Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I See Heartbreak In Their Future

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

Some time ago, I pissed off one of our parents at the school when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

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Enna said...

Teacher Tom, that heartache of which you speak is in all our lives. It is how we learn empathy, courage and resilience. It tears us apart - so much that when we see it happening to others our strongest instinct is to STOP it.

At those moments, like the mother in your blog, our own emotions (our sense memory of psychic pain) replaces rational thought - and we seek to STOP the pain happening to others. Like other situations in life, it unwittingly becomes more about how we feel, than what is happening.

This child may not yet understand what is happening, but one day he will begin to see it - either as a faint glimmer or as a whack on the head. And then he will begin to moderate his behaviour - or adjust his viewpoint - or whatever it is that helps him accommodate the knowledge that comes with his pain.

How you responded lets that begin to happen. Swooping in (as the mother would have you do) would alleviate HER pain - but does not allow for the child's development. Like you, I can empathise with the mother. If it is very hard for Educators to do this, it is much much harder for parents.

Playing a thoughtful, considered, responsible role in the development of children cannot prevent some of them from heart-break - both now and in their futures. But it does provide the child/ren with the chances they need to learn empathy, courage and resilience.

Long may we have teachers like you.

enTHRALLed said...

This post reminded me of a question I have had for you in regards to what training/reading/amount of your blog posts to read do you require of parents to be a part of the cooperative?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. Empathy. The thing that is most needed and lacking most in our people today.

Teacher Tom said...

@enTHRALLed . . . A key aspect of becoming a parent-owner of our school is that you are enrolled in North Seattle College as a parent education student. Each class works with a parent educator from the college who is in the classroom one day a week. In addition, all parents are required to attend monthly parent education classes lead by those same parent educators. This blog is my own deal. Some parents read it, but most don't unless I write about their kid. =)

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