Monday, March 09, 2020

And Find They've Been Betrayed

There is a little shop in one of the north end neighborhoods of Seattle that sells a hodge podge of unique artistic items. There is a wall of silly socks, refrigerator magnets made from carved wood, oddball jewelry, and unique accessories. The selection of merchandise is curated by the store's owner who is generally always there. Everything is the product of a local artisan. I know this because the owner told me. I also know the source and story of everything I touched, or even paused over, because the owner told me. Indeed, I felt pounced upon the moment I walked in the place, as she kept track of my every movement, cheerfully, and slightly desperately, selling, selling, selling.

I don't like to be rude, I had time, and I want to be supportive of small business owners, so I allowed myself to lean in to her assertiveness, asking questions in return, and generally inviting her sell, sell, sell to me. A half dozen other browsers stopped by while I was there, each of whom seemed relieved that I was absorbing the brunt of her overwhelming approach, taking quick turns through the store before ducking back out, clearly wanting to avoid getting sucked in. I'm not saying I didn't learn a few interesting things about the products for sale, things that made the items seem more attractive or that justified the price tag, but there was no way I was going to buy anything. I wasn't exactly feigning interest because I was curious about this woman who was selling, selling, selling, but my resistance was up insofar as getting out my wallet.

One of my college jobs involved going door-to-door. Our supervisor told us to ignore "No soliciting" signs, explaining that most people who put up those signs did so because they lacked "sales resistance." "Look at those signs as an invitation," he urged us, "They're usually the easiest marks." I ignored this advice out of disgust, probably contributing to my ultimate failure as a salesman, but I don't doubt he was right.

To one extent or another, we've all developed sales resistance, the ability to fend off people with agendas. It's a survival thing. Most of the time, like when it's a telemarketer or someone on the street trying to get us to make a donation to this or that noble cause, we simply rebuff them, maybe with an apologetic "not right now," but decisively. Sometimes, however, the sales pitch is not so overt and it sneaks up on us. We think we're engaged in a normal, friendly conversation when suddenly we find ourselves being asked, "Have you found the lord?" and now we're stuck. Even if we have found the lord, we feel a stab of resentment, of betrayal even. No one likes to be fooled and that's what it feels like when people aren't transparent from the start: like we've been the victim of a trick.

That's one of the reasons why I went ahead and let the shopkeeper sell to me: she had no hidden agenda. She wanted me to buy some of her stuff and she was trying, overtly, to give me reasons to do so.

So often, as important adults in the lives of children we make the mistake of hiding our agendas. This is the entire philosophy behind those who would sell us "play with a purpose" crap, for instance, or "educational toys," implying that "the children won't even know they are learning." In fact, there are many who purport to be play-based educators who are engaged in exactly this kind of bait-and-switch con game on a daily basis, using the illusion of play as a disguise for their adult-directed agendas.

That is not how play works. If the play doesn't come first, it can't be called play. Of course, children learn as they play, but anything that grows out of a teacher's agenda is a trick, one that will invariably backfire. I watched a teacher not long ago who had devised what she proudly told me was a "play-based way to learn about Fall." It was a relay race that involved matching leaves the children had collected on a recent neighborhood walk. Most of the kids gave it a go, innocently falling for her trick, thinking that they were agreeing to play this game that their teacher, a woman they trusted, was recommending to them. But the moment they grew tired of the game, the moment they actually wanted to play, which is to say engage in a self-selected activity, she tried to get them back on point, urging and cajoling, scolding the kids who just wanted to run or those who opted to make a closer examination of the leaves. It was stressful for her and it was irritating for the children, who had come to realize that they had been sucked into a sales pitch with no elegant way out.

We all have agendas, of course, we're human after all, but there is no integrity in failing to be transparent about them, and I think this is especially true when dealing with young children. If we want them to know something, we owe it to them to be upfront about it. If we want them to learn about Fall, we should just tell them about Fall. The ones who are curious will listen, the ones who are not should be free to duck out if they don't want to be sucked in. We might think that we're clever enough to keep our agendas hidden, that the children will never know they are learning, but we deceive ourselves. The moment will always come when the children try to make it their own and find they've been betrayed.

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