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Monday, May 6, 2013

Going Somewhere

How is it that some parents retain influence on their teenagers behavior while some don't?  Adolescents as part of their development need to establish their independence from the adult world.  How come some do so in defiant rebellion while others can can do so more peacefully and with less damage to themselves and others?  This is a very difficult task for adults to manage.  We often are very rightfully concerned about the poor choices that kids can make in the world.  How can adults navigate the tricky world of influencing kids without controlling them?

Ed Deci in his book Why We Do What We Do recognizes the need for limits and structure that adults have to provide for young people.  He states "How can standards and limits be used so that person in the one-down position can live with the limits and still retain a feeling of self-initiation, and thus not lose intrinsic  motivation?" The answer he goes on to explain gets to the heart of the difference between control and influence and it starts with empathy.  When an adult acknowledges a person's need for autonomy yet also shares the reasons for limits and structure, then the adult appears supportive rather than controlling.  Deci calls this type of approach "autonomy coaching."  His research has revealed how sensitive students are to the subtlety of both word choice and tone of voice for interpreting whether the adult involved is presenting the limits in a supportive helpful way or is doing it simply to control.  It boils down to a subconscious but very real sorting of adults into two categories: those whose main purpose is to control or those whose main purpose is to help and support.

If limits or structure make sense and ultimately prevent people from getting hurt, most people should see them as reasonable and accept them.  When adults are heavy handed with imposing them and they become just another way for adults to maintain their power and control, it becomes harder for young people to view them as reasonable and helpful.  Ironically adults often make the desire to exceed limits more desirable not because the limits are unreasonable but because the young person resents being told what to do or not do.

This is where bullying prevention reaches a dead end or is a road to nowhere.  Most kids don't bully other kids and don't think bullying is a good thing.  This was true before any legislation was passed or any policy was put into place.  The new anti-bullying laws in place only formalized and sent a message that those in charge of things now decided to raise the stakes for doing what most people didn't do.  The more we keep telling kids who already don't bully not to bully, the more they will tune us out.  Many kids would probably like to just say "alright already we get it bullying is not good-now stop telling us to stop doing what we are not doing" or "there they go again." Many adults have also confessed to me that they are tired of telling kids not to bully-they should know it by now.  When the focus is on stopping something most people already don't do, people feel a little lost regarding what to do next.  People need to feel like there is something more to the story; something to reach for or strive for rather than standing still not doing something.

Adults need to tell a different story and provide a different goal or destination and it has to be something  positive and aspirational, something to appeals to people's better natures.  Although to some, it might seem touchy-feely, people, even those perceived as the  most hard core and stubborn people, don't like to think of themselves negatively; those people are literally just waiting for someone in authority to perceive them as positive, responsible and moral.  When policies and procedures are designed for controlling the possibility of the exception to the rule, the majority of people can end up feeling like they are viewed as being one step away from being a criminal.  People tend to resent being viewed and treated like that especially adolescents who are struggling to discover who they are.  In order to avoid that identity, they rebel against or discredit the people who make them feel that way.

Bully prevention would get a lot farther is we shifted the conversation from DON'T DO to "what can we do and how do we want to get along".  The conversation should be just that a conversation and a conversation can and should occur within the limits of the established law.  Why not discuss why we have the limits we do?  Why not discuss the possibility of more than just staying within the limits?  Why not discuss why some kids exceed the limits and what could be done to help them stay with the limits and be more responsible?  Why not discuss who is responsible for creating and maintaining the type of school/community they would be best for everyone?  Many people in schools might say that there is no time for these types of discussions because of the academic pressures on schools.  Our students I am certain would be motivated and engaged in these discussions because they are meaningful and relevant to their social lives.   If we meet them there and engage them as partners in creating the type of school that they want to have, I feel that their investment in school in general will only increase. If we want our students to think more deeply about things and become reflective what better place to start with where they are right now!

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