Monday, December 26, 2011

That's What We Do In Pre-K

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." ~Declaration of Independence

Our Pre-K class starts its Tuesday afternoon by eating lunch together, each child bringing something from home to eat. I take note as they arrive of their lunch boxes and bags: "I see you have a fire fighter lunch box today," or "I'll bet you have sushi in that bag." 

It's clean-up time and most of the kids, most days get to work when I announce it by
beating my drum and singing our clean-up song. I ask the adults not to help, at least
when it comes to things the kids can do themselves. We are learning what it means
to assume responsibility, but it's hard when grown-ups (as you can see in this picture)
do it for us.

Often, a child will arrive at the table without a lunch and I'll ask, "Where's your lunch?"

"Mommy has it."

"Why does mommy have it? Is she going to eat it?"

"No, I'm going to eat it, Teacher Tom." They think I'm clowning around, but I'm not. I answer matter-of-factly, something like, "I carry my own lunch."

I love this picture in which the adult is sitting with her hands in her lap, probably making
informative comments like, "The trains tracks go in this box," or "I see my friends picking
up the blocks."

By the end of the school year, all of these kids will have assumed responsibility for carrying their own lunches, taking their lunch box from their mothers' hands of their own accord because that is what we do in Pre-K.

When we're doing this right, we're not even asking the children to clean-up. They are
doing it because it is clean-up time, not for approval, not to make someone happy.
It's simply what we do. That's how one assumes responsibility.

We all want our kids to be responsible: we want them to carry their own things, to dress themselves, to pick up after themselves. We nag them when they don't do those basic things we know they're capable of doing. Or maybe we're more sanguine, shrugging our shoulders and doing it for them, not up for the battle of wills this time. Still, we know they're going to have to learn it sometime. We see what's in store for them if they don't. We fear they'll show up in the world as some sort of entitled prima donna, going through life expecting others to do everything for them.

Adults sometimes get caught up in getting these things done quickly, but that's an
artificial condition. Doing things correctly sometimes takes time. For instance, we need
to make sure we are putting the right things in the right places, comparing them to what
is already there. This is not necessarily where I think these keys ought to be, but it is
where the children decided they ought to go, together, in a place up off the floor.

Even enlightened parents try rewards (e.g., if you get yourself dressed, you get hot chocolate) and punishments (e.g., if you don't pick up your coat, you won't get hot chocolate) and they can appear to work for a time, but the external nature of the motivation makes it a temporary fix, one that stops working the moment the reward or punishment isn't present. Some of us try the route of natural consequences, but who among us can abide a messy bedroom longer than a child? They easily outlast us, their standards being much lower, and besides they possess the knowledge that Aunt Milly will soon visit and that mom will do it for us in the flurry of housekeeping that always precedes the arrival of guests, often muttering something like, "This is the last time . . ."

We show that the sensory table is closed by covering it with this orange
cloth. Hfound an item on the floor that goes in there and 
assumed the responsibility for putting it where it belongs. It
was closed, but he knew he had the right to re-open it.

I told people this holiday season that the gift I most wanted was that they take a $20 bill, find the most unapologetic street person they could, and hand it to him with a cheery, "Merry Christmas!" fighting any temptation to place conditions on its expenditure. I'm certain that none of them, even my most liberal or most Christian friends, took me up on it. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't do it myself.) Many of them asked, "Why would you want that? They'll just use it for booze." Most informed me that the money would do much more "good" if funneled through a responsible charity where it would get spent on things they need like food, clothing, and shelter.

Yes, there are some things we're not ready to fully clean on our own, 
but that doesn't mean we can't be responsible for doing what we
can to make it a little easier for the adult who will take it from here.

Irresponsibility, the unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, at least according to our own standards of what that means, be it a clean room or clean and sober life, grates on us. When it's our own kids, we grudgingly do it for them, telling ourselves that "this is the last time." When it's an irresponsible adult, even the most nobel of us hold back, not wanting to "encourage" them, thinking somehow that our $20 will just perpetuate their bad choices, their profligate ways, their degeneracy. 

It's what we want. And that's really the challenge: the conceit that we know best.

We live in a society of rights as well as responsibilities and one of those rights is to not live up to other people's standards of responsibility. In our self-righteous quest to teach lessons, we forget that responsibilities, like rights, are not something we learn, but rather something we assume. And the two, rights and responsibilities, go hand-in-hand: they don't exist independently, but rather emerge from one another.

