At Edmonds waterfront: When a 5-year old boy started to clamber up on a 3-foot tall cement dividing wall near a restaurant, his mom commanded, “No, we’re not going to climb on that right now.” Then, in a patronizing and gratingly cheerful, but oddly mechanical tone she added, “But, thank you!”
A father accidentally banged an oversized car cart into a grocery checkstand. The five-year-old boy inside was startled into tears. His dad, probably feeling embarrassed and guilty about upsetting his kid, sternly told the boy to stop crying. When the boy continued to cry with some outrage, the father demanded, “Are you going to behave?” What calmed the boy was his mother asking him if he was okay. He stopped crying and began talking about something else.
At a coffee and ice cream shop in Edmonds, two little boys and their mom were eating ice cream. A middle-aged couple walked in and ordered coffee. While they waited for their orders, the youngest boy, who was around 1-1/2 years old, caught the man’s eye and pointed out his ice cream.
The man smiled and chatted with the little one about the yummy nature of ice cream. After this brief and charming appreciation of ice cream between strangers, the little boys and their mom got ready to leave. As they headed for the door, the man’s wife looked at the older 3-1/2-year-old boy and said imperiously, “Ice cream is good. Say ‘Thanks, Mom!'”
When a young child on the other side of the grocery store began crying loudly and angrily, an elderly woman waiting at the check stand said, “That child needs a spanking!”
Mom to 3-year-old boy on sunny day at Edmonds waterfront: “Look, Adam, that little boy is wearing his hat.”
30 something mom in the sandbox to her 15 month old
“No, we don’t put water in the sandbox. Noooooo water in the sandbox. You can do that at the beach, but not in the sandbox.”
It is both humbling and an honor to be asked for permission to translate one’s blog post. That’s just what my friend and Sudbury colleague, Christel Hartkamp, requested for my most recent blog post, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Thanks to Christel’s time and effort, the post has been translated into Dutch and published in the blog, Heb jij iets geleerd vandaag? (Have You Learned Anything Today?)
Thank you so much, Christel!
“In this age of intense confusion, there is just one goal upon which all parents can agree, and that is, whether they are tiger moms or hippie moms, helicopters or drones, our kids’ happiness is paramount.” — Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood [public library]
What is the most fundamental thing parents want for their children? Most people would probably say that, beyond any other desire, they just want their kids to be happy. In the United States, our first official founding document, leads off with the assertion that all “men” (which we now interpret to mean “people”) are “endowed by their Creator” (presumably God) with “certain unalienable rights.” Three rights are listed in that first sentence. Number three on the list is “the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness is not simply something we all aspire to (for ourselves, our children, and people we care about); in the United States the pursuit of this psychological state is a right so fundamental that it is assumed to be “self-evident” to every human on the planet.
And pursue it we do, with gusto, determination and sometimes desperation, through avenues emotional, spiritual and physical. (I would argue that the consumer economy is one of the products of our never-ending quest for happiness, but that’s a topic for a different blog than this one.) My generation of parents (and I include myself) is particularly dedicated to ensuring our children’s happiness.
In my early years as a parent, I believed that my son should never have to cope with unhappiness. I believed that if he had to “cope,” I was doing something wrong. If he had to cope, it meant he was experiencing harm. It meant someone—most likely me—had failed to protect him or provide what he needed.
It’s not that I believed that I should never have had to cope with hard circumstances as a child. The truth is that I’d never examined my visceral response to the word or what the word actually means. There were times when my son struggled—especially as he entered puberty—and I felt afraid for him. I talked with a wise friend about my worries. She reassured me about my son’s coping skills, and talked about how important they are to all of us in weathering the trials and tribulations that life consistently metes out.
I’d never thought of coping as a healthy strategy that we all use to keep going when life is hard. While it’s true that some coping mechanisms may be harmful or counterproductive in the long or short run, coping is something we all do. Failure to cope is a big problem. Dictionary.com defines cope as: “1) to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success; and 2) to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner.” Wiktionary defines it, “To deal effectively with something difficult.”
Looking at those definitions, I wonder about my clueless interpretation of the word. Struggling is a fact of life, and we all hope to come out of the struggle feeling successful and adequate to the task. If we never have to struggle as children, we will be ill-equipped to deal with lots and lots of difficult things as adults.
Jennifer Senior, in a compelling TED talk (in which you can hear her say the sentence I quote at the beginning of this post) observes that many shelves in your local bookstore are devoted to parents who just want their kids to be happy. She goes on to say:
Happiness and self-confidence can be the by-products of other things, but they cannot really be goals unto themselves. A child’s happiness is a very unfair burden to place on a parent. And happiness is an even more unfair burden to place on a kid. [Emphasis mine]
The first time I held [my son after he was born], I whispered in his ear, “I will try so hard not to hurt you.” It was the Hippocratic Oath and I didn’t even know I was saying it. It occurs to me now that the Hippocratic Oath is a much more realistic aim than happiness. In fact, as any parent will tell you, it’s awfully hard. All of us have said or done hurtful things that we wish to god we could take back.
I’m not really sure how to create new norms, but I do think in our desperate quest to create happy kids, we may be assuming the wrong moral burden. It strikes me as a better goal, and dare I say, a more virtuous one, to focus on making productive kids and moral kids and to simply hope that happiness will come to them by virtue of the good that they do and their accomplishments, and the love that they feel from us.
Does coping relate to happiness or at least its pursuit? When we are faced with a difficult experience, task or relationship, we are probably not feeling happy as we begin to cope with the situation. However, coping well—responding effectively—does produce feelings of satisfaction that we may experience as happiness because we figured something out. We emerged with increased capacity for coping, plus more self confidence and resilience.
We also should remember, both when we’re feeling unhappy—and especially when our children are feeling unhappy—that the pain of unhappiness is a huge motivation to change our circumstances, our behaviors, and our ways of thinking. We don’t tend to voluntarily make changes in our lives when we’re feeling good. Change always brings uncertainty, so it feels risky. Why purposely do something scary, if everything feels fine?
When I worked at The Clearwater School, adult staff didn’t leap to find activities or solutions to soothe students who felt bored, frustrated, sad, or disappointed with themselves. Those unhappy feelings are incredibly valuable, because discomfort is the stimulus that pushes people to examine their experience, create different responses, and act in new ways. Even when new responses don’t result in something better right away, trying things leads to greater knowledge about ourselves and helps us be clearer about where we need to be at any particular point in our lives.
While we all experience the hurting, the floundering, and the seeking, the specifics of the process are unique to each one of us. If someone jumps in and distracts us to try to make us happy, that person may feel happier, but our own learning is short-circuited and delayed.It’s important to remember that the struggle is precious*. The best thing we can do—for ourselves, our children, and our friends—is to honor and trust the human capacity to struggle and emerge stronger, more resilient, and more self-aware.
Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be. There is a paradox at the heart of the happiness question. Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago on studies that concluded that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed: “Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.”
She went on to write this potent piece of wisdom: “…addressing our own suffering, while learning not to inflict it on others, is part of the work we’re all here to do [emphasis mine].” It strikes me that much of the expectation of happiness and achievement we have for our children is a reflection of our own pain and desire to escape from it. We get trapped in the notion that if our children are happy, then we, too, can be happy. It becomes an obsession, a form of suffering, that we inflict on our children by making it our job to make them happy.
In the November 2015 issue of Shambhala Sun: “How to Raise an Emotionally Resilient Child,” author Krissy Pozatek said:
Children’s happiness has become the primary project in our parenting culture today. … Instead of happiness, I believe our parenting goal should be emotional health. Emotional health means that we can be with all of our emotions without reactivity. When parents steer children toward happiness, we are on some level indicating that other emotions are not okay. Though not intentional, this disrupts children’s natural ability to feel the normal spectrum of human emotions, which inevitably includes anger, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, and so on.
Children who have the experience time after time of feeling unhappy and finding their own way through it, learn not to fear and avoid unhappiness. They develop coping strategies and a deep belief that, even though the solution is not visible right now, they have what it takes within themselves to figure it out.+ As long as parents and other adults are available to listen, commiserate, and offer unwavering belief in their child’s creativity and inner strength, children will find solutions for themselves that are satisfying and true. That new knowledge will inform and support the child when the next challenge presents itself, and change and growth are required once again.
*This post assumes that supportive structures, in the form of healthy family, community and social connections, are available to children. There are sadly far too many children (and adults) who do not have these supportive structures available to them, and we are all culpable for creating and sustaining what can only be described as systemic violence.
+There are instances when children (and adults) really are stuck and feel so defeated that they become severely depressed or self-destructive. In these instances, I urge you to find help from someone who has relevant expertise.
“Can I have a sticker?” asked the bright-eyed and lively five-year-old girl at the grocery store checkstand.
“Say ‘please’, honey,” admonished the girl’s mom.
“Please,” repeated the girl, suddenly subdued and almost inaudible.
Averting her eyes, the girl shyly took the sticker from the cashier.
“Say ‘thank you’”, instructed the mom.
“Thank you,” the girl said tonelessly, eyes lowered.
This is an interaction that I witness several times every day in my job at a local grocery store. When I’m the cashier unwillingly entangled in these teachable moments, I feel both sad and angry. Sometimes, a child, whom I imagine has heard the parental injunction countless times, brays “please” and “thank you” mechanically. Sometimes, a child—often a very young, and quiet one—becomes so embarrassed she or he retreats into petrified silence.
Without my consent, I’ve been drafted as a team teacher in a politeness lesson. My tacit approval is assumed by the teaching parent, along with an expectation that I will smile and wait for the coerced “please”, then cheerfully reply, “you’re welcome” to the child’s “thank you.” Sure enough, I wait for “please” or “thank you”, and respond appropriately, even as I fume inwardly. I have yet to figure out a response that is not rude but frees me from participating in a practice I find abhorrent. (Possible solutions for my dilemma are welcome.)
I’m fully aware that with this post I’m attempting to skewer sacred cows. I abhor these ubiquitous politeness lessons. They feel manipulative and disrespectful. The child is coerced into saying something they don’t necessarily feel or mean. I am coerced into participating in disciplining someone else’s child.
Can you imagine your partner’s reaction if you were to imperiously instruct her or him to say “please” or “thank you” in similar situations? Why is it that so many adults don’t hesitate to publicly humiliate kids? I believe it’s because most adults are not even remotely aware of how their behavior feels to a child. Adults come by this lack of awareness honestly. When we were children, most of us were taught through words and deeds that children’s feelings matter only in relation to the distress and inconvenience those feelings cause for their parents and other adults in their sphere. Children’s feelings are largely dismissed as fleeting and inconsequential, pale shadows of adult emotions.
What are we as parents hoping to teach our kids in these very public interactions? To feel gratitude? To recite polite interjections in order to grease the wheels of social commerce? To nip selfishness and entitlement in the bud? Could it be that we’re inadvertently teaching our children to remember who’s boss, or to butt in on someone else’s interaction and call them out? Publicly admonishing kids to use these words in an automatic way does nothing to convey the power the words hold when they are not used automatically; yet, kids learn to use the words in a meaningless way to avoid their own embarrassment.
I like to use “please” and “thank you” liberally. At the same time, it is illuminating to really think about the many nuances of those words when spoken in everyday interactions with friends and strangers. Ideally, these expressions acknowledge and connect to another person’s humanity. Genuine sentiment is felt and appreciated by people on the receiving end. In many, many instances, the words are throw-away tokens, spoken unconsciously. At worst, they are spoken poisonously while consciously withholding the intrinsic generosity in the words themselves.
Those words contain worlds of meaning depending on the situation. “Please” is a weighty word when it really is a plea. “Thank you” can encompass immense depths of gratitude. People on the giving and receiving ends always know the difference. Kids don’t need help understanding the importance of the words when they really mean something. Humans–children especially–are exquisitely tuned to notice and make sense of the emotional undercurrents swirling around them. It is a matter of survival. Emotional energy added or withheld from “please” and “thank you” is obvious to anyone participating in or witnessing human interactions.
When my son was young, I could never bring myself to publicly urge him to say “please” and “thank you” in his interactions with adults. I knew him well enough to know how embarrassed he would be. Instead, I responded with what I knew to be true. I was the one who felt grateful, so I said “thank you.” No one ever took offense at the absence of “please” or “thank you” from my shy son. Instead, adults seemed to derive pleasure from giving him something he might like.
I assumed my son would eventually figure out the way the words are used as social grease. It took him a long time—into his early teens. It drove me crazy sometimes, especially his reluctance to say “thank you.” So I got to wondering, how does it feel—what does it mean internally—to say “thank you” and mean it?
Whenever I say “thank you” in a genuine way, I am acknowledging that someone gave me something, sometimes something I didn’t ask for or expect. For me, it creates a feeling of gratitude, but also indebtedness that can feel uncomfortably vulnerable. It creates within me a sense of responsibility to be generous to the giver or someone else in return. The gift may also feel overwhelming enough that I feel ill equipped to respond commensurately.
There’s also the predicament of receiving something I don’t want or don’t like, especially when the giver is enthusiastic and generous in the giving. What is the meaning of “thank you” in that context? Should I say “thank you”, which will contain subtleties and undercurrents the giver will probably sense with some unease? Or should I truthfully say I don’t want the gift fearing that I will have to contend with any number of the giver’s potential reactions, from embarrassment to hurt to anger? Whether I say “thank you”—and how I say it—will vary profoundly depending on my relationship with the giver and the nature of the gift.
