What Do Good Parents and Good Schools Have in Common?

How to Exercise Authority

Of the 20 schools I visited last fall, two stand out. Any parent would know in the first five minutes of each visit what I knew: I want my child in school A, and I will fight like hell to keep my child out of school B. One was a place of education and one felt like a prison. I will call one The Learning Academy and the other Brand X.

In The Learning Academy all kids were on a mission, they seemed lit from within with the joy of learning. In two hours I saw no bored or unhappy students, and they were all engaged in challenging academic work. Each classroom exuded creativity—in every corner of every classroom.

In Brand X I saw three students in the hallway and one in the principal’s office “being disciplined.” The incidence of enthusiasm was so low I had to search for it and never found it. There was a debate at the doorway of one classroom about whether or not the child actually had to go to the bathroom—the teacher lost. I saw three students ambling to or from the bathroom. It felt like so much energy was going into keeping bad things from happening, that there wasn’t much energy going toward good things happening.

I left The Learning Academy singing “…and I think to myself, it’s a wonderful world.” I left Brand X not singing. Need I say anything about the test scores at each school? What would be your guess?

We wish we could say that Brand X was an aberration, but we know that’s not true. We know that Brand X is actually the norm along a continuum from not-that-bad to horrifying.

The fundamental difference between the two schools is also at the core of the debate aroused by Amy Chua: the exercise of adult authority in the lives of children. People are talking, writing, blogging and tweeting about it so much because we are in the middle of a cultural shift and searching for a new way. Americans don’t want to be authoritarian anymore, …but what?

“We’re supposed to just let kids do their own thing? That kind of sixties-liberal crap was bankrupt long ago.”

“To prepare our children for a harsh, demanding, competitive world, …well, I don’t know, but at least Amy Chua has a point.”

“You have to make demands, push them to practice, have high expectations, say No a lot, and….”

“How can you have responsibility without control?”

But the opposite of something bad (like authoritarianism) is often something worse.

Our confusion about the exercise of authority interferes with our proper delivery of the only three things kids need after food and safety: 1) love, 2) decision-making and 3) accurate feedback on their decisions. So many mistakes I have seen parents and teachers make in the last thirty-five years stem from this confusion, and in my last year in the blogosphere I can see these mistakes articulated in writing. Do we hold kids accountable or back off? Do we love them as they are or push them to try harder? And so on and so on…???

Is it possible to exercise our adult authority in such a way that we don’t interfere with our children’s authority? Can we take full responsibility for the education of our children without controlling the love of learning right out of them? Is it possible to be the authority in such a way that we actually increase our children’s authority. Is there a way that everyone’s authority can keep going up all the time?

Yes. The key to the door of our authority prison is this: Don’t underestimate children. Act as if this child has a genius, a teacher-within with whom we can form a partnership. The Learning Academy’s culture is built around seeing children for what they really are: creative, decision-making machines whose central purpose is to self-actualize, to become authorities.

Kids trying to accomplish something actually want feedback positive and negative. They welcome hearing Right! Wrong! Yes! No! What makes BrandX a prison is that the students experience “success and failure as reward and punishment.” In The Learning Academy students experienced success and failure as information. (Jerome Bruner via Joe Bower).

Seeing children as creators liberates the adults to be what the kids want: Someone who loves me as I am and will tell me the truth.

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18 thoughts on “What Do Good Parents and Good Schools Have in Common?

  1. Nice blog. You are correct on many issues; the “self-esteem” parenting of the 80’s have left us with a lot of kids who were never told NO, or the TRUTH, because we didn’t want to hurt their FEELINGS!

    Where AMY gets to me is that she doesn’t bother to say that she had a FULL-TIME nanny to afford her the luxury of childcare support during the day so she had reserves left in the evening. She wasn’t by any means, a low or even moderate income mother who is stuggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, and has no one to support her. It’s a little easier to write the not-so-called “definitive parenting book” when another is doing the parenting for you 10 hrs. a day.
    Thanks you for posting…a pleasure to read!

  2. Another interesting read. I’ve been struggling to find where this line is myself in my classroom. I think one of the hardest things to do is to let the kids struggle, to actually push them into struggles a lot of the time. Thai classrooms typically don’t push individuality and self-reliance the way we do in the US, so there’s a huge difference between what a child in my classroom will get if they come to me for help or to one of the Thai assistants. The Thais will typically take over and do it for them, but I’ve finally found a happy medium where I don’t just send them off to do it themselves, but actually help them get started–and then make them do the rest on their own. Had a great success today, too: we were making ocean dioramas in small groups, which is pretty complex for five year olds, and one girl had colored a starfish and wanted me to cut it out for her. She is one of those who’s decided she’s helpless and gets pretty whiny and clingy about it, but I was very firm in just making the first cut, helping her turn the paper, etc.–and of course after one or two corners she just needed me to say, “Yep, you got it!” and finished the rest just fine on her own.

