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Friday, July 27, 2012

Safety is not a check box

I used to work at a high school where the children had to have a permission form signed by their parents every year in order to attend some of their school lessons, because walking to one department's buildings involved crossing a quiet, dead-end road that ran through school property. 

We are talking about teenagers crossing a clearly marked pedestrian crossing on a road to nowhere in broad daylight. 

That was just one example of the lunacy of a system that was suffocating its workers under a mountain of paperwork. I mean, the children even had to have a signed permission form to attend their own school concert, which was out of hours and involved being accompanied by their parents. 

And every form had to be marked off against a list, 

and every missing form had to be chased up... 

and there was a form for everything.

When I queried the craziness of this regime, I was told in all seriousness that any law suit might cause the school to close due to bankruptcy and then none of us would have a job. Yes, the endless mountain range of permission slips for the most ridiculously minor things was an attempt to stave off liability for absolutely everything, just in case.

Of course, it doesn't only happen in education.
The saddest thing of all was that the administrators really thought it was working. In my usual fashion, I tried in the first instance to approach the situation with humour; I circulated a form of my own to all staff. It began:


You must complete this form before completing this form.

It gave a lot of people a laugh, but it didn't change anything. The mentality was delusional and deeply ingrained. Nobody was stepping back and looking at the big picture- nobody could see how administering all that unnecessary paperwork was affecting the quality of the teaching. 

(Are you hearing me, EC professionals?)

Monday, July 23, 2012

'Sorry' doesn't fix it: getting to the bottom of children's fights

"Excuse me? That boy over there, the one in the green shirt. He needs to say sorry to the boy in the blue shirt. Make sure he does it."

I bit my tongue, hard. The total stranger who had wandered through the preschool room on her way to a meeting next door got a raised eyebrow and silence from me, in response to her brusque demand. It wasn't just her tone of voice that got my back up, nor the fact that she'd taken it upon herself to start issuing orders to me without so much as introducing herself.

No, what really riled me was her complete confidence in her own take on the situation- confidence that she could just take a snapshot of what had gone amiss between two children she didn't  even know, and instantly solve it by forcing one of the children to use a magic word.


Sadly, it's a common mistake. Parents and carers often fall into the trap of looking for a formula that saves them having to think all the time. We're busy. We're stressed. Analysing every single conflict situation that comes up with our children is sometimes difficult, sometimes downright impossible, given the other demands on our time and the frequency of the conflicts. We're hanging out for a short cut, a magic solution.

Siblings or peers fighting? Someone must be at fault. Therefore someone needs to apologise. If we can work out who's to blame and make that sorry happen, it's all sorted.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let me unpack what actually happened in this particular case, and that might give you some clues on why forcing a 'sorry' is always a complete waste of time and doesn't solve a thing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spanking, karma and children's thinking

Today I shared this little meme on my Facebook page:

I love the interactions on my Facebook page, I really do. They make me think. They make me see things from other people's perspectives.

Almost at once, a parent posted this comment:

"Ya it is! Suck it up! Call it karma..."

Now, when I stop to think, I can really understand how this parent came to this point of view. The idea of karma (on a superficial, buzzword level) is that what goes around, comes around. So if a child hits, this parent feels that it's karma if he then hits the child, to balance the equation. In Christian terms, some would call it 'an eye for an eye'. The concept is similar; the hitting justifies the hitting. It's fair.

There are other seemingly logical reasons to believe that spanking a child for hitting is a good idea. If we look at what happens on the streets outside the pub at closing time, we can all picture what will happen if our 18-year-old decides to lash out and hit someone. Someone will hit them back, probably hard, and there will be tears before bedtime (possibly in a hospital ward, or worse).

It's understandable that we might want to teach a child cause and effect by pre-empting that scenario. Perfectly understandable. 

Sorry- I know you mean well- but it doesn't work like that. Not for children.

Before I explain how does it work, let me call a point of order here, because I have some Indian readers and I'm feeling a bit snarky on their behalf. One of their religious concepts has been acquired and misused here.

It's probably not all that wise to use a faith-based word like 'karma' without really knowing what it means (though I realise that many of us do use it in jest- I've done it myself). If you really understand the concept of karma, you'll know that you can't manipulate it or rush it. Karma is delivered by the Universe or by God, not by you, and in the Universe or God's own good time. If you decide to appoint yourself the agent of karma and rush things through, you've kind of missed the point. 

A simple search of Wikipedia will tell you, among other things, that

"Karma operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage it. "

So if we could be serious for a moment here about the term we're using, karma does NOT justify you smacking a child who hits. If you wanted to continue the karma analogy more accurately, perhaps the most short-term 'karmic' result of the child hitting might be that the victim refuses to cooperate or share in a later game- that is the natural consequence of putting bad energy out there; it comes back and bites you on the proverbial, just when you've forgotten all about what you did wrong.

That's the time for a wise parent to engage, and point out the emotions involved. "Ethan doesn't want to play with you. Maybe he is still angry that you hit him when you were in the sandpit this morning. Do you remember that?"

That is how you use karma in behaviour management- by explaining cause and effect, not by appointing yourself as God.

As for the Christian 'an eye for an eye'- I think we'd do better to pay attention to a much more recent Biblical directive, 'do unto others as you'd have others do unto you'. (I mean, do you really want someone bigger and stronger than you to hit you every time you make a mistake? That's the essence of the Christian message.)

But both 'karma' (which I suspect was actually used rather flippantly in this context) and 'an eye for an eye' are adult concepts. To understand why smacking doesn't work as 'justice', you have to look at it through the eyes of the recipient- the child. The real problem here is a mistaken understanding of how a child thinks.

Children tend not to project understandings the way adults do; that isn't where they're at, in developmental terms. Nor do they sit there thinking deeply about interpretations of actions. Children are usually very literal. 

