Friday, March 10, 2023

Smokin' In The Boys Room

In this world of trends, I'm probably already too late, but I've been reading about the so-called TikTok protests being staged by students across the UK. In schools around the nation, teenaged students are, en mass, engaging in flipping their desks, shaking fences, walking out, and refusing to enter the school building. They're called TikTok protests because they're being organized through the social media platform.

Ostensibly, these protests are about locked toilet doors.

High school toilets, of course, have a storied reputation as a place to get away with stuff. The hit song "Smokin' in the Boys Room" has been regularly recorded and re-recorded by artists since it was first released in 1973. Looked at from the perspective of adults, it's a song about kids making bad choices . . . and breaking the rules. From the perspective of teens it's about rebellion and freedom.

Of course, I get it. We don't want kids smoking in the boys room, or doing anything else elicit or dangerous in there. We would prefer they not do those things anywhere. I suppose I would prefer that you not do most of those things either, but it's none of my business because it's not my business to control you.

That said, I find myself pulling for the kids. Not because I want them to smoke or drink or use drugs, but because I want them to rebel. Or rather, I know that most kids need to rebel, to protest, to rattle their cages. We all do. And if you don't think these kids are in cages, think about how you would feel if every second of your daily life was controlled and monitored. "Smoking in the Boy's Room" was never about smoking: it was about the desire to be free. It's about escape. And what a pathetic escape when you really think about it. The only place that these poor kids can feel free is in a toilet stall.

When I learned about the TikTok protests, I thought of all those adults who see their job as micromanaging these kids "for their own good." They're told what to wear, what to learn, and when they're allowed to urinate, or change a tampon, or claim a bit of privacy in order to cry about how unfair life is. That is what these protests are about, no matter how angrily the adults insist that it's all the fault of those rotten kids who just want to avoid learning . . . not to mention their lazy parents.

I understand that we can't let underaged kids smoke in the boy's room, but it's never been about smoking. It's probably not even about privacy as much as it is about basic human dignity. When kids are flipping desks and walking out, they know full well that there will be punishment. They also likely know that the official response will be to further lock them down, to be more strict, more harsh.

And we all know, that those kids will face an authoritarian backlash and the punishment will not just fall on the guilty, but on all of them collectively, even the ones who didn't flip their desks or walk out of class. We know that the adults will try to turn the students against one another asserting something lame like, "Now you'll all have to suffer because some of you don't know how to handle freedom." Some freedom. Not a moment will be spent taking these brave children seriously, at least not until their toes have been forced back to the line. And make no mistake, these kids are behaving bravely: they are pushing back against those who would control them in the face of certain punishment.

The authorities will paint them as hooligans, just they did with those who smoked in the boys room. Maybe some people reading here are feeling that way. I've heard many make the same sort assertion about Black Lives Matter protests. 

As a preschool teacher, I've learned that behavior is a form of communication. When one child behaves in elicit or dangerous ways, my first thought is to try to understand what they are trying to say to me. When a group of children behave in elicit or dangerous ways, they are clearly letting me know that it's me who has to change. The knee-jerk response can never be that it's the kids who are rotten. 

I sure hope that the adults are listening to the kids engaged in their TikTok protests, that they fight their authoritarian instincts, and avoid simply labeling and punishing. 

It's sad and telling that the school toilet is our most common metaphor for teenaged freedom. Our children deserve better.


It takes a village to raise a child. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups. The one and only 2023 cohort just started last Thursday, so catching up will be easy. Please join us!

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