Thursday, September 24, 2015

Messy Beautiful Gray

Some children are rule-breakers by nature, it seems, testers, kids who are genuinely curious to learn what will happen when they do a thing that they perceive to be against some code or other. Two-year-old Esme, for instance, used to pick up a basket of dolls or blocks or whatever, look me pointedly in the eye, smile slightly, dump it out, then just stand waiting for my response. Others break rules in an attempt to connect with their classmates. Three-year-old Ken, for instance, would spontaneously shout "Poop!" or other "forbidden" words, then look around for friends to laugh along with him. I suppose there are as many reasons for breaking rules as there are humans, but around our preschool I'd say the number one reason for rule-breaking is simply that they exist in a complex world of gray, the opposite of the black-or-white world in which fear-based zero tolerance policies exist.

When rules are based instead upon agreements among peers rather than obedience, they tend to serve simply as starting points for ongoing negotiation.

The children have been working on establishing their rules for the new school year. Our four- and five-year-olds have already made a nice long list of agreements about how they intend to treat one another, while our three-year-olds only began yesterday, agreeing to a handful of basic principles. Along with this, we discuss what to do if someone is, say, hitting you or taking your things (perennially among the first two rules to which the children agree), which is to say things like, "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" or "You're breaking the rule!" And we discuss what to do if someone says, "Stop!" or "I don't like that!" or "You're breaking the rule!" to you, which is to listen.

It sounds so cut and dried, but of course, it's far more complicated that this. Just yesterday, I stepped into a scene in which two children were angrily shouting, "Stop!" at one another. I got involved because the impasse was getting physical.

"I had this rope and he's trying to take it from me!"

"But she has to share!"

And I said, "We all agreed we couldn't take things from each other. I don't think we agreed that we have to share, did we?"

They both agreed.  The boy released the rope, conceding, but I wanted to make sure he was doing it because he understood the justice rather than because I was the big, strong never wrong adult. I said, "We all agreed we couldn't take things from other people, but you can always ask her for the rope."

He turned to her and asked, "Can I have the rope?"

Naturally, she replied, "No," then added, "But you can have it when I'm finished."

And he answered, "Then I'm going to find a different rope."

The kids have already come up with their own version of the rule "You can't say you can't play," phrasing it this year as, "You can't tell people they can't play." They have already started discovering, however, that there are, in fact, times you can say you can't play. I expect we will have dozens of corollaries by the end of next month both written and tacitly agreed to.

This is what democracy is, this ongoing discussion, talking, arguing, then coming out on the other side only to find there is still more talking and arguing to do. If we were just individuals, heatedly in conflict over our personal wants and needs, we might expect to live in a constant state of war, but fortunately, we are more than individuals, we are a community. When there is conflict, we all get involved, because the resolution impacts all of us. Two emotional individuals may never find common ground, but the collective level-headedness of "we" guarantees we'll find it. Self-governing rules are not the end, but rather the beginning of a never-ending negotiation with how to live together in this world.

Two of our classmates discovered how to pump themselves on the swings this summer and, in their joy, have been monopolizing our only two swings, so much so that a handful of classmates are starting to grumble and moan, "But they're always on the swings!" One girl let me know of her intent to suggest a rule, "You can't swing on the swings the whole time." It was so important to her that she cried when we didn't have time for her proposal at the end of the day yesterday. I expect she will suggest it today, however, and we will be off again into the messy, messy beautiful gray of democracy.

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