Friday, December 15, 2017

They Often Wind Up Owning Us



I gave up on expecting our daughter to keep her room tidy when she was still quite young. My wife never really did, which, I think put us both in the company of other fine parents. It's an ages old challenge, but especially true these days when kids tend to be the proud, then not so proud, owners of a lot of toys. Some of us can summon up the serenity, or whatever, to just close the door when it bugs us, while others are unable to let it go.


Yesterday, I was talking to the father of one of my students, the parent of four children. He told me that he tried, generally speaking, to leave the children to their messes, but confessed to sometimes scolding them, which he said he almost always wound up regretting.



"I was getting after them the other day," he said, "when it hit me that I had bought them most of this stuff." As he stood amidst the debris he found himself reflecting on the fact that when he had given them those toys he had also unthinkingly given them the obligations that go with those toys. "We expect them to tidy them up, to care for them, to share them . . . A whole bunch of stuff that they didn't necessarily sign on for."

I'm sure we've all had this experience with possessions: we claim to own them, but they often wind up, in a way, owning us. I often hear this lament from boat owners and mortgage holders, for instance, but in a very real sense, everything we own places obligations upon us. The difference between us and young children is that they don't feel that sense of obligation the way we do, stuff is just stuff, so we all too often then set about scolding them into "learning" their obligations around stuff, when it could be argued that their's is a healthier approach.


I'm not telling anyone they are wrong for wanting a tidy home. I value one myself, but I think it's something worth thinking about as we head into the season during which most of us, and especially children, acquire new things in the form of gifts, toys that bring with them these hidden obligations. I tend to think that the best way to "teach" children about these obligations is to role model the behavior you value, like keeping your own spaces tidy, but the real solution is just to own less stuff, and one of the ways to do that during the holiday season is to give gifts of experiences and love rather than toys.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Are We Doing?



The Bad Guy Trap has become both an established part of our playground and a work in progress. It's something that I admire every day.


It's primarily the work of two boys, a constructing partnership that has been evolving for a couple years now. When I watch them work together, I'm reminded of many of my best relationships with other men, guys with whom I did things, like playing sports or man-handling firewood or noodling through a home improvement project. I think of these as shoulder-to-shoulder relationships.


The boys might play together for a half hour or more without once looking at one another's faces, but they are talking all the time, joking, shouting, and offering up their ideas with exclamation points: "Hey! This could be the lever!" "Yeah! And I have an idea! Let's pretend this is the bait!" As they play, their individual contributions built upon one another, piece upon piece, constructing friendship like one constructs a bad guy trap.


It's a work that has sprung from their friendship, a work of art, one they've been collaborating upon almost daily for a couple months now. They are taking the materials at hand and, in a partnership that frequently makes room for the contributions of others, making, repairing, and always improving upon it. My only irritations arise from the fact that it sometimes can come to include nearly everything that isn't nailed down. Since our code is that you get to use something until your finished with it, this has sometimes left the rest of the kids with a relative wasteland.


To the other kids' credit, they haven't complained much. Sure they sometimes whine that they need something from the trap, one of the shovels or a rope or something, but for the most part the Bad Guy Trap has become a simple a fact of their lives at school. I'm sure that some of the kids think it has always been this way, that the lilacs have always be stuffed with anything that can be moved.


But my admiration far outweighs my irritations.

Everywhere I look, every day, this is what the four and five year olds are mostly doing, working together to create something that has never before existed under this sun. And when I step back, it's easy to see that this is what most adults wish we were doing as well. This is one of those times when we should consider the lesson our children can teach us. If we aren't working together to create something new, what are we doing?

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I Could Write Volumes, But That Would That Would Be Total BS



It wasn't until mid-morning that I noticed the box, there on the table just inside the gate to our playground. Someone had written "Junk (& Debris)" on the side. I figured it was something Teacher Rachel had cooked up for the kindergarten class so left it there. Later when I asked her about it, she told me it had been there when she had arrived and also that it said, "Danger" and "Caution" on it as well. Upon further investigation, I found that the mystery box-leaver had also written "Loose Parts" in large bubble letters. I still didn't know who had left the box (although I have my suspicions which I hope to confirm later today) but it had clearly come from someone who "got it."


After checking to make sure that the box was not, in fact, full of danger, I re-taped the top and took it indoors to unwrap properly during circle time.


I told the kids how I'd found the box and we speculated about what might be inside. A few of them squinted at the words, trying to sound them out. One of the girls got "Junk!" but the ampersand and the non-phonetic spelling of "Debris" stumped them so I read that for them, "Junk and debris," explaining that debris was basically another word for junk. We also sussed out the warning words, which lead us to wonder if the box might be full of dynamite or poisonous spiders. Finally, we read the phrase "Loose Parts" which meant nothing to us. Several of the kids scooted themselves away from me as I made a show of opening the box, heeding the warnings.


