from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Are Children Savages? 

I want to devote my diary today to a posting that is not directly on education, albeit intimately involved with it. After all, between DevilsTower and myself the Dailykos Recommended list saw two fairly significant education diaries yesterday.

Instead I want to explore the question of whether the behavior of children today is significantly worse than in previous years. The impetus for writing this is an piece in today’s NY Times entitled Kids Gone Wild by Judith Warner, an author and radio host. The title of my diary is derived from the 7th graf in which we read
Whether children are actually any worse behaved now than they ever have been before is, of course, debatable. Children have always been considered, basically, savages. The question, from the late 17th century onwards, has been whether they come by it naturally or are shaped by the brutality of society.
So if children’s behavior is worse, does that mean our current society has made them so?

As is my normal practice, I will focus on particular passages in the article and offer my own observations and commentary. Readers are of course encouraged to use the link in the intro to read the entire piece, which is not that long, if it might be of interest to them (and to ensure if they must that I am not “cherrypicking” a la the Bush administration only those parts that support a predetermined position).

I caution readers that I have a strong opinion on this subject, derived from my 11 years as a public school teacher, having taught grades 7 through 12. I also caution them that it might be a mistake to assume what that opinion is before you read further.

After stating at the beginning that the idea “kids should be seen and not heard” might be due for a comeback, the author notes in the first graf
American society seems to have reached some kind of tipping point, as far as tolerance for wild and woolly kid behavior is concerned.

She quotes polling behavior that says 70% of Americans consider children’s behavior significantly worse over the past few decades, and as an equal annoyance with “obnoxious” cell phone users. She then offers the following example:
The conservative child psychologist John Rosemond recently denounced in his syndicated column the increasing presence of "disruptive urchins" who "obviously have yet to have been taught the basic rudiments of public behavior," as he related the wretched experience of dining in a four-star restaurant in the company of one child roller skating around his table and another watching a movie on a portable DVD player.

Here I might note that I have seen adults in high class restaurants who talk far too loudly as if everyone else were interested in what they say, have heard people listening to portable radios and watching portable tvs (without earphones), and seen others reading books and magazines (only the latter not adding to the noise level). When that behavior was annoying to others, usually a request to the restaurant was sufficient to get the behavior modified. I might also note that I have seen relatively few children at the high class restaurants at which I dine. But I acknowledge that behavior such as that cited by Rosemond does occur, although I might question how widespread it is, or if it is significantly more disruptive than that I have seen from adults in similar settings. Please remember this last point.

The article cites surveys from Public Agenda, in which in 2002 only 9% thought children were publicly respectful towards adults and in 2004 one in 3 teachers considered leaving the profession or knew colleagues who had left because of the behavior of children. My immediate reaction is that I have seen a significant number of adults who have no memories of what it is to be a child, who act disrespectfully towards children and then are shocked when the behavior is emulated and redirected at them. I also note a significant albeit relatively small minority of those I have seen entering teaching who really do not know how to work with young children or adolescents (depending on grade level) and who blame the children for their inability to maintain a positive learning environment - their sole management style is to threaten, scream, and complain. They make get conformity to their demands, but it will be sullen at best, and undercut as soon as they turn their backs. I don’t care how well they know their subjects or how well they score on teacher tests, these people do not belong in classrooms, and I really don’t care for their opinions about the behavior of children. But for now, I will grant that there are disruptive and rude children, and let’s move on.

After citing of all people Madonna, the article moves through the paragraph I first cited, where the question is whether the behavior is natural or shaped by society. The very next graf may provide a clue, and please note what I have placed in bold:
But what seems to have changed recently, according to childrearing experts, is parental behavior - particularly among the most status-conscious and ambitious - along with the kinds of behavior parents expect from their kids. The pressure to do well is up. The demand to do good is down, way down, particularly if it's the kind of do-gooding that doesn't show up on a college application.

