Monday, November 27, 2017

Don't Be Batman

Well, here's a piece of research you might not have expected.

The sexy headline reductive title is the Batman Effect (published almost a year ago), but the idea being tested here was a little broader than "Always Be Batman." From the abstract:

This study investigated the benefits of self-distancing (i.e., taking an outsider's view of one's own situation) on young children's perseverance. Four- and 6-year-old children (N = 180) were asked to complete a repetitive task for 10 min while having the option to take breaks by playing an extremely attractive video game. Six-year-olds persevered longer than 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, across both ages, children who impersonated an exemplar other—in this case a character, such as Batman—spent the most time working, followed by children who took a third-person perspective on the self, or finally, a first-person perspective.

While I generally support the idea of Being Batman, there are some hugely troubling implications of this study (and I'm not even counting that Queen of Grit Angela Duckworth is one of the co-authors). One problem is captured by this review of the study at Big Think:

With the onset of early childhood and attending preschool, increased demands are placed on the self-regulatory skills of kids.  

This underlines the problem we see with more and more or what passes for early childhood education these days-- we're not worried about whether the school is ready to appropriately handle the students, but instead are busy trying to beat three-, four- and five-year-olds into developmentally inappropriate states to get them "ready" for their early years of education. It is precisely and absolutely backwards. I can't say this hard enough-- if early childhood programs are requiring "increased demands" on the self-regulatory skills of kids, it is the programs that are wrong, not the kids. Full stop. 

What this study offers is a solution that is more damning than the "problem" that it addresses. If a four-year-old child has to disassociate, to pretend that she is someone else, in order to cope with the demands of your program, your program needs to stop, today. 

Because you know where else you hear this kind of behavior described? In accounts of victims of intense, repeated trauma. In victims of torture who talk about dealing by just pretending they aren't even there, that someone else is occupying their body while they float away from the horror. 

That should not be a description of How To Cope With Preschool. 

Nor should the primary lesson of early childhood education be, "You can't really cut it as yourself. You'll need to be somebody else to get ahead in life." I cannot even begin to wrap my head around what a destructive message that is for a small child. 

The researchers minimize this effect as just role play. The kids, they say, simply imitated someone they thought had the qualities needed to deal with the task. And hey-- role play is fun. But it's appropriate that Duckworth is in this pack, because we are just talking about other ways to grow grit:

Perseverance can pave the pathway to success. The current research suggests that perseverance can be taught through role play, a skill that is accessible to even very young children.

No.  I mean, I'm not a psychologist, nor do I play one on tv, but I have to believe that the root of grit or perseverance is the certainty that whatever happens, you'll deal with it. When my high school students are anxious or afraid, it's because when they imagine what's coming, they don't imagine themselves being enough to deal with it. I can't imagine ever telling them, "Well, you probably aren't, but maybe you can pretend to be somebody else." Because the "you probably aren't" part drowns out everything else. The most useful message for them is "You can handle this. You will be okay."

With my high schoolers, we're talking about challenging schoolwork, but we're also talking about real-life challenges that the world has put in their way. In Preschool, it's different.

Let's be clear what the study is suggesting as a process for four year old tiny humans:

1) Set standards and goals that the students are not equipped to meet.

2) Tell the students that they arn't able to handle the challenge, so they'd better pretend to be someone else.

I am thinking the solution to all the problems here lies in Step 1. Let's give small children tasks to perform that are developmentally appropriate. Let's set them up for success, and not for failure. Then when they someday discover on their own that you should, in fact, always be Batman, it will be so that they can have some fun with their friends, and not so that they can survive in school.


  1. That's child abuse! Sounds like some secret government torture experiment....only preformed on small children. How do they even get parents to give permission for this or are these children orphans of the state and the state is giving permission? It's plain creepy and people need to leave children and old people alone.

  2. Most therapists and psychologists consider continued disassociation as harmful as using drugs as it's in the same vein of turning off your personality/identity/feelings. Where playing pretend is about feeling like batman, disassociating is about using batman as a shield from how you really feel.
    One is fun, and even a good way to stretch muscles in empathy, and the other can lead to identity issues and therapy (in my experience).

  3. These are psychologists we're talking about. They abandoned all ethics when they decided it was okay for psychologists to assist with "enhanced interrogation" at GITMO and elsewhere. Since then (if not well before), psychology has been the pursuit of control of human minds. Brave New World indeed.

  4. Shouldn't every kid be permitted to imagine himself as a hero? Isn't that how a society generates REAL heros?

    1. Falstaff, kids spontaneously do that ON THE PLAYGROUND, during PRETEND play.

      *Adults* suggesting that they do it just to get through their schoolwork is another extremely unpalatable story entirely.

  5. Dear Mr. Greene:

    You are writing about preschool and practices of teacher pre-schoolers, and why forcing inappropriate activities on them is wrong. This weekend you called attention to blog that is about that subject, so I’m gonna pull it into the discussion.

