Saturday, August 11, 2012

How To Make Adults Who Will Not Be Pushed Around

(A while back I posted my Greatest Hits as determined by readership statistics, which then got me thinking about older posts that I wish more people had read, which has now become a sort of irregular series. When I wrote this post I was honestly thinking as much about my teenaged daughter and her friends as preschoolers. And if the truth be told, I was also thinking about myself and the rest of us adults. None of this changes -- or at least it shouldn't change -- just because we've "grown up." This was originally published in April, 2011 under the title "But Man, It's Worth It." When it appeared then, there was some discussion in the comments about who exactly Daron Quinlan is. No one could find out anything about this person other than the quote. Finally, I received an email from a woman who said she had used the name as a pseudonym some years back and had posted her by now famous quote on a parenting board. At the bottom of the post you'll find links to others in this series of posts I wish more people had read.)

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.

Other posts I wish more people had read:

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Meagan said...

I've been trying "positive discipline" with my baby/toddler, at least as I understand it. But for me, that HAS been backed up with the realization that we will do things "my way" because I am bigger and stronger. It's actually my first counter argument to spanking. I had someone talking about how you have to spank or you aren't enforcing limits, and I responded that because I am bigger and stronger than my child, I'm more than capable of enforcing limits without hurting him. I can tell him I won't let him do something dangerous, and then, because I'm bigger and stronger, I can not let him do that thing. I don't HAVE to require obedience, exactly because I am willing to be bigger and stronger.

My son is only 14 months. As he gets older, I assume discipline will take on more the form you talk about, but right now I HAVE to physically enforce boundaries, physically stop him from running into traffic, or touching the stove, or any number of other toddler behaviors that pro-spanking parents say justify spanking. I disagree that spanking should be the response and think its my job to be bigger and stronger FIRST, avoiding situations where he would have the opportunity, physically controlling him when I can't avoid such dangers, until he's old enough to understand why he shouldn't run out into traffic.

Do you think there's a different way to protect a pre-verbal toddler? Or are you just talking about older kids?

Teacher Tom said...

Meagan . . . I don't use the terminology you've used here, but when we are responsible for children who are too young/inexperienced to understand the manifestly clear natural consequences of a behavior such as running out into the street, it is part of our responsibility to prevent that from happening -- and yes, sometimes that might include firm, but gentle physical force. That's not the same a punishment, of course, it's simply keeping a child safe and should not be followed up with scolding -- after all, you've already seen he is too young to understand, so your words are not going to bring him any closer to understanding anything other than that you are angry/frightened and he's somehow responsible. When I find myself in this situation, I tell them, "I can't let you do that. It's my job to keep you safe."

That said, it should also be our responsibility to strive to make sure that children are not in a position in which they can run into traffic. I often say to children, "I can't let you be so close to the street because I'm worried a car will hit you and that will hurt," or I simply hold their hand. Being proactive, paying attention, and stepping in before physical force is necessary are the real skills here.

There are actually very few "toddler behaviors" beyond running into traffic, however, that fall into this category. With the stove, for instance, I started having my daughter with me at the stove as I cooked even before she could walk. By the time she was reaching for the stove, she already had ample experience with the heat and knew there were natural consequences. Traffic is different because death or permanent disability are likely results.

Here are a few other posts you might want to look at:

Anonymous said...

Great article. I was wondering how to teach children that in the real world there are rules that others in authority create that need to be obeyed? Most kids are really good a civil disobedience (mine included) but not so good at following rules. The public school system is loaded with rules, most jobs have deadlines and responsibilities, cities have laws and codes. If kids don't get in line and follow these rules "the system" usually is not too kind to them. So I am just trying to reconcile civil disobedience and also the value of responsible obedience?

Ryan Thomas said...

