Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sigh. I have so much more to learn.

I may be the most intolerant, obnoxious, self-righteous snob on the planet, but I have to say that I can't stand people. The more I have to deal with the general public--the mainstreamers--the more I can't stand them.

This morning I had to go to the school where I used to work to fill out some paperwork so that I can start a new leave of absence from my job. (The truth is that I don't ever intend to return to work as a teacher, but it would be foolish to quit my job as long as I can just stay on a leave of absence. Keeping the contract is a little bit of insurance in case my world should ever come crashing down around me and I was in desperate need of an income.) So I took the girls with me and we dropped by the school office. I endured the usual comments from the secretaries--Do you know what you're having? Wow, 4 kids, that's brave--while I waited for the principal to sign my papers, and then the vice-principal came over.

I had already introduced the girls to the secretary who was always the friendliest to me, but the VP had to ask them their names for herself, and she started with Holly. As I expected, Holly didn't answer, so I put my hand on her little head and said, "This is Holly. She's almost 4-and-a-half." Like a typical mainstreamer who thinks that children should be cajoled, manipulated and shamed, the VP barely let me finish before she got right in Holly's face and asked, "Can you say 'my name is Holly'?"

Now this is where I have to congratulate myself for holding back from saying what immediately came to my mind: Gee, Heather, can you say 'micropachicephalosaurus'? Of course she can say her own name, you moron, but she doesn't talk to people she's never ever met before and like any good parent I've taught my children not to share personal information with strangers. No, no, I restrained myself, and I only said, "No, she's not going to." But I didn't restrain myself out of respect, or even because I have some manner of social skills. I restrained myself because I already know that I cannot possibly convince a 60-year-old woman that she was completely rude to my child and that my child deserves to be treated in such a way that leaves her autonomy completely intact. And this stranger spends all day talking to kids to whom she is a stranger! And she probably berates every single one who doesn't answer her the way she thinks she should be answered. Furthermore, does she think that a 4-year-old can tell the difference between a 'nice stranger' and a 'bad stranger'? I can't even tell the difference!!

Make no mistake: I was furious. The woman then turned to Anna and asked for her name. Anna is beyond intuitive and she knew exactly what kind of woman she was dealing with. She looked up at me with a look that was almost rolling her eyes, and I immediately introduced her myself and told her age. Fortunately we were spared any more stupid comments as the principal was ready to see me. As soon as I was out of earshot of the VP I knelt down to face Holly and told her that she never has to talk to someone if she doesn't want to, and that of course I know that she can say her own name whenever she wants.

I guess it's not just people in the education system who don't get it about kids. A similar thing happened recently with a neighbour who said to Anna, "Are you excited about the new baby coming?" Anna gave me that same look that told me she knew that the questioner was asking for one specific answer (i.e. YES) but that she wasn't going to give that answer and could I please get her out of this situation. I mean, the only answer from a 6-year-old about whether or not she is excited about her mom having a new baby is "No, of course not. I didn't ask for this baby. I'm not thrilled at all that my mom is going to have even less time to pay attention to me and besides that, in about a year and a half this baby is going to get into my stuff and really start to bug me. So, NO, I'm not excited."

In another example, last week at the Farmer's Market, as I was paying a man for some sweet potatoes when he said to Anna, "Why aren't you in school?" Well, there's a question that it would take me about 6 hours to answer!! Anna shrugged her shoulders and gave me the get-me-out-of-this-look. I said, "We don't need school. We learn wherever we happen to be." Naturally, the comment in return was, "Oh, you're homeschoolers." Then it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and walk away.

Why do adults ask questions that kids can't answer? And why are total strangers surprised when kids don't answer them? And what makes adults think they can be rude to children? It's a simple answer really. Adults don't believe that children are their equals. We've reached the conclusion that sexism, racism, homophobia and able-ism are wrong, but most adults still openly and unashamedly embrace age-ism. That is, they endorse treating children as lesser people who must always be controlled.

I admit that I spent my entire career as a teacher believing that children had to be controlled. And I really did control them a lot of the time. In fact, for being able to do so I was considered to be an excellent teacher. I was even asked to mentor other teachers to teach them 'classroom management skills'. The truth is, when I was the only adult with 25 adolescents, there was an enormous fear of losing control. I maintained control because I believed that total chaos would occur if I didn't. In reality, it was all about what was good for me and not in the least about what was good for them. I know that now. I didn't know that then.

In my home, I have to acknowledge that certain amount of control is maintained by the parents. We control the menu. We control the level of mess. We control the TV. But we don't control the children. The children have self-control. And when the children need us to show leadership to solve a particular problem, we step in and solve it.

"What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be
what we want our children to become."- Joseph Chilton Pearce

So when we say to a child Can you say My name is Holly? we are really teaching her that it is OK to shame and manipulate people to get them to do something to make us feel good with no regard for feelings. By contrast, when I stand up for my children they learn that they should also stand up for people. And when I hold back from tearing a strip off of a person who wouldn't even understand my ire, I teach my children that we can maintain our own dignity and integrity by our silence.

It's funny how I thought I was all grown up before I had my children. The truth is that I still have so much to learn.

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