Monday, May 27, 2013

"Winning" An Argument

At a backyard barbecue yesterday afternoon an older woman named Carlita, her own children close to my age, not knowing anything about me or my profession, launched into a well-practiced monologue on what's wrong with kids these days, the centerpiece being that they are no longer taught to respect anything or anyone. We've probably all heard this one before. One of the examples she gave of how we're letting the kids down was how sloppily teachers dress for school. In her day, the young women wore skirts or dresses, "nylons," and heels ("clunky heels, but heels"). 

I let her finish most of her piece, although stopped her from going into a full-on diatribe about how horrible teachers are by admitting that I'm a teacher myself, one who works in torn jeans and t-shirts. I then agreed that children aren't as respectful now as they were back in the olden days. This, I've learned, is one of the keys to "winning" these sorts of cocktail party disagreements: start by finding something with which you can agree, then give them something with which they can agree right back. Humans might like to disagree with one another when we're all sort of anonymous, but when we're face-to-face most of us crave agreement.  So I said, "Of course, respect is something you have to earn no matter how you dress."

Oh yes, she agreed with that wholeheartedly, echoing, "You have to earn respect." This was our starting point, then: kids aren't as respectful as they used to be and that respect has to be earned. 

I'd earlier learned that she had, that morning, been driven by one of her sons up to Seattle from Vancouver, Washington, three hours to the south, where she had lived in the same house for over 40 years, so I figured what I was about to say next would be something else with which she would readily identify: "I think one of the biggest problems is that too many kids are being raised without their grandparents around."  

"When we were growing up," I continued, including her as a peer, "our parents could count on grandparents to help them out, or even aunts and uncles, but families today are so spread out. I think it leads to a lot of parents feeling isolated and alone with their kids, especially when they live in a suburb." I waved my hand to indicate the backyard in which we were sitting, "And then their spouses head off to work in the city each morning leaving them all alone with the kids.

"What are they going to do? It's mom and children all day long. The kids grow up as the center of mommy's universe, so why wouldn't they grow up to believe everything revolves around them?" We then chatted back and forth about the value of multi-generational families, of how grandparents are always ready to jump in, of how 12-year-old girls (cousins and older siblings) once served as mommy's helpers, and how vitally important it is for kids to be loved by as many people as possible.

We were nodding and agreeing by this time, kindred spirits. That's when I said, "I feel sorry for these moms who don't have their extended families around. So many of them don't have a proper support system. They never get time for themselves and many of them don't even realize how much they deserve it. They think that's what being a parent has to be: always putting their needs after their children's. Kids notice everything. They come to believe that this is the way it's supposed to be. It's hard to learn to respect others when you've learned that your needs always come first."

She got it. "Exactly!"

"My wife and I were lucky to have two sets of grandparents within 20 minutes of our home. They were always willing to watch their grandkid for a few hours or a weekend or a week. Not only is it great for the kids to spend time with other adults who love them, but it shows them that sometimes mommy comes first. I think that's what we're talking about. We want kids to learn respect, but it's a two-way street. When we were young, we tended err too much on the side of respecting the adults. Now maybe we err too much on the side of respecting the kids. We're all human beings here: we're all worthy of respect and it starts with respecting ourselves.  

"At school the kids know that sometimes their needs come first, but just as often mine do. I respect them and they respect me. Sometimes we do what they want to do and sometimes we do what I want to do. I think that's the only way anyone has ever earned respect."

"Exactly!" she said again. By now, she was entirely on my bandwagon, so I huddled up with her, we two thoughtful people out there in lawn chairs, and in a conspiratorial tone, said, "You know what drives me crazy? Obedient kids, because they grow into obedient adults."

She chuckled with me, "Don't I know it."

"I want kids to question my authority. I want them to challenge me." I was now talking about the opposite of the kind of "respect" Carlita had originally spoken about. I told her about how I teach kids to think for themselves, how I don't want them to take my word for anything I can't prove, how our school trusts kids to make their own rules, how our whole democracy would be better off if we raised our kids to be rabble rousers. By the time we were done, she had, at least for the purposes of our backyard party conversation, always been an advocate for a progressive, play-based education, and a parenting style of mutual respect.

As we wound up our conversation, I said, "I guess if you want kids to show respect, you have to respect them." Then I left her with my favorite James Baldwin quote: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." 

Carlita said, "I'm glad to know there are still teachers like you. It gives me hope for the future." 

We both laughed when I replied, "Even if I don't wear nylons and heels?"

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1 comment:

Just some girl said...

FANTASTIC. This is how you win hearts and minds. You're a powerful orator, Tom!