Tuesday, February 02, 2016

"Yeah, We Drank The Kool-Aid"

Yesterday, one of our three-year-old girls impulsively snatched a chopstick from a classmates. When the classmate objected, "Hey, that's mine," she readily handed it back, saying sweetly, "I'm sorry. Can I please have it?" Her friend responded by handing the chopstick back to her.

Down at the work bench the other day, one boy, demanding a specific Duplo building block that a classmate was using, wound himself up into a full-on cry, which caused the classmate to double down on not giving up that Duplo, but almost the moment an adult reminded the crying child that he could just tell his friend he wanted it when he was done, he stopped. "When you're finished with that block can I have it?" As reluctant to part with the block as his friend had been moments before, the boy now turned it over with hardly a hesitation, saying, "I want it back when you're done." Mere seconds later he had it back in his hand.

I've written about the children in this year's 3's class before and five full months into the school year I'm stunned to report that they're still the most cooperative, copacetic bunch I've ever taught. I'm knocking on wood as I write this, but we go entire days without significant conflict erupting, and such common preschool behaviors like hitting and yelling are incredibly rare. Of course, there are disagreements and misunderstandings, but at most they need a gentle reminder from an adult about our rules, or to suggest a strategy, and they seem capable of taking it from there on their own. Of course, I'm jinxing it by writing about it, but it remains one of the wonders of my teaching life.

I'm not the only one who has noticed it. Parent-teachers who have been through our cooperative school with older siblings often remark upon how "calm" and "quiet" it seems. Some speculate that it may have to do with the fact that 100 percent of the children in this class were together last year in our 2's class, and that may have something to do with it, but that condition alone really doesn't explain it for me. Some figure that the high percentage of kids with older brothers and sisters might be a part of it, but I've not noticed that improved social skills are an automatic result of sibling dynamics. And then there is the idea that the parents themselves are such a cooperative, copacetic bunch that it has just rubbed off on the kids, a theory that includes genetically-encoded temperament traits and the positive impact of adult role modeling. I figure that this one comes closer to the truth, although judging from what parents say about their children's behaviors at home, we're not benefiting solely from a mere psycho-social quirk of demographics.

Last night as we sat in a circle of adults for our monthly, mandatory, class parent meeting, we discussed "positive discipline" techniques and strategies under the guidance of our parent educator Katie Becker. At a couple points during the evening, we broke up into the small group discussions. I don't usually take part in these, given that this is parent education and the idea is for them to construct their own learning together. I did, however, sit right beside one group as they discussed such things as "parenting strategies that didn't work," "the big hug" and "routine charts." As they talked, I realized that they already knew the answers, or at least they had been over this material before, and while none of them professed mastery, all of them were already deeply and foundational-ly committed to honest, connected relationships with their children and the rejection of authoritarian parenting.

When we returned to the larger group, it was clear that we all, as a community of parents, already understood why yelling doesn't work, why punishments and rewards are to be avoided, and why the most important gift we can give our children is the gift of being able to discuss and process emotions. At one point a father said, "Anytime I can remember to get the discussion focused on feelings, mine and theirs, then it goes a lot better . . . Of course, that's true in any relationship." 

Later in the evening, as I was discussing the fact that "you and your children continue to be the most cooperative and copacetic bunch I've ever taught," I joked that I'm so accustomed to children "learning through conflict" that I sometimes worried their kids weren't learning anything at all. I then added, "And I think that has mostly to do with the remarkable jobs you guys do as parents." This was met with laughter. I hadn't meant to be funny. "No," I said, "I mean it. After listening to all of you discuss positive discipline for the last hour, it's clear that this might be the first class we've ever had where everyone was on board and it's showing in the classroom." 

Again, they laughed, one saying, "Yeah, we drank the Kool-Aid!" They laughed because even with all these great tools in our tool belts, being a parent is still a challenging, frustrating job that leaves even the best of us feeling inadequate much of the time. And while I've never been a big fan of the Kool-Aid metaphor I think it does, at least in part, explain why we're such a cooperative, copacetic bunch: we're learning how to get what we want, while also getting along.

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Unknown said...

I would love to have more examples/strategies/reading I can do to help me, to help kids do what your group is doing.

Dienne said...

I guess I don't understand the metaphor. The "Kool Aid" is toxic (the reference, of course, being to Jim Jones and his followers' mass "suicide" by cyanide-laced Flavor Aid) and drinking it is not usually considered to be a good thing. I would say your parents are among the few *not* drinking the "Kool Aid".

Teacher Tom said...

Much of what I write here is on these topics, although admittedly, I don't tend to write "how to" posts mainly because I don't consider myself an expert. I would suggest Googling "positive discipline" -- you'll find plenty to get you going.

Teacher Tom said...

Well, yes the figure of speech has negative roots, but it is quite often used ironically or humorously to refer to accepting an idea or changing a preference due to popularity, peer pressure, or persuasion. That's how it was being used in this case.