As for “please,” when I use it to ask for something that is transactional in nature (e.g. ordering espresso from a barista) and say “thank you” when I get my latte, it is an acknowledgement that the transaction was successful and met expectations. If there is nothing more to the conversation than that, the words serve as nothing more than social grease. I might sound and feel rude not to use them, but there’s no real plea or expression of gratitude.
In thinking about both of these words and the universe of potential meaning within them, it quickly feels complicated to convey to a child anything definitive about the meaning of the words. Directing a child to say “please” or “thank you” by rote surely obscures more than illuminates what we hope that child will learn about the words.
Children desire with their entire beings to be competent, to understand, to function at a high level in their communities. As they hear the surfaces of words, they actively seek and decode the subtext in interactions they witness and engage in. It shouldn’t be surprising that children don’t feel compelled to say “please” and “thank you” mechanically; there’s so little substance or emotional juice.
I chose not to instruct my son to use these polite words because I wanted him to create his own litmus test for how and when to use them. Not everyone will feel comfortable with that approach, but I implore parents and other care-giving adults to stop publicly calling out a child’s seeming lack of manners.
If it is important to you that your child use these words in social situations, even when they don’t feel the need for them, then talk to them when they are not in the middle of a public interaction. Tell them why you think it’s important and ask them to remember to use the words as often as possible. Then, let them make their own politeness choices. They may find your perspective interesting and decide it makes sense. To please you, they might say “please” and “thank you” more often, even though they don’t understand why it feels so important to you. They may use the words when you’re around, but not when they’re on their own. Conversely, they might use them flawlessly when you’re not around, and you will never know. They will make choices about when, where, and how to use polite words, just like you do. At some point, their use of “please” and “thank you” will become, for better or worse, just as routine as it is for most of us.
The Huffington Post called out this three-minute sketch on YouTube from The BreakWomb, performed by three women who find comedy in their lives as parents. Thanks to Bruce Smith, for pointing me to this link.
It’s never advisable to read YouTube comments, but I took one for the team and read the less incendiary ones responding to the BreakWomb video. It was striking how quickly a sharp dichotomy of parenting philosophies emerged. Although the commenters’ opinions don’t begin to reflect the variety and nuance of parenting philosophies within our culture, it was fascinating to see how quickly people felt compelled to defend their positions and attack those who disagreed.
One of the first comments was from Maria A. who wrote:
This video needs to be shown everywhere so paretns [sic] can see how rude they are to their kids without even realising [sic] it because they think it is normal.
She received some brief support from a few people, but several other commenters challenged Maria A.’s cred by asking if she was a mom. (She wasn’t.) The commenters dismissive of her view wrote at length to explain why it’s okay to talk to kids—but not to adults—in the manner illustrated by The BreakWomb sketch.
Josh Williams said:
There’s a difference between being rude and setting boundaries. Obviously, the way we speak to kids is going to be different from the way you would treat adults. Spend five minutes in a classroom and tell me you can treat those kids as adults… and see if they don’t walk all over you because you have no boundaries. Kids need to be told when they’re doing something wrong. Kids also need to be shown the right way to behave and interact, as it’s not inherent in many people. Kids need to be taught to be kind and loving, because psychologically people will always go after what is easiest and makes them feel the best, unless they are taught to empathise [sic] with others. Particularly with respect to toddlers, I’m amazed that you think talking in such a way to a toddler is rude. These “people” are only just developing language skills, often have an under-developed sense of self, and are often doing even the most basic things for the first time. To talk to them in the same way as you would an adult would be to heap a burden of responsibility on them that they will cast off without even realizing it. [Emphasis added]
Kaylee Hart continued in this vein.
I heard someone once say that a big mistake parents make is they try to reason with their kids as toddlers and command them as teenagers. It needs to be the reverse. I don’t see anything rude here. That’s the point. It’s rude to adults, but children don’t think the way we do yet. Disciplining your child is not rude lol. They need to learn to obey you and have respect and manners. If you try to “polite” them all the time, they will never take you seriously. You are the parent, you’re the boss. And anyone who tries to tell you that being a boss to your kid is wrong or that is belittles them, is very wrong. Kids need a boss. Speaking to them this way isn’t treating them like they’re stupid; it’s speaking to them on their level. [Emphasis added]
Frank S. Adamo tried to put a kinder face on the argument by pointing out that tone of voice is crucial when being commanding.
I agree that a home is NOT a democracy and the parents must parent and not simply be friends to their children; however, there are ways to stay in command and still talk to your children without having a COMMANDING and AUTHORITATIVE voice as in this skit. For example, the tone of voice is crucial. You mentioned that most of the time we have bosses and you are right. My question is what kind of boss would you want to follow? One who is commanding and uses a voice as if “you do this or else,” or a boss who leads and you want to follow.
Kaylee Hart came back with this clarification.
As an adult I obviously wouldn’t listen to someone snapping at me, but once again, everything is quite different when you’re a child. The point is, people who say you should never raise your voice to your children or that you shouldn’t boss them around, irritate me. That’s just not true. I know from years upon years of experience. Children need to know they aren’t in control; it also takes the burden off them and makes them feel secure.
These opinions about kids needing a boss, needing to be commanded, comes from a belief, instilled in the vast majority of us as children, that kids are “people” in a very limited sense. From this perspective, it’s okay to treat children differently from adults, to speak to them differently, because they are different. Last week, I was listening to Scott Simon’s essay on NPR’s Weekend Edition about political debates and GOP candidates’ demands to structure the debates to benefit them in specific ways. What struck me was a metaphor Simon used to describe his discomfort with some reporters’ treatment of presidential candidates in this current campaign season:
It’s tempting to make jokes about the demands Republican candidates made of broadcasters for future debates — and believe me, I have. But I’ve also squirmed to see reporters bark at presidential candidates to raise their hands, yes or no, to reply to a question, as if they were schoolchildren asking for a bathroom break. [Emphasis added.]
Implicit in that metaphor is an assumption that it’s okay–or at least reasonable or expected–to bark at children, but not okay to treat adults that way. We don’t see this behavior as bullying when it is directed at children, precisely because it is institutionalized and part of the very fabric of our culture. (Too many people also find it difficult to see this belittling behavior as bullying when it’s directed at other marginalized people by those with power and authority.)
It’s worth reading this lovely post by Brian Davis on the Fatherly forum encouraging parents to stop treating their kid like a child. The post was reprinted from the comments he made on Quora in response to the question, “What are some unique, effective ways to discipline a child?” His perspective was unique among the commenters. Everyone else suggested any number of punishments, consequences, boundaries and manipulations that would be damaging to a respectful adult relationship.
I’ll end with his conclusion, because it’s true.