Assuming responsibilities together is the foundation of community.

All of us, pauper or king, are born with the three rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence, in what I consider to be among the most perfect sentences ever written in the English language: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

"Life" has certain requirements that we are bound as parents and as a society to provide, among them food, clothing, and shelter. To that I would add such things as medical care, clean air, and physical touch. These are the rights every child already has to the degree that our families and society lives up to their promises, because to do otherwise is to deny this unalienable right.

Responsibilities are not chores to be undertaken reluctantly, but rather part of the joy of
being together.

"Liberty" is more challenging. Rightly or wrongly, our laws recognize an age (or ages, in the bizarre practice of granting voting rights at 18 and drinking rights at 21) at which his right of "liberty" is fully granted. This is equally challenging for parents, who with good reason fear their inexperienced child, if granted full liberty, will make dangerous, even life-threatening choices, so we must, for a time, limit it in the name of sustaining their first right of "life," at least until they're old enough to assume the full right of liberty. But at the end of the day, most of us are able to grant that all adults, whatever their station in life, have an equal amount of unalienable liberty. 

It's through the right to pursue happiness that responsibilities emerge. This is the part of the promise of democracy in which we acknowledge that we must engage with one another, accommodate, share. School is the first place most of us get to practice this right and experience the responsibilities that go with it.

As I assume my right to pursue happiness within a community, for instance, I must also assume the responsibility of following its rules: not hitting or taking or screaming in someone else's ear. As I assume my rights, I also assume the responsibilities that come with community property like sharing or taking turns. As I assume my rights to freely play and explore, I also assume the responsibility to help clean up those things when it's time to move on to something else.

These are not things I assume because I've been nagged into it. I do not assume them because of some external reward or punishment. I take on those responsibilities because "that's what we do in Pre-K." Responsibilities are not the consequence of my pursuit, they are a part of my pursuit.

If my pursuit leads me to join a church, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities to live according to its creed.

If my pursuit requires me to have a job, I take on the corresponding rights and responsibilities of fulfilling its obligations.

If my pursuit causes me to have a family, start a charity, organize a party, or buy a house, I also assume those rights and responsibilities.

If my pursuit requires me to stand on a street corner and panhandle, I may assume few responsibilities, but I also assume few extra rights beyond those that are unalienable. (For the sake of this argument, I understand that I've set aside the realities of homelessness and poverty, and am stipulating for a moment that living on the streets is a "choice.") 

I've written often here on the blog about how the children of Woodland Park, even our youngest members, take on the responsibility of cleaning up the classroom. Each time I do, people write me, asking what I do about the kids who "refuse" to help. And it's true, there are always on any given day, a few kids who opt out altogether. What I do about them is nothing other than to not allow them to interfere with the community project of clean-up. I say, "We're putting that away," when they continue their play. I say, "That is closed," when they try to get out a new toy. I reply, "We're cleaning up now," when they try to engage me in conversation. You see, participating in clean up is one of the responsibilities that comes with the right of being a member of our community and you simply are not a full member unless you take that on. It's what we do in Pre-K.

That still doesn't answer the question of how to get the kids to carry their own things, dress themselves, or pick up after themselves at home. But I do know that responsibilities are not things into which one is commanded or shamed, rewarded or punished: that's called obedience. Responsibility emerges only from the unalienable right to pursue happiness.

I am the parent of a teenager now, not legally an adult, but no longer a child. I've noticed that the more rights she assumes, the more responsibly she behaves. That's what we do in a democracy.

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Cave Momma said...

Love this post. It has been on my mind as of late with my own two children. Very helpful.

Colleen said...

I'm curious about this... (I just found your blog and am enjoying reading your thoughtful posts!). I have a 3.5 year old and a 1 year old (both boys). My 3.5 year old has recently had a really hard time cleaning up. He's usually so meticulous about it but lately he has been refusing at home and at preschool(1x week)...grandma's house, etc. I have been resorting to consequences like taking away the toys if he won't clean them up or even time-outs and it doesn't feel right. I know that I want him to take responsibility rather than blindly 'obey' but I'm not sure what to do when he flat out refuses to clean up his things. I try to explain why we need to clean up (taking care of our things, making sure we don't trip over toys, because 'that's what we do' etc) but it's not working. I'm guessing that he wants to be in control. He's trying to control his little brother all of the time....Ideas? This is one strong-willed, sensitive and loving boy.

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