Recently, I was saddened to see a picture on Facebook of a six-year-old in his mother’s arms, making an obscene gesture over her shoulder. I was more dismayed to hear the reaction of the woman who posted the picture. She called the child “a little s***” and ranted that he needed a good spanking from his parents or teacher. She felt he was putting something over on adults and needed to be held accountable. Here’s why I was upset:
A child is almost always seeking attention, not domination. Ascribing bad intentions to a child will just give him a hard-to-shake label (“brat,” “incorrigible,” “bad seed,” “punk,” etc.). Psychology tells us that only 1% of people, of all ages, in the U.S. are psychopathic and neuroscience is discovering deficits in the brain areas of these individuals that provide impulse control and foster empathy. Most kids are not psychopaths. Most kids can develop strong social/emotional intelligence, especially if they have good adult role models.
Pushing the envelope is not, in itself, a bad thing, though having one’s buttons pushed is provocative. Innovation and just plain learning comes from trying to see where limits exist. Research tells us that persistence and resilience are good traits to have. We adults need to guide children to positive contexts for pushing the envelope—especially through creative play and construction.
“On” buttons develop before “off” buttons. Brain scientists tell us that turning “on” behaviors are easier than turning them “off,” even for adults. For example, my friend typed over 100 words a minute, learned to knit and ate red hots instead of smoking cigarettes—just quitting was too hard. Wonderful milestones occur when children learn to walk, talk and use their hands. Much harder is to learn to sit down, shut up and stop fooling with things. Too much of traditional schooling asks children to “stifle” their actions, which is not only hard to do, but also stunts, rather than promotes learning. Brain studies underline that movement is essential for clear thinking and long-lasting learning. We adults literally need to turn kids on in school, not just try to turn them off.
A “growth mindset” or a “set mindset” is a choice—and usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. If an adult believes some children are just bad and cannot be fixed, they burden these children with their own baggage. If an adult looks at a child only to find what needs to be fixed, they encourage dependence or rebellion and discourage initiative. If an adult strives to find the unique qualities and strengths of a child, and if that adult supports and nurtures the positive things she finds, that child will be more likely to develop self confidence as well as generosity of spirit.
Accountability is best learned through love and reason. Instilling fear in children can backfire into abuse of self, of objects, of others. Teaching through pain teaches children that to be an adult is to be powerful enough to inflict pain on others. Telling children reasons for behaving positively instead of negatively, providing them with a brief time out to cool off, helping them implement positive strategies for sad and angry times, and telling children that their actions are wrong but they are still loved, provides them with a model of strength and kindness to emulate.
Failure is not necessarily a failure. Teachers who teach creative thinking know that failure is an important part of learning, improving and innovating. Neuroscience tells us that children who have been abused or neglected need at least 30 to 50 chances to practice positive behaviors. If we expect real change to happen, we need to show children how to keep picking themselves up and trying again. We need to give them immediate and thoughtful feedback that they can trust. We need to practice giving and receiving positive suggestions.
With a world becoming more and more polarized, we need to be advocates for our children, to teach them to love themselves and at least tolerate others—even others who look and behave differently than they do. We need to be living and interacting examples of how we want them to demonstrate accountablity.