Rewarding the bad, punishing the good

27 August 2007
The Big Issue

‘Oi, you little c**t, why can’t you hurry up you slow coach?’ I heard a mother say to her son last week outside a swimming pool changing rooms. An eight-year-old boy was doing his best to stuff his wet towel into his bag but it wasn’t fast enough. A little later, he started banging a vending machine violently, demanding a chocolate bar. Hearing the great thuds, his mother pleaded, ‘Look, I’ll get you a chocolate bar. I’ll get you one, just f**king stop that racket.’ I reflected upon the mixed signals that mother was sending to her child: having been assailed for patiently putting away his kit, he was pacified from vandalising the vending machine with a bribe. Having taught a great many children with similar parents, I knew he’d be a difficult child to teach: a child who had learnt the implicit message that violence is generally rewarded with bribes, and good behaviour is usually ignored, or, quite frequently, punished. He’ll have probably learnt a very similar message at school: well behaved children who quietly get on with the work are usually ignored or urged to work even harder, while badly behaved children get all manner of extra attention and kudos.

Is it any wonder that Britain’s children are, according to an authoritative Unicef report published earlier this year, the unhappiest in Europe? We live in a country where many parents, from all social classes, are uniquely ill-equipped to bring up well-balanced children. At the root of the problem are the mixed signals that adults in Britain send our children. On the one hand, we monstrously sentimentalize children with our sickly sweet films and presents, and on the other, we ignore children when they’re being good.

During the research for my new book, The New School Rules, I discovered that it is a parents’ influence which is the single most important factor in a child’s success at school, no matter whether that is the top school in the land or the worst. And furthermore, it is parental praise which is the greatest motivation for a child: not endless presents, trips to Disneyland, computer games or TV, but consistent words of encouragement. This a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of because it is a great deal easier to criticize my own child and my pupils than to praise them: bad behaviour is much more noticeable than good. But I now know that well-chosen, precise words of praise which say precisely what I have liked about a pupils’ work or behaviour is better at keeping good order than all the detentions in the world.

So that’s my advice to any parent or teacher who wants to improve their children’s behaviour: start praising them precisely and consistently today.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher in a comprehensive in London and the author of The New School Rules — The Parents’ Guide To Getting The Best Education For Your Child which is published by Piatkus.

1 comment

  1. I hated teachers and would fight with them. I now teach.

    ‘Breaking Free From The Street To The Stage’
    The extraordinary story of how actor Christopher Lee Power broke free from a life of abuse and shame to become an actor —

    British actor Christopher Lee Power has played many dramatic roles in the life, but none has been as powerful as his own where he has been able to break free from a life of abuse and shame.

    Cover of Christopher’s book
    Now he has chronicled it in his autobiography called “Breaking Free From The Street To The Stage,” published in the UK by O Books.
    Over recent years, Christopher has had the opportunity to appear in many British soaps, including the long-running Coronation Street, as well as Hollyoaks and Brookside. He has also “trodden the boards” in various Shakespeare plays, but many years ago his life was far from the glamorous world the British theatres and movie cameras. In fact, it was a complete mess and heading for disaster.
    But today, his life has dramatically changed and he says it is due to a powerful encounter with Christianity.
    Christopher grew up in the Northern England shipbuilding town of Birkenhead, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool and, in his teenage years, found himself entangled in teenage gangs and crime resulting in prison sentences.