Punishment, deprivation, praise, criticism, distraction, and a lot of the other things people on this page have recommended don’t actually do much to teach your child good behavior. More often than not, they teach children to be retributive, praise-seeking, or distracted.
Ultimately, parenting is not about control. Kids aren’t irrational beasts out to deprive you of patience and silence. They’re little people in need of understanding and a helping hand. And when they get what they need they’re usually pretty spectacular.
Who knows what’s best for a child? In this series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I have argued that each child should be able to decide what’s best for themselves. It means that, as parents and adults who interact with children, we commit to trusting kids to observe, explore, and make decisions about how to conduct their lives, interact with other people, and tackle all the circumstances that life presents to them.
Ceding control and committing to trust does not mean we disengage from our children. It is vital that we continue to love and interact fully with them, sharing our thoughts, reactions, and opinions. It’s important to tell them the wonderful or not-so-wonderful impacts their choices have on us. Our observations and our personal stories are relevant. At the same time, we must frequently interrogate our motives, because it is not our children’s job to take care of us, to make us feel successful, or meet some unmet need. They are not responsible for our fear and anxiety, or living up to our aspirations or standards. We must never forget that it is our children who are responsible for their lives and their choices. They get to decide what information and advice is useful to them, and what information to give us.
This is a radical proposal. What would happen if our kids really could decide how to conduct their lives? What would happen to compulsory schooling, mandatory testing, and homework, for example? Large industries exist because of the staggering multitude of ways that we as a society control children.
I was brought up short by an interaction between my friend and her daughter a few years ago. My friend’s daughter complained about her orthodontist’s conclusion that she needed braces. My friend put the choice right back in her daughter’s lap. The decision concerned her daughter’s teeth, so it was her daughter’s right and responsibility to decide whether to get braces. (She did choose braces.) When our son needed braces, it never occurred to me to give him the choice.
Even when we do our best to stand back, our opinions are pretty obvious, and our kids are hyper aware of what we think. They don’t blithely choose the opposite of what we believe is best. When they do choose a different course, we can remember, in the midst of our trepidation, to celebrate the fact that our children have the courage, despite our disagreement, to embark on a path that feels necessary to them. Our belief in our children’s ability to learn from good and bad decisions about their lives is infinitely more empowering than if we take over and make decisions that we think are better.
When children know in their bones that they are responsible for their lives, they take the responsibility seriously and factor in all the information they have, including the opinions and experiences of their parents and other adults they value. It may not always be obvious to us how important we are to our kids, but our love, our belief in them, and our fierce advocacy of their right to be the authors of their lives connects them to their essential core of strength and confidence.
There are times when someone should and does step in to prevent a child (or adult) from a serious or deadly injury. However, as borne out by the experiences of my own child and many others I worked with at The Clearwater School, when children are allowed to navigate their physical and emotional spaces minus adult management and meddling, they develop valuable skills and knowledge at an individual, organic pace that increases their awareness and motivation to keep learning and growing. It is perilous to a child’s development for someone else to decide what she should or should not do, precisely because it can short circuit the accuracy of her internal assessment capability which she will need for the rest of her life. Children begin developing their sense of what they are capable of when they are born. Every experience builds their emotional and physical knowledge of themselves, their growing capacities, and the complexity of the world around them.
What makes me—or any adult—believe that I know what’s best for a child, when it’s so hard to figure out what’s best for myself sometimes? Or why would I feel free to impose my will on a child, when I wouldn’t dream of doing that to an adult friend who’s struggling? And what about the times when I do know what’s best for me, but I don’t do it? Would I want my husband or a friend to take control and make me do the right thing?
Several times over the past few weeks, I should have been working on this blog. Instead, I chose to read a book, wash dishes, clean the house, or surf the web. Why? Because those things often felt a lot more appealing than wrangling swirling ideas into semi-lucid prose. I also know that I would feel better if I made more time to exercise and sing. Lots of us struggle with doing what’s best for ourselves, as evidenced by the sheer number of books and blogs that offer blueprints and road maps for self-improvement. Why should it be any different for our kids? Why not give them the respect and time to muck about in the murky shoals of being human? Maybe our lack of trust and compassion for our own mucking about makes it difficult to give the same to our children.
As a child, my son sometimes struggled with not living up to his own expectations and aspirations. He wanted to be able to draw better; he knew he needed to practice more. When he didn’t practice, he didn’t improve and complained about himself. Hearing him talk about his dissatisfaction made me feel hopeful, because I got a small glimpse into his personal assessment process and knew he was working on himself. I empathized with his frustration, and told him that he would find motivation to practice when it was important enough to him.
I listened to many similar disappointments from Clearwater students, who bemoaned falling short of their internal standards and chided themselves for doing something they found easy instead of persisting. All of us are painfully aware of our shortcomings and failures. Concrete ideas and suggestions may help, but having someone take the reins from us is always disempowering. It absolves us of responsibility. We need to give our kids space to wrestle with their own demons. It is the wrestling that matters, that allows them to become more and more themselves.
Witnessing the emotional pain of our children is heartrending, but it is something we truly cannot fix. We can be with them and not shy away from their pain, but it is theirs alone and their task to move through and recover from. Whenever I sit with my child in his pain, I remember that he is whole and complete, with access to lots of internal resources and people who love and care about him.
Throughout our lives we face decisions big and small. Should I go to college when I’m not sure what I want to study? Should I get a job for a while or accept my friend’s invitation to take a cross-country trip? Is this a person I can happily live with for a few years—or even for the rest of my life? Should I have a child? Should I take this job or keep looking? Should I buy a house or rent? Should I watch TV or read a book? Should I surf the web or spend 30 minutes exercising? Should I go to bed or stay up to watch a movie? Should I post something I know will be controversial on Facebook? Should I order a salad or fries with my burger? When someone asks my opinion, should I say what I really think or what they want to hear?
We cannot know the repercussions of our big and small decisions until we make them. And good answers to any of the above questions change with the situation. I grew up believing there were right and wrong answers, good and bad ways to do things, and that it was imperative that I choose the right answer and make the best choices. In my world, there was no room for mistakes. Consequently, when I inevitably made a mistake, the really useless thing I learned was that I needed to redouble my efforts to stop making mistakes and thereby avoid the resulting, crippling shame. One cannot grow and change with that world view.
Children make poor decisions; so do adults. Sometimes we have to make the same mistake more than once to connect the dots. Children and adults also make lots of great choices every day. What I take away from any particular experience is probably different than what someone else would learn from it. We cannot live someone else’s life and we should never try. We need to honor our children’s lives as they live them in real time, without judgment and second guessing. The more we strive to observe and appreciate, without interfering in our children’s choices, the more we encourage our children to trust their growing knowledge and creativity.
