Responsibility: The 7 Pencils Lesson by Chick Moorman
At a recent parent/teacher conference, I learned that Austin, my grandson, had several school assignments that were unaccounted for. Reasons Austin gave for the missing assignments included:
“It’s in my locker.”
“I know I did it. I don’t know what happened to it. I remember doing it.”
“My teammate must not have turned it in.”
“I didn’t know we were supposed to turn that in.”
“I didn’t have a pencil. No one would loan me one.”
In discussion with several teachers, I learned that Austin frequently showed up in class without a pencil. When he didn’t have one, he borrowed one. Eventually, after he had borrowed several pencils without returning them, his classmates declined to continue the free pencil policy. So on occasion Austin would sit in class with no pencil. Since most school assignments are difficult to complete without one, he didn’t complete some of them.
Talking with Austin after I returned home from the conference, I mentioned the pencil problem and wondered why he hadn’t asked to go to the store to get pencils.
“I got tired of asking you,” he replied, “so I gave up.”
Searching my memory for recent times when Austin had asked for pencils, I recalled none. His recollection differed from mine; he remembered asking at least a dozen times. After a brief and fruitless discussion of how many times Austin had asked to get pencils, it became clear that the difference of opinion was not going to be resolved easily. We moved on to solution seeking.
We set out to create a plan to see that Austin would have materials for class and get assignments in on time. The first thing we did was buy a box of pencils. What evolved next was a Three Step plus Seven Pencils Plan
As soon as Austin arrived home from school each day, his responsibility was to implement steps One, Two, and Three.
One: Empty your backpack and show me your planner.
Two: Make a list of all homework assignments and prioritize them.
Three: Begin on homework, starting with your top priority.
Austin needed structure. He also needed a mental model of what was expected. And he needed to have that model reinforced with consistency. Steps One, Two, and Three were completed every day, with no exceptions. I checked to make certain of that.
In addition, Austin was required to keep seven pencils with him at all times. If he didn’t come home from school with seven pencils, or if he failed to do steps One, Two, or Three, he forfeited some of his favorite activities. In short, if he didn’t honor his responsibilities, he lost some opportunities (Computer games, TV, and Internet access).
“Seven pencils is stupid,” he said to me one day.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“I only need one, or maybe two if one gets lost. Having to keep seven is silly.”
“You might be right,” I allowed. “And it seems to be working.”
Later that week Austin asked, “If I come home with only six pencils, do I lose an opportunity?”
“Yep,” I replied.
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I can do my work with six or five or four pencils.”
“Except that our plan requires seven pencils.”
“My friends think seven pencils is dumb, too.”
“How do they know you need seven pencils?”
“I told them.”
“Justin wanted to borrow a pencil, and I told him he couldn’t because if I didn’t have seven pencils when I got home, I would lose TV time.”
“He thinks it’s stupid. None of my other friends have to have seven pencils. They think you’re mean.”
“What do you think?”
“I just think it’s silly.”
“I see. Do you have seven pencils now?”
Austin produced the seven pencils and counted them out for me.
Over the next few weeks, Austin found much support from his friends for the idea that having to have seven pencils was stupid. He even inferred that some of his teachers thought having seven pencils was a bit much, although I was not able to substantiate that claim.
So why seven pencils? What is magic about that number?
Seven pencils is an outrageous number, just the kind of number a kid like Austin needs to keep in his consciousness to remember how many pencils he needs. Austin had no trouble remembering he needed seven pencils. The number seemed so silly to him that he burned it indelibly into his brain.
Two pencils would not have done the trick. Two pencils are too easy to lose, too easy to figure you can borrow before you get home, too easy to forget, too easy to dismiss as unimportant. Seven is too hard to ignore.
Five pencils didn’t seem quite enough. Seven was bound to generate more complaints, more attention, more thinking, more controversy.
As it turned out, Austin kept seven pencils on his person or in his backpack for three months without one incident of coming up short. A couple of times the pencils were less than two inches long, but there were seven in all.
“You’re kind of strange,” Austin told me recently.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“That seven pencil thing is really dumb.”
“How many pencils do you have right now?”
I wanted to point out that the “seven pencil thing” was working. I wanted to defend myself and state my case. And sometimes the best Parent Talk is to say nothing at all. So I kept my mouth shut except for counting to seven as I checked his pencils.
CHICK MOORMAN is the co-author of The Abracadabra Effect: The 13 Verbally Transmitted Diseases and How to Cure Them, The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose and author of Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. He publishes FREE e-newsletters for parents and educators. You can ubscribe to them at www.chickmoorman.com.