Can adults keep children civilized?

Growing up was pretty much a free-for-all Lord of the Flies situation.  There was  lots of teasing, general meanness, some racism and homophobia, and lots of exclusion.  Until I was embarrassingly old I didn’t understand why one girl was always calling me, “queer” instead of, “weird.”  (This was the same girl that would yell I stuffed my bra when I wasn’t old enough to be wearing one, so I wonder about what her home life was like.)  Like Mean Girls but without the happy ending… or perhaps with the happy ending in high school.  Exclusion started as early as age 3, since that’s when my memory first begins.  (And tattling about it would get the tattler punished!)

At DC’s preschool there’s none of that.  The general rule is that kids are allowed to want to be alone, but they’re not allowed to exclude other children from playgroups.  Occasionally DC will report that L doesn’t want to play with T but T also doesn’t want to play with L even though they both want to play with DC… this usually ends with a teacher (and now DC) telling them they should all play together, or T going off with her other friends or L going off with his.   I have NEVER heard anyone call anyone anything worse than, “Noodle” and only in a hilarious nobody is sad sort of way.  (“You’re a noodle!”  “Well, you’re a noodle doodle!”).  Boys and girls play together.  They comfort each other when they get hurt.  They apologize for inadvertently hurting each other.  They trade and take turns and share.  All of this in the standard language taught by every teacher (except a couple of the new mean ones) beginning in the infant room.   Are they just good kids?  Or is it good supervision?  Or that they have better things to occupy their little minds with because it’s a good Montessori?  (Idle hands are the devil’s playground… that’s sort of the moral of many of Jane Austen’s books, Emma especially.)

Not all daycares apparently have as nice kids as my kids’ does.  I don’t know if you recall but one of the resolutions last semester was to meet more people in real life, preferably those with kids DC’s age who live in the neighborhood.  We were really excited at Halloween when we met a big group of little kids DC’s gender who all have weekly playdates.  DC hit it off with one of them (a year older, just like all hir friends from daycare) and hir mom put us on her weekly playdate calling list.

It didn’t work out.  We went.  The ringleader kids in the group took to calling DC, “poopy-butt” and told hir they didn’t want hir to play with them.  DC has never experienced anything like that and was shocked.  (S)He just didn’t understand.  The mom who had invited us told DC that they just weren’t used to hir and they would warm up and that they call each other poopy-butt all the time– it’s just their way of including people and they picked it up at their daycare.  (Very different from our, “That isn’t nice of them.  People should not exclude other people and should not call each other poopy anything.”)  After two more playgroups in which DC got more and more excluded, they stopped inviting us and we haven’t called to get back in the loop.

Bullying has been in the news a lot, especially with respect to rampant homophobia.  With the new online methods of bullying it seems easier to make kids’ lives miserable than ever.  The existence or lack of respectful behavior and empathy can start on the playground.

Can adults keep children civilized?  With enough supervision and training can we create nice kids?  Should we?

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31 Responses to “Can adults keep children civilized?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    My son’s head start had some kids from very troubled homes. My husband once witnessed a kid trying to get violent and the two teachers restraining the kid until he calmed down. Nevertheless, his head start experience was phenomenal.

    He started out extremely shy. He was one of those kids who takes an hour to warm up to a new crowd, so he normally would go and hide somewhere til he gets used to a place. Now, he’s completely come out of his shell, he learned a ton about numbers and letters and didn’t pick up any bad habits from the troubled kids when he was there.

    I do think good teachers make all the difference. These kids love going to head start. They get 2 square meals, follow a routine, get treated with respect, and it’s the most enjoyable and stress free part of their day. They don’t want to get sent home, so they learn to follow the rules.

    • Comrade PhysioProf Says:

      Considering that American society as a whole is turning 100% far-right-wing tooth-and-claw gun-rights plutocracy capitalism jeezus-freak, I’m not sure that teaching kids any of this kumbaya stuff is gonna serve any ultimate purpose.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s interesting… from what I gather, you live in a civilized actual city in a blue part of the country. I live in gun rights fundamentalist red country… but I think 100% far-right-wing tooth-and-claw plutocracy capitalism jeezus-freak is pretty hyperbolic. Most folks around here also care about the poor, even if they think the church should provide instead of the government. Most folks are just doing the best they can. I won’t say there aren’t awful people who preach hate, because there are, but they are far far from the majority.

      • Comrade PhysioProf Says:

        Hyperbolic? Me? NO WAI!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Head start is a great program. And it empirically shows positive outcomes on academics throughout grade school and on other outcomes after graduation. http://www.nber.org/digest/aug01/w8054.html

      My mom actually worked for them way back in their early years. Several of my son’s Montessori teachers also have head start experience, including the director.

      • First Gen American Says:

        I totally believe that it helps build confidence and interest in learning. If you start kindergarten far behind the rest of your class, I’m sure it’s draining to try to spend the rest of your school life playing catch up.