So when a child hits, and then an adult intervenes and also hits, the child doesn't take away a lesson of 'karma' or justice. That is an adult interpretation. 

The child sees only the modelling expressed by your action. You, as the parent, are first and foremost a role model. The child sees that hitting is an accepted strategy for expression of difficult feelings, because even you do it. You are angry with them, so you hit them. But all the time, you're shouting "Don't hit"!

Naturally, this is very confusing for a child- and this is where the cartoon above starts to make sense. What they are seeing from their role model is that hitting is okay, but what they are hearing from their role model is that hitting is not okay.

There's a word for that- hypocrisy. Children generally don't know that word, but they'll learn the concept mighty fast if you do it often enough (and then heaven help you when they're teenagers).

The child might indeed stop hitting right now- but not because they've learned that hitting is wrong. You just showed that hitting is okay. No- the child, with his literal mind, saw that only the biggest, strongest hitter is allowed to hit. (Well, that is exactly what just happened, isn't it?) 

And so they are much more likely to have learned not that hitting is wrong, but that while a bigger, stronger hitter is around, they'll get hurt if they hit. That might cause them to become sneaky, and hit other kids- maybe kids who are smaller or weaker than them- when and where no adult can see them. (That's called bullying, by the way.)

You haven't taught a lesson about behaviour or empathy- that got lost in the confusion. You've taught a lesson about power.

A more introspective child might learn that the world is a scary and unpredictable place, with rules they don't understand, and start to withdraw trust from you, or even from anyone large and powerful. (That's called anxiety, by the way.)

So while I do understand the reasoning behind thinking that hitting the hitter is 'karmic' or just, I can't agree, and neither will your children. I think it's a clear case of hypocrisy- and believe me, that's exactly how children will see it.

How are you going to wriggle out of that one, when they turn into teenagers and throw the word back at you?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nudging creativity with nonchalant stimuli

I've already told you that play-based learning is not the same as a free-for-all. Free-for-alls can mean that you miss things, as I explained in that post. But let me get a little more specific about the importance of providing some subtle stimuli for young children's creative play.

It is NOT enough to just dump the same old toys out on the floor, or pull out the same old boxes of equipment, and say that you're providing 'open-ended play' in line with the EYLF (or whatever your own national equivalent for C21st EC curriculum might be). Early Childhood teachers still need to provide creative flash-points for the children. There is still a role for the teacher in EC classrooms. We are not just babysitters, watching attentively lest Little Johnny bumps his head or wets his pants.

It isn't necessarily a case of laziness when ECEs stop putting in. Quite a few have developed an unholy fear of nudging children in any direction at all, lest they be in breach of the 'free play' thrust of the new curriculum. We are told over and over not to provide direct creative models for the children, lest we damage their confidence in their own ability to create anything comparable. (For example, you might entertain the children mightily with your wonderful playdough dinosaur, but you won't encourage them to make their own dough creation.) Overly structured artistic models are more obvious no-nos. (For example, giving children a stencilled picture to colour in, complete with 'here's one I did earlier' for them to copy, is an educational joke- and an unfunny one at that.)

But please, let's have some balance here. There's a big difference between leading a horse to water, shoving its head in the pond and holding it there till it drinks, and setting the horse loose in a paddock without a water trough whilst hoping it rains one day.

Perhaps we could aspire to wandering nonchalantly towards the pond, with the reins held loosely, when the horse looks thirsty. 

Today I witnessed a perfect example of how a well-timed stimulus can nudge a child's creativity to new heights. The fact that this stimulus was 'accidental' and provided by someone other than a teacher is irrelevant. The point is that a stimulus was there to be discovered, and it had a magical effect in changing the course of an afternoon's creative play.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A foolproof child-raising formula

I was standing in an 'alternative' supermarket the other day waiting for a friend, watching the people go by. As shoppers go, I've got to say these people were intense. They inspected, then they were decisive. They carefully selected their organic vegies, their spelt flour, their echinacea tablets, their no-added-anything almond paste, their herbal supplements and heaven only knows what else; I failed to even recognise many of the products on display.  

These people didn't need to ask questions. They knew what they wanted and where everything was kept. They were long-term disciples of their chosen path to good health.

Of course, there's no guarantee that any of these people won't develop cancer or muscular dystrophy or some other dire disease tomorrow. They hope that what they're doing will work- some of them truly believe that it will work- but really, they don't know. They're just clutching at straws, because they want to defy death as long as possible.

To me, they didn't look much different from anyone else on the street. Maybe their skin was a little clearer. Maybe less of them were obese. Yes, they're probably improving their chances by eating less rubbish than most of us, but honestly- I felt like I was in church. Their formula for health seemed almost like a religion.

Nobody was smiling. I thought that was sad.

And hello, if anyone really knew the answer to defying death, we'd all be doing it. Just the other day, I posted a link on my Facebook page that debunked the popular doctrine that sugar is poisonous. Dr Atkins is reported to have been obese when he died, despite his famous diet advice. I've had two older friends die of breast cancer, despite them taking extreme measures to modify their diet and detox their system.

Fads, methods, beliefs. There aren't any guarantees, no matter how hard you try.

And of course, that got me thinking about raising children. Because again, despite all your reading of books and blogs and articles, and despite scientific research, and despite what everyone around you seems to be doing successfully, you can't be sure what will work for you and your child. There are too many variables- personality, life circumstances, twists of fate, genetics, environment- for anybody to be able to perfect a formula for raising a child perfectly.

I was a 'Dr Spock' baby- but when I started bashing my head on the floor and screaming to express my displeasure, my mother had to just give up on 'methods' and let me finish expressing myself.  Is that called 'cry it out'?
(I can assure you I don't have brain damage.)