Handle with Care
by Richard Bromfield
Excerpt from Handle with Care: Understanding Children and Teachers (a field guide for parents and educators). Teachers College Press, 2000. Richard Bromfield, Harvard Medical School.
In the best of worlds, discipline would be a minor chord in the teacher's repertoire. Our students would arrive at school with moral development well established. They'd have felt their baby hunger and cold soothed, convincing them, in the most vivid way, that their immediate world and the people in it are caring and dependable. They'd have known the warm glow of their parents' admiration and joy, further cementing that foundation of inner trust.
They'd come to our classes having been taught right from wrong and wanting to please adults, just as they'd know safety from danger, and see themselves as worth keeping well and protected. Having been disciplined with love, they wouldn't like the inner revulsion, regret, and sadness they feel when they defy us or break our rules. And so they'd behave well even when no adult is there to watch them, when we turn our backs or leave the room for a minute. They'd have known sincere and respectful parents who set a life of decent behavior for the children. And they'd have been given ample, virtually a childhood's worth of opportunities to exercise their judgment and struggle with their own ethical decisions under the watchful, guiding, and fair eyes of their parents.
But, as we know as well as anything, many children come to school in a different place. Some are severely abused and neglected, persuaded beyond doubt that the world is brutal and deserves their mistrust. Or they've been raised through harsh, impulsive, and sadistic means that have taught them to not make their mothers and fathers proud, and caused them to stop trying to be good girls and boys. Never having been loved enough to know they are lovable, they see all people as equally worthy of hate and mistreatment. Living on the street and through hard conditions has taught them to rely on their own powers and to manipulate others'. That's how they've survived. That's their resilience.
When we meet these children in our classes, they can frighten and overwhelm us. Sometimes their behaviors are so bad, so violent, or so defiant that we have no choice but to ask that they be removed and taken elsewhere, to a setting that can keep them and others safe, and that maybe (we cross our fingers with great skepticism) can do them some good. Apparently without remorse and without feeling for those they hurt, mostly from having tough lives themselves, these children can go off to futures as bleak and destructive as they expect, their more childish fears and dread having been chilled and numbed long ago.
However, we meet many more children who are on the precipice, who hang between the good and the bad life. In our own version of the battlefield's triage, we put our resources where they promise to help the most, in these children who, so close to despair and wreckage, can still be saved. With our left hands we offer these children our kindness, our tenderness, even our lunches, while our right hands corral them like wayward cattle, holding them as tightly as we can with boundaries, expectations, limits, consequences, and rewards. These children and their consciences are way behind and need to catch up. By doing what we can to curb their straying while nurturing whatever seeds of caring and remorse remain, we begin to restore the humanity that's been so tarnished or buried under layers of hurt and hardness.
Slowly, with hard work and some luck, we can bring some of these children back, our love and caring an antidote to their toxic lack of care for themselves. Though at first it's our prizes and privileges that motivate their improved behavior, eventually the incentive moves inward. As they take us in like cookies and milk our wishes for them to behave and succeed become their own. We essentially become like parents who they feel love and respect them and for whom they might even dare to want to be good girls and boys.
Along the way we are also sure to meet other children who have not known such hardship or deprivation and yet who present problems to us. These are children, sometimes from otherwise good and loving homes, who've not been disciplined enough. Spoiled children who get what they want when they want it, and who are seldom held to any kind of scrutiny or standard. These are the children whose parents perennially let them get away with everything. Whether they were uncontrolled because they were such adorable toddlers, or such good talkers and little lawyers, or because their parents were too busy, too unaware, too weak..., we may never know.
We can help these children by finally giving them the limits and dose of reality long overdue. Glib excuses and slick talking won't fool us. Despite their gifts for gab and charm, we fear for them. We know that habitually excusing children for crimes and misdeeds can lead to their becoming adults who see themselves above the laws of nature and human consideration, if not the laws of the land. They, and their parents, may not like what we say today, but if we can break through their denial or veneer of superiority, they'll thank us in the future.
Should we wish to have an impact on our students' moral development, whatever and whoever they are, we must strive to be moral ourselves. What do our values say to them? Do we praise students more for As on a project we know their parents worked on than the Bs they earned on their own? Do we extol academic achievement above acts of generosity or good judgment? Do we put athletes on pedestals that exempt them from the mess and duties of their less exalted peers? We must beware of our own deceit and hypocrisy, for no children grow well in such an atmosphere, and those moral lapses weaken, if not wholly obliterate, our power to nurture good conscience.
As many have said, give us a child's first five years and we can make him a good man. Teachers don't have that luxury. And yet we welcome and teach every boy and girl who sit before us. While problems of discipline will forever remain among our most hated, their remedy is often, the road not only to a more ordered classroom, but to more ordered children and the better citizens they grow up to be.
Adapted from, HANDLE WITH CARE: UNDERSTANDING CHILDREN AND TEACHERS (teachers college press, 2000) for Teachers.Net. Richard Bromfield.