Tuesday, August 18, 2015

And The Kids Know It

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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Katie said...

You said that you don't like giving a child "a false choice of walking on their own or being carried". I understand where you are coming from. It feels like a false choice to me, too. But what would you suggest doing in those situations, where, for example, a child says they don't want to leave?

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Katie, I would say, calmly and matter-of-factly, "It's time to go," then take her hand and leave, letting her have her feelings about it. I would, of course, acknowledge her feelings, "I know you don't want to go," and acknowledge my responsibility, "It's time to go."

Auntie Betsy said...

Your article spoke to me for two reasons, we toss down a basket of plastic toy tools and say here ya go.
We present a child with a hammer, we prepare by choosing a space, providing and teaching safety with special equipment.
We practice to become proficient with a tool.
Preparation and practice is how we learn responsibility.
Thank you for this insight.

alexandra said...

I thought it was just me that the "do you want to be carried or walk" didn't work for. As for the hammers I could not agree more. My D never threw her plates or glasses and I suspect that this is because they were glass and ceramic. We did break several especially before she was 1 but she never even got the smalles cut! She has always treated them with relative care. Hammer for my 3 year old coming soon....

Kim said...

Love it!! I use real hammers and nails in my room without harm to others? My pre-k'ers use lots of concentration and caution.

janet lansbury said...

Very insightful post as usual, Tom.

A reader shared with me your paragraph about giving children choices and was confused, because I have advised a "would you like to walk or be carried" type if choice. (I would never suggest "in two minutes or 5 minutes", because that is wholly manipulative and no way to speak to another person.) The intention in this advice is not to offer "fake responsibility" or to fool or trick the child or blow off her feelings. It's not a tactic. It is allowing a child to have her preference when there really are options, similar to asking a child if she would prefer to take her medicine in a spoon or a cup or straight from the bottle, while also fully acknowledging her distress. These kinds of choices are about allowing the child to be more participatory, rather than just having it all done TO her. So, I would let the child know, "we really need to do this and you don't want to! I hear you!" And then ask if she would like to walk or be carried. I see this as respect and honesty (which I hope is coming across through my writing, but perhaps not!) :)