Do any of us really know what’s best for ourselves? Maybe knowing what’s best is not the point or the best question to ask—not for ourselves and especially not for anyone else. Can we make peace with the fact that life is full of uncertainty and risk, and that our choices are experiments based on what will always be incomplete information? The fallout of our decisions gives us more information about ourselves and the world, which can be helpful in future decisions—if we have the humility and grace to pay attention, adapt, and keep experimenting.
In the two previous posts, I began exploring the question of who knows what’s best for a child. Stories about “safe” playgrounds, tooth brushing, reading Tintin, and money management provide context for examining the question within a familiar context. Here’s more context.
When my son was a toddler and preschooler, he had frequent play dates with a little girl of the same age. I made a pact with my friend—her mother—that we adults would stay out of our children’s conflicts, giving them time and space to figure out their own solutions. We would interfere only if they started hitting each other. It was excruciating sometimes to overhear yet resist the urge to referee their arguments. Before long though, we felt grateful that we had kept our pact, because our kids quickly became adept at working out conflicts and returning to happy, engaged play.
It was natural for them to figure out problems themselves, which enhanced their internal sense of capability and power—and neutralized any feelings of victimization. Resolving conflict to the satisfaction of both parties was simply a part of the experience of playing together. There were no grudges, no keeping score, no shaming. In fact, I often felt humbled by the smart and simple solutions our two children developed. Many times, I thought of solutions that seemed great, but what they came up with was best because they knew better than anyone exactly what was needed in that moment to regain equilibrium and harmony.
Now, whenever I see parents or teachers inserting themselves into children’s arguments and imposing “fair” or “safe” outcomes, I feel exhausted and sad. More than a waste of energy, it is usurpation of power. When trusted to be problem solvers in real time in their own lives, children become adept at collaborating and creating elegant and mutually satisfying solutions.
Many parents limit their children’s access to sweets or screen time. Often, I have witnessed that kids who want things that are forbidden come to crave those things. By contrast, my child and other children I worked with at The Clearwater School, who did not have sugar or screen time limits imposed on them, regulated themselves over time and created a balance that was enjoyable but didn’t interfere with other things they considered important to their health and enjoyment.
“Over time” is the operative phrase. It is terribly difficult to watch one’s child eat a lot of candy when we know other foods are more nourishing to a growing body. One boy who attended The Clearwater School was crazy for candy and sugary snacks. His mom was at her wits end, because multiple attempts to restrict sugar and lots of lectures about why sugar wasn’t good for him seemed to only intensify his sugar craving. She decided to allow her son the freedom to eat sugary foods without restriction, even though she continued to tell him about her concerns. It did take time, but her son discovered that he felt better when he ate more nutritious foods and less sugar. He learned to respond to what his body was telling him about his energy needs and eating frequency, which dampened his sugar cravings and made other foods more satisfying. He got to the point where he ate very few sugary foods. His experience was a powerful example of why children need to be responsible for making choices about their lives.
The tricky thing is to give up control over the outcome. Is it abdicating responsibility to let kids eat as much sugar as they want? Can I live with my child’s diet choices that are not as healthy as I want them to be? Why would anyone choose to eat healthy food when junk food is everywhere? My son exclusively ate hot dogs and fish sticks for a long time. He really hated almost all vegetables and ate few fruits. It wasn’t until he was around 12 that he became curious about other foods and began a years-long process of exploring food. Recently, he commented that now he even eats celery even though he used to hate it. His food tastes are incredibly broad and sophisticated, and he is also a creative cook.
One of my nieces ate cheese pizza and cheese quesadillas pretty exclusively for years. Both she and my son continued to grow and have lots of energy to play and engage in their favorite activities. Their food choices were not the ones I would have chosen for myself or them, but, in time, they each discovered and enjoyed a rich world of food. The responsibility and freedom to experiment with and balance competing desires, needs, and personal well-being is each individual’s birthright. Hijacking that is a form of violence. Each individual’s decisions and choices will vary and shift over time.
My son was not a person who craved or ate many sweets, but he loved playing computer and video games. It didn’t bother me when older boys at The Clearwater School played hours of video games, partly because they weren’t my kids, but mostly because they didn’t turn into zombified teenagers who only wanted to sit in front of a screen. They continued to be lovable, smart, thoughtful, and often helpful human beings who also knew how to play and interact with people when they weren’t in front of a gaming TV or computer. Yet, I felt anxious when my son fell in love with gaming. I wondered if it was bad for him to spend so much time every day playing video games. He started out with games like Age of Empires, a strategy game with a historical setting. When he played, it was obvious that his brain was incredibly busy and engaged in figuring out how to solve problems and achieve the objectives of each game.Those factors made his early games feel less scary to me.
As time went on he added violent first-person shooters and fighting games to his repertoire. Those felt more problematic, especially because of arguably hysterical articles about the dangers of video games, violent ones in particular. I was somewhat skeptical of the fear-mongering around video games largely because of my own screen history.
When I was growing up, there were lots of warnings about the dangers of children spending too much time watching violent cartoons and other TV programming. As an adolescent especially, I watched a lot of TV, with and without my family, from sitcoms to dramas to violent police procedurals. I laughed, cried, and talked with family and friends about shows that mirrored my experiences or that commented on popular or political culture. I don’t agree with popular wisdom that watching TV is a passive activity, because it has never been passive for me. I enjoyed the comedy and cultural commentary in TV shows, and found many plots and story lines intriguing and thought provoking. Plus, popular culture is popular because it is shared by thousands or millions of people, who then have a common touchstone. It is impossible for me to watch TV shows or movies without pondering, analyzing plots and character motives, and creating context for what I’m watching. If a show has nothing to offer me, I just don’t watch it.
As for violent video games, the media is full of reports from pundits and psychology professionals that warn that video game players, especially young ones, are unable to tell the difference between in-game and real-world violence. I vividly remember a conversation I had with my son and some of his gaming friends not long after the Columbine shooting. Early news reports mentioned that the shooters played Doom , and hypothesized that such games were partly responsible for the shooters’ behavior. My son and his friends, who were 9 and 10 years old, had not heard about the Columbine shooting and were confused by claims that violent games could have caused such horrific behavior. They all said that they knew games were not real, and that the shooters must have had deep problems to be able to shoot real people. Their perspectives about the shooters’ deep-seated problems were borne out ten years later in the book Columbine, (public library) by journalist Dave Cullen.
From my own early reactions to in-game violence, and those of other adults, it became clear to me that we adults are the ones who have trouble distinguishing between between violence in video games and the real world. Because many of us don’t play the games, we assume that the meaning we make when we see our children killing characters on the screen is the same meaning they are making. We don’t understand that they are playing—with pixels and software. They know it’s pixels and software. The fantasy nature of game violence allows children the freedom to safely explore it.
