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2014 TERM 1

Authority Disguised As Moral Failure

A girl climbs a tree at lunchtime and is sent to the vice-principal - who sends her to the reflection room for the rest of the day.

To reflect on what, exactly?

Her moral failure? Moral failure as she was attracted to climbing a tree? Because she actually climbed a tree?

I hate this twisted 'psychology' of turning fun/defiance into a question of character: detention/incarceration re-badged as a need to re-examine personal moral worthiness.

Imagine that our tree-climber continues to climb trees. A few repeat visits to the reflection room will ensue. If our girl does not exhibit full deference to the anti-tree climbing squad, it will not be long before talk will begin of Asperger's/Oppositional Defiance Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder/Tree-Hugging Disorder and her parents will be informed that she has a social/emotional disability. This will be followed up in many cases by an appointment with a psychologist, who if not initially, will after a few meetings and a few more trees, recommend a series of sessions and the possibility of chemical restraint.

All just because our child wanted to climb trees, and did not obey the authority's (in her mind 'ludicrous') requirement that she did not climb trees.

Please, bring back the cane: bring it back as it is a gentle, light tool compared to the heavy machine we now run children over with, a machine that convinces teachers, parents, and the poor child herself, that non-conformity to stupid instructions reflects a disturbed psychology.

It is a point of debate as to whether we monstered children in the past with stricter codes and stricter enforcement of discipline, but the machine we now throw at free-spirited children gives monsters a bad name.

Giving a whack for non-compliance says clearly that here, in my family, my team, my group, my school, my club, my shop... it is my way.

Simple. And a perfect demonstration of how society works. The child learns that in different times, with different people, there are different expectations: their expectations. And the child adapts, perhaps vowing that when she grows up, she will not be as stupid as the adults she has to deal with; she will be more enlightened than they are, more open-minded, more understanding! She will do things differently. Tree-climbing will be in!

Treated thus, children are not dis-empowered - and in many instances make resolutions to abolish stupid rules such as the banning of tree climbing. They vow to make changes for the better. I speak very much from personal experience here - I was (and perhaps still am) one such child. As adults, when we hide our authority but not our need for compliance, we confound our children by getting them to believe that their non-compliance reflects a personal psychosis. We dress our judgement up with significant sounding labels - syndrome/disorder/disability - to convince them (and perhaps also ourselves and others) that the failure resides solely within the child. This destroys the child's sense of self-worth, and with it her confidence, and to some degree her judgement of right and wrong.

In thus breaking children, we deny or diminish the possibility that they will challenge our judgements, rules and conclusions... especially our stupid rules, restrictions and expectations. Each new generation has always critiqued the ways, rules and behaviours of the older generation, and has through this moved society forward. Free-spirits, not confined by the culture of the day. They brought us sexual equality, racial equality and the end of a long list of stereotypes, false assumptions and misunderstandings. Cultural norms that were just so... normal... that they were not seen for discrimination that we now understand them to be. Our free spirits challenged us as a society and got us to see the damage these practices did to the individuals so excluded. We risk stalling this process, as those free spirits most likely to perform this service for society are now routinely disempowered, convinced that they have a disorder/disability. We literally break many of these children, convincing them that their misfit is due to their own maladjustment, not our ludicrous rules, practices and expectations. Our fears and failures. The machine is rolled out: welfare workers, social workers, counsellors, psychologists and paediatricians - a sugar-coated club that pummels our poor child's sense of self, and right and wrong, with its pronouncements.

All simply because we are not willing to admit our authority and our need for compliance. This seems an awful toll - a toll born heavily by our most spirited children - our bright sparks.

No, I am not against compliance; it is necessary for society to function. And of course, in accepting compliance, I must also accept that we will all, from time to time, get it wrong, and over-regulate. And regulate badly. And tie ourselves unnecessarily up in knots. In breaking those who challenge us, we fail to learn the lessons that they bring. It is these children who point out so clearly the glaring idiocy of some of the things we require of our fellow humans. These children are a gift to society.

Dishonesty always carries a cost. Dishonest child-raising practices can literally cripple children. We need to be honest about compliance requirements.

A girl climbs a tree: "Get down as that scares me!" or "Climb it later when I am not looking as I cannot cope!"

A boy shouts out in class: "I want a quiet room!" or "In my class, I don't have shouting."

Requiring compliance to some sort of social order is necessary in many, if not all, social settings. Making it my requirement allows the child the possibility of thinking that that instruction/instructee is an idiot (something I frequently thought as a child, and still perhaps think more often than I should). The avoidance of psychologising and pathologising the child gives her a better chance of being a positive agent for change when she grows up. And you never know, some of these children, when they grow up, may even come to adopt some of our injunctions as their own!

Require compliance when it is necessary - or simply for your own peace - but be honest about why!

Timothy Berryman (Principal)


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