virtual children by Scott Warnock

The most powerful kids in the universe

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I’ll be straightforward: I was not told I would spend most of my dad life turning off lights that my kids had left on. I never knew it was going to be like this.

Yet here we all are, dads collectively, even the many wastrels I know, manically rattling around our homes, flicking off light switches. Light-leaving-on is a matter of generational divide; it is, the old and wise of us claim, a marker of the younger set’s sloth, excess, and apathy.

But the real problem is that we have to keep turning off those lights. Nothing works to communicate our message that this is bad.

It becomes an age-old question of executive branch power, of enforcement. It is the classic problem of behavior modification. Parenting has made me question, and I say this somberly, with a straight face, the existence of a punishment-based criminal justice system. Basically, once kids have chosen a path of behavior — “I’m getting that cookie no matter what” — nothing seems to work to get them off that path. It can be disheartening. It makes me think how right Albert Camus was.

Thinking like this, fixating on the electrical gluttony of youth, this is where you could become a wacko.

Should you resort to incessant yelling? Should you tape light switches into the off position? Unscrew the bulbs? Beat your children with a Bill Cosby-esque flesh-flaying eight-foot-wide belt? Charge them money for every light often on, a strategy recommended often online. (Of course, this is another surefire way to make yourself suffer, as who do they come to when they’re out of pizza money? You.)

I tried some of these things (you can guess which ones). None of them worked to solve the problem, and, worse, most of those approaches just made me madder. So I accidentally came to my method, something I thought would make a point in a neat, clean way.

Pushups.

Every time I see a light on, for every bulb in that light fixture, the offending child — which, for ease of enforcement, is any child in the vicinity — has to do a pushup. The pushup number can easily be around 20 or 25 when I come home from work at night.

For some reason, they accept this punishment with relatively good cheer. They complain a little, but the offense is so obvious — that light right there is in fact on! — and the punishment so clear, that they just do it. The only downside is that they are now trying to catch me leaving a light on to return the punishment. (I don’t care; I’ll do my pushups. But I never leave a light on. Ever. I turn lights off in rooms while I’m still in them. Even after the forgetfulness induced by a full night at the Park Tavern, I still remember to turn off lights.)

So, they do fulfill the punishment, diligently. But your real questions probably revolve around punishment efficacy, not adherence: Does it encourage them to turn off the lights?

Okay, no. It has not. I still simmer when I see lights on, yet at least I feel less enraged because I’m doing something. And, dammit, as I watched them lined up and cranking out their 14 pushups the other day after work (backs straight, chins up – it’s a thing of beauty) I realized that my electric bill may not budge, but I’m going to have the most powerful kids in the universe.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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10 Responses to “The most powerful kids in the universe”

  1. Why not turn it into a business and offer an incentive program? It could be a win -win proposition. You get to teach them about money, energy, bills. Show them the highest electric bill, explaining the difference in energy draw from appliances, lights etc. Challenge them to try to save energy for 1 month…leaving out the nagging and reminders. I know that is hard! Tell them they can earn and share the money that is saved. At the end of the month you can compare the bills and see if they were a success. If it doesn’t work you always have your plan to go back to. That will be their choice.
    “Anything Worth Having Is Worth Working Hard For”

  2. Or you could do the math, and send them each a bill at the end of the month. Of course they won’t be able to pay it, but they’ll get a sense of how you feel when you open your bills every month. Although I know the pushups are probably more effective, I’ve realized the my children (even the big ones) really have little concept of how much money we spend each month to keep a roof over their heads.

  3. We left the lights on as kids in our house. My dad went around the house constantly turning off the lights. I think this is payback for my wastefulness as a child. When you drive by and see my house lit up like a Christmas tree, just know that I have lost the battle. I’m fine with it though. When my children grow up and get there own houses, I will stop by when they are at work and turn every light in the house on. Something to look forward to…….

  4. We left the lights on as kids in our house. My dad went around the house constantly turning off the lights. I think this is payback for my wastefulness as a child. When you drive by and see my house lit up like a Christmas tree, just know that I have lost the battle. I’m fine with it though. When my children grow up and get their own houses, I will stop by when they are at work and turn every light in the house on. Something to look forward to…….

  5. Maybe this could be a national policy, but instead of pushups, they diagram sentences.

  6. Put a hot bulb under them and make them count off every time their flesh touches the bulb.

  7. I think Jennifer Brandt may be on to something, not that I am totally against Scott’s “push-up” method, but what are we really trying to achieve here? My issue is not that the light is on, but rather the wastefulness of the energy and money associated with it. It seems that most children, at least as they get a little older, somehow take on the roll of “eco-warrior” and talk about saving the animals, the trees, the planet, and that fact that we should trade in our convertible Mustangs and Corvettes and all drive Toyota Prius’s. Yet the simple act of turning off a light switch seems to escape them. As Jennifer alluded to, the creation of a “cost savings sharing plan” has the merits I personally am looking for as it would teach our children accountability (something that is woefully missing in today’s youth), some economics (always a good think to know), and more importantly dealing within a work for reward structure (since it seems that the only things kids really respond to these days is money or taking away their cell phones and video games). I would much rather my daughters learn a few very valuable life lessons and perhaps see the even slightest reduction in my energy bills, than continue wasting electricity with my only consolation being they develop bulging biceps.

  8. Teaching the costs works very well. A little too well in my case as I am not as diligent as Scott. I now hear “You’re wasting my college money!” every time I leave a light on…

  9. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent this to my husband….He is going to come home and make me do push-up tonight because the basement light is on.

  10. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, the kids are correct in leaving the lights on. Your trek through the house takes a few minutes. If you left ten 60W lights on for an hour, that 0.6 kilowatt-hours. 1 kilowatt-hour cost about 10 cents. In other words, you saved 6 cents but lost three or four minutes of your life. If I’m representing your children, then I would argue that three minutes of Daddy’s life is priceless but if one was forced to quantify it, it’s certainly greater than 6 cents.

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