Violence of many kinds is a huge part of our culture. Games and other forms of popular culture play with and comment on it. We can wish the world were different and try to shield our children from the violence that is woven into the American fabric, but no amount of wishing or trying to hide it will stop it from leaking into our children’s experience of the world. Playing with fantasy violence can help all of us deal with anger, anxiety, sadness and feelings of helplessness. For those with an interest in understanding more about how pretend violent play is helpful and cathartic for children, I recommend Killing monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, (public library) by Gerard Jones. A few years ago, I wrote a piece defending electronic games in The Clearwater School’s newsletter.
What ultimately helped ease my anxiety was to play some games with my son and spend a lot of time sitting beside him and learning as much as I could about video games by watching him play. I learned that games are really hard and take a lot of practice, resiliance, and intelligence to play well and eventually win. My son loved being able to talk about games with me. When he got stuck in a game and his frustration peaked, if I had the time, I sat next to him and silently rooted for him to figure it out. It was striking to me how often he was then able to solve the problem and move forward. He rarely complained about needing to interrupt his game play to go somewhere or do something different, as long as I allowed him the few extra minutes he needed to get to a good stopping point.
When I stepped out of my fear, even momentarily, to trust my son’s ability to navigate the world of electronic gaming, to make sense of each game’s world view and narrative, and to prioritize his time and activities, I discovered that he was more than up to the task. In addition, his years of gaming taught him about good storytelling, what elements make games fun (or not), and the value of persistence and creativity when facing a thorny problem. He became a very skilled player. As an adult, he finds it relaxing after a work day to play video games sometimes with friends, or strangers online. He enjoys engaging his brain in a familiar and challenging form.
Watching my son’s happiness and satisfaction in mastering a difficult medium, and observing that gaming only increased his innate creativity and curiosity, gave me the confidence to keep trusting him—and other children—and relying on his innate capacity to explore and engage the world and decide what was best for himself.
Next time, I’ll wrap up this series with some of my current thoughts and questions.
Last time, I promised to talk about some of the doubts and difficulties I faced after committing to trusting my son to figure out and decide what was best for himself.
One cringe-worthy example: I enforced tooth brushing when he was only three years old—meaning I brushed his teeth even though he hated it and resisted by squirming, crying and yelling. I remember how righteous and right I felt, even as I also felt profoundly uncomfortable about using physical force on my son. I had outside authority on my side: the dentist said it was time to start brushing his teeth to create a beneficial routine. My son was not persuaded by rational arguments, threats, or dire warnings about the future condition of his teeth. I don’t remember how long the forced brushing continued, although from this vantage point, not only was it too long, it was completely unnecessary.
Ironically, he’s had lots dental work in the intervening years (extraction of baby teeth to ease crowding, braces, wisdom teeth removal, jaw bone cyst surgery), but none of it had any relationship to dental hygiene. He’s never had a cavity, although that has more to do with genetics than tooth brushing. All the energy I put into forcing—and that he put into resisting—tooth brushing, could have gone into enjoying creative and fun activities together. It really would have been okay to encourage and wait until he decided brushing his teeth was a good idea.
When my son was young he loved for us to read him Tintin comics. If you haven’t ever read them, I encourage you to check them out from your public library. As someone who abhors violence and guns, I found myself feeling really uncomfortable with the presence of guns in the comics. Tintin, an intrepid boy reporter, his allies, and adversaries, frequently fired guns at each other, although no one was ever shot nor did anyone die. The stories were entertaining, but I was afraid my four-year-old son would think guns were harmless—or worse, that their routine use was acceptable and justified.
I brought up my fear to him and my husband. My husband talked about his own toy gun play as a child in cowboy and army games with friends. He pointed out that he is a pacifist. Even more convincingly, at the tender age of four, our son adamantly and clearly explained that he knew the books were stories and that real guns were dangerous. Although I still had some trepidation, I put aside my anxiety and kept reading the comics to him. Some of my most cherished memories are of the many hours I spent enjoying Tintin stories with my son.
Then, there was the issue of how our preschool-aged son handled money. To avoid his constant requests to buy him something every time we were in a store, we began giving him a dollar each week which he could spend on anything he wanted. In the beginning, he spent it quickly on small trinkets. It was really difficult to watch him spend money on what, to me, felt like junk. At first, I tried to dissuade him from buying things that I was certain would break or quickly become boring. (I fooled myself into believing I was protecting him from disappointment, but what I was really doing was anticipating his disappointment and protecting myself from feeling helpless and sad in the face of it.) My son was not easily dissuaded and bought cheap stuff anyway, for which I’m profoundly grateful.
Why? Because my predictions about which toys were junk were often wrong. Many toys lasted a long time, even though a few broke or weren’t much fun. Because one day, my son commented that some things weren’t worth the money—they broke quickly or weren’t as good as he thought they’d be. Because with even more time, he learned that if he saved the dollars over several weeks, he could buy more expensive things that were even more satisfying for him.
Those dollars bought a lot more than trinkets. They bought life experience for my son and me, and hours of fun, creativity, and joy. It was my son’s lived experience that shaped his attitude toward money. For years, he has been a responsible money manager, who views money as a useful tool for paying bills, buying stuff he wants, and participating in experiences that he enjoys. He lives well within his means.
Stay tuned for more stories in the next post.
This upcoming series of posts has been more of a struggle to write than previous ones, in large part because the theme feels more radical than those in earlier posts. In spite of my obvious passion for championing children’s right to self-determination, my current theme—that children know what’s best for themselves—challenges me, too.
I propose that all of human life is a journey of learning about ourselves and the world. Whatever our age, we have varying levels of self and world knowledge. We acquire that knowledge by living, which is fundamentally a process of experimentation and discovery.
Often, the more we know, the better able we are to make choices for ourselves that are satisfying and rewarding. Yet, life continues to present all of us with unfamiliar or downright scary situations and choices that we must navigate with uncertain results. Sometimes we avoid the pitfalls; sometimes we don’t. And our feelings about uncharted territory are all over the map: confidence, fear, confusion, curiosity, anger, hope, doubt, excitement, despair.
It can be helpful when someone who has more knowledge in a specific area provides advice and feedback, but we have all experienced being on the receiving end of unwelcome advice that feels like interference and a lack of trust in our capacity to learn and grow. If you don’t think children also resent unwelcome advice, however well-meaning, I recommend spending a little time remembering your own childhood interactions with condescending adults who told you what to do because they knew best.
My thoughts for this series were sparked by a blog post by Mark Manson, self-described author, thinker, and life enthusiast, in Vox, “3 Destructive Things You Learned In School Without Realizing It.”
The third destructive thing he listed was “You learned to depend on authority”. At the end of that item—also the end of the piece—he wrote, “No one knows what’s right for you as well as you do. And not letting kids discover that fact for themselves may be the biggest failure of all.”
