My lesson in public school education

March 14, 2014 · 17 comments

I recently wrote about how much I love my son’s public school.

I still do, for many reasons. But there are also reasons I dislike it, so it was no surprise that three-quarters of the way through my son’s first year there, the school and I butted heads over our philosophical differences.

It happened when my son suddenly started struggling in the social and academic areas he normally excelled. I saw his confidence flailing and his love for school evaporate. He didn’t want to wake up. He didn’t want to leave the house. One day he put on the brakes completely and refused to walk to school.

This happened more and more over the course of a month, when it hadn’t happened at all in the previous six. Something changed, and I felt the overwhelming need to fix it. I emailed the teacher about something she said when we talked after school. No response.

Later that day, I asked my son why he didn’t want to go to school. He said he felt bad because he wasn’t coming home with purple tickets anymore. In the two previous school quarters, he came home with three or four green tickets, which are considered “acceptable” vs. “outstanding” purple tickets. In the last month, he started getting a green at least once a week, and then two or three. It was a definite change. (His pre-K class uses a modified version of the “stoplight” behavior management system).

I greatly dislike the stoplight system, but I didn’t want to undermine it. My son and I talked about what he needed to get a purple. It sounded to me like he didn’t understand, so I told him to talk to the teacher.

He talked increasingly about these tickets and the anxiety he had about them. I emailed the teacher again to let her know what I’d heard at home. The only response I got was to clarify how she distributes different colors, but no acknowledgement of my son’s changed behavior.

I talked to her after class on another “green ticket” day. The next day was the same, and when I approached her again after class, she lost her patience with me, and with my son. We argued in front of him and all walked away unhappy.

I contacted the principal and considered withdrawing my son from school (I had already been considering other schools for next year).

I felt so justified! After all, I am the person who knows my son best. I could see he was struggling, and it was ignored! When it finally was addressed, it was addressed in a way that offended me. How could I send him back?

When he walked into his classroom the next day I felt like I was leaving my heart to be chewed up and spit out by the giant machine — the “system” I read about ruining kids and sucking the creativity out of our young.

I called friends who agreed with me. We kvetched together until I got it all out. And then I talked to my dear friend and RIE educator Lisa Sunbury Gerber. She listened and agreed, and listened some more. She wrote me later that night:

Suchada, she said, no system will be perfect. You put him there for a reason. He is struggling, but this is his journey. Trust him and let him live it.

Wait, what?? This was the woman who taught me about RIE. She’s the one who works tirelessly to change the system, to educate people, and to protect children. How could she say it’s okay to let them chew up my son? It hung in air for a while.

And then I remembered. The reason I practice RIE is not to live in a bubble of respect and empathy.

I practice RIE to live in the real world. I practice RIE to face conflict. I practice RIE so my children will be resilient and strong. I practice RIE because I respect others. I practice RIE because people are diverse and will always hold different views. I practice RIE because not everyone will and that’s okay.

I put my son to bed that night and asked him what was good about his day. He said nothing. I asked him what would be better about tomorrow. He said getting a purple ticket.

I wanted to rip apart the whole system. I wanted to march into the school offices and talk to them about how systems like this damage children and encourage unhealthy competition and don’t teach anything about empathy.

But I just kissed him and said good-night.

This is his struggle. He can do it. I have to trust everything we do at home supports him, and that I can put him out into the big bad world for three hours a day. Of course he will struggle. We all struggle. We fall flat on our faces and screw up and say dumb things and behave badly and embarrass ourselves. But we only learn when we pick ourselves back up and face it again. I can’t do it for him.

When he woke up the next morning, he said, I’m going to get a purple ticket today, mama. I’m going to try my hardest.

I trust you, bub. I can’t wait for you to tell me about it.

When I picked him up from school, he was at the front of the line, waving his purple ticket for me to see.

So this is my lesson in public education. I question many of the values instilled there. It makes me cringe to hear the way people there talk to children. It hurts my heart to see my child getting excited about what I consider a meaningless reward.

But it’s not my journey.

All I can do is model the world I want and let him live in the world we live in. And then trust that he will become exactly the person he needs to be.

To learn more about RIE parenting, click here.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tiffany Gough March 15, 2014

I feel very similarly about “meaningless rewards”, but your discovery really resonates for me. Just like when we sportscast or empathize instead of fixing when our toddlers struggle, we will do what we have to do in life and then we just have to be there to support them in getting through it in whatever way they need. We can’t fix all their problems or protect them from the world, but we can help them to be as prepared and as resilient as possible by helping them process and learn from the experiences they have in the world. Well written!


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

Tiffany this is my first experience in letting my son navigate a conflict with an adult in a position of authority. It’s a little scary (much like the first time I didn’t tell my son to share!), but it’s exciting to see how we’ve both learned from it. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


3 Patricia March 15, 2014

Beautifully said!


4 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

Thank you, Patricia!


5 Sean Saulsbury March 15, 2014

This is not an inspiring sorry but rather quite horrifying.

Reward systems destroy authentic motivation and create second-handed, inauthentic individuals. They crush creativity and foster obedience.

The triumph of this story is the child returning home with a purple card. But this not a triumph but a tragedy — the sad truth that the child’s will is being crush before our very eyes.

“The reason I practice RIE is not to live in a bubble of respect and empathy.” Yes. We must deal with the real world and injustice. But the answer to being subjected to this unjust world that is forced on the child and the parent is NOT to accept it and certainly not to just let the child deal with it in his own way.

If your aim is to foster independence and authenticity in your child, this public school (and most others) is a loosing battle.


6 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

I think “horrifying” is a pretty strong word to characterize this. This is a middle-class child in a highly-ranked school, who was excelling all year, and started floundering slightly in the last couple of months. Even my argument with his teacher was only heated, polite words.

