We were on a road trip the last few weeks. One morning, as I was outside our motel room preparing our car for the day’s journey, I noticed a lady a few doors away calling frantically to her little dog who had somehow gotten away from her. The little dog was wandering across the expansive lawn across the parking lot from our rooms. I could hear frustration in her voice. Each time she called, the dog would stop and look, then wander further away, apparently oblivious to any danger or problems his wandering might pose. The frustration gave way to annoyance “ still in her night clothes and slippers, she was not dressed to give chase. Then came a note of fear as the dog approached the street, unaware of any danger since there were at present no cars moving.
Some time later, I saw her returning from the parking lot of an apartment complex across the street and some distance away, still dressed in her night clothes, clutching her little dog securely to her bosom. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of reception the little dog received on his return. Would he be scolded? Whipped or otherwise punished? Would he associate the scolding and such with returning home? Would he be sorry to be home? Would he be more difficult to catch the next time he got loose? Or would he be welcomed back warmly with love and affection? With relief and happiness for his safe return? Would he be glad to be back home after his little adventure?
It got me to thinking about the children who on occasion run away from our care. We may have concerns for their safety and well-being, but we are almost certain to have concerns for the problems their running away may cause for us “paperwork and reports, embarrassment, questions about our supervision and our program.
How do we welcome them back?
Running away is most likely to be viewed as misbehavior. After all, we won’t have much of a program if we let children come and go as they please. The belief is widespread in my culture that people who misbehave deserve to be punished. It’s the responsible thing to do. Everyone expects it, even the kids. Except now, we no longer call it punishment, we call it consequences. So in other words, there must be consequences for running away.
But it is really challenging to provide consequences for running away. One of the primary tenets of behavioral psychology holds that the most recent behavior to occur before a consequence is the behavior that becomes associated with the consequence. So on a behavioral level, any consequences we provide will tend to be associated with returning rather than with leaving. We know we’re providing consequences for running away. The child knows it, too. But on some level, the most important level, the behavioral level, any consequences we provide become associated with returning. After all, we can’t provide consequences if the child doesn’t return. If the consequences we provide are too severe, the child is likely to run away again and never return. Is this what we want?
Let’s take a moment to think about some of the real consequences of running away. The first is feelings associated with success and accomplishment. Children usually have to outsmart staff in some way to make their getaway. The tighter the supervision and security, the greater the sense of accomplishment. When two or more children run away together, there’s the sense of camaraderie that comes with shared effort and accomplishment. Then, there’s the excitement of freedom and independence. Whatever consequences follow, the behavior of running away has already received pretty powerful reinforcement.
For children who are running away from something in the program “confrontation over their behavior, difficulties with other children, whatever “their escape also provides some immediate reinforcement.
For children who are running to something “home or family, sex or drugs “other consequences depend on their success at attaining these things.
And then there are those consequences associated with basic needs. Eventually, they will need food, water, a bathroom, warmth (or air conditioning), a place to sleep, maybe a bath or clean clothes. At some point, for some children, the actual consequences of running away may begin to become unpleasant. For these children, it makes little sense to attempt to add additional consequences. They have already “learned their lesson.” Why distract them from it by imposing more consequences?
For other children who are quite capable of getting their needs met on the streets, well, I don’t quite know what to do with those children, except to do the best I can to meet more of their needs in the program than they can have met on the streets “such things as needs for relationships, respect, and recognition. Punishment isn’t a need.
And for those children who have addictive needs...Sorry. I have no idea. But I do know punishment doesn’t help.
Perhaps my point is best made by an American folk tale about our first President, George Washington. When he was a boy, the story goes, he chopped down his father’s prize cherry tree with his little hatchet. That evening, his father asked him what happened to the cherry tree. Young George replied, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped it down with my hatchet.” His father replied, “For telling the truth, I cannot punish you.”
The message is quite clear “truth is more important than the cherry tree. And the teller of this tale recognized on some level that punishment would become associated with telling the truth rather than with chopping down the cherry tree.
(There is another version of this tale popular with Boy Scouts when I was a lad. It is not instructive, but I like it better. One day little Johnnie chopped down the outdoor toilet. That evening, his father asked him what happened to the toilet. Johnnie replied, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped it down with my hatchet.” Where upon his father took Johnnie over his knee and wailed the living daylights out of him. A sobbing Johnnie cried, “George Washington's father didn’t punish him when he told the truth.” To which Johnnie’s father replied, “George Washington's father wasn’t in the cherry tree when George chopped it down.”)
In any case, the bottom line “it simply isn’t possible to punish children for running away. We can only punish them for returning. It makes no sense to do that. If we want to minimize runaways, we have to make the program the best place they can be.
(Devious person that I sometimes enjoy being, I have on occasion had extra special activities, meals, or outings while a child was AWOL. He would hear about what he had missed when he returned. But then, we on occasion had extra special meals, activities, and outings at other times, too, like maybe a week or two after a runaway child returned.)
When we use punishment, we had best be sure exactly what it is that we are punishing. The runaway dog made this point very clear to me. I had a lot more trouble understanding it when kids ran away.