His statement reminded me of the slogan a co-founder and parent at The Clearwater School submitted for the school’s publicity fliers many years ago: “Who knows what’s best for your child? She does.”
I did not believe that slogan would convince parents, hunting for a better schooling experience for their children, to look more closely at Clearwater. It felt too radical, too outrageous. I assumed most parents believed that they were the ones who knew what was best for their children. A common rallying cry for parents who feel oppressed by officious people telling them what to do, or not, with their kids is that no one—not the government, not school administrators, not teachers, not child development experts—knows better than parents what is best for their children.
The idea that children can and should decide what is best for themselves seemed to me to be so far out of mainstream norms that marketing materials with that message would appear absurd, laughable even. More to the point, did I believe that slogan was true?
With little effort, contrary examples come flooding in. A child wants to watch hours of TV or play hours of video games every day. A child wants to eat all her Halloween candy in one sitting, or refuses to eat anything but pizza or mac & cheese. A child reaches to touch a hot stove and gets a third-degree burn.
Even more tragic and horrible examples bubble up: children firing guns stored carelessly in their homes; children choosing to smoke, drink, or take drugs; car accidents caused by teenagers drag racing on public roads. Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that obsessively focuses on myriad dangers and alarming stories, daily accounts of childhood peril pummel us. The fear of all the horrific things that could happen to our children is unbearable and jolts us into proactive hypervigilence.
When our kids are little, we do our best to prevent physical injuries, from minor scrapes to more serious things like burns or broken bones. My son’s minor childhood injuries often felt like a punch to my own gut. I consoled him, and he always recovered just fine, but sometimes I would continue to stew about the injury and wish I could have prevented it. Why was it so important to me to prevent him from experiencing any pain? If I am honest, it’s because I believed that he was incapable of recovering and coming out stronger. What made me believe that he was so fragile? Partly, it was a projection of my own (unconscious) perceived fragility. Whatever the source of my anxiety, it is shared by more and more people in our culture.
For example, our playgrounds no longer contain traditional play structures that gave many of us thrills and pride of mastery when we were children. As a result, there is growing concern that the emphasis on playground safety interferes with children’s ability to develop their physical skills and test physical limits by taking calculated risks. It is hopeful that in a few places, particularly in Europe and some places in the U.S., adventure playgrounds have been created that allow kids to play with abandon, explore, and access tools, fire, building materials and other raw materials. Adventure playgrounds do have adult playworkers who can step in if needed, but their goal is to remain separate from children’s activities and avoid interfering as much as possible. In my opinion, even the non-intrusive presence of adult playworkers is an affront to children’s capability and demonstrates lack of trust. (In our litigious, risk-averse culture, I suspect the presence of playworkers has a lot to do with minimizing liability and insurance company payouts.)
From my current vantage point, with a grown son who is healthy, capable, and provides and cares for himself, it is easy to look back and see that it worked to allow him to chart his own course, making decisions about how to spend his time, what to eat, and when to go to bed, for example. Although I had blind spots, I was committed to trusting that he did, in fact, know what was best for himself. I had plenty of doubts, felt uncomfortable and out of control lots of times, and I didn’t always stay the course.
More about that next week.
In the most recent post, I recounted personal experiences of adults using their authority to intimidate and belittle me and other children.
On the heels of that post, it feels important to tell an older story that echoed within my own childhood. Recently, my dad recounted his memory of a story his mom (my grandmother) told him about a parenting success she and my grandfather had when my dad was a little boy.
First, some background. My dad’s father (my grandfather) was an Evangelical Quaker* minister, the son of two Evangelical Quaker ministers. His parents were strict and morally upright people.
Evangelical Quakers believe humans beings are sinful by nature, that heaven, hell, and Satan exist, that to get into heaven one must be born again, and that dancing, alcohol and other recreational drugs, smoking, and most earthly pleasures are dangerous temptations that interfere with a personal relationship with capital-G God.
My grandmother grew up with a dad that she described as strict, but loving. Because she always described him that way, my mother wonders if my grandmother struggled all her life to convince herself of the loving part. She also had a strict, evangelical religious upbringing in rural Idaho.
My dad doesn’t remember exactly how old he was when his mother described their successful parenting technique, but he believes it was probably when he was a young adult. Since he was 23 when I was born, I suspect she was passing on what she believed was useful advice to her son, the new parent.
As my dad remembers it, his mom described how my dad as a young child had frequent tantrums. She and my grandfather tried all kinds of things to stop the tantrums. The technique that finally worked was this: as my dad screamed and thrashed on the floor they stood above him and laughed. My grandmother reported that my dad stopped screaming, got up looking sheepish, and retreated to his room.
Apparently, my aunt (Dad’s younger sister) was also prone to tantrums, but the laughing technique didn’t work on her. Instead, my grandparents picked her up, put her in the tub and dumped ice water on her. That worked like a charm.
I am struck by three things about my dad’s story: 1) both he and his sister had a lot of tantrums (or at least my grandparents believed it was a lot); 2) my grandmother believed that humiliation was a viable technique that my dad would find helpful as a parent; and 3) my dad remembers neither the tantrums nor the punishment.
When he recounts the story, my dad exhibits little emotion. It is like telling someone else’s history. He remembers other punishments, including corporal punishment with a willow switch to the his legs. He remembers being made to kneel with his dad and pray to God for forgiveness after any number of childhood infractions, which were ridiculously minor from my point of view.
According to my dad, his parents were worried about his and his sister’s immortal souls and believed that their tantrums were an expression of their sinful natures. The children’s anguish, shock and humiliation after punishment might have been regrettable, but were insignificant when weighed against the value of winning another battle with sin.
On the heels of these brutal experiences, it is beyond amazing and wonderful that my dad, with my mom, consciously chose other role models and kinder parenting philosophies that my sister and I benefited from in our later childhoods. I doubt that my dad ever experienced forgiveness, not to mention acceptance, from his parents for youthful sins. That is a tragedy. My dad is unfailingly kind and generous to other people, although he finds it difficult to extend the same kindness to himself. Judgment and punishment endure.
I loved my grandparents. They cherished me, their first grandchild, and only treated me with kindness and indulgence. I also feel revulsion at my grandparents’ abuse of my dad and aunt, though they would never have thought of it that way.
Beyond the childhood punishments, what strikes me is how closely my dad and aunt were watched and how little it took to be judged wanting in the eyes of their parents–and by extension–in the eyes of God. It would be helpful beyond measure if we adults would pay attention to how closely we watch the children in our lives, what we choose to pay attention to, what kinds of judgments we make, and how we act on them.
