Friday, October 06, 2023

No One Is A "Nothing-But"

In Doris Lessing’s novel The Four-Gated City, the character Lynda has spent much of her adult life in mental institutions, often against her will, but, over time, she learns how to qualify for release: 

“Lynda was much improved, the doctor said. For Lynda had become cooperative. When told she was ill, she kept quiet. She had observed in the hospital that patients wishing to leave did as they were told and kept quiet about symptoms.”

She had internalized the lesson that a big part of the definition of mental health was obedience. It was by showing her capacity for obedience that she qualified for freedom. And it was her disobedience to societal norms that landed her back in an institution. 

Likewise, with children. The ones with the capacity to obey tend to be labeled as “normal,” as “good students,” as “mentally healthy.” The ones who will not or cannot obey, however, are pathologized. Many even learn the exact lesson that Lynda did. Every day, thousands of elementary school children are kept confined indoors during recess, as punishment, because they could not or would not obey their teacher. If they are to be set free, they must learn to comply. 

We like to think of ourselves, at least ideally, as a self-governing society, one in which each individual has the same rights and responsibilities as the next, yet this idea of obedience as a pillar of goodness and health is so ingrained that few of us think to question it.

I once taught a boy who had been kicked out of two previous preschools because of his tendency to become outraged whenever an adult tried to tell him what to do, even going so far as to physically attack them when they tried to take his hand or otherwise compel him by force. With other children, he was fine, charming even, a boy that attracted others to him, but he kept adults at a distance. I’ve never been one to expect obedience from anyone, not even children. On his first day, when I announced, “It’s clean up time,” he shouted at me, “I won’t clean up!” I answered, calmly, “Okay. There are some books over there if you want to read while the rest of us clean up.” When I called the children over for our daily community meeting, he shouted again, “I won’t go to circle time!” to which I responded, “Okay.” It took several weeks, but he eventually came to treat me the way he did the other children, charmingly.

One day his father, an entrepreneur with fiercely independent political leanings, wondered why his son was so difficult. I replied, “Because he takes after his father. He will not obey, but he’s always ready to agree.”

It’s a line I borrowed from the late, great anarchist Utah Phillips – “I will not obey, but I’m always ready to agree.” It is, ultimately, the stance of a free and equal person, a stance that I wish for every child I’ve ever known. And every adult for that matter. I’m uncomfortable with obedient people. They are a danger to themselves and others. They are waiting for someone else to do their thinking for them, which is fertile ground for authoritarians, and the opposite of what’s needed for self-governance to work.

Before coming to our school, this boy had been pathologized. His former teachers had tried out labels like “sensory integration disorder,” assuming that his outbursts were due to an overwhelmed nervous system, and “oppositional-defiant disorder,” a diagnosis that fit his behavior almost perfectly. None of them had considered that he was simply a child reacting to a world that would only set him free if he was willing and able to obey. What rational, independent being would submit to that?

Psychology has helped millions of people and I know many parents who have found relief and power in their child’s diagnosis. That said, after the relief of recognition, many parents I've known then find that they and their child must struggle to be defined as anything other than their diagnosis. I can’t tell you how often someone has complained about the behavior of this or that person, child or adult, only to have someone say, “Well, they’re autistic,” and everyone then kind of shrugs their shoulders as if to say, “No wonder.” We’ve become, as a society, too eager to pin the blame for challenging behavior on the individual and their labels rather than considering that it is only challenging for us because of an environment that makes it so.

We must be wary. The danger of applying psychology to children in our society is that they are humans who generally don’t have the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, learn what they want, associate with who they want to, or even eat and sleep what and when they want. This means that any behavior that doesn’t conform to this cage must be labeled as abnormal, when, in fact, it is a natural reaction to being kept in a place against their will. 

Lynda, having been cooperative enough to be released, finds herself living in a basement apartment with a fellow former inmate. They would send one another into peals of laughter by calling themselves and others “nothing-but.” When asked about it, Lynda replied, “This nothing-but . . . Oh, well, it’s not much, it’s just a joke we had in the hospital . . . You’re nothing but Electra, you know, the girl who killed her mother . . . It’s nothing-but you want to sleep with your father. Nothing-but your brother . . . Whatever nothing-but you are, at the time, that’s it, you see, until there’s another nothing-but.”

This is the danger of labels. No one is a nothing-but. None of us are our labels. And quite often those behaviors we find upsetting or disruptive or challenging in others are really nothing but a rational response to an irrational world. 

What I’ve learned from children like this boy who would not obey as well as all the others, both diagnosed and not, is that if I don’t like a child’s behavior, I must first consider that it is me and my expectations that must change. More often than not, however, it is the world that has set itself against these independent and unique individuals who seek and deserve freedom on their own terms. I may not be able to change the world, but I can change our little piece of it to accommodate each child beyond their labels, to get rid of the cages, and set them free to finally pursue their highest potential.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: