For the Good of the Group

Why “plays well with others” still matters.

A boy in a preschool setting is happily playing with a truck. Another boy comes over and snatches it. The first boy yells and snatches it back. Who got in trouble?

The first boy who snatched it back. He got a time out for fighting, was written up, and his parents were warned that if it happened again, he would be suspended.

I’m not making this up; I wish I were.

A five-year-old behaves naturally when his boundaries are trounced upon. It’s his instinct to fight back, but in this case he was punished for it. I’m not sure whom I feel sorrier for, though, the boy who was sticking up for his rights, or the kids whose aggressive behavior is being reinforced.

We have a serious problem in our educational system right now and in certain parenting circles. There is a belief that all conflict is wrong and should be stopped. Yet conflict is an inevitable part of life, and where are kids going to learn it if not in kindergarten or at home? The role of kindergarten originally was not to prepare children for standardized reading and math tests. It was not to cram kids with facts and turn them into pint-sized scholars. It was to socialize them to function within a group—as a member of a group that has rules and where there are consequences for actions. It was to take the natural instinct of a kid whose truck has been snatched away to fight back and model a new kind of behavior that is consistent with the good of the group. Children were taught to understand that certain modes of behavior were unacceptable and that their survival as a member of the group was dependent on their learning the rules of the group and suffering the consequences when they violated those rules.

But after talking to Kindergarten teachers over the past few months, I wonder where these kids are learning this stuff. What I’m hearing is that there are policies for behavior, and if kids violate those policies, they’re in the soup. Yet, where is the teaching? Where is the learning? Many kids come to Kindergarten without ever having had to function as a member of a larger group. It is unreasonable to think that they might have learned this at home. We hear all the draconian punishments visited on kids for doing things like bringing toy guns to school, yelling or snatching back a truck. But who is responsible for teaching these kids in the first place? You can’t lecture a five-year-old; he or she has to learn through experience. You can’t impose adult sensibilities on a child who can’t yet read and expect him or her to behave as an adult would. That’s insane thinking, and yet it’s happening all the time.

As a result, we have teachers who are either afraid to discipline because their authority has been disrespected and undermined and parents will be up in arms if their little precious is reprimanded. On the other had, there are disciplinary actions that are so out of scale with the “crime” that there is no teaching possible.

Socialization is not something that can be quantified in a curriculum. It’s different for every kid. Some kids will be aggressive and need to understand what they can and cannot do. On the other hand, some kids are shy and retiring and need to be encouraged to participate in a group. The problem is a one-size-fits-all approach that either overly punishes the former and ignores the latter and doesn’t account for the individuality of each child and their distinct needs.

It has become a cliché and almost a joke in our culture to talk about how a child “plays well with others,” and yet it is the most important skill a child can learn. In fact, I’d rather see a child graduate from Kindergarten with that skill than any other. The mechanics of reading, writing and arithmetic can come later, but a child who knows how to function successfully within a group will be happier, and arguably, have more self-esteem than a child who is either scared into compliance with rules or whose natural, human impulses are never put into a social context.

In fact, I wonder how larger discourse in our country right now would be changed if more people thought of the good of the group?

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