Monday, June 18, 2012

Plastic Hammers

We still have our collection of toy tools, plastic hammers, saws, and drills, but they don't come out much any longer. There are a several reasons why they've been pushed to the back of the shelves, but the primary one is that kids try to kill each other with them, especially the hammers.

I don't usually hide away classroom items that "cause" problems, seeing the situations that arise around them as opportunities to coach kids through a process of risk assessment or conflict resolution or other kinds of problem solving. As politicians say, "Don't let a good crisis go to waste," and that's sort of what I like to do as a teacher, over-riding my initial instinct, which is to simply say something like, "If you can't play nicely, then you don't get to play at all."

In the case of the toy hammers, however, I don't often put them into play because we have real hammers. And the funny thing about the real hammers is that in all the time we've been putting them into the hands of preschoolers, I've yet to see a child use one with anything other than respect, both for the tool and his fellow classmates. The same kid who will clonk another one with a plastic hammer, either accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally-on-purpose, will be a study in concentration and safety with a real hammer in his hand.

Even 2-year-olds step up to the responsibility of the real hammer. An adult still needs to be there at first, insisting on eye protection, reminding the child to find a safe area in which to get to work, one free of other people who might be hit or things that might get broken, and to focus her on the concept of targeting a nail (or a bottle cap: we've found that it's quite satisfying to drive them into soft wood). It's not a hard thing to do because a child with a hammer in his hand instantly becomes a calmer child, a more focused child.  A plastic hammer is a toy; a real hammer is a responsibility, children know it, and even the youngest, even the most hyperactive, are capable of taking it on.

This is true of all kinds of responsibility. Children know when they've only been allowed to handle the plastic hammer of pretend responsibility when, say, we give him the false choice of "walking on your own feet or being carried." I know experts advocate this technique, many of whom I respect very much, wanting to permit children a sense of agency over their own immediate fate, but it's never worked for me, and I think that's because everyone involved, including the child, knows that I've not given the child any real choice at all. We all know that the bottom line is that we have to leave a place he doesn't want to leave, even if we give him the choice of leaving in "3 minutes or 5 minutes." 

Responsibility is one of those things that is either real or it doesn't exist. There is no halfway. No amount of lecturing on responsibility will replace the real thing.  There is no way to "practice" responsibility without actually having it in your possession. If we want children to learn to be responsible, we must in fact turn over to them something that is real, and indeed, give them room to make mistakes, and that means the potential for making "wrong" choices. If there isn't that potential, then it's not responsibility at all: it's a plastic hammer. And the kids know it.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Yes! You KNOW my favorite post of yours is your "original" post on '2year olds and hammers' - so this is a perfect follow up post. Hammer away.

Judi Pack said...

Love this. I remember well my days with young children using real hammers, real saws, real hand drills. Nothing gave the kids a greater sense of power, competence, and, yes, responsibility. And yet, there may be only one child care center in our county that has real hammers (forget saws and the rest!). What a shame!

Chantel said...

I completely agree, Teacher Tom. You know, I can't help but think about your re-post just last week about when parents say they've 'tried everything' to get their child to do something, and your best advice is to stop trying. I think that it's important to take that same approach here. If we want children to be responsible, we don't need to 'try to teach them'. In fact, when we do it can be so much more stressful than if we just gave them the opportunity to make a mistake in the first place. I have to fight myself from giving 'you can come on your own or I can carry you' kind of 'threats' all the time. I always find myself frustrated when I use that technique. I'm learning though. :)

tessydk said...

First off, let me say that I completely agree with the concept of "real responsibility" a.k.a. the hammer, vs. "fake responsibility" a.k.a. the toy hammer. The best way to learn to be responsible is to first be entrusted with real responsibility. However, I disagree with your associations of this concept with the situation of leaving a place a child does not wish to leave. I am a professional child care provider who grew up in a Montessori school and heavily utilize the wisdom of both the Montessori and RIE methods in my classroom and in my life. Of course the bottom line is that the child does not wish to leave - this is why both honesty and the choices presented to the child become incredibly important. While the ends may not change, the means matter a lot to the child; the journey matters, not just the destination. There has to be a middle ground between letting your child run free in the playground forever (as they will likely never "want" to leave), and forcibly removing your screaming child from the playground because the bottom line is the bottom line. What would you then suggest? Offering an option in a caring, understanding, and non-punishing manner, say, between walking, hopping, dancing, or being carried to their stroller - after being up-front about the fact that we must leave the playground (just an example), validating their inevitable feelings of anger or sadness, and being firm about the "bottom line" - gives the child an important choice in a situation where the bottom line, that we must leave, may not be able to change. (By the way, since when has being carried been a punishment? Sometimes a child feeling upset or vulnerable will choose that option, as being carried can be a comfort.) While the presence of such a choice to us might feel petty or even fake, I would urge you to look deeper; the responsibility of how one's body gets from one place to another is incredibly important, especially to a young child who may feel that they don't always have control over their own bodies. To me, that is one of the greatest responsibilities of them all. Not how we choose to use objects, but how we chose to use ourselves. In closing, I really appreciated this article, and I'm certainly not trying to be grumpy, I simply and honestly would love to hear your suggestions about how to give a child what you deem as "real responsibility" in a situation such as this.

Lisa A said...

Love this! I have recently introduced real tools to my under 2's, instigated by a 20 month old's curiosity as to why a toy stopped working. We worked together to open the battery compartment & change the batteries. This brought fascination to a number of the children who made attempts at inserting the batteries. This encouraged us to 'tinker' with other things that also required real tools to open them. All this projected from a child who is not yet 2, but had no trouble communicating his curiosity at the way the world works and extended this when given the opportunity to impact the real world, with real experiences and tools.

Teacher Tom said...

Like I said tessydk, I know that there are a lot of experts who disagree. You're obviously one of them! =)

My issue is exactly what you point out: I'm stipulating a situation in which the child wants to stay, but that's not an option. Offering choices that distract from the real issue ("Walk or be carried?" when their issue is the entirely different one of not wanting to leave) has never worked for me. It always feels like I'm trying to trick the child. I'd much rather just honestly say, "We have to go," and when the child objects, reply, "I wish we could stay too, but we don't have a choice." Not having a choice is sometimes the truth. And it's sometimes upsetting. Offering choices about a different thing when there really isn't one about the real issue leaves me feeling like I've not honored the person with whom I'm interacting.

I've never had to forcibly remove a screaming child from any situation. I think it's because I agree that their feelings are valid, that I, in fact, might even share their feelings, but that none of us have a choice. A child only screams, I've found, when they don't believe the adult doesn't have a choice. Children trust me because I don't try to trick them.

I didn't say that being carried is a punishment.

Tim Gill said...

More great stuff! I've quoted from this in my latest post: a plea to Kidshealth to give more helpful advice on play safety.