    I am writing about Teacher Tom’s Blog “A Rule That Stands Above The Other One.” Teacher Tom reports that he lets the students self-regulate a lot. It’s possible he does this to the point that the students think “anything goes” because he is providing insufficient guidance. His job is to provide guidance.

    Teacher Tom writes, “Lately, some of the older kids have been using the large dog crate on our playground as a kind of prison into which they put one another. They are playing "pets." Those put into the crate are animals that must be confined for their own "safety." The game involves lots of grabbing and wrestling as the pets are usually reluctant to be put in their cage. Watching this game as an adult is difficult. Children are "forcing" one another into a small, dark space, then barring the door with an old safety gate, holding it firmly in place while the children inside pretend to object, ultimately escaping before being chased down and returned to their prison. The game evokes so many nasty things for me, especially when it's boys forcing girls. It's a consensual game, yet the core of the game is pretending they don't consent. Particularly upsetting for me is that the captor will often say, "I have to put you in your cage to keep you safe," while shoving another child into the hole.”

    Somehow or other, Teacher Tom does not think he should act on this. He says “none of them have asked for my help, either directly or indirectly. They are playing their unsavory-looking game quite happily, managing to keep it going for long stretches despite its intensity and potential for conflict, injury, and hurt feelings.”
    And, “Even as I continue to be bothered by the optics, I now see that it is, at its core, a game about consent...”

    I wrote him and told him to try to imagine facing a judge and jury, who have seen a video of this game just as he describes it, and explaining how it is “a game about consent...”

    I was probably too blunt when I wrote him that standing idly by while students do this is jaw-droppingly stupid because all a parent has to do is video-record this game, with their child in the crate, and they will walk away from the courthouse with all of the school’s money. I also said he was acting like a scientist watching lab rats, detached from them. So, I am probably not the person to bring this up with him. I probably don’t come off as being on his side. I am asking for someone else to tell him in a nice, friendly way what he is doing could crash and burn his place of employment, and also, in a caring, loving way, using your best supportive vocabulary, tell him that standing there “watching” abuse, without intervening, is actionable. Also creepy. He’s endangering children. Not only that, but this is, basically, S&M. It even has a safe word. (Supposedly, saying “Stop!” will stop the abuse.)

    You would be doing it for the child who is experiencing claustrophobia and does not understand what these feelings are nor what to do about them without being the spoilsport who ruins everyone’s fun. Thanks.


    1. I like Teacher Tom's blog, but I agree with you. Kids do dumb things sometimes and letting them experiment without some boundaries could really end badly.

    2. Well, except that he explicitly told the "captive" kids that they had the right to stop the game: "A couple times I've reminded kids, "Remember, if you don't like what's happening you can say Stop!" but so far they've just ignored me and continued about their game."

      And I hardly think the kids at Woodland Park think that "anything goes". After all, on any given day there are about half a dozen "parent-teachers" on hand, along with Teacher Tom himself. I think Teacher Tom and his parent-teachers do provide quite a bit of guidance, it's just in a form that allows the child to ultimately decide what to do with that guidance - i.e., informational statements rather than directional statements.

      Being as he was onsite and directly watching the kids play, I think he was in a better position to decide whether any child was actually experiencing distress rather than just pretend "distress" that kids act out all the time. I think he was right to let the play continue, damn the optics (if you're going to worry what you're possibly going to be sued for, you're not going to be able to breathe or move in this society). In any case, I hardly think Teacher Tom's families would continue to bring their kids to his school if they didn't agree with his methods.

      In case an anecdote means anything (and it probably doesn't), growing up I had a friend who had a pool in her back yard. At first I thought it would be great to get to swim all the time, but I was surprised that she didn't want to very often. Turns out, her father was a certified paramedic/volunteer firefighter. He had a strict rule against calling for help in the pool - if you called for help, pretend or otherwise, he would rescue you. To this day I remember that because it put such a damper on our play. Pretending to call for help is just such a natural part of kids' play. Having to worry that her father was going to yank us out of the pool made us really self-conscious in a way that's not really compatible with pretend play. He was well-meaning, but it wasn't the best way to really help us.

  6. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentors:

    This comment I’m posting is continuing to discuss Teacher Tom’s Blog “A Rule That Stands Above The Golden One.” When people ask abuse victims why they didn’t quit or leave the situation if they could have, the victims often say that they were afraid of opposing the person victimizing them. In one -on- one situations, they feared the person might turn violent; in groups, they feared the person would turn the group on them for “spoiling the fun.” Maybe no one would help them.

    Teacher Tom has approved of this game. That is implicit in his allowing it to be played. If a student doesn’t like the game it’s up to them to stop it. So anything goes, as long as the students consent, or don’t protest. That’s from the blog.

