Thursday, April 7, 2011

When Children are Neighbors

Public shaming is a disciplinary tactic common in the classroom setting. Most of us have probably experienced it at least once. The teacher finds a child guilty of some negligence or disruption and rebukes her in front of the whole class. Dunce caps may have been discarded, but the chorus of derisive "Ooooooh's" from fellow classmates, combined with the disapproval of an adult that the child tries so hard to please certainly carries a similar emotional weight. The pink splotched cheeks, the jaw clenched to prevent tears (which would only add to the shame), the downcast gaze- these are all outward indications of the turmoil within. With knotted stomach and a monstrous lump in her throat, the branded heretic returns to her lunch, now tasteless, and with great effort tries to put on a show of not caring. She musters a smug look and forces herself to chew and swallow as if nothing had happened. But inside her brain a firestorm is raging as she struggles to understand why whatever she did was so unacceptable when she intended no harm. And gradually she internalizes that the teacher must be right and that she is, herself, unacceptable. Is it any wonder that, given the way we treat our children, that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any other country?

Part of the reason for this disciplinary method is the religious background of this nation. The Calvinist doctrine of Original Sin once prevailed and it was interpreted in such a way that parents and teachers assumed that every infringement of "the rules" was due to an inborn propensity to rebel. And it was their job to beat it out of their children. When I was a child I can remember how offended I felt if my motives were thus dictated to me, knowing in my heart that I had not acted out of rebellion, but simply out of ignorance or forgetfulness of what was expected of me. I had a deep and lively faith and love of God, and was hurt when those who did not know my heart would not believe me. I wonder if parents and teachers really think about the golden rule when disciplining their children. I know I forget it far more often than I care to admit. But I believe we should always assume the best in others, especially our children, if that is how we wish to be treated ourselves.

Once children have moved on from the baby stage, during which a large part of their thinking is devoted to simply learning the mechanisms of how to live in space and to make sense of sensory information, they gradually begin to understand about relationships and how their actions cause responses among their peers and caregivers. Though even before they are born, babies are deeply perceptive of emotions in others, especially in their mothers. And their first textbook is the human face, which they try to mimic and understand as soon as their eyes can focus. As they grow to school age, the desire increases to be instrumental in shaping the world around them, as well as being involved in the lives of the people around them. They are very anxious to prove themselves to the adults closest to them.

I think that as adults, we often take for granted the customs and manners we have adopted through the process of socialization. We sometimes seem to think that children should simply know which behaviors are appropriate and which are not, and when they act out of ignorance, we assume they are being intentionally rebellious. We get frustrated when children simply don't "get" what is obvious to us. For instance, if a child is making rude sounds at the table, even though this is not a sin in itself, we make it into a sin by virtue of them doing something we told them not to. We thus make the parent the arbitrary definer of sin. Why not rather ask the child to be considerate of others and explain that most people do not want to eat around people who make those noises while they eat? I suspect this appeal will, in most cases, be all that is needed. If the child still will not cooperate, then it is probably clear that he is being intentionally selfish. But the approach "obey without question because you are under our authority" treats the child more like an animal to be trained, rather than a thinking, human being with a soul capable of moral choices.

There are, no doubt, times when children do intentional wrong. Often, though, this is in retaliation. Again, we should try to assume the best. This does not mean that wrong or socially unacceptable behavior should be ignored. But, as in the illustration above, we first need to strive to communicate with them, before we discipline.

And we should not use the tactic of public disgrace, either in the school, the home or any institution. We so often forget that even though our children are children, they are no less our brothers and sisters. Thus, if we are Christians, we begin with "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you...." (Matthew 18:15)

"Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." He took a little child and had him in his arms and he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me." (Mark 9:35-37)

Note: The image above is by the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, and is part of of series done in 1797, 1798 entitled "Los Caprichos". Goya described them as depicting "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self interest have made usual."