And while I was happy for my son reaching his goal of a purple ticket, the real triumph of the story is that I recognized how my own anxieties, advocacy, stress, and triggers all contributed to my son’s struggle. I hope it was clear my escalating interventions were escalating his difficulty. When I took myself out of the equation I freed him to face his conflicts on his own terms instead of mine. He showed me he’s perfectly capable of navigating that on his own.

I already said I dislike the stoplight system, and punishments/rewards in general. I think they’re unnecessary, but they’re not going to crush my son’s spirit, his will, or his soul. My son’s school isn’t an abusive or threatening place. It sometimes feels that way to me because of our philosophical differences and my own background, but I truly believe everyone there has my son’s best interests at heart.

As for him wanting a purple ticket, he also wants what I consider ugly shoes and cheap toys. One day he might look back and say, wow, I can’t believe that was so important to me, it’s so silly now! (I know I’ve said that about many things I coveted). Or he might not. But like I said . . . it’s his journey.


7 Kathy B March 15, 2014

I disagree with Sean. There are many problems with public schools, some because of the teachers, some because of the students (and parents), some are simply systemic. But public schools are part of the “real world.” Unless you have a bubble to wrap your children in, and want to curse them with that limited reality, for the entirety of their lives, most public schools are a good place to learn survival skills, not to mention, get a decent education. Most of us could benefit from better skills dealing with difficult people and situations.

Not all students arrive at school with that intrinsic motivation that would continue to develop without reward systems. There are many ways to organize rewards systems, and some are better than others, no doubt, but they give teachers with too many students, many with behavioral issues, better control and teach some level of self-discipline.

What the author is doing by letting her son fend for himself is teaching him that he has the potential to grow and figure out how the world works. She is teaching him to fend for himself and feel self-reliant; to set goals and meet them. Kudos to you, lady. And your resilient child.


8 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

Thanks, Kathy! We live in a tight-knit and involved community, so our school is definitely the “real world”. Getting through this conflict actually has me excited about working through more I know we will face :)


9 Tiffany Gough March 15, 2014

Good thing you have the freedom to choose where you send your child to school, Sean. Many people don’t have that choice. It is up to us to help our children process the injustices they see and experience, and to discuss with them things with which we disagree in an open and informative manner. We shouldn’t shield them from from the world, but sometimes it is important to consider the ideals you wish to challenge and do so in the most effective and appropriate way. In most cases, it’s not effective (or kind) to challenge the system via your child and if you are going to challenge it, you can certainly work to find a way to do it that is respectful of the varied people who work within it.


10 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

Love this: “It is up to us to help our children process the injustices they see and experience, and to discuss with them things with which we disagree in an open and informative manner. We shouldn’t shield them from from the world, but sometimes it is important to consider the ideals you wish to challenge and do so in the most effective and appropriate way.”


11 maman mymou March 15, 2014

Hello Suchada,
I’ve been reading you for a while but never commented before.
You can’t imagine how much reading this post as helped me.
We’ve had struggles with our son’s school too (and it’s a private school…) and after many meeting with the teachers I felt like we were going nowhere, I felt so frustrated and angry like you. You said it so well “I was leaving my heart to be chewed up and spit out by the giant machine”.
You have just given me the peace of mind I needed and I can’t thank you enough for that. Once again, I am so amazed by RIE advice (I read Lisa Sunbury and Janet Lansbury too). Now I know we just need to continue to help our son at home, continue with RIE and trust him.
THANK YOU for sharing :-)


12 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

You’re so welcome! I’m glad this resonated with you.


13 Sydney March 15, 2014

I’m going to respectfully disagree. This kind of value system puts too much pressure on the children to seek self worth from outside influences. I think an alternative would be to help children in this situation understand that self-worth comes from within and we need not perform just to meet the expectations of others. It’s one thing to model empathy and compassion for others, but another to use a system like this in which these traits come just for the reward. We can’t expect our children to live in a bubble but we can teach them to question backwards value system.
This popped up in my newsfeed and it seems to apply perfectly. This stoplight system seems to be the beginning of a cycle that will lead to highly stressed teens and young adults.


14 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 15, 2014

Sydney, could you clarify what you disagree with?

We have never put any emphasis on the tickets at home (until I stepped in to help him solve his problem). We hardly paid attention to them until there was a change because they had never been an issue before, in either a positive or negative way. I think it was a cascade of issues that contributed to the tickets becoming a “thing”, with the majority of the issues being my stepping in more and more in response to my own anxiety.

It’s important to distinguish between my advocacy and my own parenting. The advocate in me will fight tirelessly to educate people on how systems like this are damaging, but the parent in me has to empower my children so they won’t be damaging to them.


15 marcy March 16, 2014

Love that last sentence. It is exactly what I need. This and your previous school post have been timely, as we “gave up on” homeschooling a few weeks ago and have put our seven-year-old in a public school that, while it is progressive, project-based learning, standards-based assessments instead of grades — is still a public school… and I am still surrounded by my homeschool acquaintances and all the reading and research I have done and it is so hard to feel that this scenario might actually be the best fit for my particular situation, even if it’s not ideal as a general system…


16 Nicolas Connault March 16, 2014

Yes it’s his journey. But how many of the parameters of this journey has he chosen? How many did you choose for him? Which ones will you choose in the future?


17 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 18, 2014

My son is 5, so the answer to all of your questions is “none” (although he did say he wanted to go to this school after attending the orientation day). He doesn’t have a lot of choices. So when faced with adversity, my choices as a parent are to withdraw him from it, take over and deal with it in my way, or let him deal with the adversity on his own terms (with my support). I chose the third. Which is about as much of his own destiny as any 5-year-old will get, no matter what the situation is. I’m not exactly sure what your comment is trying to say.


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