Growing up, kids are just trying to figure out the world.
They try and discover the boundaries, learn the rules and copy what they see the big kids and grownups do and listen when nobody thinks they are. They want to learn the ropes so they can do all the grownup things like drive a car, stay up late watching movies and never have to do homework again as long as they live. Well, those were my goals anyway. That and buying a birthday cake any time I wanted to.
Kids are also big into superheroes, power ninjas and pirates on the open seas, and also Barbie and all her manifestations as sports star and astronaut. It’s about power and freedom and control ... three things that kids don’t have much of so they have to pretend they do. That’s why play is so important to growing kids; it’s a way for them to model in an exaggerated way the life they think they will have as grownups.
Along the way though, there is the occasional grandparent or aunt that will sit down and explain things in detail. There’s the sibling or cousin that does the wrong thing and catches it and the smart observer knows not to cross that line. And parents are sometimes so busy they have to rely on the classic “Because I said so ...” so that a kid will end up doing something by command without understanding the wherewithal of it, like a tire salesman that has to land the jet with step-by-step instructions from the tower because the pilot got a bad piece of salmon.
But sometimes the grownups will use a type of shorthand to get the point across, not so much a “Do this or else," but by promise or threat, they help the child see the carrot (reward) and the stick (punishment). This helps clarify the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the birthday cake from the Brussels sprouts.
Plenty of promises and threats
For me being a kid in Dalton and Whitfield County, I got my share of promises and threats. Funny how I primarily remember the threats. As for the promises, they never seemed to be the ones I’d see on TV like when the kid would get paid $20 to get A’s. Here are a few of the sticks and carrots I got as a kid.
My grades, as I mentioned were part of the boilerplate deal of being in school. There was no extra reward. The expectation is that I would do my best and a job well done was reward in itself. At the time there were monster models and Hot Wheels cars I had my eye on that a little scholastic “green grease” would have been very welcomed.
But now, I think the lesson was a good one. Do the job that’s expected of you because that’s why you’re there. Of course, one side effect of that has been to make me pretty skeptical of those little tip jars at the checkouts of fast food restaurants, coffee shops and quickie marts where you have to serve yourself. Seems if you have to carry your own food around and prep it with condiments, you deserve a little something yourself since that’s not really your day job. I do like the little “need a penny, take a penny” trays at some checkout counters because I always need one. Not necessarily for that transaction, but ...
I don’t know if this was a promise or a threat but if I was told once as a kid, I was told a hundred times “If you swallow that watermelon seed, a watermelon will grow in your stomach." Har har. Somebody’s ready for "Hee Haw."
Except if you’re 4 or 5 and hear that from a trusted uncle or your own grandmother it becomes science. To think now of all the watermelons I ate as child that would have been so much more enjoyable without the worry of accidentally swallowing a seed and having a watermelon grow in my stomach. For some reason I also pictured the vine growing up and out my mouth, much to my embarrassment at school. Not to mention the fact that until about 8, when somebody told me babies don’t come from storks, whenever I saw a pregnant lady in public I assumed the watermelon worst.
One reward I received as a kid was after a series of dental treatments I had to endure, I got to pick out little model airplanes about the size of a Matchbox car at a nearby drug store after each trip. It certainly made a little boy's trip to the dentist a lot more bearable. The only problem was, after each procedure, I was still loopy from the nitrous oxide and would always pick out the German World War I bi-planes. Where’s Snoopy when you need him?
I usually didn’t have a standard weekly allowance, but I did chalk up some spending money as a freelancer around the house. Without an actual price set on it I could usually build up credit with the “parent bank” when I mowed the yard and especially when I helped dad rake it. I really didn’t care for raking so that was a real chore.
But the carrot payoff would come at some time in the future when I would be in Ace Newsstand or at the toy store at Bryman’s Plaza. At the newsstand they might have the new issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland with maybe Vincent Price on the cover and dad would let me have the buck or 75 cents, which the magazine cost. Once I had used up my yardwork credit, the “Bank of Dad” would reply with something along the lines of “I don’t think we really need that right now." I got the point.
Now the sticks
We’ve been talking about carrots, but what about sticks? Overall I was a pretty good kid and did what I was told. But every once in a while, the guy on my left shoulder that wears the red suit would talk me into something. There was the equivalent of today's “time out” which back then was “Go to your room ... right now!”
Back then it was a real kind of punishment because we didn’t have computers, tablets or phones in our rooms. There was no Snapchatting friends or scrolling through Instagram to kill the time while serving your sentence. Maybe you had some books in your room that you might actually be forced to … gulp … read. Or maybe there were some games on your shelf but they just mocked you with their “for two or more players” label, pointing out the fact that you were all alone. And worst possible case you might be reduced to actually cleaning up your room. “Go to your room” was a win for the parents back then.
Meanwhile, in school, at least up through the 1970s, there was the threat of corporal punishment. The shop teacher in middle school, or junior high as we called it, had a paddle made of wood and if needed, he would use it. And the parents backed up the teachers. My warning was that if I ever got a paddling at school I was going to get another one at home. I never got paddled but one time I did get a measuring stick to the palm for a couple of stinging whacks. Is it OK to do that kind of stuff? Didn’t kill me. And with that kind of literal stick out there, it made you think a little longer before you risked something you knew was against the rules.
My grandmother was old school. She made you get your own switches from the bush. I only took that punishment once or twice. Ouch and yikes. I learned my lesson plenty fast and never had to go through that one any more. There was an old teacher and she said when it came to discipline, make it clear, make it sure and make it count. One of the things about my kiddie crimes was that I knew there would be consequences. After I was grown and talking to my mom about discipline I got as a kid I told her sincerely … “Well, I never got a spanking I didn’t deserve.”
On the other hand, grandmother was big on the carrots. How many pies, cakes and banana puddings did she make over the years to show me support? I don’t know, I ate them, I didn’t count them. At school we quickly learned from the good teachers that if we did what was expected and did it well we were allowed to do more, coming up with our own ideas and projects. We got a lot of yeses on the things we proposed even if they were a little out of the norm. “Yes” is my favorite carrot, and there’s a lot of power in “yes."
Carrot and stick are two sides of the same coin used to get proper behavior out of folks. But it does seem to come a little more fast and furious when we’re learning the ropes as kids. Either one used too much will be ineffective; too many carrots and you’ll be expecting a carrot for everything and as I pointed out at the beginning, doing the right thing is a reward in itself.
Having said that, here’s hoping your personal garden is full of carrots.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.