How to to Avoid Being a Grinch with your Classroom Holiday Parties

Dear Kid Whisperer,

We are facing a dilemma at our school:  when, how and if to take away holiday parties from students because of their behavior.  What are your thoughts on this? –Jack, Springboro, Ohio

Dear Jack,

This question is timely and terrific. It gives us the opportunity to talk about the differences between punishment and logical consequences: a difference that few people understand.

The discussion about this issue at your school probably goes the way it does in other schools:

Some educators say that kids need to learn a lesson about their behavior and punishing them by taking away something they really like is a good way to change their behavior.

Some educators say that it is cruel and unusual punishment to not let a child attend a holiday party, or even worse, that holiday parties are a “right” of childhood.

Not only are neither of these opinions true, they are both very hurtful outlooks that completely miss the point.

The point, of course, is to get kids to exhibit positive behaviors that will allow them to not cause problems at Holiday parties so that everyone can enjoy these events. Stretching this further, the ultimate goal is to train kids to exhibit behaviors that will allow them to be happy and successful in life.

First, it will not permanently damage a child to miss a holiday party, and children are not entitled to attend a holiday party under any and every circumstance. Parents: If you think that your child is entitled to attend a holiday party no matter how they behave, you are part of the problem and you are making our society worse.

Second, punishing kids by taking away their holiday party in an arbitrary, illogical way, especially for behaviors that have nothing to do with being able to conduct themselves appropriately at a party, only serve to make a kid resentful and make behaviors worse in both the short and long term. In other words, taking away a party for being late to school is stupid. Doing so because they didn’t remember to turn in a free and reduced lunch form is ridiculous. These are punishments that will not improve behavior.

However, not allowing a student to attend a holiday party because her conduct has shown that her behavior is likely to make other people’s lives worse during that party is a logical consequence. Similarly, only being able to attend a party once a certain amount of work has been completed is also a logical consequence as long as the student is intellectually capable of doing the work.

Punishments tell kids that actions that adults don’t like result in adults arbitrarily making kids’ lives worse, especially when delivered with anger. They teach kids nothing. Logical consequences, especially when delivered with empathy, teach kids important lessons about life. In this example, they teach kids that you are allowed to be around others as long as your actions don’t cause a problem, and that once you are done with your work, you can play. Not holding kids accountable in this way teaches the opposite lessons.

As a side note, the way that holiday parties are used as a means of manipulating student behavior is the most hurtful lesson of all. More often than not, parties are used as a means of warning and reminding. Usually kids will be given thirty to forty warnings that if he does “x” behavior just one more time, he won’t be allowed to go to the party. Of course, this threat is almost always an idle one. This teaches perhaps the worst lesson of all: that when adults set limits, they aren’t really limits at all.

With this is mind, this is how I have set limits with kids as a teacher and principal:

Kid Whisperer: With our holiday party coming up, I wanted to tell you all know that I only allow kids to participate in parties as long as their classwork is done and their behaviors have made me confident that they won’t cause problems during the party.

Kid: You mean we have to be good and get all of our work done?

Kid Whisperer: Who do I allow to go to the party?

Kid: Kids who do all their work and don’t cause problems?

Kid Whisperer: You’ve got it. I promise not to warn or remind you about this.

If kids don’t get their work done, they will be allowed to work during the party. When and if they get their work done, they are welcome to join. Kids who are not able to join because of their behavior will sit out of the activity while practicing not causing a problem. They can read, draw, whatever they want (as long as their work is done) just so they are not causing a problem. They can be in the classroom or in another room (not in the hallway or office). You can decide how long they need to practice, or they can choose between two times that you choose for them. They may or may not be able to make it to the party, depending on how many minutes you decide they need to practice. Don’t be afraid of them practicing for the entire party and then some.

I hope that this allows your school to be a more manageable place around the holidays!