        Plus, I think there’s gotta be huge value in taking troubled kids out of their homes a year earlier. My son’s teachers shared with me (without going into specifics) on how chaotic most of these kids lives are when they are not in school. They have absolutely no schedule, don’t eat or go to bed a regular times etc. Having a routine that they can count on has to be so grounding for these kids.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, some researchers think the real value in the preschool programs is not the early academics, but the teaching of soft skills, including delayed gratification, sitting still etc.

  2. Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com Says:

    I’m going to show my husband your post because he’s of the “don’t overparent, it’ll all work out in the end” variety. Whereas, being a therapist, I’ve heard many, many of these childhood stories and so tend to land on the other end of the spectrum.

    I just wrote a blog about sibling rivalry. I think lots of people have the same attitude about sibling relationships, “Siblings are just going to be mean to each other and that’s that.” Maybe this is the case, but I hate to simply adopt this attitude without trying some intervention. There are a lot of things we’ve done at our house that have curbed sibling rivalry (which I wrote about on my site). Mostly I think that parents take the “let kids work it out for themselves” rule too seriously. Preschoolers don’t have the tools to work it out for themselves yet, so it will look like Lord of the Flies in about 10 minutes flat.

    Just my opinion of course. Thanks for your thought-provoking piece!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I definitely agree– let them work it out for themselves AFTER you’ve given and modeled the tools to do so. There’s a difference between stepping in to judge who gets what and providing a framework for mediation.

      In the toddler rooms, there’s a lot of training, and by the Montessori room they’re pretty much settling their own disputes (with a watchful eye from the teacher).

  3. Money Reasons Says:

    Can adults keep children civilized?
    To a point, but it’s hard since kids are not longer touchable (nobody wants arrest or child services to come visiting). Sometime a child needs spanked because they don’t understand the complex reasons why they shouldn’t do whatever action/behavior they were doing. If there is no punishment (other than a talk the child doesn’t understand) the behavior will continue. It’s hard to rationalize mentally with a 5 year old. Luckily, my kids have only been lightly spanked a few times in their life and they complied. They are good kids from the beginning though so I got lucky.

    With enough supervision and training can we create nice kids? Should we?
    We can sort of teach them manners (unless they’ve learned to ingore us…). Our kids were taught to be nice, but sometimes it seems like our kids are the exceptions. Sometimes it makes me sad to see all the other kids not listening to instructions give by adults other than our kids. To me it seems like we have lost something from when I was a kid. Sometimes, I almost wish my kids were so nice, especially when my kids are the only ones following the rules. Especially when the rules are dumb ones to begin with…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ah! There’s that regionalism my DH does that I was forgetting. “needs passivetenseverb”

      We’ve never had to spank and I don’t think we ever will. We did have to do some time-outs for hitting and refusing to apologize somewhere in the late 2s early 3s (less than 10 total), which I understand is an anathema to some parenting philosophies. Most rules worth keeping come under “dangerous” “hurts other people” “not nice” and “not polite.” Even a two year old can understand those concepts. So, I don’t think kids ever need to be spanked, and I do think even preschoolers can be reasoned with (and distracted). I doubt spanking actually hurts a kid, but also really don’t see it as necessary. It’s just one of many tools. We personally would never do anything to DC that we wouldn’t want hir to do to other people. Since “hitting is not ok” is one of our rules, we will never hit hir.

  4. Everyday Tips Says:

    One thing I was very strict about from birth was that my kids would not hit, and they would not call each other (or anyone else names). When they went to school, there was very little name calling going on in the class. However, when they started joining local soccer teams and such, they started hearing all kinds of things. They would come home absolutely confused as to why people would treat each other that way. I am not saying I am a great parent, I am just saying that I think it all starts in the home. The mom just saying “oh they will warm up to him/her” is ridiculous. The mom should have been embarrassed in my opinion.

    There are plenty of brats in the world, mostly raised by adult sized brats in my opinion. Not all bullies grow up, they just get bigger.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC is confused too. All we can say is, we don’t know why they do it but it isn’t nice of them to do it and we shouldn’t do it because it makes people feel bad.

      My mom (herself oldest of 7) let us hit each other, so long as we avoided the head. I don’t think I will allow that should we have another kid.

  5. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Weird. My post today mentions Happy Endings AND Jane Austen too.

    Isn’t this sort of a nature vs nurture debate to an extent? Some kids are more inclined to bullying than others versus all kids would be good kids if they came from the right environment.

  6. Lindy Mint Says:

    I would surmise that good influences at both home and school would be a key factor in taming kids. And even then, it requires a great deal of attention. In standard preschools & kindergartens these days, I think many teachers are imparting the right values in word, but have trouble monitoring that it gets carried out in deed due to large class sizes.

    There is a set of brothers that have bullied my son in the past and have a history of bullying others, yet their mother is one of the nicest people I’ve met. It leaves us kind of bewildered how they got that way.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, the 8/1 ratio in the Montessori room (and smaller in the earlier classes) probably helps a lot. 35/1 has got to be difficult… in my classes I lose quite a bit of control when I hit 28/1, and these are (nominally) adults!

      Is the father of the brothers a jerk?