As a parent and a therapist with more than 10 years experience working with adolescents, I appreciate the sentiment, but also the notion that, no offense, American children don't have among their top-listed problems, "Being pushed around." Strict authoritarian parenting is obviously misguided, but so is a totally democratized parenting style. Part of the role of parent is, at least to some point, protection. You give credence here to the notion that protection is in order for "children who are too young/inexperienced to understand the manifestly clear natural consequences of a behavior," and use the obvious, "stop your kid from running into the street" response. But there are equally devastating consequences for older children who are "young/inexperienced" that don't result in physical death. To espouse a policy of never asking your children to "sit here" or "put the blocks away" (or whatever the adolescent equivalent is), combined with a firm ethos of questioning authority is an excellent way to raise a total sociopath and/or a very "natural-consequences"-scarred adult.

Agreed, might does not make right, but that's not even the argument. You're asserting that obviously, if you tell your children to do something, they'll only do it because you said. This is ludicrous. Telling children what to do becomes a necessity at times, because children don't always have the capability to reason out why they ought do/not do some things. Telling them what to do is part of their training. Granted - there is a lot of nuance to this with older children and adolescents. It's no longer as simple as, "Don't make that decision." It has to be a much more collaborative, "thinking through" kind of process. And each parent must decide, on a case by case basis, whether the decision in question is one about which they are willing to hazard the woes of natural consequences. But there is no one size fits all approach as you seem to be asserting here. There is no more balance in "natural consequences"-only parenting than there is in all ordering around, butt-kicking and name-taking. As a matter of fact, total laissez-faire parenting is, as you put it, "wield[ing]...authority abusively."

Finally...this line: "I want them to know that their feelings, their thoughts, and their opinions are just as important as anyone else's." Just as important? Probably!

Just as accurate?
Just as informed?
Just absent of judgment and cognitive error?
Very unlikely.
Part of the task of raising a discerning adult, capable of the kind of discretion you seem to admire (knowing which authority figures to obey, which to challenge, etc.), is to help them reason out cognition vs. emotion, informed opinion vs. uninformed, etc. If you think this is false, you either have very little experience with adolescents, or are very wounded yourself.

Please excuse the intensity of this reply. I work with a lot of screwed up kids.

Bottom line: We have much to learn from our children. And they from us. On their side of the journey, there is much to be said for self-discovery and natural consequences. There is also much to be said for the notion that we don't develop in a vacuum, or in the absence of parental direction. I'm not advocating for pushing kids around. That's a ridiculous starting point at the outset. But I work with just as many children who are pathologically *unguided* as those who are misguided. Parenting in absentia is more about your fear then it is producing a sound outcome.

Teacher Tom said...

On eCounseling, I disagree with so much of what you've written here, especially the "sociopath" and "parenting in absentia" slurs, as well as the idea that children are to be "trained." I don't have the time right now to get into the weeds with you, but I will in the coming days. I've been working with young children for a long time as well, and I've never found a circumstance when I had to command a child to do something. If you look at those links I've given Meagan above, you'll see there are methods for interacting with children that don't require adults to be their boss, but rather their teacher/parent, which is not the same thing.

@Anonymous . . . As Utah Phillips says, "I'm always willing to agree, (but) I will not obey." This, I feel, is the proper stance of free humans in a democracy. If rules make sense for the purposes of safety or the civility, or a condition of employment, I've found that free human beings (even preschoolers) have no problem agreeing to abide by those rules. It's when rules don't make sense or are not fair or are otherwise cruel or unnecessary that we break them. Civil disobedience, the conscious breaking of rules as an act of protest, does often have the consequence of punishment in our society. It is in that sense a "natural consequence." That is one of the variables one must weigh when making our decisions. When my teenager is contemplating breaking a rule, I don't tell her not to: I might tell her I don't want her to, and I will definitely make sure she is aware of the possible consequences, but in the end, short of taking a lock-and-key approach, children WILL do what they want to do and you can only stop them temporarily -- they will do it the moment you've released them. That is the ultimate weakness of the command/punishment approach.