Inside, where items worthy of the label "loose parts." There were a couple different kids of wood off-cuts, a bag full of some sort of metal clips, a box of glass mason jar lids with their orange rubber seals, a large stack of yellow styrofoam trays like they use in the meat departments of supermarkets, and several dozen tubs that might have once contained some sort of yoghurt. As we went through the items I said things like, "I wonder what we could use these for," which, of course, prompted the children to offer their ideas. The wood, they thought, could be used to build our treehouse, for instance. When I pointed out that the containers I had originally thought to be for yoghurt had tiny holes in the bottom, something that disappointed me a bit because it limited their versatility, one of the kids immediately suggested that they would be perfect for planting seeds in the spring. Brilliant!


Stupidly, I then began to pack everything away again, striving to be as tidy as our benefactor, only to have several of the children object: "Why don't we play with everything now?" "Just put them on the checkerboard rug instead of blocks," "We could build some good bad guy traps with those," and "We should also have some animals to play with them." So I got out a box of small "critters" and that's what we did.


I could write volumes about what I saw happening as the children played with these random materials and speculate about what they were learning, but in all honesty, that would be total BS on my part. The truth is that I have no more idea about what they were learning from their play than the children did about what was in the box before we opened it. I could have spent my time grilling them about what they were building, creating, discussing, and pretending with an eye toward somehow gaining a better understanding of what was going on in their heads, compelling them to focus on my curiosity rather than their own. I could, I suppose, have pre-tested them prior to opening the box, then re-tested them after playing with the junk, but what would be the point? I don't need to know what they are learning, only they do. It's none of my business what they learn as they play.


So I just left them alone, secure in the knowledge that they were attempting to teach themselves what they most, in that moment, wanted to know, following their own interests and passions. That's enough. Any more than that is BS.























Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Words Matter




Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty queens? You know, the ones whose moms dress them up like adult women, bouffant their hair, and give them make-up to make it look like they have 18-year-old heads on five-year-old bodies? We're appalled. It's both grotesque and sad. We pity the little girl and scorn the mother, blaming her for sexualizing her innocent child.

We don't, of course, accuse the girl herself of being "sexy." We all know that she's been taught to go through some motions that are otherwise meaningless to her. A girl that age is incapable of being sexy, but she is capable of imitating a set of behaviors she's been taught are aspects of being female, at least within her sub-culture.

Young children do a lot of things without an inkling of the adult connotations of their behaviors. When my daughter was a 4-year-old preschooler she was part of a gang of 4-5 girls who spent their days playing together, sometimes to the exclusion of other girls, fairly typical age-appropriate behavior. At about this time a couple of the moms from our school were reading a book entitled Reviving Ophelia, a fantastic, insightful book by all accounts about the toxicity of our media culture to adolescent girls, an aspect of which was the whole "mean girls" phenomenon. These moms decided that my daughter, my 4-year-old daughter, was a "mean girl," discussed it among the other parents and even went so far as to take their concerns to the teacher, all of this without speaking with me. This is likely a good thing for them because I'd have shown them what mean is really all about.


Reasonable people know that words like sexy or mean are not appropriate words to use to describe children. Frankly, it's the worst kind of vicious, back-biting name-calling. So why do so many feel it's okay to describe young boys as aggressive? A 2-year-old boy who hits a friend knows no more about what he is doing than those sad little beauty queens. A 4-year-old who experiments with his power by shouting fiercely at a playmate is no more an "aggressive boy" than my daughter was a "mean girl" simply because she experimented with the powerful feelings that come from excluding others. The same goes for the word violent. A young boy may engage in behavior that adults perceive as violent or aggressive, but he no more knows what he is doing than the little girls who parade across stages in bikinis. At some level, they have been taught that these behaviors are aspects of being a male in our culture. You personally may reject these behaviors (in fact, most of us do), just as you may reject the ritualized sexual behavior of adult beauty queens, but believe me, the kids are just trying things out and they have no idea, or a very twisted idea, of what it means.


Labeling young boys as aggressive or violent is in itself a kind of aggressive, perhaps even violent, behavior. Try this mental experiment: what do you think it would do to a little girl's future if she was repeatedly labeled sexy? Only a cruel or perverted adult would do that. Yet this is what happens to our little boys with the words aggressive and violent. Words matter.

Our job as important adults in children's lives is to help them understand what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don't do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life. You know, just as we would with our girls when they experiment with sex appeal or exclusion.


Please stop using the words aggressive and violent to describe young children. You are wrong and you are doing damage. And please point it out when others do it. They are wrong and they are doing damage.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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