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Thursday, December 6, 2012

With No Strings Attached

The story of Pinocchio is a parable for how children can grow from being extensions of ourselves, or mere social constructions,  to becoming  authentic full human beings.  This is a process not a one time event and it does present challenges for everyone involved.  The transformation that took place in the story was not just for Pinnochio; it was for Geppetto too.

Looking back on my experience as a parent, I realize that I didn't so much raise my children as much as the process helped me learn what it was to be a responsible, caring adult.  Realizing what I wanted for my children was not always the same as what they needed was a learning process for me and probably for any parent or educator.  Robert Bly once said that it takes 35 years for someone to stop living the unlived life of their parents.  The moments that I most regret were the times I realized that I was pushing my children to do things or achieve things that were more for my own sake than it was for theirs.  Looking back I was glad I realized this and learned to respect them for who they were and allowed them to make mistakes, fail and struggle.  I tried to provide a home base for them so that I support them through these times.  It would have been easier to intervene or control rather than respect their need to experience their own life rather than the life I wanted for them. 

Ed Deci states that whenever anyone tries to control another person's behavior in any way there are two main responses: compliance or defiance.  I went to a very strict, punitive Catholic school where most of my behavior was compliant.  I was afraid and anxious about what would happen if I didn't comply.  In fact to this day I can remember seeing a student in first grade being physically disciplined by a nun grabbing him by the ear and shaking him.  I recall witnessing this and feeling that I never, ever wanted that to happen to me.  Looking back I now see the power that this fear had on me, not just for the 12 years of Catholic education, but over my own life.  I can see how in school I was the person that the school wanted me to be.  I recall longing for the summer where I played outside with my friends with a great deal of freedom.  I felt like I was two people-I was myself in the summer and someone else in school.  Since success in school governed so much of how we view our lives, my summer self was left behind as I grew older and most of my decisions as I grew up were ones shaped and influenced by the self shaped by the school. 

Ironically for me, I viewed success and approval easier to get in school rather than out of it, so I became a teacher and later a principal.  I think however my professional commitment was to promote a type of education that was opposite from the type I had.  I wanted schools to be places where kids could be who they really were and not just be who we wanted them to be.  I viewed mistakes and problems as just part of growing up.  When kids didn't "behave", my response was not  to get them to comply; I felt that it was my responsiblity to find out why school wasn't working for them. I took their acting out a signal that the school needed to do a better job of figuring out how to meet their needs. In figuring that out,  I learned many, many things about myself and about kids.

Luckily, my parents had too many of their own problems to be concerned with trying to control or manipulate my life.  I think  I would have been a lot worse off if I had faced such control from both home and school together. I think I was able to 'survive' my compliance response to a controlling school even though I developed a great need for approval in order to justify many things that I did.  I was a success in school by most measures because I happened to have the skills and temperament to gain approval.  Looking back I feel  bad for the kids who didn't come school equipped to succeed through no fault of their own.  They often needed to define themselves in opposition to controlling forces in their lives. Either way, cutting the strings was not an easy thing for those who complied or those who defied.

Bullying is a terrible sympton of the failure of an organization to value and understand the importance of "cutting the strings" that are attached to people. Healthy organizations want people who don't just follow orders and comply with the status quo. Bystanders, who speak up and respond to bullying as something that is morally wrong and take the risks to do something about it, have to be full human beings who operate without strings attached. They have to shed their strings and replace them with deeper bonds of caring and respect for their fellow human beings.  People who act in this way cannot be programmed to do so-they must grow into it with our guidance and love supporting that growth.

This is why I feel it is imperative that educators really think through so many of the "givens" that are accepted about how we educate our children. We cannot just follow along with programs like PBIS because everyone is doing it and their results are so good.  We have to have higher standards for success.  We have to think about what education really means and how our main task is to help children become full human beings with no strings attached.

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