Friday, April 13, 2012


Persuading others to do things we want them to do is one of the fundamental ways we exert power in the world. Even before arriving in our classroom, all of the children have already learned how to convince the important adults in their lives to see the world their way, at least some of the time. Persuading the children we find in school, however, is a different animal.

Our Pre-K class typically votes on decisions that impact all of us. It's a challenging idea, even for 4 and 5 year olds. Heck, it's a challenging idea for me, especially when things I care about don't go my way.

On Tuesday, we were trying to come up with a title for this year's play and narrowed it down to either "Mysterious, Haunted, Spooky House," or "House Full of Hearts." (The fact that the script doesn't in any way feature a house is apparently immaterial.) When we took the vote, it was a straight gender split and since there are more girls than boys, "House Full of Hearts" won out.

I pointed out the gender divide to the kids and suggested that perhaps we could satisfy everyone with the title "Mysterious, Haunted, Spooky House Full of Hearts." The kids seemed to like this idea and we agreed to take another vote, the result being that all but one child voted in favor of the blended title.

The sole child in opposition had a strong reaction, objecting, "But that ruins the whole thing! The hearts make it not spooky any more!" He proceeded to vent himself in tears, loudly, throwing himself into his mother's lap. I said things like, "I know how you feel," "You're disappointed with the title we chose," and "I'm sorry, but that's just how voting works." This didn't console him. Thankfully, his mother was there to care for him and so I attempted to plow forward. It was difficult, both because of the crying, and because all of the other kids were focused on the crying. 

After a few long seconds, I thought I detected a softening of hearts among the children and wondered aloud if there was anything we could do about the title, you know, to make everyone happy. I was wrong. Indeed, they still felt good about their compromise title and were sticking with it, despite the opposition, who, quite frankly, through his tears, was raising what I thought was a solid creative objection. Amidst the hubbub of general consensus I heard one of the kids say, "There are more of us," uttering the great central truth of democracy.

Again I tried plowing forward, hoping that he would be able, with mom's help, to work his way through it, but if anything he ramped it up.

I have a rule of thumb when it comes to children expressing their emotions like this: If they can continue to argue their case while crying, they are, at least in part, engaged in a persuasive endeavor. I'm absolutely sure he was genuinely upset, but the fact that he was repeatedly saying things like, "That can't be the title -- it doesn't make sense like that!" let me know he was also still attempting to sway the crowd. At the same time, while he was certainly succeeding in getting, or at least dividing, their attention, it was equally clear to me that he was failing to persuade the people he sought to persuade.

That's when I just stopped what we were doing, turned to him and said, "Listen, I hear that you don't like the title we voted on. I felt just like you do after the 2004 election. But I have to tell you that crying and shouting might work to get grown-ups to change their minds, but it doesn't work on kids. If you want to persuade your friends, you're going to have to try something else. Like talking to them." I didn't say it with any particular emotion, going for a frank, matter-of-fact tone.

He stopped crying almost instantly and sat up, looking at his Pre-K classmates, who were looking back at him. As his mom said later, "That really seemed to give him something to think about." As he studied his friends, he must have realized they were not going to budge and settled in as we again moved forward with our day.

I was stunned. It seemed to have worked. Of course, it's also possible that he had just reached his "saturation point" on the issue and was simply ready now to move on. Nevertheless, this was something I was going to have to try again and fortunately the opportunity arose yesterday.

One of the girls had incorporated all of our every day cars into her block construction and one of the boys wanted one, a desire he expressed by trying to snatch one. She defended the cars physically and verbally, saying, "I'm using them!" He threw himself on the floor and began to rant and cry, "I want one! I want one!" 

I gave him a moment, then said, "Crying might work to get what you want from a grown-up, but you'll probably have to do something else if you want her to give you a car . . . You know, because she's a kid, not a grown-up."

He continued to toss about on the floor. I turned to the girl, "When he cries does it make you want to give him a car?"


It was like a button had been pushed. He stopped writhing about and stood up. I said, "You might want to try talking to her. That's what I'd do."

"Can I have a car?"

"You can have this one," and she handed him one.

