People who know me well, including many of my former students, will know that I am a lover of Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein quotations. Although very different, both men managed to express many basic truths, often served up in pithy, memorable and, in the case of Winston, humourous ways. Neither man was a teacher per se, but much of what they “taught” can be applied to life in classrooms, life in schools and life in homes – especially when our goal is to inspire and reinforce respect, responsibility and appropriate behaviour.
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” This classic Albert Einstein quotation is one that identifies a very modern-day phenomenon seen in classrooms, homes, grocery stores, and on children’s sports teams: the increasing struggle many well-meaning adults have in setting boundaries confidently for children and sticking to them consistently.
Kids need (and actually crave) such boundaries and they need them established by caring, thoughtful and self-assured adults. And, in establishing such boundaries, the adults need to avoid coercion, bribes, negotiations, anger, or empty threats. Often characterized as having a “calm, firm limit”, this essential skill must be exercised and mastered by teachers, parents and coaches or we run the risk of contributing to, what Robert Shaw, M.D. describes as, an epidemic of “permissiveness” and its resultant plague of “joyless, selfish children”. Children with clear boundaries and clear consequences for unacceptable behaviour are always happier.
What is really required to set and maintain such effective boundaries for children?
To begin with, we need to be able to think ahead, have a plan, and know the places and times during which our children will likely come off the rails. Knowing our limits ahead of time is crucial for both parents and teachers. Children are experts at finding loopholes that weaken the “teachable moment” unless we have a clear vision of what is acceptable or unacceptable.
We must also avoid using wishy-washy, vague, or indulgent language. Have you ever heard an adult correcting undesirable behaviour using words like, “I don’t really want you to do that. OK?” When addressing inappropriate behaviour, clarity is king. When there is wiggle room or the perception of “optional compliance” over things that should be crystal clear, it is game over. Child 1, Adult 0.
We must also ensure that our body language, facial expressions and voice reflect our purpose. No child responds to a milquetoast sing-song-y request to comply with a serious or reasonable correction or direction. If we mean business, we must communicate that we mean business in a calm, clear and matter-of-fact manner. Children respond best with clear and confident reminders.
Finally, we need to resist explaining the reason for a limit more than once. Like all human beings, children tend to be motivated by self-interest and will take advantage of any opportunity to pit parent against parent, teacher against teacher, or parent against teacher. While it can be helpful to give the reason for a limit, we must avoid falling into the trap of repeating ourselves and becoming long-winded and wordy.
The end result of engaging in a lot of words about straightforward expectations is often negotiation, followed by manipulation, and then, in the end, by capitulation.
And that – as Winston Churchill tried to warn the parliament of his day – never ends well.
Ric Anderson, Head of School