The Half-Assed Tree

Last weekend I was struggling to get Linus to work on a school project. Getting him to the table to work on something isn’t typically a problem; it’s just that once he gets to the table time sort of stops for him. He can spend an amazing amount of time staring at the page, or into space, or distracting himself with anything that doesn’t actually involve productivity.

So, we have to gameplan for how we will get him to complete his homework. Usually it involves browbeating and nagging, to the point of sitting there with him and essentially walking him through the assignment step by step. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing–far from it. He just has a hard time staying on task.

I can relate. Sometimes the most interesting thing around is anything but the thing you are supposed to be doing. The apple, as they say, often doesn’t fall from the tree. But is he a natural apple, or a nurtured one? I don’t think he’s necessarily recognized yet when I might be showing some of the same behaviors, which leads me to believe he has received the dreaded Slacker Gene.

However, my view is that determination and strategic motivation can help us train him to be more on task. It’s too early to tell if these lessons will germinate within him, but I can say he does a heck of a lot more structured homework and study than I did at 18, much less 8.

But last Saturday nothing seemed to be working. He was doing a project on Morocco that necessitated him finding and printing some maps onto a large poster. Found the maps on the internet, no problem. Cut them out, no problem. But pasting them onto the page? That was a problem. The simplest part sometimes takes the longest, strangely enough.

So I came up with a plan, inspired by Beck. It happened when the song E-pro came on, which is basically built on one guitar riff. I thought to myself, “I can learn how to play that.” Then I said to Linus, “Hey! I bet you I can learn this guitar riff before you can finish your Morocco project.” All he had to do was paste three pieces of paper onto a poster, so it was setting the bar pretty low for him. But no sooner were the words out of my mouth than he sprinted across the room to his project and had the glue stick in hand.

Mission accomplished.

But I also know that he assigns a heavy weight to the word “bet”, a somewhat recent phenomenon. If I say I’m going to “bet him”, then it’s on. So I hustled to the computer and looked up the E-pro tab. It was pretty simple, which was fortunate because it took him all of about 15 seconds to complete his project. He declared himself the winner but I protested: I didn’t say I would play the riff before he finished, just that I could learn it. So I calmly walked over, turned my amp up to 12, and began to crank out the E-pro riff.

Mission accomplished…sort of. I could play the riff in such a way that someone who knew the song would recognize what I was trying to play, but they would also recognize that I was horrible at it. Did this count? I could see the look of suspicious doubt on his face, like I hadn’t really learned it. I explained to him that I never said I could play it perfectly before he finished, just that I would learn the riff. And I had. The details matter, in this case more than the results.

Then I walked over and looked at his project. The maps were all pasted onto the paper, but they were slapped on at irregular angles, some creased, some covered in glue. As I shook my head he said, “Well, you just said I had to finish it.”

I told him we could both do better than that, and he agreed. But then, somehow, we moved on to something else. His project stayed as is, and my E-pro riff still sucks.

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3 Responses to The Half-Assed Tree

  1. kelly says:

    This story cracked me up. You might not realize this, but I am a slacker too. Really.

    The way I overcame this problem goes way back to my parents in 4th grade. And that was marrying my academic (hypothetically beneficial) results to tangible outcomes (bribery). If I got at least 4 A’s, and the rest B’s for the entire 4th grade year, my parents would bestow the JC Penny dual cassette deck into my hands. It worked like a charm and kicked off my pirating and mixed tapes habit which I’ve had ever since; which arguably is the foundation of my entire social network.

    Satisfied with their ploy my parents slacked and never bribed me again, the rest is history. The nice thing about this trick in retrospect is the long term nature of the challenge, and its hypothetical linkage to “quality” in the form of high marks. No frequent check-ins, no heavy parenting load, just the relatively cheap cost of JC Penny’s electronics.

  2. pipelineblog says:

    People do respond to incentives, young or old. You just have to find the right incentive, then remember to offer it, then follow through on the promise. For us, dessert still serves that trick, but the day will come when they figure out how to get their own desserts.

  3. Nathan D says:

    Clearly the only answer is to withhold love until he stops slacking. And hide your desserts.

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