the “ah ha” moment in this kid’s life which will cause him to mend his school ditching, homework avoiding ways. It will be a horrible memory burned into his soul that will cause him pain and resentment and may make him to act worse instead of acting better. But for his mom, it was, perhaps in her mind, an easy fix to a desperate situation.
In the article in the Tampa Bay Times, http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/article1152321.ece, the mother, Ronda Holder, 33, explains that she has five other children, all of whom are doing well in school. She didn’t want to see her son, James, 15, end up on the streets because he didn’t get an education. She said that up until last year, his grades were good, but then when he entered 8th grade, his grades suddenly tanked. There are so many things unsaid in this case which make me wonder what is really going on. When a good student’s grades suddenly go bad, there is usually a specific reason: conflict with teacher or another student, bullying, an undiagnosed learning issue, joining a troublesome social clique. The response to the change isn’t humiliation, but investigation. Asking to see his homework and offering to help is a start, but before going to the principal, the intervention should start with the teacher. If the parents and teacher together aren’t effective, then the next step (which eventually happened after the sign incident) is to try to arrange for tutoring. The mom should have also looked into learning and psychological assessments to see if those were affecting her son’s grades. But really, the first place she should have started was with her son, sitting down with him, talking, taking the focus off of the grades and trying to get to the underlying issue of the sudden downturn in performance. All of that is a lot of work, it’s frustrating and difficult and confusing. Some parents don’t know the steps to take to deal with difficulties in school and don’t have the support either at school or from those around them to guide them on a path that helps the situation rather than aggravates it. Yes, James is now getting the help he needs – he’s enrolled in an after school tutoring program, and his grades are improving, but not only was he widely (thanks to tv and the Internet), publicly humiliated (hell, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get his own reality show), his family has been red flagged by the Florida Department of Children and Families because someone who drove by, saw the sign felt that the mother’s actions constituted child abuse. And in some ways, it did.
This is a tough and sad story to me. I don’t side with the mother’s action, but I understand it. But I also feel as if her action, her parenting misstep could have been avoided. Kids without an education, young black men, in particular, are at extreme risk of being lost to poverty, drugs and crime if there is no early intervention. And certainly, this was a case were a good kid was about to be lost. It is clear that this thirty-three year old woman, a hair dresser without a high school diploma, who was only 17 when her son was born and had five kids soon after him, was trying to do the best she could. She values what she didn’t get – an education – and wants better for her children, which is admirable. Except humiliating your child isn’t that way to do it. And sadly, before she got to that point, there wasn’t a teacher, counselor, principal or other parent she could turn to who could help her navigate the problem without resorting to the sign. Not only had her son fallen through the cracks at school and not received the help he needed, but the mom did, too. Before DCF puts her family on lock down, I hope the school and community uses the incident as an opportunity to look at what services they have for parents to help them deal with situations before they become desperate. In this case, it was humiliation by sign. In another case, it could be worse. Remember the mom, also in Florida, who shot both her teens for mouthing off? Yes, that is extreme compared to the sign incident, but the similarities - a desperate parent with no support or help in a troubled situation - are clear. Both cases, in their own way, are tragic and avoidable.
BTW – a recent blog post I wrote is being featured in a Black History Month blog-a-thon on Momsrising.org. Check out the articles at: http://www.momsrising.org/blog/celebrating-black-motherhood-and-families-a-black-history-month-blog-carnival/