Although my origin story may not resemble the ones in your family, it was not unusual or strange to people in my grandparents’ or parents’ generations. Our culture has a history of viewing children as selfish, manipulative, and mean, flawed clay to be molded into a more perfect shape, sinful creatures to be punished into moral ones. Most of us are products of that culture. Awareness of our heritage, and willingness to look for unconscious ways that we may be perpetuating it, will move us into a more compassionate future.
I leave you with a quote from Alice Miller (thank you, Amanda), whose many books advocated for treating children with compassion and respect. During my teenage years, her books were both revelation and inspiration for my dad. It is a great and sad irony that despite the horrors of her own childhood and a lifetime spent writing about and condemning toxic parenting practices, she was unable to follow her own advice with her children.
Theoretically, I can imagine that someday we will regard our children not as creatures to manipulate or to change but rather as messengers from a world we once deeply knew, but which we have long since forgotten, who can reveal to us more about the true secrets of life, and also our own lives, than our parents were ever able to.
We do not need to be told whether to be strict or permissive with our children. What we do need is to have respect for their needs, their feelings, and their individuality, as well as for our own.
*It is a little known fact that there are two main branches of Quakerism in the US: the silent meeting, pacifist, politically liberal branch, and the Evangelical, politically conservative branch that emerged from the Holiness movement and Second Great Awakening during the first half of the 19th century. Doctrinally, Evangelical Quakers have much in common with fundamentalist churches such as the Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and Southern Baptists. Unconsciously breaking the first commandment against idolatry, my grandfather idolized Billy Graham.
Before I was old enough to go to school, my parents kept a willow switch on top of the refrigerator. I don’t remember that they used it much, but the threat of it infuriated me. One day when they were working outside, I got up on a stool, took the switch, broke it, and threw it in some bushes. I don’t remember if there were repercussions, but my parents didn’t replace it. Over time, they rejected corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique, which made all of us happier. I can still tap into the feelings of empowerment and righteous rebellion I felt when I threw away that switch.
In first grade, I remember feeling devastated and humiliated when I received a dreaded “goose egg” (my teacher’s word for zero) on an assignment. At that young age, I vowed to do everything in my power to avoid a failing grade. I became a very good student academically–and a compliant one.
One winter day at recess, when I was in second or third grade, a group of us wove long dry grass through a wire fence to make “walls” that would provide some shelter from the cold wind. We imagined ourselves as pioneers building a house out of what was available in the landscape. The first-grade teacher, a severe older woman, told us to stop. She gave no reason, and we couldn’t figure out what harm we were doing. We felt disappointed and resentful when she smothered our creative joy.
My fifth-grade teacher was an older woman who had also taught my dad when he was my age. She favored me because of that connection. One day she was teaching something that I knew was wrong information, because I had heard something different from my dad who was more knowledgeable about the field than she was. When I raised my hand and offered the more accurate information, she yelled at me and said that my dad was not the expert. I felt shocked, confused, and humiliated.
On another occasion, that same teacher took discipline into her own hands and beat a boy with a ruler when something he did made her mad. In an attempt to maintain his pride during such public humiliation, he laughed as she hit him. She marched him to the principal’s office. He came back chastened and tearful.
In junior high, my sister sustained a third-degree burn on a small area of her leg after accidentally touching the hot exhaust pipe of a motorcycle. Our pediatrician said that, for a few weeks, she should avoid any physical activity that might possibly bump the burn. Several of the teachers at her school, including the principal and the principal’s wife (who was the P.E. teacher), disliked my sister. They labeled her “sullen”, because her shyness and unsmiling face were misinterpreted as uncooperative. When she came to P.E. with the doctor’s note excusing her from the class, the P.E. teacher ignored it and forced her to play dodgeball. My parents called the school when my sister came home in tears, after her burn was hit by a ball. She was allowed to skip P.E. for rest of her recovery time.
My high school biology teacher believed that the most important thing he could teach his students was to follow directions to the letter. (Mindless automaton training, anyone?) He put tricky instructions on his quizzes to trip us up, and marked us down when we failed to follow his deceptive instructions exactly. One memorable multiple choice quiz directed us to write our answers at the end of the sentence. Blanks were printed before each numbered question. We all struggled with those directions and talked about it with each other after class. What did he mean by the “end” of the sentence? If we interpreted it the way most people would, we would NOT put our answers in the neat blanks in front of the sentence, but write them after each sentence. That seemed crazy because they would be a lot less easy to read and grade. The blanks were confusing; maybe he meant we should put the answers at the “front end” of the sentence.
Many of us chose the more rational option and wrote our answers in the blanks provided. The next day, all of us who made that choice failed the quiz, even if we had correctly answered all the questions. The teacher fairly gloated as he pointed out to us that we hadn’t followed directions. When some of us tried to explain that we had read the directions and were confused by them, he completely dismissed our protests. My parents, who rarely interfered at school, and other students’ parents called to complain. Most unluckily for the teacher, one of the students who failed to follow the directions was the principal’s son, who also went home and complained to his dad.
The next day, the biology teacher bitterly announced that he was giving credit for everyone’s correct answers, even though they didn’t follow directions. In a fit of sour grapes, he belittled everyone who had whined to their parents, called us babies, and predicted future disaster because we couldn’t follow directions.
As is still true in many schools, we were required to address our teachers using their surnames. I internalized the intentional subordination to authority to such a degree, that I couldn’t bring myself to address my college instructors by their first names. I avoided using their names at all.
What stands out to me in all these examples is the extreme lack of power we children had, and, in many cases, how threatened the adults felt when we challenged their authority. We were powerless to change the outcome; only other adults had enough power and influence to change the way these adults behaved.
I hated being powerless, but I coped with it by doing what I needed to do to be a “good” kid and by cultivating a cooperative and pleasant attitude that ensured most adults in authority liked me. Other kids were less willing to submit and they received lots of abuse and contempt from those same adults. There was no way to win–to emerge with self-respect and confidence.
Although there were adults with power who did not use it abusively, there was no question that any power we children had depended on following their rules, which were frequently opaque. A tiny few adults were egalitarian with power sharing, and I trusted them implicitly. My parents valued my opinions and worked to accommodate my wishes and desires, and to understand my struggles.
What’s really disheartening is that the interactions between adults and children are still often set up like a zero-sum game, where there are winners and losers and those with power always win. Even though I knew a few adults that I trusted and who respected me, I am struck by how potent my memories are of feeling utterly powerless. Injustice always leaves a wound and interferes with a strong sense of self.
It is crucial that we reject adversarial roles between adults and children in which adults need to maintain control, be on the lookout for manipulation and subversion, and present a powerful, united front. We children and adults are all flawed, vulnerable, creative, and compassionate people who have a lot to learn with and from each other.
I’m interested in your memories of injustice or justice at the hands of adults, and how those experiences influenced you. Please comment or email me directly.