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.
This 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.”).
Anywhere you go in the school children are just being children and being socially responsible at the same time. One eight-year-old came charging around the corner and bumped into me. He stopped, said, “I’m sorry,” waited for me to smile back with “that’s okay,” and we both went on about our business. In the classrooms and out, the children ages seven to 14 are going about their business of learning—and learning includes (of course) learning how to get along with others.
American culture is biased toward individuality. We expect kids to simply want to “do their own thing.” “I gotta be me” is foundational to American economic and political democracy. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is a corner stone of our society.
And yet, self-reliance has lost its way in a sea of self-absorption. We often see people trying to be true to themselves as if they live and move in spiritual isolation. Hence they are often a frustration to others, as well as themselves. They cannot seem to get happy. The harder they try, the more they perpetuate their unhappiness.
This self-absorption brings with it a concomitant confusion about community, rules, discipline, social responsibility and justice. Belief in the sanctity of the individual child translates all too often into acting as if our adult needs, the needs of the community, the needs of others, are unfortunate impositions upon the child. Parents and teachers say “guidelines” when they mean rules, give kids choices when there really is only one responsible choice, and say, “listen” when they mean “obey.” A teacher will say something like, “Jimmy had a hard day today,” when the truth is that she had a hard day with Jimmy. Parents are often stymied by the willfulness of their children. To quote one mother asking for advice: “Ashley is a delightful child but very willful, and I don’t want to break her spirit.”
In “Self-Reliance: Emerson likens social constraints to “the barrel of a gun.” They give the Self direction by their very finality. This idea has been all but lost in modern American culture. Our cultural metaphor of the last half-century has been not of iron walls but of hurdles. A rule is a hurdle to be gotten over, rather than a constraint to be understood and respected. Today a self-respecting, assertive person should blow past or “blow off” hurdles and do exactly what he or she wants on the way to the inalienable right of happiness. “Decision-making” doesn’t include good social decision-making.
But Emerson saw the pursuit of happiness as existing in the tension between an irresistible force of self and the immovable object of its environment. Out of this conflict grows something new, something stronger, something often better than the Self we had in mind in the first place. The development of character is not simply doing the right thing nor is it doing your own thing and being “a character.” Rather, character (the self-that-is-becoming) is the result of a dynamic relationship between the self and its environment, a tension that educates both the self and others, a conflict that creates new and often wonderful moments—moments of beauty, truth, love, and justice. Kids actually understand that.
When efforts at “discipline” fail, maybe it’s because they are delivered under the false assumption that selfishness is natural and altruism is unnatural.
All day long Golden Oak points to the reality that a human is both a unique individual and a web of relationships striving to become whole. Those raising children do well to correct children’s behavior as if the children know and care about their relationships and fundamentally want to do the right thing. When we don’t get the results we want, we have to keep our learning hat on and keep at it. Kids want us to.