Authority and Boundaries

by Rick on July 24, 2014

 It’s 5:15 pm. Mom is at the stove making dinner. Her six-year-old Brittany sees a bag of candy canes that her mother just brought home for Christmas decorations, and says, “Mommy, can I have a candy cane?”

“It’s close to dinnertime. Can you wait?”

“No. I’m hungry,” says Brittany with a bit of a whine in her voice.

“We’ll be eating soon. I don’t want you to spoil your dinner.”

“But, I’m hungry. I can’t wait,” Brittany complains.


“Mommy. I want a candy cane. I’m hungry.” Brittany’s tone has changed to a wail.

Long pause. “Okay, but just one,” with a resigned tone of voice that communicates “I don’t really think it’s a good idea, but if that is what you want, then okay, you win.”

This kind of back-and-forth between parent and child can often last quite a bit longer, and is rather common in American households. Boundaries in American families are often rather vague and poorly defended with results ranging from authority battles at home, to misbehavior in public, to discipline problems at school—even to sloppy parent-teacher conferences.

Americans are all over the map on authority. From authoritarians to anti-authoritarians and everything in between, we have among us many notions of authority, mostly negative. So, we tend to avoid the word.

But we need the word. Children need us to be authorities. They are counting on us to be authorities on nutrition, our own personal boundaries, how we treat one another, and thousands of other bits of knowledge about how the world works. Moreover, we want children to become authorities—that’s why we send them to school. We want them to be authors, authors of books, articles, poems, works of art, new inventions, new companies, better ways of doing things. We need them to be authors of peace and friendship.

Authority is a good word. Teachers are charged with making sure that their students leave them more authoritative than they were before. All good teachers want their students to be writers regardless of subject, because getting their children to write about what they are learning is a very helpful way to solidify the thoughts and understandings that will make them authorities. Speaking in front of a group is a critical activity if children are to become the strong social animals they need to be for optimal functioning in the world—right up there with reading, writing and ciphering.

That these obvious statements are so often in the shadows of our minds rather than the forefront is partial proof of my thesis that we are authority-avoidant even though authority-avoidance is about as functional as conflict-avoidance.

Vicky is at the keyboard trying to concentrate on her writing. Beatty, her 6-year old, comes into the room talking. “Mommy, …” he says, and the contents of his mind come pouring out.

Vicky stops typing, turns to him, listens and answers his questions even though she is feeling a lot of deadline pressure.

For her own sake as well as for the child’s, a much better move would be to say in a matter-of-fact voice, “Please don’t walk into a room talking.” Or perhaps, “Wait, please. I need to finish my thought.”

At the crux of the matter is the reality that any two people working on their own individual authority are different; so their authorities may clash. How will my authority run afoul of some other person’s authority? What if we disagree? Who will win? Who will show me up as less than the authority I think I am?

One of the disciplines required for handling clashes of authority is defining and defending boundaries. Being clear about what you think, feel, want, need and value is actually a gift rather than an imposition. People need to know where they stand with us in order to build a relationship. Kids in particular appreciate it (even if they sometimes sound like they don’t.)

To maximize education a school or home must organize itself so that each person’s authority enhances other people’s authority. Defining ourselves clearly and lovingly to children is a critical discipline that takes a lot of practice—in fact, it is a lifelong challenge, but it is at the core of build authority in children.

Brittany’s and Beatty’s mothers are doing more than being wishy-washy about boundaries. They are missing opportunities to challenge their children to become more, flexible, resilience, adaptable and creative. Frustrating a child’s impulse is essential for his success in all endeavors from social problems to math problems.









Michael was driving his father Josef crazy. Getting Michael to do his homework was always a bit of a challenge ever since he started getting homework in the third grade. But what was a challenge in the third grade became a hassle by fourth grade, a battle by 6th grade and now, in eighth grade, he had simply stopped turning it in.

This was the focal point of an October parent-teacher conference I attended. Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Father: “It is so hard to get the kids out of the house in the morning, Freda and Matt keep fighting. This sibling rivalry is driving me crazy, but I don’t want them to be late to school.”

Advice from the Principal: “Put a chair in front of the front door, sit in it with arms folded and consider saying something like this: ‘I will not take you to school until you can show me that you are ready to work out your differences and be supportive of each other. If you are this incompetent before you even get to school, how do you expect to be successful in school?’”

That this advice sounds laughably extreme and never practiced proves that our culture is unclear about what it means to be educated.

Ask most teachers about the mission they are on and they will say things like “Give kids 21st century skills,” “Prepare young people for an increasingly diverse, complex, changing, challenging world.” Parents, also, are predisposed to such a mission and want their kids not only to be academically prepared but also to be “lifelong learners” who are “good at working with others” and “comfortable in their own skin.” Then teachers and parents go off to school and forget their mission.

ben setting up classThe mission of Golden Oak Montessori Charter School, my new school in Hayward, California, is “to educate children to be active, aware citizens with the skills and knowledge to participate meaningfully in the diverse and challenging new century.” This is not a stunningly unusual mission. In fact most schools have missions like this—explicit or implied. But it seems remarkably hard for schools to hold fast to such missions.

One reason is that most schools and most people in our culture compartmentalize the intelligence required for good book-learning from the intelligence required to be high-functioning in an “increasingly diverse, complex, changing, challenging world.” The former are called “cognitive skills” and the latter “soft, non-cognitive skills.” This compartmentalization compromises our ability to teach all skills.