  7. Donna Freedman Says:

    During my return to university a few years ago I won a fellowship to attend a summer program. We were split into small groups and worked with local social service agencies to create a specific program/activity.
    My group got “bullying,” and we worked with a program that helps GLBTQ youth. As part of the research we interviewed one another and other people about bullying and being bullied. Not surprisingly, everyone had some experience. Some were even instigators. All felt pretty awful about what they’d encountered.
    The literature showed a lot of denial, e.g., a gay kid being threatened but upon reporting it was told “Nobody likes a tattletale.” Another teen was told by a teacher that being gay was against God so if the teacher witnessed the kid being harassed in the hallway he would do nothing to help.
    So yes, let’s raise nice kids, or rather, let’s give them the background and the tools to be nice/cope with not-nice people. After that we can only hope that they will be able to help themselves — and, if necessary, that they are able to get help from the administration.
    If not? Let’s support them, up to and including suing the school districts to force them to get their heads out of, um, the sand.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I hate the anti-tattle culture. There was a lot of bullying I should have reported but didn’t because I had the no-tattling instilled in me. Supportive administration is very important.

      I think it’s difficult for kids to know where the line is… when to tell, especially if people aren’t being physically abused. An open door policy would make it more likely that a serious incident is not never reported.

  8. retirebyforty Says:

    Jeez, I’m not looking forward to these kind of situations.

  9. Molly On Money Says:

    I’m a firm believer in modeling. It’s tricky but there is a balance I try and hit between independence and’ don’t be an ass to another kid cause I’m watching you’.
    My tendency is to nip things in the bud. My youngest daughter and a friend stole from another kid. The friend has a history of stealing. Her Mom would defend her kid by making excuses. I made my daughter write a letter and apologize in person. The other kids parents did nothing. In fact they criticized me for making too big a deal. I told the parents I was not making a big deal. In our house we don’t steal. When you do there’s a consequence and we all move on. Pretty simple!

  10. Rumpus Says:

    I agree with modeling, especially modeling “tools” like sharing and conflict resolution. Kids are definitely perceptive, and I think the easiest way to make sure they grow up with one’s values is to show them those values (with explanations). They’re trying to make sense of the world, and its (social) boundaries. I also believe that after some age they learn more from their peers than from their parents.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah… we saw an older brother at a recent birthday party who was no longer the perfectly behaved model preschooler. I don’t know if that was leaving Montessori or just getting older. One of the teachers said her daughter has become a lot less well-behaved and picked up bad habits since starting public elementary, and they’re working on her behaving at home. We’ll see what happens with ours. Hopefully (s)he’ll choose good peer groups!

  11. Squirrelers Says:

    As a parent of 2, I absolutely believe that parents can get their kids to be civilized. Or, in the case of some kids, at least get them to be more civilized than they otherwise could be:)

    Really, I do think that there does need to be SOME level of “law of the jungle” approach with kids, where they have to fend for themselves and figure out how to survive and thrive in a socially competitive large group. It’s just the way the world is, and it’s better to learn lessons when young than be blindsided and ill prepared later in life.

    You see, I think that the reality is that many adults themselves have that 7th grader in them that comes out every now and then in different situations. Kids will have to deal with ridiculous people and competitive situations their whole lives, so they might as well figure some things out now.

    Having said all this, I think that a parent should strongly guide a kid and watch carefully what happens. Rescue when necessary, but let the kid learn for him or herself.

    Ok…just realize I’m getting off topic here a bit. Talking about kids dealing with other kids, which is related to the civilized topic in a way.

    Specifically to getting kids to behave in a civilized way, I think that parents need to actively model such behavior and have these expectations of their kids. I’m thankful to have a well behaved older kid, and a younger one who’s too young to assess but looks to be on the path to becoming that way. But it takes work, and that’s where I think some parents fall short. It’s often laziness and not being accountable for kids behaviors, I think. If a parent takes it as his or her personal responsibility, then it can be easier to get a kid to be civilized as opposed to being passive about it.

  12. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    My youngest kid (10 yo) says that there’s no bullying at his school. Having said that, he wouldn’t be a kid that gets bullied because he has a way with words and a super thick skin that most kids don’t have.
    My oldest son has had alopecia totalis from the age of 18 months and was bullied incessantly for years. The teachers at his school when he was younger were (fortunately) very protective of him but outside of school or where it couldn’t be seen or heard was a different story. He has no self-preservation skills and I had to teach him how to verbally defend himself – and learn how to walk away and not cry (until you get home)… And I had to verbally threaten one particular delinquent (one of those “Cancer Boy / Baldy” chanters) with bodily injury myself when killing them with kindness and reason wasn’t working. I guess it was the only language he could understand.
    I’ve seen daycares and schools come a very long way in the last couple of decades. Sometimes they go overboard (ZOMG! Your kid jumped off a couch!!! They could have hurt someone!) from when it was presumably ok for my kid to be hit over the head and require stitches from a metal truck and the miscreant to not be kicked out of daycare but overall I think it’s been for the best.

  13. Link Round Up: Getting Sick of Being Sick Edition | Everyday Tips and Thoughts... Says:

    [...] Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured wonder if adults can create nice kids.   I think they could, if they worried less about being a friend first, and focused on actually being a parent. [...]


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