I guess what I'm saying is that children who have been brought up in an environment of respect and agreement, generally have no problem with this once they've entered the "real world." I don't believe we need to do anything special to teach them about this because they've already learned it.

Meagan said...

@eCounceling if you work with troubled teens I'd encourage you to read the book "Escaping the Endless Adolescence" which may be my favorite parenting book ever. Not necessarily in relation to your comment, but you might find some connections.

@Teacher Tom Thank you for the suggestions... I think I wasn't being entirely clear. What I was trying to say is that part of the reason I don't feel the need for my toddler to be obedient is because I KNOW I'm bigger and stronger (and for the moment, smarter). I don't plan to put myself in a situation where I am reliant on the unreliable obedience of a toddler to keep him safe. When I can't let him stick a choking hazard in his mouth, I say "no mouth," but more importantly I stop him from putting it in his mouth. I can be patient with his persistence in putting things in his mouth, I don't have to view the very natural impulse as misbehavior, I don't need to get frustrated, because I have the power to stop him. When I get sick of saying no mouth, I let him know, "no mouth or I take it," and then, when he does it again, I take it away.

I think what I'm trying to say is that knowing I have the power to enforce limits makes me more able to let him explore as much as he safely can. I wonder if some parents who get frustrated and resort to spanking or scolding are the parents who DON'T understand that they have this power, or for some reason feel that they shouldn't use it?

Maybe I'm wrong here, but I don't think I'm actually disagreeing with you. I think I'm just seeing "bigger and stronger" in a different way?

Anonymous said...

Hi teacher tom. I guess I am one of those pushed around people. I am now mid 20s but very intimidated by authorities.I have a good job but in no way would handle being a leader. My parents used authorative discipline. How can I make my son more well adjusted and less pushed around if I'm not like that myself. My husband and I agree completely with your method we are against smacking But find ourselves directing our child too much. Any way to make it come more natural

Teacher Tom said...

I don't think we disagree at all Meagan.

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Anonymous . . . Please take a look at the articles I've referenced in my first comment in this thread. In those I get more into the details of technique. You might also want to look at this one:

I'm sorry you'll have to cut and paste . . . blogger doesn't support links in the comments . . .

Elle M. said...

Hi there, Tom.

I'm a long-time reader and supporter of you and your blog. I am also a progressive preschool teacher and have been teaching for almost 10 years now.

I don't think I've ever commented because I just read your posts and nod, because this is exactly the way our independent preschool works. This is what works best to holistically grow healthy, creative, and compassionate individuals who love life and learning. I know you know this, but.. anyway, what brought me to this post was today's Preaching to the Choir post.

I too, often enough, forget that we live in a bubble as well. I forget that on top of all the people light-heartedly calling me an idealist, optimist, and that I am "too serious about playtime"- meaning that I have so much to say about it!

Anyway.. I wanted to say here that I am so glad that your blog exists. It's inspiring not only for parents and people wanting to learn more, but also to teachers like myself who are able to read your words and not feel so alone.

You've inspired me to start our own preschool blog. We playtime protectors need to stick together, not only against adversaries and nay-sayers, but FOR a bigger presence and to inspire those that already have the inkling that what we do [allow freedom of play in an inspiring setting] is right for them, since those individuals are the ones being told they must "obey" as well and form their child into the mold they are told.

Rock on, Teacher Tom.
You are loved by so many more than you will ever know, and are sure to inspire just as many more.

And I'll link you once we start our blog :]

elle m. said...

Oops, my comment got a bit choppy up there. I was trying to type quickly before my own little one woke from nap. I know you understand what I'm saying, though.


Ryan Thomas said...

Tom - Thanks for your short response. I'd hoped for something more substantial, but would still appreciate an at length response when you have the time. NOTE: "eCounseling" was a blog incorrectly assigned to me. I've corrected that now, but that was in fact my post.

All of that to say, clearly, we do disagree on much. I welcome your response.