The mental work necessary for solving a social problem is not radically different from the thinking necessary for addressing an academic problem—reading the situation, describing the problem, analyzing it, seeing different points of view, communicating clearly, listening, creating a synthesis, trying again—these are the kinds of things educated people can do, and therefore what school is for. If we understand the skills for success, then proficiency at getting the family happily out of the house in the morning is obviously just as important as completing homework. It IS the homework.

Something I love about Golden Oak is the underlying assumption that cognitive performance, social competence, and emotional intelligence are intimately intertwined. The teachers understand that to educate children to be citizens of the world, they need to be citizens in their classrooms.

GO MS set up photoAs the teachers come into school over the summer to unpack their boxes, set up their furniture and hang things on the walls, our conversations revolve around the culture they are creating. Academics are taught in community because all learning—solving problems, understanding phenomena, creating something valuable and new—is optimized when done in groups and compromised when done in isolation.

Golden Oak Montessori is in the friendship business, because it takes its mission seriously. The teachers know that maximizing individual success requires intense social engagement. Recess, cooperative learning groups, and practice at turning conflict into friendship are central to academic achievement.

Another reason we tend to lose our way stems from our understanding of friendship. It’s normal to think, “A friend is someone we like,” and “Of course, not everyone can be friends.” But if our mission is to prepare young people for the world today, then friendship skills are the most basic of basics. Being friendly to those we like is easy, but creating a friendship with anyone requires mental work of the hardest kind. Minds that can do this are not “soft.”

Yes, schools should “deliver results.” We would do well to start measuring results that matter.

Homo sapiens are a social species. We were wired by natural selection to make it in the world by partnering up with other humans, forming teams and organizing. Those who tried to go it alone starved, got eaten by the tiger, or bludgeoned by those-other-people-over-there. Our only hope was to stick together, and therefore, learning how to work things out with others was our main vehicle for getting smart. It still is.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


a photoIn school, being a successful person and having good social skills are completely different categories. The former is what report cards report, and the latter may sometimes also be reported—in a comment, perhaps, or in a “Social-emotional” section at the end. In our culture high achievement/happiness/success are on one hand and being a good person are on the other—two separate strategies for living your life. Achievement is an individual enterprise; caring for others is a moral mandate. Montessori schools are different. Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Treat Kids As If Social Responsibility is a Natural Act

Most Americans would expect that if you put 200 children in one room for an hour near the end of the school year there would be some discipline problems. Last week I attended an hour-long assembly where 20 first, second and third graders, performed for 180 first-through-eighth graders. I detected no discipline problems. No. I guess I did see one teacher beckon for a child to come sit next to her, and he obeyed.

photo 3This was an end-of-the-year production at my new school, Golden Oak Montessori, a public charter school in Hayward, CA. Golden Oak demonstrates the validity of the dictum: treat children as if being socially responsible is something children would naturally want to be. (“Why wouldn’t I? I’m not saying it is always easy. I’m just sayin’ it’s the thing I care about most.”). Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Before the war (as my parents used to say) “character building” was a good thing. In the ‘50′s and ‘60′s when something was hard, educators could say to us students, “Just do it. It’s character building.” They must have used this expression once too often, or misused it, or something, because today, character building seems to have become a tribulation we might wish on our worst enemy.

These days the expression rears its ugly head in moments like:

Girl Friend: “How was your honeymoon?” New Bride: “Character building.” Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


When evaluating a school, getting there before school starts can be very useful. You get to see the bearing of the teachers as they arrive. You can read their emotional tone as they greet people. You can assess the enthusiasm of the students approaching the front door or entering their classrooms. You can sense the quality of the social interactions, gauge the relations between the generations, and you can feel each individuals’ personal authority and sense of purpose.

One morning in April I arrived at Golden Oak Montessori School at eight to find Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Several days ago my three-year-old grandson launched into an ebullient riff that went something like: “I am grateful for this soup. I am grateful for the goats. I am grateful for Papa being here. I am grateful for planting the trees. I am grateful for the chickens. I am grateful for Ilyasso” (his name for his baby brother). Eyes wide, his face beamed with enthusiasm.

Of course, we were all delighted, and his behavior was contagious. Each of us at the table blurted out things we were grateful for. Almost every day now Musa delivers a new list of gratefuls.

Behavior Problems - Google SearchMusa brims with energy, and therefore is at risk for launching into all sorts of behavior, some of which one could fairly label “pushy,” “grabby,” “dangerous,” “disobedient” or “selfish.” It would not be surprising for a person to say: “Musa is impulsive.” In fact there are those who would suggest that he should be tested for ADHD or that he has Executive Function Disorder. Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


From the Signature Room atop of the Hancock Building at 875 N. Michigan Avenue we could look down on Lake Michigan and its beaches stretching all the way to Evanston. We also looked down on Lake Shore Drive filled with cars.north lake shore drive reconstruction project - Google Search

Sixty of us were gathered as part of a city-wide discussion to consider plans for the mile-and-a-half stretch of shoreline where millions of people interface with the inland sea we call “The Lake.” The central problem, of course, is how to give people better access to a potentially beautiful beach and improve this major traffic artery of the city at the same time. We citizens of Chicago (I moved here last month) were taking responsibility for confronting a complex problem and collectively contributing to the creation of something new. Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Washington Post, May 7th: “Math, reading performance is stagnant among U.S. 12th-graders, assessment finds. All this effort on standards and test scores and still no change. Hmmmm.

DSC00158But there are those who predicted that teaching directly to standards would only make a bad system worse. Maybe we should listen. A teacher in New York, for instance, sent me this report three years ago: Read More…

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,