    But, I’m done trying to tell Teacher Tom anything. I guess I’m an old Fuddy-Duddy who thinks it is wrong to allow pre-school children to play S&M games. It is a brave new world they are entering, I guess.

    In response to Dienne’s Anecdote: When I was much younger, I was a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor, and your friend’s dad was absolutely correct. Don’t clown around about drowning. This is a rule of water safety based on avoiding tragedy.

    Extra Anecdote Time: I’m retired but work part time at a small school. I have lunch recess duty with a classroom teacher (who has about 25 years experience) the days I am there. Just about every day we see why it is absolutely necessary to have adults supervise children at playtime. Standing together with this other teacher yesterday, I told her I had written a letter disapproving something a teacher had blogged about at his site. I began by saying, “This teacher, called Teacher Tom, works at a pre-school. He has decided to allow the students to self-govern- to make their own decisions about how to treat each other.” She said, “Oh, like “Lord of the Flies”?

    I can’t top that. Over ‘n’ out.


  7. In the town I had previously lived in I used to spend all summer at the public pool. It was usually packed - probably 100 people or more, with four lifeguards, all of whom were all of sixteen years old and there to work on their tans. There's no way they could or would have pulled every kid pretending to yell help out of the pool. Yet somehow no one drowned as a result. I think the difference between someone actually drowning and someone pretending to call for help is pretty obvious.

    As far as Teacher Tom's class, I think the fact that he was right there watching the kids' faces takes care of any problems. I think he would have noticed if a kid looked distressed or afraid. The fact that they all ignored him when he told them they could say "Stop" seems to indicate that they were enjoying the game. I guess I'd be curious whether the same kids were always pets or whether it shifted. If it was always the same kids, I might be extra cautious about checking in with those kids. But if it shifted, I see no worries at all.

    And finally, I get really annoyed when people play the Lord of the Flies card. I really don't think children are naturally beastly to each other (although the potential is there). Human beings, including and especially little ones, are naturally more empathetic than we give them credit for. I think the Lord of the Flies thing comes in when we put them in unnatural situations and they don't naturally learn to interact with and negotiate with each other. For instance, we expect them to sit still for six and a half hours, and then we're baffled when they fight for the only fifteen minutes of free time they get. We then use that as an excuse not to give them any free time, when the problem is the constriction of free time in the first place. What I've found is that when kids' needs are met and when their feelings are generally well recognized and supported, kids can work out their own conflicts reasonably well.

  8. Dear Dienne,

    Ah. Where to begin. Oh. More about the pool. It was the Dad’s pool. He volunteered to rescue people. He may have saved people from drowning, or knew of drownings. He didn’t want you to mock drowning. He took things too seriously for you at that age. Now, of course, you see that ..oh, no, I guess not. Never mind.

    Dienne, you write, (about young students) “For instance, we expect them to sit still for six and a half hours, and then we're baffled when they fight for the only fifteen minutes of free time they get. We then use that as an excuse not to give them any free time, when the problem is the constriction of free time in the first place. What I've found is that when kids' needs are met and when their feelings are generally well recognized and supported, kids can work out their own conflicts reasonably well.“ Is this to give folks the impression that I am one of those “Kids need to develop grit” or “Kids don’t need recess” people, and that I don’t meet my students’ needs and recognize and support their feelings BECAUSE I don’t agree with you that pre-schoolers dragging and shoving other pre-schoolers into a box and holding them inside is a good game? You can knock that bit right off. ‘K?

    Oh, Is there a “Lord of the Flies” card? I’ll bring up your annoyance with the teacher who said that when I see her. I can't guarantee her reaction, though, or mine. I continue to think it’s spot-on. You write, “I really don't think children are naturally beastly to each other (although the potential is there.)” Exactly. At our school we try to notice when students are doing something nice: “I like that you helped clean up the other table after you cleaned up yours!” And if the students begin acting out that potential for beastliness, we call them out on it as well. We want them to “learn to interact with and negotiate with each other” but that can hardly take place in a game about doing bad things to other children with an overlay of “Let’s pretend you are my pet.” Being forcibly shoved into a pet carrier and held there is an inherently unequal place from which to interact and negotiate, especially if you are told you’re a pet and can't talk. It seems unwise to me to make it the rule that the one who is being dragged and shoved into an enclosure must be the one to stop the game. They’re already busy trying not to be dragged and shoved. And also trying to escape. Hmmm, now that I think of it, we actually have rules against dragging and shoving at our school, so it wouldn’t even get to the enclosure part, even if there was one.

    You write, “I guess I'd be curious whether the same kids were always pets or whether it shifted. If it was always the same kids, I might be extra cautious about checking in with those kids.“

    Yeah, Dienne, one would think that the teacher would be curious about that. But as he assures you, Teacher Tom has “become comfortable with the game.” Does it not seem odd that he hasn’t sat down with them, maybe one at a time, off to the side, and asked for their honest opinion of the new game?