The article goes on to cite how the expectations of children’s behavior has changed. That is,
parenting was largely about training children to take their proper place in their community, which, in large measure, meant learning to play by the rules and cooperate

Conduct was a window into one’s character, and there were certain fairly universal expectations.
Rude behavior, particularly toward adults, was something for which children had to be chastised, even punished.

parents might still
like their children to be polite, considerate and well behaved. But they're too tired, worn down by work and personally needy to take up the task of teaching them proper behavior at home.
Here a direct quote from the Harvard child psychologist who offered the last observation might be pertinent:
"We use kids like Prozac," he said. "People don't necessarily feel great about their spouse or their job but the kids are the bright spot in their day. They don't want to muck up that one moment by getting yelled at. They don't want to hurt. They don't want to feel bad. They want to get satisfaction from their kids. They're so precious to us - maybe more than to any generation previously. What gets thrown out the window is limits. It's a lot easier to pick their towel up off the floor than to get them away from the PlayStation to do it."

But the real issue is that parenting today focuses on training kids to be competitive - in the classroom and on the athletic fields,
and the kinds of attributes they need to be competitive are precisely those that help break down society's civility.

Warner continues with a number of observations from Kindlon, including that the emphasis of success values achievement over people, kids doing so much additional schoolwork that they don’t do chores, and other adults not getting involved:
"Nobody feels entitled to discipline other people's kids anymore," Dr. Kindlon said. "They don't feel they have the right if they see a kid doing something wrong to step in."

Here Warner again cites the data from Public Agenda in 2004, that
Nearly 8 in 10 teachers . . . said their students were quick to remind them that they had rights or that their parents could sue if they were too harshly disciplined. More than half said they ended up being soft on discipline "because they can't count on parents or schools to support them."

I have to interject at that this point that my own experience does not support this. I have never been undercut on discipline by my school administrators, even in the one case that went all the way to the superintendent. I have encountered what we call “red flag parents” but I have never allowed that to undercut the application of appropriate discipline. I do, however, have to keep scrupulous records, and I make sure to be proactive, both in communicating with parents and in informing administrators of possible difficult situations. But I acknowledge that I am in a far more fortunate situation than are many teachers around the country, and I make no pretense at generalizing from my own anecdotal experience.

The piece I am citing raises some real questions. I will just offer several of what I think are the most appropriate points:

"We always want to blame the kids, but if there's something wrong with their incivility, it's the way their parents model for them."

There's also the chance . . . that when children are rude, obnoxious and outrageously behaved, they're trying to tell parents something - something they've got to shout in order for them to hear.

”These kids are so extremely stressed from the academic load they're carrying “

"They have no kid space."

... parental over-involvement in their children's lives today often hides a very basic kind of indifference to their children's real need, simply to be kids.

Let me also offer the final two grafs:
If stress and strain, self-centeredness and competition are the pathogens underlying the rash of rudeness perceived to be endemic among children in America today, then the cure, some experts said, has to be systemic and not topical. Stop blaming the children, they said. Stop focusing on the surface level of behavior and start curing instead the social, educational and parental ills that feed it.

This may mean less "quality" time with children and more time getting them to do things they don't want to do, like sitting for meals, making polite conversation and - Madonna was right - picking their clothes up off the floor.

In the various threads on education, we always see people talking about behavior. Some commentors will complain about the kids, some will complain about the parents. There is, from my perspective, some validity to both sets of complaints.

I am not a parent (except of 5 rescued cats, one of whom is a real behavior problem, but we have no intention of giving him up, any more than most parents would give up a misbehaving child). Thus you may choose to discount the words I have to offer about parenting. I do think parents are a major part of the problem, but that is because I think the pressures they experience from today’s society contribute greatly to the kinds family structures and pressures that lead to what I consider aberrant behavior on the part of their children -- that is aberrant, because it is not ultimately productive for society. And here I focus most of all on the loss of kid time.

I am by choice a professional educator. I am also by choice one who has jumped into the fray of educational policy debate. I read extensively, I think about it a great deal, and I impose my viewpoints through postings in the blogosphere. And I am increasingly coming to the viewpoint that our focus on what is “wrong” with schools, teachers, etc., entirely misses the point.

I have often said that we need a serious debate about the purposes of schools and education. I till believe that is true.

