Every time I go to school lately, I end up coming home and crying. That’s ok, right? It happens. Only problem is I’m a 32-year-old woman and I don’t go to school any more.
Or really, the problem is that the system hasn’t changed since I did. It’s still setting kids up to fail, the ones who don’t fit in that small margin who can cope with the archaic framework.
I actually love the school we have chosen. It’s in a beautiful location. There is a lovely community. The classes are small. Most of the teachers are wonderful but at the end of the day, it’s a government school and the standard systems are in place.
Most of my social circle and I practice Peaceful, Positive, Gentle and/or Attachment parenting. So we’ve read the stats, we’ve seen the research and we know we no longer want to sabotage our children’s intrinsic motivation with rewards (in fact, I learned this the hard way before I had done my research and I’m still dealing with the ghost of sticker chart’s past). We don’t want to manipulate our children into fear-based acquiescence using punishments but unfortunately, this is all that public schools seem to have in their arsenal.
My own child’s ability to toe the line at school is a testament to how well this parenting style works and in some ways I wish I could just leave it at that… but I love children! All of them! I believe they are all born with the ability to be wonderful human beings and of course (excuse the cliché) they literally are our future.
I don’t want for our new generations to experience the pain of Depression (with a capital D), the vice-grip of our current societal definitions of femininity and masculinity and I wish for them to be allowed the full gambit of all our thoroughly valid emotions so that they may have the invaluable ability to self-regulate.
And ok… it might be a little bit personal. My darling child is in there doing what I never could. She can please and delight any teacher. She can sit still when required and talk only when appropriate. That wasn’t me. I got on the “naughty” wheel very early and once you’re on there, it’s very hard to get off.
My Mum sat me down before I started high school and said “It’s a new school, a new era. Re-invent yourself! Be a quiet observer and stay under the radar!”
She had some compelling points and I heard her and I wanted to please. So I figured I could certainly give it a shot. Within the first week I found myself (and almost the entire grade) committing a minor infraction at the swimming carnival but the year advisor looked at me and said “Come here, Chantal Freer… that’s right! I know EXACTLY who you are!” so I was like “Ok… game on!”
My version of “naughty” was literally child’s-play. I talked too much and at the wrong times in class. I wasn’t always where I was meant to be at camp. I started a food-fight (ok, so that one was a tad cheeky)… I was a strong-willed child! Which is good because children who dance to the beat of their own drum also know how to say “no” to their peers when “naughty” moves up to the next level.
So here I am as a parent in the school system and I am continually seeing punishments putting kids on the “naughty” wheel.
Last year it was a boy who was pin-pointed early on as “naughty” and my first encounter with him I saw another child hurt him and he just reacted in pure “fight mode” as is perfectly normal for a 5-year-old boy and when I stood up for him he ended up snuggling into me and did that almost every time I entered the classroom.
Most children’s undesirable behavior is a cry for connection but it still amazes me when I see that so clearly in action as I did with him.
As he got further and further into this vortex, I actually armed him with some breathing exercises and he high-fived or cuddled me every time I saw him, gleefully exclaiming “I’ve been doing what we talked about!”
I know it’s hard for one person to meet the needs of 22 immature beings. I think it would drive me mad, myself! I just think that in this day and age we know so much more about human physiological and neurological development. Most of us accept that these humans are still incredibly young and vulnerable. So can’t we find a better way?
There was a school in America that set up a student body who simply asked struggling kids “What do you need?” and got to the bottom of so many huge issues with those simple words rather than resorting to punishments.
I’ve witnessed and consoled kids who simply can’t get out of “fight mode” when triggered. These kids are 5 and 6 and that’s developmentally appropriate. Our generations of adults still have trouble with “fight or flight” response. How can we be asking so much of these juveniles so soon?
Could you be someone else’s version of “good” for 6 hours a day? What if it wasn’t the version of “good” you have been taught? What if it was constantly changing? What if there were several different people with several different versions? What if the consequences were dire and more often than not resulted in public shame and humiliation?
What if everyone around you was being rewarded with stickers and certificates but you didn’t know how or what for?
Which brings me to my final point. I’ve mentioned I’m opposed to both punishments AND rewards but rewards are ok, right? Well, not really. Each of us is born with the intrinsic will to please those we love, respect and feel connected to and to want to learn and gain knowledge. Rewards switch the focus to gaining something and it then becomes about getting that prize. Studies show that kids often try just as hard as they need to to get that carrot being dangled or that they won’t do something unless there’s something tangible in it for them (that’s the ghost of our now horribly recalled positive reward system, just a month or two of that years ago eroded my child’s intrinsic motivation) or that kids are so distracted by the concept of these awards that it’s hard for them to focus on anything else.
I mentioned that my child can toe the line. My child also gets lots of rewards at school and has yet to experience any punishment but that all has to be let out somewhere. That 6 hours of “toeing the line” is actually 6 hours of walking a very delicate tightrope and it must be hard as hell if the deluge at home some afternoons is anything to go by. So in her safe world with two connected parents and (unfortunately) an innocent, by-standing sibling that angst often comes pouring out.
So we have to work harder at home to offset the emotional and mental challenges of school. We need to summon up huge amounts of patience and empathy to fortify our baby for that daily battle. However, on a larger scale I want to work on a change in the system. I want others to start thinking about this too. Our children need us.
Our future needs our children to be strong, socially and environmentally conscious, emotionally regulated and go-getting pioneers. That’s going to take more of us recognising the flaws in the system and suggesting other ways. It’s going to take more of us allowing our children the full force of their emotions whilst offering empathy and connection.
But it’s worth it in the end. I see a beautiful future ahead.
By Chantal Harrison
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
How to teach kids about their brain and emotions:
Great resource books:
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Dr Laura Markham
Playful Parenting by Dr Lawrence Cohen
What To Do When Your Temper Flares (workbook) by Dawn Huebner