Three boys appeared in the door of my office, yesterday.
Boy 1: “We’re not in trouble. Our teacher sent us to ask if you could help us work out a problem that came up at recess.”
I excused myself from the finance meeting,
and the boys gathered around me at a chair in the hallway.
Mr. Rick: “Do you think you can work it out yourselves?”
Boy 3: “We want to try to work it out ourselves.”
Mr. Rick: “Okay. Tell you what. You guys sit at the table in the courtyard outside my window, and if you run into trouble, raise your hands, and I will leave my meeting and help.” As we walked outside, I said, “Let’s move the table closer to the window.” I took the front, they took the back, we walked it closer to my office, and I went back to my meeting.
After about 10 minutes of animated talk a hand went up. One of them came over and said that there was a fourth boy who should be sitting at the table. I said, “Okay, one of you go get him.” Soon there were four at the table. After about 10 more minutes I decided it was time for me to see how they were doing, so I left the meeting again and pulled a chair up to the head of the table.
They took turns talking, building on each other’s ideas and obviously trying to come to a consensus. They kept changing their minds until they all agreed they had a plan. I said, “What’s your plan?”
“When we find ourselves getting mad at each other, we’ll take a break.”
“Yeah, we’ll just sit down till we cool down.”
Mr. Rick: “That’s good: ‘Sit down till you cool down.’
“Yeah, or kick the ball with our teammate till we are ready to play again.”
Mr. Rick: “Good job. Let’s see how it works. Will one of you take responsibility for coming and reporting to me?
Boy 4: “I will.”
What’s so important about this story? 1) The boys took responsibility for their conflict and by taking responsibility worked on their collaborative skills and thus added to their conflict resolution repertoire. 2) The teacher correctly assessed their readiness for working out this conflict on their own, thus creating the space for them to actually learn, develop and practice those skills. 3) The Head of School was used correctly: as an educator who is available to help people with their learning challenges rather than an officer of the law. No one was “in trouble.” No one was “bad.” Conflicts are to be expected in a human community, and we might as well welcome them as learning opportunities.
Adults often try to “encourage” children to “be responsible” and get mixed results. This is because the language is tragically flawed. “Being responsible” is a static trait, and to a child’s ear the message is “You don’t have this trait and you need it.” They feel labeled rather than encouraged. Labels (both good and bad) are bad encouragement.
A better focus for children is “take responsibility.” When we take responsibility for something we feel good because we are challenging our abilities to respond to a situation with internal motivation. “Ability” is inert and useless without “response.” Ability is only real when used in the act of taking responsibility for something—like your work or your relationships.
At Golden Oak respect and responsibility are not “values,” but laws. 1) Be respectful at all times no matter what. 2) Take responsibility for your work and your relationships. Mr. Rick can be useful as a reminder that this is so. To develop our sense of justice in each of us as we take more and more responsibility for situations of ever increasing complexity, this is central to the Montessori vision.