But that debate can be meaningful only if it occurs within the framework of a larger debate, about the shape and nature of American society.

And perhaps this is why I et so upset at the rhetoric on why our schools are failing, because America is not “competitive” with other nations, or our test scores are lower, or our test scores are decreasing, or we don’t produce as many engineers as China or India (countries with many times our population, but never mind). It is the entire framing of the discussion in competitive terms.

Now don’t misunderstand. I coach soccer. I am very proud of the fact that in my years as a junior varsity coach I have never had a losing season. This year we were 8-1-1, outscoring our opponents 21-7. It is not the winning record per se that please me, but the improvement in skill and teamwork that my guys develop over the several months we were together. I started with a group of small, relatively inexperienced players, and we defeated several teams larger, faster, and individually more skilled than we were, because we learned how to work together. And I think at least part of the reason we were able to do that is because I gave them the opportunity to organize part of how we practiced, chances to do free scrimmages (where i said nothing).

I remember growing up how much of what I learned about sports and about teamwork came from informal games, not from the organized leagues.

I also remember how much of my passion for certain kinds of learning came because I was allowed to explore on my own.

And I see very little opportunity for most of the children I now teach to have similar experiences, and that scares me on their behalf.

I accept that we see a great deal of rude and/or inappropriate behavior among our young people. I do not think it is any worse than the behavior they see modeled by adults, and I do not mean just their parents. I remember Conservatives screaming about how Clinton’s behavior with respect to Monica Lewinsky set a horrible role model for our children. I was teaching 9th graders then, and their overwhelming reaction was that the response of most adults was hypocritical, hat none of them particularly modeled their behavior, sexually or otherwise, on what any politician did. They did, however, often raise concerns about the lack of comity they saw displayed in political exchanges, how people were willing to do anything for the sake of a political victory. Our children were watching, but as often happens, the lessons they learned may not have those in the official curriculum.

If we place so much emphasis on achievement and ranking and success and do not also include emphasis on things like sportsmanship, civility, common courtesy, then we should not be surprised at the behavior we encounter in our young people. And I do not think we should blame them.

And if it is ourselves and our society that bares the greater responsibility, why then are the only correctives we take punitive to our children? What will be the lessons they learn from that?

For myself, even as I am a demanding teacher, the most important thing I can give my students is that we must live in a world in which respect and courtesy matter. I have no rules posted in my class, none of this “break this rule and here’s the consequence.” I do have three questions, applicable to all including me, that we need to ask. The first, and most important, is to ask if my words and actions demonstrate respect for myself and towards others.

I would argue that if we expect our children to act respectfully towards each other and towards adults, then we adults - both those of us who regularly interact with the young people and those in leadership positions in society - need to tart modeling such behavior by acting with respect towards them, and towards each other.

The behavior of our children could use improvement. But that will not occur in an environment where our political and civil discourse is anything but civil, full of invective, denigration, and attack. it that is what we value, that and “success” over anything else, then it is foolish to waste any time wondering why we encounter the behavior of young people about which we complain.

By the way, it has been my experience that those adults who treat students with respect, who take the time to explain the reasons for the actions they make, who are willing to acknowledge to students when they (the adults) are wrong and apologize for their own shortcoming, these adults have far fewer behavior problems among their students. And unless and until the shape of our schools is changed so that it demonstrates a greater degree of respect towards our students, we are likely to continue to have concerns about the behavior there, or that our children demonstrate in society as a whole.

Are children savages? They are clearly not little adults, except in one way. They are absolutely accurate mirrors on our society, their behavior being a right-on reflection of those values we adults choose to hold most dear, as we inevitably demonstrate in our own words and actions. So if our children’s behavior is unacceptable, the answer is not to blame them, or to seek punitive corrective action aimed at them. The real answer is to look at ourselves, at the increasing coarseness of much of our society, and to attempt rectification at that level. If we continue with a “do as I say not as a I do” approach we are ot only kidding ourselves about how effective that can be, we do our children - and hence the future of this nation -- a grave disservice.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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