The Book of Time outs, part II

In my last entry on Teaching kids to value troublemaking, I wrote about how this children’s book about time outs fails to distinguish between good and bad forms of troublemaking. Now, I want to take up a claim that I made at the end of that entry:

And I don’t want a kid’s book that turns all of this “mostly true” history of troublemakers into a cautionary tale of why we should stay in line, follow the rules, and never challenge authority: they always lead to punishment in the form of kid time-outs (in the corner) or, later, adult time-outs (in prison).

Contrary to my initial hope, this book is not aimed at encouraging troublemaking or on educating kids on the history of troublemakers who “made a difference.” No, the goal of this book is to educate kids on the value of time outs as a way of keeping us in check and allowing us to cool down so we don’t ever get too out of control. The ultimate moral lesson of this book becomes: See what happens when you step out of line? You get punished with a time out. Occasionally (but very rarely) you might not deserve it, but you need to always remember that your actions have consequences. So, next time you think about challenging the rules or questioning ideas that don’t make sense or just seem wrong to you, think again. The end result of your actions will (and should) always be punishment. And we don’t want that, do we?

Lucke sets up the book with a list of 14 different troublemakers. With each troublemaker she describes how they stepped out of line or exhibited bad behavior and then how they were punished for it. To better understand Lucke’s argument, I will paraphrase her descriptions:

1.  Hannibal the Animal: General Hannibal of the Carthaginians had great success in using elephants to defeat the Roman Army. But he got too full of himself and started focusing more on how he was “the greatest general that ever lived” than on fighting the Romans. When the Romans attacked Hannibal and his army at Carthage, the sound of their trumpets scared the elephants away. Carthage was crushed and Hannibal was given a time out in a “far-off corner of the ancient world.”

Troublemaking behavior: Full of himself
Time out punishment: Banishment
Moral: Always try to be humble. Pride and arrogance can blind us to the limits of our own actions.

2. The Phighting Pharaoh: Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy kept fighting over who could rule Egypt. One day, the guards found Cleopatra sitting on the throne and Ptolemy crying on the floor. They gave Cleopatra a long time out in the desert and Ptolemy became the ruler. Later Cleopatra got help from Julius Caesar and kicked Ptolemy out. Then she sat back down on the throne.

Troublemaking behavior: Unable to share
Time out punishment: Kicked out, Forced to stop playing
Moral: Always try to share and take turns.

3. Marcus Tullius “Put-a-Sock-in-it” Cicero: Cicero was a great orator, but he refused to shut up. People got really annoyed–they couldn’t get a word in edgewise. So, they kicked him out of Rome and sent him far away. He got back at them by writing long letters that ended up the library and that we still read today.

Troublemaking behavior: Talked too much
Time out Punishment: Banished, not listened to
Moral: Find a better way to use your voice.

4. Lionhearted, But knuckleheaded: On his way home from the crusades, Richard the Lionheart cut through Leopold V of Austria’s backyard. Leopold got mad and put Richard and his friends in the dungeon. Richard’s mommy had to give a lot of money to Leopold to get him out.

Troublemaking behavior: Trespassing
Time out Punishment: Put in prison and embarrassed by his mommy in front of his friends
Moral: Be respectful of other people’s property and don’t take shortcuts

5. The Not-So-Clean Queen: Isabella never bathed and smelled very bad. Perhaps that is why her older half brother the king kicked her out of Madrid and tried to marry her off to a foreign prince. She snuck off, took a bath, and married someone else. Her brother was mad that she disobeyed him but not too mad; he was happy she didn’t smell anymore!

Troublemaking behavior: Refusing to take a bath, disobeying older  brother’s orders
Time out punishment: Kicked out of the house,
Moral: Take a bath. Smelling sweet (especially as a girl) excuses any bad behavior.

6. The Explorer That Went Too Far: Columbus lied to people (including the queen) in Spain about finding gold and gems in America. When a lot of people sailed with him to get rich and found out he was lying, they got mad. So mad that they chained him up and sent him back to Spain where he had to explain himself to the queen.

Troublemaking behavior: lying
Time out punishment: Kicked out, sent to the principal’s (I mean queen’s) office.
Moral: Don’t lie to people. They will get mad at you.

7. Grandma, the Pirate: Grace O’Malley liked to rob English ships traveling to Ireland. She was caught and punished twice but she kept doing it…for 60 years. Finally, when she was tired she said she was sorry and asked the queen to forgive her. The queen said okay as long as she didn’t do it again.

Troublemaking behavior: Acting out, stealing from others
Time out punishment: Imprisoned twice
Moral: If you apologize for your bad behavior, people will forgive you and not give you any more time outs.

8. Ach! That Bach!: Fed up with how badly the bassoonist was playing, Bach yelled at him and called him a bad name. The two of them got into a fight that the police had to break up. The fight was put on his record and became the first of many bad marks for Bach.

Troublemaking behavior: Not working well with others
Time out punishment: Yelled at and given a bad report
Moral: Learn how to live in harmony with others.

