Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The World In Which Most Of Us Would Prefer To Live

Anyone who has worked with young children for any length of time has known a child who, when told what to do, will invariably do the opposite. If you say, "Come here," he runs away. If you say, "Sit down," she stands. If you say, "Stop hitting him," he hits all the harder. To a certain extent, we're all that child; no one likes to be told what to do.

Imagine you're home alone, reading a book, eating from a box of crackers. You've managed to get crumbs on yourself and on the floor. You know that you'll have to clean up, but you'll get to it later. Then your spouse comes home and says, "Vacuum the rug." Are you going to jump to it? Not likely, even if he says it in a sweet singsongy voice. In fact, if you're like me, you're now not only less likely to vacuum the rug, but you're angry at your spouse: "Why don't you vacuum the rug!" No one likes to be told what to do, whatever our age.

It's not an easy thing to do, but I've spent my professional career trying to eliminate commands from my repertoire, yet I still catch myself saying, "Come here," or "Put that away" almost every day. Sometimes when I hear those words coming from my mouth, I try to fix it by adding the word "please" to the end ("Stop shouting . . . please") as if that somehow makes it better. In truth, most kids, most of the time respond to my commands, which when I think about it, is a sad thing. I don't want children to grow into adults who jump at the commands of others. To the contrary, my hope for every child, is that they learn to think for themselves, to not learn the habits of obedience, but rather those of agreement.

As frustrating as they can be at times, I've learned to appreciate those contrarian children, the ones who consistently rebel against my commands, because they remind me that my job isn't to control the behavior of other people, but rather to help them achieve their highest potential, and no one has ever gotten there through allowing others to boss them around. Commands are an obey or disobey game, one in which reacting is more important than thinking for oneself, a fundamentally anti-democratic concept.

So instead of saying, "Come here," I try to say, "There's something here I want you to see." Instead of saying, "Sit down," I try to say, "If you sit down, the kids behind you will be able to see." By swapping out our commands for informational statements, we create a space in which children (all people for that matter) can do their own thinking, to make their own decisions. And what I've found is that most people, most of the time, when presented with information, opt for cooperation and agreement over conflict. That too is human nature.

When it comes to unsafe or hurtful behavior I try to make informational statements about my own responsibilities. Instead of saying, "Stop hitting him," I might say, "I won't let you hit him," and then I follow that up by not allowing the hitting to happen. If necessary, I'll block their hands or hold their arms to ensure that the hitting stops. I sometimes even explain, "My job is to keep people safe so I can't let you hurt her," a statement of fact about my own responsibilities. "I won't let you . . ." "I can't let you . . ." and "I don't want you to . . ." are all informational statements that, as Janet Lansbury explains:

. . . (I)nstantly connect us person-to-person and clarify our expectations. This is the connection children need first and foremost when they misbehave. Toddlers don't miss a trick, so they need (and deserve) a respectful, straight answer.

And that's the point: these children I teach are not mine to command. I have responsibilities in my role as their teacher, but I am not their boss. They are, rather, my fellow citizens, my partners in this business of self-governance, which is, at bottom a project of connection and agreement, people of good-faith working together to create a world that works for all of us. This may not be how the "real" world works as evidenced by the fact that it is often quite difficult to break the habit of commanding others, but it is the world in which most of us would prefer to live.

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