Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Not Because I Told Them So

Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. ~Daron Quinlan

As I wrote yesterday, 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 cubicle and factory employees. 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 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 often more work for the loving adults in a child's life, but man, it's worth it.

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Papa Green Bean said...

Wow! Another post that made my heart sing and my eyes fill.
Teacher Tom - I nominated you for an award and you can pass it on if you wish (see attached).


Laura said...

I second the above commenter's first two sentiments. Awesome!

Jane Gelber said...

Hi, Love your post. I work in a cooperative pre-school (3 & 4 year olds) in NYC. I try to avoid directives "Put your shoes on", threats and overusing my 'teacher authority.' But, for example, there are times when 11 kids are waiting on 1 (who is having fun spinning round the room) so they can go outside to play in the snow. Or when one child is consistently so loud in their delightfully exuberant play that others are covering ears. So what do you do? Helping them see how their actions are impacting others does not, at this time and in the moment, motivate them to change what they are doing. Really, I feel so bad when it comes to the moment of insisting a child follow a rule (or a schedule) BUT it has to be done just about every day. Are there really ways to avoid this?

claudia said...

As my children are both now in elementary school I have come to realize how deep-seated my issues with authority figures are. I knew I could come to your blog and find a post that speaks to exactly what I'm feeling. Thank you for treating your children with respect and allowing them freedom. I feel like so many school rules are akin to childism and it makes me so sad.