Friday, May 27, 2016

A Bad Child?

I don't remember the first person to ask me, but I remember how I felt when I heard the question, asked of my then fresh-out-the-package daughter.

Is she a good baby?

I was stumped. She's a baby. I'm pretty sure that her moral and ethical sense are somewhat limited at the moment, that she doesn't really know much about the world or her proper relationship with it. Good? Bad? She's a baby.

Of course, what the question meant (and still means, because now I hear it asked about my grandson) is does she go to sleep easily? Does she cry much? Does she stick to a regular schedule? Does she let you sleep at night?

In other words (literally), "is she good" meant roughly "does she behave in a way that is convenient for you?"

This is crazy talk. The child is hungry when she's hungry-- are we suggesting that she should have the decency to just suck it up until a decent hour of the morning? Do we think she should stop crying, stop using the only expression she has for "I feel really bad," out of consideration for our adult feelings? 

I was sensitive to the idea because in those early days of my career I was teaching in middle school and I was wrestling with the uncomfortable realization that what some of my colleagues meant by "Good student" was not "a student who displays curiosity, insight, creativity, hard work, and interest in learning." What they meant was, "A student who behaves in the ways that are most convenient for us." In those days, we were institutionally fuzzy about the difference between "excellence" and "compliance."

This is how we label a child and set that child on track for failure, conflict and all the worst things that we can throw at them. We label that child "bad" and what we mean is "that child is non-compliant and won't behave in ways that are most convenient for those of us who have the power." And that word "bad" just keeps meaning that through elementary school, high school, and on after, when we declare that the neighborhood that the now-grown child lives is a bad neighborhood, a neighborhood where too many people are non-compliant, too many people behave in ways that are inconvenient and undesirable for the folks in power.

This is the worst conceivable definition of "bad"-- "inconvenient for me and the exercise of my power over this person."

There was a time when teachers received plenty of sensitivity training, where we were told to respond to bad children by asking what it was, exactly, that made them so bad.

I would suggest, instead, that we ask ourselves why we are trotting out the B word.

A rational human being does not respond to a crying infant with, "How dare you do this to me! You shape up right now or else!" Instead, you ask, "Why is this child crying? What is she trying to tell me?"

I am not sure there is ever a reason to stop asking that question.

Now, I'm not saying that some of the actions don't need to be dealt with. If a student picks up a desk and tries to throw it at other students, that action is destructive and injurious and needs to be stopped.

But after the danger and damage have been dealt with, there is still time to ask the question why. What is the person trying to communicate? What's the message that's being lost in translation? What is it we're not hearing?

"Bad" gets in the way of that process. "Bad" is the conversation-ender. There's no explanation, nothing to understand, because the person is just bad.

And there are certainly times when "bad" is the right word, where we are dealing with a person whose choices, actions, inclinations, values are violations of moral and ethical standards. But before we deploy the B word, we should be certain that it really applies. When we use the B word, do we mean that this is a person who is actually and demonstrably evil, or do we just mean that this person insists on behaving in ways that are inconvenient and annoying to those of us with power.

One lesson of Teacher 101 is "It's not personal." Though a student's action may feel like a bold statement of, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck," it probably isn't (even if the student actually says, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck). What I'm proposing is just an extension of that.

A student's action might be non-compliant. It might be inconvenient for us as the power in the room. But unless we're prepared to argue that compliance to authority is a higher moral virtue, we had better think for a second or twelve before we call that student "bad." If our message is that Good People are the ones who always kneel to the dominant power or culture, we need a new set of definitions, and perhaps a new approach to the "good" and "bad" people in our classrooms.


  1. Very insightful, especially the way you explain it.

    My son once picked up a desk and acted like he was going to throw it. The teacher took the time to talk to him and figure out that he was upset because he was being bullied in gym class and the gym teacher wouldn't do anything about it. She talked to the gym teacher and he finally did resolve it. My son could have been labeled "bad". (If he'd been black, maybe he would have.)

  2. For most kids, school is about labels and categories. The teachers are usually pretty clear about their attitudes towards each student. Students also have to live with their academic labels. Some may have "medical" labels. Then the students come up with their own labels. They have labels for teachers, peers, different cliques. Eventually the teachers become familiar with the students' labels (think of the list Grace the secretary rattles off in "Ferris Buehler's Day Off").

    Labels, labels, labels. A stranger asks you if your baby is good. A teacher tells you as a parent if your kid is good. You agree or disagree. The kid lives with the label. If is a bad label, you hope for a kinder teacher next year.

    Then there are the labels you want but can't get. That is frustrating. The anti-bullying campaign says avoid labels. So everyone walks around thinking but not speaking about labels.

    Is it possible to prepare young people for adulthood without the rampant use of explicit and tacit labels? We had better find a way. The problem is, few people really do the hard work of trying to understand what it means to be in someone else's shoes.