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On Children and Childhood

A teacher examines the way children view the world, and how adult actions impact them.

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew

“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

In one of those early years of becoming and being a teacher, when I was still teaching in the exact room where I had been a student (a school building that would eventually be almost entirely destroyed by a fire set by children), it was the first day of school, and I was calling that first roll—a sort of silly but important ritual of schooling for teachers and students.

Toward the back of the room and slightly to my left sat a big young man, a white male student typical of this rural upstate South Carolina high school in my home town; like me, he would accurately be considered in that context as a Redneck.

Just about everyone knows everyone in my hometown, and we are very familiar with the common names of that town. So when I came to this young man’s name—Billy Laughter (it rhymes with “slaughter”)—I said “Billy Laughter” (rhyming the last name with “after”).

Smiling, I scanned the room and then turned my eyes back to Billy; he was red-faced and on the edge of having a very bad first day, one that was likely going to result in his being punished for my having done a very stupid thing. I raised my hand, palm facing him, and said, “Billy, my mistake. I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny but it wasn’t.” And then I said his name correctly.

Billy had suffered a life of people mangling his name, and he wasn’t in any mood for my being clever on the first day of school.

Several years laters, when I was teaching a U.S. history class as part of my usual load as a member and chair of the English department, while I was having students form small groups, two young white males bumped into each other, back to back, while moving their desks. I caught the moment out of the corner of my eye and had to rush over to deter the fight that was about to occur.

I wasn’t surprised—this was typical of my small community, along with fights starting because “he/she looked at me wrong”—but some time after this, I saw a research study that explained how people in the South and North handled personal space differently. In the South, bumping into someone or looking at someone wrong is often interpreted as challenging someone’s honor, requiring a response. People in the North, conditioned by mass transit and crowded cities (I suspect the study was as much about rural and urban, as South and North), are not as apt to find acts of close proximity anything other than that.

So setting aside the urge to examine the Redneck honor code, I want to add just one more event from my coaching life in those middle years of my teaching.

While running a drill at soccer practice, I heard a comment from a player in a group behind me. My mind heard a player with whom I had been having trouble. He was difficult in class and on the team, and worst of all, he was very disruptive at practice.

I turned and, without hesitating, I announced, “You are out of here,” pointing with my finger up the hill. Throwing him out of practice? No, I kicked him off the team.

As the young man was walking up that hill, a timid player on the team said, “Coach, that was me.”

I had just kicked a young man off the team who had, in fact, not said a thing.

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Alfie was apologetic about self-promotion so I replied, thanked him for the book, and noted a book I am co-editing that appears to be of a similar mind about children and childhood, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children.

I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, then, or more likely stewing about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children?

That, I must admit, is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,” “no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies.

I grew up and live in the South where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then, we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child.

That Christ’s love comes in the form of corporal punishment has never made any sort of sense to me, but I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective of children throughout the U.S.

Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby“:

This is not the United States.

For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout ” Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

I just don’t get it.

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired (I won’t belabor, but the whole Original Sin idea doesn’t help and justifies the drive to use the rod).

But it is also certainly true that children are not angels, not pure creatures suited to be simply set free to find the world on their own.

Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

And within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Consider the research showing how people view children of .

The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are….

The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino/a students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

When I raise these questions, I can rest assured I will inspire the same sort of nasty response I often encounter when cycling. A few motorists make their anger known when we are riding our bicycles, and I am convinced that while some are genuinely frustrated with our blocking temporarily the road, the real reason they are angry is that we are enjoying ourselves as children do.

And nothing angers a bitter adult as much as the pleasures of a child.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Children are not flawed or wild, needing us neither to repair nor break them.

And children are not to be coddled or worshipped.

They are children, and they are all our children.

Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons.

Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves.

In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served, like Billy above. Those faces and names serve as my starting point: With any child, first do no harm.

The ends can never justify the means.

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