Friday, April 08, 2011

But Man, It's Worth It

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. ~Daron Quinlan
I have never been interested in obedient children. They tend to either grow into rebellious teens who are a danger to themselves as they try to "make up for" all that time spent living under a regimen of artificially repressed urges, or perhaps worse, obedient adults who are a danger to the rest of us.

This is why the children at Woodland park make their own rules. This is why we adhere in to the law of natural consequences. This is why we strive to avoid bossing the children around with directives like, "Sit here," or "Put the blocks away." This is why I actively teach children to question authority and why we celebrate when they engage in civil disobedience.

I have no patience for people who justify their authoritarian approach to children by arguing that it works. If I'm bigger and stronger than you, if I have more power than you, if I have more money than you, I can use that strength, power or money to force you into doing my bidding no matter how hard you fight back. Of course it works if the goal is mere obedience. It's a lazy, short-term, adversarial approach, one that will ultimately backfire, but sure, in the immediate moment threats and violence shut the kid up and make him submissive.

What children learn from authoritarian parenting and teaching is that might makes right. What they learn is to follow leaders, not because they are doing something great, but because they can punish you if you don't. What they learn is that someone else is responsible for their behavior and decisions, that the powerful know best, and that knowing "their place" is their highest calling.

Adults who have internalized these messages make wonderful factory workers. They are reliable votes for one political party or another. They are easy prey for cults and crazies. And when they do find themselves with an upper hand over someone else, like a child, they are far more likely to wield that authority abusively because that's what, in their experience, the powerful do.

As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to give away whatever power is implied by that title, to let the children be in charge of their own learning, of their own bodies, of their own small society. I want them to make the "right" decisions, not because I've told them so, but because they have learned through experience that it is the right decision. I want them to know that they are always responsible for their own behavior. I want them to know that their feelings, their thoughts, and their opinions are just as important as anyone else's.

I want them to know, most of all, that this is true even for people with who are stronger, more powerful or wealthier. I want them to grow to be adults who make their own decisions and will not be pushed around.

And yes, it's a lot more work for the loving adults in a child's life, but man, it's worth it.

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angel01051977 said...

YES, it really IS worth it!

Carmen said...

This is so beautiful and so true. The children and parents at Woodland Park should feel very lucky to have some one like you in their lifes.

Melissa {AllSewnUp} said...

perfectly stated. I cringe when I hear the phrase "because I say so". eek.

My own son is what some might label "defiant", but I see a strong willed leader, and no matter the work it creates, I know that it will serve him well in adulthood. My job is to help point that energy in a positive direction.

Tamara {Delish Mag} said...

Teacher Tom, it might just be the time for you to write a parenting book!!

I am interested in what you have to say about what might be the opposite of the "because I say so...", which to me is bribing. Many parents depend on bribes of toys or treats, or even television time, to get their children to do whatever it is they're "supposed to be doing" at the moment. Surely this is just as damaging to their long-term development, and learning to do things for pure enjoyment or fulfillment.

Interested to read what you'd have to say about that.

A new fan,


Unknown said...

TT I agree with what you are saying. The thing is you make it sound so easy. I have learned a lot from your blog and appreciate your stories. I am interested to know where the line is drawn?

Teacher Tom said...

@Tamara . . . I don't see bribery as the opposite of bossing. I see both as shortcuts, that are essentially the same thing: trying to get children to behave in a certain way for external, unrelated (e.g., power, candy) reasons. In the second paragraph here, I've linked to several prior posts on the topic of putting children in charge of their own behavior (the first 3 links in particular), but maybe I do need to try to write something that pulls it all together. Oh, and here's another one I recently updated:

Or perhaps a clever interviewer could ask me questions that . . . =)

@Clodagh . . . It's certainly not as easy as taking the shortcuts of bossing (or bribery, for that matter), but as I did with Tamara, I urge you to take a look at a few of the links in the second paragraph. As to your question specifically, the only line I draw with children is the proverbial one between their fist and another person's chin.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I sense from having read your blog over the past 3 months that you DO provide safety, and structure, as WELL as stepping back to allow your children to learn and explore and own their world. I think it is a fine line sometimes especially for people who might be new to teaching young children to find a good balance. I think it takes time, insight, and experience to aquire the knowledge to know when to step back.
Thank you for sharing on your blog the ways that you do this - it is such a fine example.

rosesmama said...

Teacher Tom, I do love and read you every day, but . . . sometimes the adult just has to be the adult. In an AM preschool that is a parent coop, there is so much more time and resources than most people have the privilege to enjoy. I'm thinking of the inner city school where I work, or the early days of my single parenthood. Frequently, in the interest of the children's safety or the adult's sanity, a decision has to be made by the adult and followed by the children. There is a fine line between being authoritarian, authoratative, and paternalistic. As we learn more in our role as parents and teachers, we can become more authoratative, but there is a time and place for children to make their own decisions, and it is *not all the time*. A parent needs to set a bedtime if they have to get up for work in the morning, a teacher needs to make rules about handwashing if she doesn't want a pinworm outbreak in the classroom. I'm glad that your kids get the three hour window in which they can make the rules, but longer term, 2,3 and 4 year olds need some mature input. Haven't you read Lord of the Flies?

Annie's Alphabet said...

I also let my kiddos make many of the decisions in our room...we have 12 kids, ages 2-5, and for the most part it runs extremely smooth with us as guidance. But there are times when the answer simply is, "because I said so" period.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog Tom. As a 4 year old teacher we discuss why we need some rules and then the kids do help decide what they should be. Most go under the categories of "be safe" and "be kind". We discuss that everyone no matter how old has to follow some rules and why that helps to keep us safe. But of course helping kids to learn to think, problem solve, and take responsibility for their own actions is the ultimate goal. And Tom, the way you respect the feelings of children does remind me so much of Mr.Rogers.