  3. Thanks for a great post Rick. I think there needs to be more balance in the discussions on student behavior. I agree that students need feedback – both academic and social – form the adults in their lives. I look at it as influence…adults need to be a positive influence on their children/students.

    The challenge I might pose to some is why external feedback from adults okay? I constantly hear other reference the fact that anything “extrinsic” diminishes a student’s “intrinsic” motivation. Why is extrinsic feedback okay? I’m not saying kids should “work for M&M’s”, but I do believe human behavior (and its motivation) is far too complex to compartmentalize into either/or…I think its both.

    Descriptive feedback is effective both for student work and for student behavior. Adult attention is a huge source of positive reinforcement for students. Kids want adults to be proud of them. They’re not sure where they are going and what the world is going to look like; they may not, depending on age, have the maturity to make sense of the world around them. They need/want adults to help them make sense of it. They want adults to let them know they are on track.


  4. Thanks, Tom. Reading what you wrote I just learned that we need to make the distinction between motivation and information. For best results we want the drive to come within. Feedback, of course, will be largely “external.” A person wants to know how on or off the mark they are. The confusion comes when a person tries to turn the feedback into the motivator. Do it because you will get an A, or doing it because you want to learn. So much has to do with the motivation of the person delivering the feedback. Jerome Bruner had it nailed: am I giving you are reward/punishment? or am I giving you information. Whose authority are we trying to enhance here? Teacher’s or student’s

  5. thanks rick. it seems to me the relationship between promoting independent decision making in our children and providing accurate feedback is the essence of the “genius” of parenting. it necessarily involves a lot of push and pull and often times requires the making of mistakes (for both the parent and the child!). i saw race to nowhere last night and thought of you. i was reminded of the importance of imagination and how intelligence is really in its service and not its master. love hearing from you!

  6. Tom, I like your comments. Writers like Alfie Kohn have reviewed the literature on praise and rewards and they make compelling cases against using praise too much. There are some studies showing that when praised, children abandoned self-directed tasks. One explanation might be that the child may be distracted or that the flow of the experience is interrupted.
    The “regular guy” in me knows that well-deserved praise and feedback is valuable. Rick is talking about accurate feedback and not praise. Great teachers and coaches get the most out of learners because they give accurate feedback. I read a great blog post that you might like. It is about coach John Wooden’s approach called “Information vs. Reward and Punishment”.

  7. Rick, Great post. I seem to talk constantly these days about the nature of the nature of authority of adults in children’s lives, both at school and at home.

    The issue, I think, is that at Brand X adults perceive kids “needing” treatment and intervention–that learning itself is a punitive treatment that children require to become adults.

    This set of beliefs is deeply rooted in the culture of American schooling–so profoundly rooted as to be invisible. How do you suggest making it visible, to name the unnamable?


  8. How to make visible that: “adults perceive kids “needing” treatment and intervention–that learning itself is a punitive treatment that children require to become adults.” That is my $64k question? I am so glad it is yours. We have to get some people together and focus on that: How can we make the disrespect of children visible?

  9. Great post Rick and yes, the ever pressing question to resolve the issue of disrespect towards children. The only way I see change occurring is one person at a time, one family at a time and eventually reverberating out into the world. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we can’t change this today except through our own actions and initiatives. Shine more light on this disrespect and offer a solution to transform adult-child relationships into respect. As parents, teachers, members of communities we have to take a no excuses approach and stop blaming the school system. It’s doing just what it was set up to do but now we are seeing it magnified because of the years of results we now have. Keep talking to people, start an initiative in your community, find groups that are already making a difference and join in the change. What can you do personally with your own family? I decided to homeschool my own through self-education and inspiration. At the same time I am helping others homeschool as well as building ways to help children who don’t have homeschooling as an option. Through our united efforts for our own children and all the children around the world we can really make a difference. There are millions of people already working on it, let’s join forces! Every child counts!! What is one thing you can do today to make a difference in the way children are educated?

  10. Kristen and Rick,
    Google Paolo Freire Pedogogy of the Oppressed. Great quotes re: how do we break cycle of adult “disrespect.”

    Essentially I think it comes down to listening. challenges lie in adult busyness, anxiety that only they “know” and tradition….

    Cheers and thanks for continual dialogue.

    Lisa b

  11. Good points as usual, Rick. I used to wonder about the difference between authoritative and authoritarian but over the years the distinction has become more meaningful as I have seen those two played out in families, classrooms and school communities. Exercising our authority as “authority figures” can cause confusion in the minds of young children or even worse, produce fear. In fact, that seems to be the intention of those who wish to control others. Scare the hell out of them, rather than giving them the ability to become their own authority.
    History is full of illustrations in governments, religions, dictators and mean-spirited individuals. At the other end of the spectrum lies kindness, gentleness and self-control. Those are gifts of a lifetime, sometimes costly but enduring.

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