Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Most Successful Homeless Kid Ever

What would you do with a strong willed child that refused to participate in school? You can force a kid to go to school, but you can't force a kid to learn. 

One father’s solution: 
“Well son,” I said calmly, “if you don’t do your homework you will flunk out of school and if you flunk out of school and it is likely that you will be homeless soon." 

"As your father it is my job to train you to survive. Therefore it is my duty to train you to be "The Most Successful Homeless Kid Ever.”

The Most Successful Homeless Kid Ever

by Hero Jenkins

Those of you who have stubborn, strong willed children my sympathies. Those of you who do not, just keep having kids… one will be along shortly. There is no feeling in the world like looking into the eyes of a miniature version of yourself (or your wife) and realizing that they are going to defy you. That you are about to do battle in the arena of determination and resolve and this current battle, like all of the other battles, will be epic. 

Shortly after his fifteenth birthday my middle child announced that he was no longer interested in learning. He made it clear without the slightest amount of hesitation that he would no longer go to school and he would no longer do his homework. This was puzzling because our son was brilliant, he had learned to read before kindergarden and had since been a straight "A" student. At first we suspected bullying or some other obvious conflict, but there was none. He had just decided, he was done and he didn't care what we thought. I never found out why he suddenly refused, perhaps he learned that Billy didn't do homework. You all know Billy... he's the kid who lives down the street. The one who just got expelled, the one with no parental supervision. We all know Billy... he's the one that your child is not allowed to hang out with (and if you don't know Billy, then perhaps Billy is your child). 

As it turned out, my son was serious and that's what he did. He stopped learning and he stopped doing his homework.
We did the usual parent stuff, we assigned him time outs, he was grounded, he lost privileges... nothing worked. The stick wasn't working so perhaps it was time to try the carrot. We were against offering rewards, but we became desperate so we tried them. That failed too. We tried reason, "think about your future son," we begged. That didn't work either and then his grades began to slip. 

His siblings were watching and I knew that I had to handle this one right. I knew one thing for sure: I would have force my son to choose between "defiance" and "comfort & convenience." 

I went to Costco and bought a case of Top Ramen, chicken flavor, and a few dozen bottles of water. I sat my son down and explained to him that the law required me to feed him, but it didn’t say how well. So for the foreseeable future, while the rest of the family enjoyed our regular dinner, he would have Top Ramen and water for dinner.
He didn’t seem to care.
“That’s cool,” he said, “I like Top Ramen.”
He had called my bluff; he was betting that I wouldn’t follow through. I realized that I was going to be harder than I thought. I was going to have to take it up a notch.
We had a rule in our house. Our kids were welcome to live at home rent-free as long as they were in school and once they stopped going to school they would have to pay rent or they would have to move out.
“Well son,” I said calmly, “if you don’t do your homework you will flunk out of school and if you flunk out of school you won’t get a diploma which means college is out of the question.”
He nodded complete understanding.
“It is likely that you will be homeless soon and as your father it is my job to train you to survive. Therefore it is my duty to train you to be the best homeless kid ever.”
He had no idea what I had in mind, so he put on a brave face. Parents this part is important. Before you punish your child lay out a rational case, no matter how thin. Because punishment because he or she has gotten on your "last nerve", although satisfying, yields limited results. If you do stuff because you are mad at their audacity, then they have the upper hand. Give them another reason before you drop the hammer.
 “You may as well learn how to be homeless while you are still have a home,” I said.
I told him that the law required me to keep a roof over his head but there was no requirement that he slept in a bed. 

“You won’t have furniture or a bed when you're homeless,” I explained. "Therefore, I will be taking all of your furniture out of your room."

To my surprise my son took it fairly well, if fact, again, he didn’t seem to care. He spent all day that Saturday disassembling and stacking his stuff neatly in a corner of the garage. I took everything; I even took his posters down from the wall. There was nothing left in his room but the carpet on the floor and the paint on the walls.
I developed a list of the skills I thought would be necessary to survive on the streets. These would be the lessons I would teach. I made a huge poster with each lesson printed in large letters so that he would be able to track his progress and more importantly he would be able to see what was coming next.
We would start with the basics. The first lesson on the list, "the art of sleeping on the ground" had already begun when I took his furniture. But as he looked at the list he could tell that the lessons would progressively get worse. He could decide when the lessons ended when he decided to do his homework.

Lesson plan: The most successful Homeless Kid Ever.

  •                The art of sleeping on the ground.
  •                The well-organized shopping cart. (…most of the homeless carried all of their possessions in shopping carts so he would have to learn to fit everything in it.)
  •                Efficient bedroll construction.
  •                Living without electricity.
  •                Dumpster-diving for Dinner, perils and pitfalls.
  •                A gourmet’s guide to begging for food. (…occasionally the homeless would hang out at restaurants and beg for doggie bags from the patrons as they exited)
  •                Panhandling for beginners.
  •                Advanced panhandling, including freeway sign construction(…we would need to work on his pitch, “will work for food” was somewhat overused so if he could come up with something inventive he could out panhandle the others.)
  •                Out door sleeping. (…staying warm and healthy and alive)
  •                Knife fighting. (…he would need to learn to protect himself, so a knife was his best bet)
  •                Fleas and ticks, what you need to know.
  •                 Making a meal from garbage. (Hey… its tough out here kid, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do)
  •                Cockroaches... many parts are edible.
  •                 Washing your clothes in a gas station bathroom's sink or toilet.
  •                Bathing in the flood control ditch.

With his room now empty, it was time for Lesson Two. Organizing your Shopping Cart.

I got a shopping cart from the local supermarket and parked it in his room. 