9. The Armée Brat: Napoleon thought everything belonged to him so he kept taking land from other countries. Finally, the other countries were fed up and gave him a time out on a small island that nobody cared about. When he broke out and tried to start more trouble, he was given an even longer time-out.

Troublemaking behavior: Being selfish, taking other peoples’ things
Time out punishment: Forced to sit in the corner
Moral: Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you.

10. Not the Smartest Artist: Honoré Daumier was an artist who painted pictures that always made people look bad. One day he painted a picture of the King of France that made the king look especially bad…and funny. Everyone laughed…expect the King. He locked Daumier up in prison.

Troublemaking behavior: Making fun of other people
Time out punishment: Prison
Moral: Be nice to other people and don’t do things that are at their expense or If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

11. The Insufferable Suffragette: When Susan B. Anthony was told not to go to the voting booth, she refused to listen and went in anyway. She was sent to jail and got a fine. Later she told people that she had disobeyed because she thought the rule was stupid. A lot of people said she was right. Finally so did the U.S. government and the rules were changed.

Troublemaking behavior: Refusing to follow the rules
Time out punishment: Arrested and fined
Moral: Sometimes challenging rules can lead to changing them.

12. Bad, Bad, Babe: Even though Babe Ruth was really good at baseball, he was really bad at following the coach’s rules. He did a lot of things he shouldn’t have—eating too much, staying out too late, being impolite to other players. Finally the coach was fed up. He fined Babe and wouldn’t let him play again until he apologized.

Troublemaking behavior: Disruptive and disrespectful behavior
Time out punishment: Fined and suspended from playing
Moral: Listen to your coach, follow his rules and respect him and the other players.

13. The Horn Player that Nearly Blew It: Louis Armstrong started out as a troublemaker and was sent to a wayward home for boys. While at the home, he learned how to play the trumpet and became very successful around the world.

Troublemaking behavior: looking for trouble?
Time out punishment: Sent to a home for boys.
Moral: Turned his life around and learned how to play trumpet.

14. A Very Upstanding Sitter: While sitting on a crowded bus, Rosa Parks disobeyed the law and refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested. She believed the law was wrong and fought for it to be changed. Eventually it was. She won a Congressional Medal of Honor for her efforts.

Troublemaking behavior: Disobeying
Time out punishment: put in jail
Moral: Sometimes laws are wrong and we should refuse to obey them. While we will get punished for it, we might be able to get the law changed.

Okay, some of this book was clever. As I read through Lucke’s descriptions, I found myself laughing a couple of times. I must admit that many of the moral lessons (according to my interpretations. Lucke never describes these accounts as producing moral lessons) are worthwhile. And, in her description of Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, she does suggest that their troublemaking was important and transformative. But what do we make of how she haphazardly lumps all of these individuals and their rebellious actions together under the sign of troublemaker/troublemaking? And how she reduces each troublemaker’s rebellious actions to a childish act of being too full of themselves, or of lying to others, or of not sharing, or of refusing to take a bath? Is that really what these different figures are doing? Should we teach children to identify their own bad behavior as the precursor to even badder behavior? And, is the best way to understand troublemaking (what is it, why we do it, what its consequences are) by forever linking it to punishment?

Of course there are certain behaviors that need to be punished and I am definitely not averse to telling my kids that they need a time out…at least once (or twice or more) a day. I think adults need time outs too (preferably ones that involve a spa tub and some Calgon). But, are time outs the best way to resolve troublemaking behavior and is resolving troublemaking behavior what we should always be trying to do? How many Susan B. Anthonys or Rosa Parks have lost their ability to resist and their desire to challenge unjust laws because they were given time outs? What would the world look like if we were encouraged (and we encouraged others) to stand up to rules that weren’t right, to laws that were unjust, to ideas that bred hate and to institutions that perpetuated oppression in its many forms?

Okay, you are probably thinking: Lighten up. This is just a kid’s book and a cute one at that. Kid’s books aren’t supposed to have deeper messages. Kid’s books are harmless. You might even say: Hey, this kid’s book is pretty great. It introduces kids to Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks and the idea that certain laws are meant to challenged. And, I would agree with you up to a point. But, I would also say: This kid’s book, which takes up the idea of troublemaking as transformative (at least in the cases of Anthony and Parks), could have enabled kids to think about how standing up for themselves, questioning authority, and/or claiming their own voice is something to be valued and should be something that doesn’t always lead to punishment but results in a better, more just world.

When I think about a kid’s book on troublemaking, I imagine it as not always connecting troublemaking with bad behavior that needs to be punished. My kid’s book would not follow Lucke’s formula of bad behavior = well-deserved punishment = moral lesson. My kid’s book would invite children (and the adults who read to them) to think about how to distinguish between bad (harmful, selfish) and good (transformative, visionary) forms of troublemaking. Or maybe it would focus only on those examples of good troublemaking to demonstrate how many people throughout history have found ways to resist and transform the system. How they have learned to think for themselves and challenge rules that don’t work or are harmful. And, maybe it would argue that the most important result of their actions has not been a time out punishment, but the transformation of the world in ways that open up more possibilities to more people.

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