Tuesday, May 17, 2022

"I Do It!"

The boy had shed his jacket onto the floor, leaving it in a heap right in the middle of the room. Under normal circumstances I would have said something like, "Your coat is on the floor; it belongs on a hook," then waited for him to think things through. But this was his first day and he was only two, so I instead picked it up with the intention of hanging it for him.

He rushed at me, screaming something that didn't sound like Nooooooo! but clearly meant it. He snatched his coat from my hands. "I do it!"

I said, "The hooks are over there." It took some doing, but he finally managed it.

Later that morning, he was playing with a small wooden ball that escaped him and rolled under some shelves. I happened to be sitting right there so I automatically reached for the ball, but again he stopped me, "I do it!" And he did.

When he sat down for a snack, the adult who was there tried to help him wash his hands, but he refused. "I do it!" When she tried to serve him carrot sticks and grapes, he put them back on the serving platter one at a time, saying, yet again, "I do it!"

He was firm with us, if a bit fussy, as if he was accustomed to adults putting up a fight. His mother had laughed that he was a "willful" child, rolling her eyes as if to say "Good luck!" Of course, she wasn't talking about his willfulness manifesting as it had so far at school, a boy clearly wanting to do it for himself. She was talking about those times when it resulted in digging in his heels about things like baths or leaving the playground.

But it's the same instinct. As unpleasant and annoying as it might be for us adults, willfulness in a child tells us that they are willing to take responsibility for their own lives. It's the kind of thing that we aren't always good at recognizing in young children. Indeed, our schools and parenting books are full of tips and advice on how to motivate children to do exactly that: take responsibility for themselves, for cleaning their rooms, for learning their lessons, for controlling their emotions. Sadly, we've become so addicted to the behaviorist ideas of rewards and punishments that even the best of us, like a bad habit, resort to them.

"If you get in the car, I'll give you a cookie." "If you don't get in the car, you won't get a cookie." 

The problem is that all the research done on these sorts of external motivators is that they simply don't work (see Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards). Oh sure, if the carrot is sweet enough or the stick painful enough, a child can be made to do almost anything, but if it is to work a second or third or fourth time, it will require increasingly sweet rewards and increasingly painful punishments. Not only that, but the entire process sucks any sense of joy or satisfaction right out of the activity itself until the only reason the child, or anyone, continues behaving in a certain way is to receive the reward or to avoid the punishment. 

This explains why so many kids don't see a problem with cheating. If the goal is a good grade (external motivation), then copying a friend's homework makes sense, while if learning (intrinsic motivation) is the goal, then copying someone else's work is counterproductive. On the flip side, the consequence of getting caught cheating isn't a bad conscience, but rather that the adults in your life will take away something about which you are intrinsically motivated, like recess or hanging out with your friends at the mall.

Study after study has shown that rewards and punishments have a negative effect on self-motivation. Even previously pleasurable things, things we do willingly, can be ruined by the introduction of rewards and punishments. 

Like with many things, our schools have it backwards. They tend to operate under the misguided theory that children need to first be extrinsically motivated, and only then, as time goes by will they develop intrinsic motivation. This is completely unsupported by any science. It is the same method Pavlov used to make his dogs salivate.

At the same time adults, both educators and parents, tend to set ourselves up as the arbiters of what a child should be doing or learning. Had I commanded that two-year-old boy, "Hang up your coat," I'm quite confident that he would have responded "willfully," perhaps reluctantly hanging up his coat because I was an authority figure, but more likely, knowing the boy, he would have refused altogether, whining, sulking, or shrieking.

So what are we to do? Well, first of all, we need to stop bossing kids around so much. Researchers have found that some 80 percent of the sentences adults say to children are commands and no one responds well to being told what to do, no matter what our age. 

Secondly, we can learn to trust a child's intrinsic motivations. This isn't an easy thing in standard schools because, obviously, each child is going to be motivated in different ways, about different things, and on different schedules, while teachers are expected to march all the kids through the same things on the same schedule. If we are going to do what the science tells us, however, we will create interesting and varied environments for children in which they have the freedom to manipulate, explore, discover, and invent, in the company of others or all alone, at their own pace. 

We will drop grading and testing, those carrots and sticks that put so much focus deficits, and replace them with something like Learning Stories, in which educators observe the children, then write the story of what the child is doing and learning. These stories would be written to the children themselves, and their families, creating a record of the child's intrinsically motivated learning journey, a truly useful "permanent record" that is entirely focused on the strengths of each child. Because, as my friend and proponent of Learning Stories Wendy Lee told me, "What we focus on grows."

When would teachers have time to write these Learning Stories? Removing direct instruction, grading, lesson planning, and classroom management from an educator's responsibilities should leave plenty of time to focus on the actual learning.

None of this means a child will no longer be willful. Indeed, it frees all children to be powerfully, happily willful, which is to say, it frees them to take responsibility for their own lives, and that, in the end, is the purpose of all true education. 

"I do it!"


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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