Most of us, I hope, are able to recognize when a child is in the midst of a genuine emotional moment and when it's an attempt at persuasion. And most of us have also developed ways to counter these attempts at "manipulation" (a negatively charged word that makes me cringe whenever I hear it). Maybe we ignore it. Maybe we say, "I can't understand whining." Maybe we tell them we'll be ready to talk about it when they're done crying. These are all ways in which we are, perhaps unconsciously, attempting to teach our children more socially acceptable ways to be persuasive. But children are not interested in "socially acceptable," they are, however, deeply concerned with effectiveness. Say what you want, crying works when it comes to persuading the important adults in our lives, at least often enough that it's worth giving it a try. And it's no wonder they try it out on the wider world.

Crying, however, is not usually effective when it comes to persuading peers. A lot of kids, when they see their best "tool" isn't working resort to the ham-fisted methods of compulsion, like just taking what they want, but that's against our community rules and adults step in when that happens. 

I'm now 2-for-2 on this technique of just frankly suggesting a change in persuasive approaches. I've typically in the past intervened by trying to get the kids talking about the "problem," looking for "solutions," with varying degrees of success. That's still where I want them to end up, I suppose, and I still need that tool for most conflicts. But sometimes it's about persuasion and persuading friends takes more than tears.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Judi Pack said...

Many years ago, I heard a kind man say that our job as adults is to "help explain the world to kids." It seems to me that's what you've done here.
Ugh, 2004.

Marissa said...

Ha! As I was reading this, the FIRST thing I thought about was the 2004 election! Only that was more like the kids voting and then the bully adult telling them they couldn't have what they wanted anyway.
I really enjoyed this post though, it might just work with my little screaming fit throwers!

Floor Pie said...

Sometimes children's inspiration and intelligence gets too big for them and they topple under its weight when met with disappointment or misunderstanding. (Beverly Cleary does an excellent job describing this from the child's point of view in the Ramona books.)

I was in the Pre-K classroom that day, and Teacher Tom's impromptu method for handling it worked incredibly well, exactly like he describes here. It was as if he'd flipped a switch. I was in awe.

I think what worked the best wasn't just the words he said, but his tone and his timing. The child was flat on his back in what appeared to be full-on tantrum mode, heartbroken and frustrated and at the end of his rope. You wouldn't think that would be a good time to reason with him. But, as Teacher Tom said, he was also completely lucid, making reasonable 5-year-old arguments and expressing his opinions rather articulately through his tears.

When Teacher Tom spoke to him, his tone was very calm and serious, thoughtful, man-to-man -- like he was letting the child in on a secret from the world of grown-ups. "You know something I've learned about persuading people?" Teacher Tom asked him (and he really used the word "persuading"). The child sat up, blinked away his tears and listened. And then it went down exactly the way Teacher Tom describes it here. I learn something new every day in that class.

Aunt Annie said...

Floor Pie and Teacher Tom in the same EC classroom? I am so moving to Seattle. :D

This is just wonderful. I have been shouted down so often for saying that you CAN reason with small children. It's all in choosing your moment and, as Floor Pie says, using the right manner and tone. Children recognise raw truth.

Brilliant post, thank you. And great input from FP, thank you.

Teacher Tom said...

Ha! FP, did I really start off by saying, "You know something I've learned about persuading people?" I don't remember saying that, but I LIKE it!

Thanks so much for commenting on this. You made me feel great. What a way to go into my spring break.

I was walking the dogs this evening, chuckling to myself about that line: "You know something I've learned about persuading people?" I'm kind of proud of having said that to a 5-year-old. I'm even more proud that he got it!

. . . Now I will not talk to anyone under 15 for 9 whole days.

janetlansbury said...

Have a wonderful vacation, Tom, it is well-deserved! This is another insightful post from you (and I adore your comment, Aunt Annie!).

At the risk of sounding cynical or judgmental, the children I've known over the years don't cry for the sake of persuasion unless that has worked for them. And it only works because parents can't stand to hear children cry and will do just about anything to make it stop. If we could all be more accepting of emotional outbursts, I don't think children would need you to teach them this lesson. But I'm so glad you ARE here, sharing your wisdom and wonderful instincts with us. Thank you again, Tom.