Friday, May 25, 2012

Attributing Motives to Kids

Over on Jessica Lahey's blog, she's got a post about hubris. Among other things, she talks about the desire of kids to "test boundaries" and "challenge authority".

Well, maybe. I've been noticing lately that controlling, authoritarian teachers (and, doubtless, parents) are very quick to attribute these motives to kids, in almost any situation. One such teacher thought my daughter was being defiant when she had simply forgotten a trivial piece of her homework.

There's a narcissism at work here; like a certain type of vain, clueless man who thinks a woman is flirting with him even as she's walking away.

Jessica Lahey says:

I think students test their teachers because they know they are safe with the teachers who care about them. They push us away because they know we will still be here when they return to their senses.
Or perhaps these adolescent students, in the tricky phase between child and adult, are trying to establish a more equal relationship with an adult they care about. They won't manage it if the adult in question can only think in terms of "boundaries" and "authority".

Maybe that child who behaves in a way we don't like is "testing boundaries". On the other hand, maybe she's trying to tell us we've restricted her freedom too much. Maybe she's right.


  1. What are your favorite blogs or websites to go to that do share your views on education?

  2. Take a look at the sites listed under "Links", listed at the right of the page. That said, I don't agree 100% with any blog, probably not even my own.

  3. For someone who accuses other people of hubris, Lahey does an awful lot of patting herself on the back.

  4. Chris, absolutely right. It's that self-congratulatory tone that made me skeptical of Lahey from the start.

  5. PsychMom says:

    I think back to that Erica Goldson valedictorian speech from 2010. She was supposed to get up there and be grateful and nostalgic of her education, which was what the uncomfortable teachers behind her were expecting. She may have liked her teachers as people but she rejected everything they had done. Would Ms. Lahey have been proud of this young lady if she had been her teacher?

    Teachers need to look at themselves first when there are problems with kids. It's what I do as a parent. I ask myself what I've done to create this problem, as I'm the adult and probably more experienced in problem solving than my child. When I start to blame my daughter, I know it's time to take a hard look at myself.

  6. Nel Noddings said, "Always attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts." I think that's really good advice.

  7. Huh. Yikes I feel a little like the kid who accidentally overhears some other kids bashing her in the school bathroom. I had no idea this was going on over here...I just stopped by to give FedUpMom this link to an interesting article on introverted kids that I thought she'd like, as we had a back-and forth about that subject a while back.

  8. PsychMom invites..

    Unlike a school bathroom, the room does not go quiet. We invite you in and ask what you think of what we've said.

  9. PsychMom, absolutely right. Jessica, any response? I can't actually read the article you linked to -- I don't have a subscription to the magazine. It looked interesting, though.

  10. Another Hole Brain DirectorMay 28, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Thanks Jess.

  11. I can't speak to Ms. Lahey's person or personal experience, but I can speak to my own experience of being the kid described as "testing boundaries" and "challenging authority." In my case, repeated conflict resulted from the honest attempt to find my own way through a landscape of adults acting out with arbitrary meanness.

    School is an environment of arbitrary rules, gratuitous memorization, and small people with big power. Trying to learn something for yourself will always take a dialectic path, and when a coterie of jealous little Napoleons set themselves up as the gatekeepers, they will only be able to understand independence and growth as "testing boundaries" and "challenging authority."

    I remember one incident when I was in middle school. One of the jerkiest teachers at school (social science / coach type) was sitting back in a chair by the door to the cafeteria, half blocking the door. He was moving his legs to make it inconvenient for kids to get to lunch without asking his permission. I was thin and fast, and just sidestepped his knee. He reached his arm out and poked me in the stomach.

    He said "You should say 'excuse me.'"
    I said "What for? You're the one who poked me in the stomach."

    That lead to a trip to the principal's office, for behavior nickel tyrants would no doubt describe as "testing boundaries" and "challenging authority," but which anybody who actually respects children would better describe as "refusing to let him be a jerk to me."

    As a parent myself in these later days, I see all too well how antagonism on the part of children is caused directly by arbitrary and officious behavior on the part of adults. They hold us to a very high standard, and it is not to our benefit to view our failure to meet their standards, and the conflict that my result, as a result of their obstinacy or willfulness. Children are generally not bloody-minded until we make that adaptive for them.

  12. ***
    antagonism on the part of children is caused directly by arbitrary and officious behavior on the part of adults.

    Ding ding ding! We have a winner. Maybe I need a quote roster like the one Chris has ...