Having just attended a two-day conference on conflict resolution and teaching social skills, I have had a lot of the issues related to these topics on my mind for the past twenty-four hours. This morning, I had a real eye-opener when my five year old daughter decided to turn our house into her own daycare center. She had several children in her class, including Junior, Michael, and Abby (incidentally, only one of these names actually belongs to someone in her class). Through her dramatic play, I caught a unique glimpse at what traditional discipline teaches our children.
(Also incidentally, the dramatic play is continuing even as I type this.)
As is expected in any daycare setting, one of the children was not listening. I had laid down on the bed so my daughter declared it was nap time. Junior was not laying on his mat and was playing with toys and blocks rather than sleeping, so he wasn’t listening. He wouldn’t get a sticker or do fun stuff like play with playdough. But of course he still kept playing. “This is when the teacher gets sick of it,” said my daughter. I have to assume that this is language that her teacher uses a lot, because I don’t think I use that language with her. She said that he was acting like a baby and was going to put him in the baby room. Abby and some other children were laying down very well and so they would get to do fun stuff and get stickers. She acknowledged each of them by name and told them that they would get stickers.
Once I got my computer out to start blogging about the experience, she switched roles. She became the student and I became the teacher, and she laid down next to me on the bed. She looked up at me and said, “I’m going to sleep and I’m laying down on my mat. Am I going to get a sticker and do fun stuff?” When I said yes, she said (in an obviously grateful voice) “Oh, thank you mommy!”
The voice bothered me. The idea that she was doing exactly as she thought I wanted and then needed the reassurance that her behavior was going to be rewarded, and then was obviously appreciative of her reward only brought one image to my mind: that of a slave being grateful to their master for something that they had earned through good behavior. The image made me shudder inside, because this is my own daughter, and she is giving me this image in my head through her own dramatic play.
What in the world are we teaching our kids? We use fear to get them to do what we want them to do (I doubt the teacher verbalizes that they are sick of it in the nicest voice that she has). We threaten to withhold the fun stuff if they don’t do what we want them to. We humiliate them (you are acting like a baby so maybe you should go to the baby room) in front of their friends, and then expect them to act the way that WE want them to, rather than in the way that they should for their age. We push and push and push and expect and expect and expect and yell and yell and yell, and these kids are suppposed to….what? What are they supposed to do? Bow down to our wishes? That is what we are asking them to do. We are trying to break our kids. Kids are going to run. They love to run. If someone does something that they don’t like, they are going to retaliate somehow; if they don’t know the words to say, they are going to retaliate physically. They are going to play in the ways that they know. If we don’t teach them productive ways to play then they will turn to what they see around them.
Discipline should not be about manipulation, intimidation, and humiliation. It should be about understanding, love, and education. Children should not feel like they have to please an angry ogre all of the time; in that environment they do not know what to expect from moment to moment and will constantly be on edge. Children should feel secure and respected. They should feel like they can be themselves and not have to conform to whatever whims the teacher has. Part of disciplining children is figuring out how to make the rules understandable to them. If you simply tell a children not to play with the blocks at naptime, go lay down on your mat, be quiet, I’m sick of you not listening – they don’t understand that. Why can’t they play with the blocks? But rather than making it personal to them – perhaps telling them that if they don’t go to sleep they will be tired later when it is time to do the fun stuff – we try to scare them into doing what we want them to do. Our kids our growing up scared, afraid, and without a place where they feel safe.