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Authority, Discipline, Punishment, and 4 Rules for Getting Good Kids

The Secret of Raising Good Kids (Hint: Don’t Think Bad)

Judy Stone, one of the all-time great teachers, and I were in charge of 48 seventh and eighth graders for their lunch/recess period one day in March several years ago. Judy called us all together and said: “There are three rules: no running, no throwing balls and no jumping off the stage.” (We were in an old, newly acquired parish hall that had not yet been fitted out for children.) For 45 minutes there was no bad behavior, but we spent the rest of our time together adjudicating whether what we had just observed was “running” or a fast walk, “jumping” or a giant step. Was that projectile that went flying past us a “ball” or a wad of duct tape? Now and then we had someone take a ten-minute timeout, but all 50 of us—the 13- and 14-year-olds and the two 50-year-olds alike—had a good time together even though the restrictions were both unusual and cruel for children.

What did we do right?

1)    Our attitude: “These are all good kids and we know it will be hard for them to live within the restrictions this environment is putting on them.” –unspoken but assumed. We understood their “misbehavior” as their need to understand the meaning and the reality of the boundaries.

2)    Real boundaries: The rules represented actual requirements of the environment rather than something derived mysteriously from adult willpower. The boundaries were not a choice but a necessity like driving on the right side of the road.—We didn’t explain.

3)    No punishment: Consequences were just that. “If you go beyond the pale; you will sit out until you can show us you are ready to be a responsible member of society.” –unspoken but assumed.

4)    Nothing else: That’s all there was to it. Questions of authority, respect, discipline, good-and-bad did not enter in, because we acted as if these were not in question. We did not waste breath (and credibility) explaining things that we wanted them to take for granted. We treated them as wise (as in “a word to the wise is sufficient.”)

Authority: We were, of course, the authorities who were creating the conditions for them to have safe fun with each other. We were in charge because it was our job to be in charge not because we were “Principal” or “Head Teacher,” or better than anyone. Our authority derived from our responsibility; a substitute teacher or a parent volunteer can accomplish the same results.

Respect was not an issue because the question of respect did not enter our minds. We were not in the business of teaching respect; were in the business of having fun and were respectful of the different roles each of us were supposed to play—of course.

Discipline: We were not teaching discipline, but we knew they were learning the disciplines of being a responsible member of a group.

They were good kids because we acted as if we were dealing with good kids. If you want to raise socially responsible children whose good behavior is internally motivated because it has social value to them, you will to treat them as if they are trying their best to be socially responsible. (People tend to live up or down to our high or low expectations of them.) Bad behavior is not a sign of a bad kid but the reality that “people make mistakes,” and “If you break it, you fix it.” (Of course)

Adults design the game, and the game we design makes all the difference. Don’t play “Good-guys/Bad-guys.” Design a responsible learning community where it is safe to be yourself, where looking out for yourself includes taking responsibility for others and for the group, where mistakes, conflict and differences are accepted as a part of life and used for learning experiences.

The behavior we get depends on the game we design.

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5 Responses to “Authority, Discipline, Punishment, and 4 Rules for Getting Good Kids”

  1. Marjie Knudsen March 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Rick, great line -> “Don’t play ‘Good-guys/Bad-guys.'”
    So often it seems we are divided into a world of “us” and “them” which makes it hard for one or the other to feel respected. I love the community feeling that this brings out.

  2. Leah Hall March 17, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    This makes so much sense, Rick. I’d like to find a way to set some boundaries around our media at home for our 5th grader. She’s becoming more savvy at maximizing screen time for herself than we are at limiting it. Do you or one of your readers have a cheat sheet for us to refer to as we try to regain some traction in this regard?

  3. Rick March 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Though I do not always agree with them, Common sense media (http://bit.ly/f2ElmF) has given this matter a great deal more thought than I. My contribution would be to start at your current starting point which is “She’s becoming more savvy at maximizing screen time for herself than we are at limiting it.” Acknowledging the limits of your power is the first step. I used to have a rule, kids should not have a computer in their room where they have the illusion of privacy. That is just untenable (given the technology today.)
    So your power has to be to help her make good decisions. Let her talk to you about it, find out what her own rules of the road already are, then discuss.

  4. Polly March 18, 2011 at 6:47 am #

    “They were good kids because we acted as if we were dealing with good kids. If you want to raise socially responsible children whose good behavior is internally motivated because it has social value to them, you will to treat them as if they are trying their best to be socially responsible.”

    I completely agree, but would also add that trust and belief are important as well. It’s not just enough for kids to see your behavior they also have to actually BELIEVE you trust them to do the right thing and make the right choices. When parents can find this trust and confidence within THEMSELVES, their children will respond in wonderful ways.

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