Confused by the lights

As I think I mentioned before, C’s pre-K classroom uses what is called the traffic light system. The idea behind this system is to have a giant picture of a traffic light on the wall of the classroom. Kids have their names or pictures clipped to the picture. If you are bad, your picture moves to yellow. If you are really bad, your picture moves to red.

It’s a fun little system that not only helps keeps the kids in line, but also demonstrates how peer pressure and public humiliation can be effective tools of governing. In C’s case, the teacher has mitigated the inherent threat of the system by providing an award system. If you get all greens in a week, you get a little prize at the end of the week.

Needless to say, our little guy has been having problems. I’m happy to report that he still gets more greens than yellows, but reds are starting to creep in. Much more troubling, however, is that we’re starting to see more and more uncertainty and insecurity.

Last night, J and I had a talk and decided that we were done with the stoplight system. If the teacher needs to use it at school, that’s fine, but we have decided to eliminate all stoplight pressure at home. If he gets a red, he gets a red. Life goes on.

We gave him the news this morning, explaining that the traffic light was just between him and his teacher. We don’t need to know about the colors of his lights. In short, we just don’t care about the traffic light. He didn’t like this at all.

“But wait! Wait! If I get four greens, I get a prize!”

“Yes, you’ll still get the prize,” we said. “Your teacher gives you that. That won’t stop.”

“No, no, no. If I get four greens, I get to go shopping. Remember? If I get four greens – in a row – I get to go to the book store or toy store and pick something out. We’re still going to do that, right?”

Whoops. I’d forgotten that his momma had set up her own little reward system on top of the teacher’s. We huddled. He’d never managed four greens in a row, and it seemed wrong to take away the chance of winning a prize.

“Okay,” I said. “If you get four greens in a row, you still get to go to the store. We just don’t care about the other lights – the yellow and the red. Okay?”


It wasn’t until later that I realized what a bizarre position we’re now in. Now we reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior? How did that happen?

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