Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance makes zero sense when talking about kids. Childhood and adolescence are all about growing, exploring, and learning – learning self-control, learning to read and do math, learning to be in relationships, learning to solve problems, learning values, and even learning how to learn. Messing up, blowing it, freaking out, goofing off – these are all part of the process of learning. And if we, as parents, hold to a zero tolerance policy, we are depriving our children of essential opportunities for learning.

Today’s quote comes from a middle schooler who begged and pleaded and badgered until he finally succeeded in getting permission from his parents to be on Facebook. Mom and Dad agreed to this against their better judgement. They believed that Garth was too young for social media. After all, he had to lie about his birth date when he registered for the Facebook account. Garth’s parents caved to their son’s entreaties because they hoped social media would help their son begin to build friendships in his new school. I suspect they were also motivated by the guilt they both felt about the recent move the family had made from urban Chicago to  suburban Philadelphia. It had been a very difficult time for the whole family, but Garth seemed to be having the most trouble adjusting.

After about six weeks in his new school, Garth got into trouble for posting a mean comment on a classmate’s wall. According to the accused, he and some boys from his class came up with the idea for the mean post during lunch. Garth was totally aware that the boys’ plan was mean and came with serious risk of getting in trouble, but in his desire to fit in, he had agreed to post the comment. As soon as Mom had gotten off the call from the principal about the Facebook incident, she had made Garth delete his Facebook account.

Shortly after this incident, I met Garth and his parents for the first time. The principal, who was concerned about Garth’s adjustment to the new school  and about this particular incident, had encouraged the parents to  seek counseling for their son. The boy I met was angry and oppositional and unhappy. He described a lonely existence since leaving Chicago. Just when he was beginning to make friends, he had made what he called “a crappy mistake,” and now his parents were destroying any hope he had for a social life. His take on the whole situation:

One mistake. ONE mistake! Seriously, ONE CRAPPY MISTAKE, and POOF, there goes my Facebook account and my social life! Garth, age 11.

I don’t generally take sides, and when I do, I try to be very discreet about it. However, in this instance, Mom and Dad were employing a zero tolerance approach that not even the principal endorsed. According to Garth’s mother, the principal had acknowledged the risks of social media in children as young as sixth grade and even expressed his wish that parents of middle schoolers would not allow their children on Facebook. But, he had also talked about community norms and how difficult it can be for kids, especially new students, to live outside those norms.

On the one hand, I agree with Garth’s parents; 11 year olds are too young for Facebook and other forms of social media. On the other hand, Mom and Dad gave Garth permission to join Facebook. They accepted some risk when they did that. They believed their son was too young for social media, so why would they be surprised when Garth made an inappropriate post on Facebook? Once the first misstep happened, Mom and Dad’s job became to help their son learn to use Facebook appropriately, not to take it away as punishment for his first mistake.

Repeated offenses require a different kind of response. After I convinced Mom and Dad that taking Facebook away would teach Garth far less than working with him on what’s okay and what’s not okay to post, they agreed to a 3-Strikes-You’re-Out policy. This still has a punitive bent in my mind and feels like it sends the message that “We expect you to screw up,” but it’s the resolution the parents were willing to accept. I accepted it as well, as long as there was a time limit to the  “out.” Mom, Dad, and Garth all agreed that, if there were two more instances of inappropriate behavior on Facebook, the account would be shut down and Garth would have to wait until he was 13 to try again. They all agreed to become Facebook friends, so that Mom and Dad could monitor Garth’s public comments.

Here are the lessons that I hope this family took away from this experience:

  • Parents need to follow their instincts. Many, many problems could be avoided by setting appropriate limits in the first place. If a parent’s gut is saying no, his mouth should say no as well.
  • Kids screw up. This cannot be avoided nor should it be. It’s how kids learn.
  • When a kid screws up, parents can turn the misstep into an opportunity for growth and learning.
  • Complete revocation of a privilege should be reserved for repeat offenders, and when this happens, a time should be set for the child to try again.

I should add that schools have no choice but to adhere to zero tolerance policies for very serious offenses that involve risk of harm to others. Even in these cases, however, there should be specific criteria for re-entry into the school. Fortunately, in families, there is a choice, and mistakes can be turned into positive outcomes.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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2 Responses to Zero Tolerance

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Ickiness | What Kids Want Us to Know

  2. Pingback: Bullying Is a Community Problem | What Kids Want Us to Know

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