    The Birkenhead bus and ferry terminal
    But whereas, in his early life, he was fighting in teenage gangs and taking drugs, he now teaches young people how to act both on the stage and in life and also continues a successful career in the acting profession.
    Christopher told me that his schooldays were “not as exciting as I expected.” He says he would go out of his way to pick fights with teachers or “anyone in a uniform.” And he says that from as early as eight years old, was sexually abused by both men and women even to the point of been taken into a garage lock up and molested.
    “When I was a baby, there was a time when the entire family slept in the same bedroom above a taxi place in a two bedroom flat (apartment). We did not have a bath and running to the toilet at night was not fun as the toilet was in the yard.”
    It was at this very place that Christopher recalls a tragedy that still haunts his father.
    “My dad had got involved in a fight and his friend was stabbed to death during it,” he recalled. “My father had spent about 18 years in and out of Borstal’s (a youth prison) and later adult prisons.
    I started stealing at the age of five and by the time I reached 11, I had become involved in gangs.”
    Christopher recalled that Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, which is an annual celebration in Great Britain held on the evening of November 5th to mark the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th, 1605, in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to destroy the Houses of Parliament in London, was always a big occasion for him.
    “On that night, we would build barricades’ and throw bricks and bottles at other rival gangs,” he continued, saying that by now his life had started taking a unfortunate turn for the worse.
    “Walking the streets and looking for other gangs to fight with became a frequent occurrence,” he said.
    As his young life continued in a downward spiral, he said that that ‘solvents’ became part of his life.
    “At around the age of twelve, glue sniffing was something I did for some time along with inhaling laughing gas,” he went on to say.
    It was not until the age of 18 that Christopher finally told his mum about being sexually abuse.
    “I think today that the abuse I suffered would be called ‘statutory rape’ and today, whenever I am invited to talk about my life, I do mention that I was a child at the time and who knows what may have happened at the hands of the perpetrators,” he stated. “I could of even been killed if I ran away. I had such a deep hatred towards anyone in authority such as the police. They had arrested my dad for sticking a plastic shotgun through the letter box when I was eight, resulting in him being taken away.”
    At school Christopher’s simmering hatred was so intense that he says he would also “lash out” at his teachers.
    So by the age of 18, and by now incarcerated in an adult prison, Christopher life was a mess. The drugs had taken their toll; he was deeply scarred emotionally because of the abuse and had found himself locked up this time for stealing a cash box.
    As the years went on, Christopher says that he found himself “in and out of Juvenile courts.”
    He said, “I remember my dad coming to bale me out on many occasions. I was given community service, probation, attendance centre fines and then detention centre.”
    Christopher recalls the moment that he was sent to Foston Hall, a Young Offenders Institution, located in the village of Foston in Derbyshire, England.
    It was also know as the “Short Sharp Shock,” he told me.
    Christopher went on to say, “I remember being sentenced and my heart sank, as I was taken by a police officer who held tightly onto to my arm and told me not to ‘run away.’
    “So here I was, locked up and I was lying on the bunk bed in the cell and I then cried out to God to help me,” he said.
    But then came the turnaround in his life that was to change everything. By now he was back on the streets again.

    Christopher playing George in Remembrance Day by Bev Clark
    “An old school friend called Jean Pierre approached me and asked if he could have a chat with me,” he recalled. “We both went to a nearby churchyard and under a cross of Christ that was there, he started talking about Christianity.”
    From that moment on, many things started to change for Christopher.
    Although there were no flashes of lighting or thunder, I knew something was going to happen to me,” he said.
    As the months went by, he says he was slowly weaned off drugs, drinking, smoking and gambling.
    Christopher recalls something special that he requested from God.
    “I asked God if He would help me to become a professional actor and he did!” he told me.
    On the set with Miss Piggy

    Christopher went on to train at Richmond Drama School, then Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and finally at the Actors Studio UK – Drama Theory, based on the methods of Lee Strasberg.
    In 1997, through his determination, he gained an Oxford Diploma in acting.
    “I am grateful for my friend Jean Pierre for introducing me to Christianity. The very people that I had hated came onto my path and I found myself befriending the police and teachers.
    “Opportunities arose and I became a voice for young people talking at times to local councilors.”
    He concluded by saying, “I have been acting professionally for some time as well as writing a book and teaching young people how to act. I want to be a voice for those who have been sexually abused or involved in the lifestyle I was involved in.
    Christopher’s full story can be read in his new autobiography called “Breaking Free From The Street To The Stage” published by O Books at £7.99 (ISBN: 978-1-84694-171-9) and also available from many good book shops in the UK.
    It can be ordered also at
    If you would like to have contact with Christopher, his e-mail address is: 0151 645 9928

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