Sunday, December 14, 2008


"Here's an ethical question for you," the mother of a fourth grader writes. "If a student writes a note in anger, threatening to do something, but then throws the note away before giving it to anyone, should he still be punished?"

My reader's 9-year-old son was playing with a folded-up piece of paper that he had made into a football that he could flick around his school desktop with his fingers. Another student in the class kept grabbing the paper football from the 9-year-old. This upset him, but he continued to grab back his football until his classmate finally captured it and held it too firmly for the 9-year-old to retrieve.

The 9-year-old took out a piece of paper and scribbled a note to the football thief.

"Give me back my football," he wrote in pencil, "or I'll kill you."

He stared at the note for a moment, then thought better of delivering it. Instead he crumpled it up and threw it into a waste basket.

A third student saw the paper in the wastebasket and retrieved it. He uncrumpled it, read the scrawled message and was alarmed. So he gave the note to the recess monitor.

All of this took place late on a Monday afternoon, with no school that Tuesday. As the 9-year-old was getting ready to go home, the monitor approached him.

"You will have to meet with your teacher and me on Wednesday," the monitor said, "to discuss that note you wrote."

When the 9-year-old's mother, my reader, picked him up at school, he settled into the back seat. She asked how his day had been, and he burst out crying.

"I never want to go back to that school," he repeated over and over through his tears.

It's important to know that the 9-year-old never had been in trouble at school for any minor misbehavior, let alone anything violent. His grades are strong, and he has many friends. And it's even more important to remember that, while the language in the note was strong for an era of zero tolerance of any hint of violence in schools, he had crumpled it up and thrown it away.

After sweating it out for two days, my reader's son returned to school. During recess he was told to stay in and talk to his teacher and the recess monitor. His punishment: Writing a letter of apology to the student who had been spooked after retrieving the original note.

Calming the garbage picker seemed wise, so my reader's son wrote the apology without complaint.

From an ethical standpoint, however, the 9-year-old had nothing to apologize for. He did the right thing at the outset, when he used his judgment to discern that the note he had written in haste was wrong and again when he threw it away.

On the other hand, the teachers failed by not addressing the incident on the day that it happened, particularly since there was no school the next day. Making the 9-year-old agonize about what his punishment might be, imagining everything from no recess to expulsion, showed poor judgment at best. They weren't trying to teach him a lesson by making him wait, they simply failed to use common sense in resolving the issue.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


William said...

Should a nine-year-old be punished who in a fit of frustration and anger chose to work through his feelings on paper rather than confront his friend with that anger? The ethical thing to do would be to congratulate him for having more self-restraint and self-control than many adults would.

But the ethical issue isn't the only issue. The school is acting in-loco-parentis or in place of the parents on guiding the student to become a better adult. They need to reinforce the things he did right and address his miscommunicated frustration - he didn't actually mean he wanted to kill his friend, but rather that he was frustrated with him. He needs better ways to express and deal with this frustration... and he probably shouldn't have been playing with toys during schooltime anyway. :)

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

William said...

And I'm glad to see that the school did not fall back on zero tolerance (read as zero thought) to overreact in throwing the book at the kid.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeffrey,

I am a psychotherapist and regular reader of your column. I applaud
you for sticking to the "tough" line in ethical issues. Sometimes
taking an ethical stand is HARD, but regardless of the consequences,
it raises your self-esteem when you do so.

In today's column, you talk about a child punished for a note he
wrote. My heart goes out to that poor boy. The whole incident was
totally mishandled. First of all, the concept of writing out angry
feelings in a letter is very helpful for processing emotion. I often
urge my clients to deal with their anger with someone by writing it
down. I tell them to write out every angry, mean, or negative
thought--even using language that they would/should NEVER say. Then I
tell them to TEAR IT UP, so no one else can read it.

I also use this method myself to deal with my feelings when I'm
upset. I find it very helpful in getting the angry thoughts out of my
head and to calm my feelings, so I can return to my normal, positive
way of thinking and feeling.

If it's necessary to communicate those feelings, I then urge my
client to write another letter, this time WITHOUT the negative
language. Usually, it takes several attempts because letter number
two can still be too negative. The purpose of giving a communication
letter to someone is so they will understand your thoughts and
feelings. If you alienate them or make them defensive, you will have
sabotaged your attempt to communicate.

The boy did exactly what he should have. He couldn't anticipate that
someone else would go into the garbage. Nor at that age, does he have
a real idea of what "kill" means. I'd be far more concerned if an
adult was using this kind of language to describe his feelings.

The teacher/parents should have handled the situation by explaining
other ways of writing out his anger. For example, "I'm SO angry that
you took my football. Give it back!"

They should have praised him for writing out his feelings instead of
acting them out. They should have advised him to tear the paper up
next time. He should not have been punished, nor been made to
apologize. They also should have sat the two boys down and coached
them in how to talk to each other. The one boy could have been
encouraged to say, "I was so angry with you for taking my football.
It wasn't right for you to do that." The other boy could then
apologize. As for the garbage boy, he could also have been encouraged
to say something like, "When I read the note, I felt scared." Then if
note boy wanted to apologize, he could say something like, "I never
thought anyone would read my note. I'm sorry it scared you."

This poor boy will probably be so traumatized by this experience that
he will never again commit his feelings to paper, thus depriving
himself of a helpful way to work through his emotions.

Feel free to communicate further with me about this.

Debra Holland, Ph.D

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Seglin,

The 9 year old did the right thing, the teachers were wrong to make him wait, but what about the "garbage picker?" That child had no business going thru the trash and certainly deserves no apology. The 9 year old needs to be told his reaction was a bit too
strong and the other child needs to be told why it is not honorable to pick thru people's trash. The teachers, well they should have known better. If anyone needs an apology it is the 9 year old from the "football thief" who provoked him (but let's face it that's what kids do) and the teachers, who punished the child who did the right thing and did nothing to the "garbage picker."

Enjoy your column,

Pat Tipple

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