I had spoken with the supermarket manager about my dilema and told him what I was planning. He gave me his blessing to borrow a shopping cart with the caveat that I would give him a full report. He had kids that were younger than mine and he was interested in my plan's effectiveness in case he was forced to do the same. He was quite helpful and he told me something that I did not know. They tossed away rotten produce at the end of each day, but they kept the dumpster locked because the homeless tended to make a mess. He said that he would be willing to unlock the dumpster if I called him ahead of time. I doubted it would get that far, but to tell the truth I wasn't sure… we were in uncharted waters here.
“You can keep only the stuff that will fit in this shopping cart,” I told my son. “Because the homeless had to limit their possessions to what they could fit in their cart.”
This wasn’t completely true, some homeless had multiple carts filled with junk, but they were usually crazy and since he wasn’t crazy he would have to limit himself to one. That meant that most of his clothes and toys went into the garage.
Next up, bedroll construction

I taught him what I knew about bedrolls, which was nothing so I made it up. I had seen homeless bedrolls in the past and had some idea of their composition. I had never made one before, but my son didn’t know that.
I knew that layering was the key and that one layer consisted of a couple of those 30 gallon plastic garbage bags to keep the moisture out and another layer was newspaper or cardboard for insulation between the homeless and the cold ground. He spent a couple of hours putting it together, He didn't do a bad job, like I said he was a brilliant kid.
By Sunday he was all set. 

For the next three days he slept on his bedroll and dutifully packed up his shopping cart before heading off to school. He didn’t seem to mind, in fact he seemed to be treating it like one big adventure.
The next lesson was living without electricity

I worked nights, so on Wednesday before I went to work, I stopped by the circuit breaker box and turned off all of the breakers, except the ones to our bedroom, (why should my wife suffer). I left the power on in the kitchen… so that the kids who weren’t in rebellion could do their homework, and so that we could cook. I didn’t turn off power to the bathrooms because we didn’t want them trying to find the toilet in the dark. They were having a difficult enough time finding it with the lights on. 
We provided our other children with extension cords so that they could have lights and charge their electronics. It was somewhat of a pain for them but it couldn’t be avoided and a little bit of inconvenience would be good for them lest they consider their own rebellion in the future. 
After living without electricity came dumpster diving. I informed my son that as of Friday I would be cutting off his supply of Top Ramen and he would have to begin foraging for his food. I explained that the local supermarket tossed out their vegetables each night. Most of it was rotten and not edible. We would be competing with the other homeless, so we would have to get there early for the best selection.
I don’t know if it was the idea of dumpster diving for dinner or the prospect of the long weekend without his electronics that did it, but by Friday he had had enough. He relented and announced that he did not want to be a homeless dude and that he would indeed do his homework.
The standoff was over. On Saturday morning he got up early and happily moved his furniture from the garage back into his bedroom. I went to the circuit breaker box and restored electricity. I returned the shopping cart to the nearby supermarket along with a full report to the manager.  

There were other battles, but none this severe. Now our children laugh about it when they get together. It always starts the same... "Remember that time when you..."

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  1. It's better to DO something like THIS than have the child run away or, worse, get into drugs, alcohol, prostitution, etc.

    I'm not sure "I" could've done it but, then again, it might have helped tremendously.

    Every generation says the NEXT one is 'spoiled'. One by one some of them no longer feel the NEED to 'do anything'--they've already GOT everything they want/need. You did it humanely and thoroughly.

    I bet HE turns out to be one heck of a young man!

    1. He did and I couldn't be prouder of him.

  2. Just stopping by to tell you how much we enjoyed your story...

    As the parents of three sons, we empathize and applaud you for your initiative and follow-through. That would have been hard... Our eldest two have grown up and left the nest, but the youngest at eleven, already rules the roost, -or thinks he does. And we can certainly imagine him needing the same lesson eventually. Brilliant strategy! Thank you for sharing, Bill & Pearl

    1. You are right... It was difficult, but my wife and I both knew that we had to hold the line. Both of us recognized that we had reached a turning point with our son. My son was a brilliant child and in a lot of ways too smart for his own good. He knew there were limits to what we could do and he thought he had it all figured out.

  3. I have three sons, the oldest of which is 12, the youngest to be born any day. My oldest, like your child, is brilliant, and probably too much so for his own good. Once or twice a year, every year, he will start to push, to test his limits with me and see if I'm ready to give more ground than the time before. I tolerate to a certain point and then I have to push back. I've never had to push back quite as far as you did here, but now I have a good idea of how to do it when (not if, I'm sure it will come) I do have to push back hard. Thanks for your story, and congratulations on surviving parenthood.

  4. If you son is a genius, he's probably bored in school. Assuming that it's because he wants to rebel like "some kid down the street" means you probably missed the point entirely. I was one of those "genius" kids who should have been in college by the time I was a teen.

    A better approach would be to talk to him about what he's interested in and offering some upper-level work, such as going to college classes. It's available to people in high school. While your approach worked short-term, I'm sure if your child is completely bored in school, he's still just as sad and unfulfilled as before your little experiment. These approaches work on kids who are really rebelling, not just bored because they're smart.

    Maybe you could try asking him rather than just assuming that you know what's behind what you perceive as his lack of motivation.

    1. Actually we considered that. He is very smart, he learned to read before kindergarten and we always challenged him academically. We had another rule in our house, though we would not and could not afford as many toys as they wanted, we would get them as many books as they wanted.

      But this was something different, he was being defiant for the sake of defiance... testing the boundaries, trying to see how far he could go. The solution may seem harsh, but it was one of those times every parent faces where you know you have reached a turning point and the decision will set the course of their life.