Anyone who is anyone in parenting or education has read the Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior“, and many of them have already responded to the article. I decided to respond to the article because it characterizes a philosophical debate that has been plaguing me for a while now: two differing and extremely prevalent discipline styles. The idea that there are two differing styles is not what has plagued me, but the fact that there aren’t many people who seen to understand that there are differing styles, or what the mentalities behind these roots are. For this reason, I applaud Amy Chua’s article for bringing this to light.
There are two different mindsets about children that are the root of these philosophical differences. The mindset showcased in the article is that children are inherently bad; if left to their own devices they will choose destructive, lazy, or hurtful activities. For this reason their activities and entire day must be micromanaged by adults, whether it be parents or teachers. This mindset is prevalent in our society as well as Amy Chua’s, although it doesn’t manifest itself in quite the same way. I will explain what I mean in a minute.
The other mindset is that children are inherently good; if left to their own devices they will choose activities that are meaningful to them and that they will learn something from. Because they are children and don’t have all of the answers when it comes to the world around them, the adult’s role becomes that of a guide who helps the child understand the world around them, including how to interact with the people around them in a positive way.
There is a world of difference in these two mindsets, and the differences have been made startlingly clear to me in a couple of different ways in the past month. I have been striving to act more as a guide to the children in my classroom, especially in the area of social skills. Rather than reprimanding a child when they do something hurtful to a classmate, I have started using these as “teachable moments“, explaining to the child why an action was not acceptable and informing them of a different way they could have dealt with the situation that would have been more positive. Now, note that I said that the child did something hurtful to a classmate. This does not mean that the child went out of their way to be hurtful to someone. If we only look at a child that hits and not at the reason for the behavior, we will never teach ourselves or the child anything. Through my observations of children with “discipline problems” I have found that every problem has a specific reason behind it. Granted, I have been observing for about six months, which isn’t a long time. I can’t say that I have all of the answers for every child. I can only speak about what I have personally dealt with. But every child that I have dealt with does have a reason for their actions. One child hits their friends and throws toys at them for apparently no reason. Upon observation I noted that this child did these things because something didn’t go their way and that was their way of dealing with it. The way I handled the behavior was to teach the child anger management techniques and talk to the child about alternatives to that behavior. It has helped tremendously where time-outs and even “say you’re sorry” have not.
The setting for the first moment I went through in recognizing the stark difference in these two mindsets, as well as how prevalent the “children are inherently bad” mindset is, was at a training session about discipline. New state guidelines about discipline had been put into place and we were being trained on these new guidelines. When reading from the script, the presenter talked about the proper way to talk to the child and using using positive guidance. But when it came to discussion about the topic (and there is always discussion when it comes to discipline) the presenter seemed to get off track. There was discussion about how to handle a child who seemed out of control: attempting to stab with scissors and throwing around furniture. Rather than discussing the methods of the teachers, the presenter and those involved focused on the behavior of the child, and revealed that the child had been dismissed from the center (the presenter was the director of the center) due to the behavior. What hurt my heart was that those involved in the discussion did not talk about trying to find out what the underlying causes of the behavior were; it was assumed that this was how this particular child was – this child could do nothing but exhibit destructive behavior. I was completely taken aback by this mindset; it is very hard for me, as a teacher, to imagine another teacher not trying to find out if there may be something else going on with this child and if they are dealing with that the only way they know how. It is hard for me to see a child labeled “bad” when every child has potential and every child that I know wants to use that potential; some of them just don’t know how and need the guidance of an adult.
The second eye-opener came at my own center, where I had implemented a discipline system in my classroom which was based on teaching correct behaviors rather than punishing bad behaviors. If a child did something hurtful to another child, I would pull both children aside and address the victim first. I would teach them to let the offender know that they did not like being treated in the way that they were treated. I would then explain to the offender that they had hurt the other child (most children really do not understand that feelings and actions hurt), teach them how to correct the hurt, and also teach them a more appropriate way to handle the situation that they were reacting to when they hurt the other child. This method had been wildly successful in my classroom for a couple of months, with children taking responsibility for their own hurts and actions without my involvement – and these were three-year-old children! Another strategy that I was employing in my classroom was child-directed activities, which made the children in my care much happier and cut down on discipline problems as well. This strategy had been in place for about a month when I was called into the office and told that my children were undisciplined and my classroom lacked structure. I was thoroughly taken aback and when I tried to explain the systems that I had put in place and how they were helping the classroom I was told that my philosophies weren’t in line with the company’s philosophy (the company’s philosophy is based on Reggio Emilia, so you can only imagine what impact those words had on me, who was trying to make my classroom more child-centered while staying in the company’s Reggio inspired curriculum).
Because of these moments I have felt the clash of the two discipline styles personally and I have seen the effects of both on children. I have even spent the last month implementing a more micro-management-type style into my classroom, only to be thoroughly disgusted with the results, which have been an increase of discipline problems and a lack of general enthusiasm for being in the classroom on the parts of both the children and myself. My belief is that children are inherently good, and they hold a special wonder for the world around them. They will do whatever they can to figure out the world around them, and that may manifest itself in ways that may seem destructive. The key to figuring out what is behind a child’s actions is objective, unbiased observation, and the key to correcting behaviors is positive, educational guidance. That is my belief.
When I first heard the term “child advocate” I was in agreement with the terms of the phrase, but I never thought that I would feel like I needed to be a child advocate when it came to teachers. Apparently there is a huge need for advocates for children in the realm of the teaching profession, because I am seeing time and again that children are “bad until proven good”. It is time to turn this belief around and help teachers realize that children are only trying to figure out the world around them, and our job is to help them in their discovery rather than label their attempts as “behavior problems”. I am starting to think that, if there really is such thing as a calling, this is mine.