As a teacher I have about a billion and two instances in a day in which a child approaches me to 'tell on someone’.
“Ms. Tosca, can I say you something?”
More often then not, children just want to be heard, to vent their frustrations, and the injustices they feel have happened. Once they have shared they happily go on to join the very perpetrator of their angst in joyful play.
Oh, to be a kid.
On occasion, violence, bullying, or exclusion happens and these instances become teachable moments for educators. Usually, we have a short conversation with students to get to the bottom of the problem, invite children to quickly reflect on their actions and then we ask them to ‘say sorry’, ‘shake hands’ or 'let it go'. We demand children engage in the benevolent act of forgiveness.
But perhaps there is something deeper in our human construct that we should examine as educators…
I recently had the opportunity to write my mother a clear and distinctly detached letter that explained my position on her desire to establish a relationship with me, after almost 10 years of non-contact. She responded in turn, by stating that despite my lofty claims of compassion within the blogs I write, I lacked the fundamental ability for the act of forgiveness. For many days I pondered this statement. It nagged at the edges of my consciousness and made me question the very essence of my philosophical underpinning.
As with most things in my life, I see a mirror for my thoughts within the context of the educative environment.
The playground is often ground zero for how humans learn to interact. Through play, children learn how to be social, but at the same time they develop their own social processes. Within this context they dabble in both benevolence and reciprocity. They compete for social roles in their own microcosmical society and this is an integral step in understanding the macrocosm of society as a whole (Aguilar 1994).
The thing is, benevolence in the form of forgiveness does not speak very directly about what feelings and obligations are appropriate towards the malicious. It lacks the ability to address corrective justice, or masochists. It can force the benevolent into a position of weakness.
Reciprocity, by contrast, speaks directly to both sides of the equation – requiring responses in kind: positive for positive, negative for negative.
The idea of benevolence is an act that requires a great deal of emotional investment. However, reciprocity does not necessarily involve having special feelings but fits into discussions of duties and obligations. Further, its requirement of specific in-kind response forces us to calibrate both the quality and the quantity of our reactions (Hauser McAuliffe & Blake 2009).
Children when playing have a heightened sense of proportional responses to both the ‘profit’ and harm they receive. This is a distinctly human capacity. We are able to synthesize the potential outputs of situations within a variety of human systems to find the appropriate ‘cost’ of each interaction.
As such, children have the capacity to quantify how much another child has taken from them (number system), vent that frustration to the teacher (language system), take what they feel is of equal value (economic system), and express outrage when the other child upsets the ‘profit’ margin (moral system) (Hauser McAuliffe & Blake 2009).
To be clear, I am not espousing a return to biblical retribution in the form of an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. I would never allow a child to punch another because, “Well, she did it first!!” However, as French philosopher Emmanuel Levina’s stated in Totality and Infinity, "everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality." I am simply reflecting on my pedagogy and the motivations behind student behavior. As a teacher, I have the responsibility to ensure that what I am asking of students is something:
a) I ask of myself
b) they are able to achieve in an cognizant, authentic and purposeful manner
c) that truly reflects the morality I espouse
The tricky bit, (isn’t it all a bit tricky?) is that benevolence is not only about the forgiver but also the forgivee. Teaching children to move beyond the sorry and take responsibility for actions can only take place if that is the framework of the macrocosm that is modeled for them (Schmidtz 2005). To demand children ask for and give benevolent forgiveness means as adults we must model that behavior. We must look into our own character and be willing to apologize for it’s very nature. It means we are obligated to engage in deep introspection and the potential glaring admission of our flaws. It means being emotionally invested in the individuals around us. And it means that we be willing to admit sometimes it is not simply about what we do, but much more complicatedly about who we are.
This process is problematic for most adults. Imagine how hard it is for the egocentric child or how nearly impossible for unique learners, children who may hurt others for the sheer joy of hurting.
Often my students have heard me state, “There are no bad children, just inappropriate choices” but even within the context of writing this post I am forced to reflect on that statement.
For now, within my own practice I choose to explicitly teach the skills of negotiation and communication. I model expressing feelings by making statements like:
“I don’t feel like you are respecting me right now.”
“When you do that, it hurts my feelings. It makes me feel like you don’t care about me.”
More difficult, I take responsibility for my actions and admit to faults. My students have heard me say,
“I was not responsible last night and I didn’t get enough sleep, so now I am cranky and taking it out on you, I’m sorry, I will work at being more patient.”
“I’m sorry, I am being selfish right now and not giving you my full attention. Let me stop what I am doing and look directly at you while you talk to me.”
On the playground, I ask questions of the children when they come to ‘say something’ to me.
I ask them why they are hurt.
I ask them what they think is fair for reciprocity.
I ask them if they are able to identify their actions.
I ask if they are willing to ask for, or give, forgiveness for those actions.
I ask them what they want me to do in order to help them in this process.
More often than not, they just want me to listen.
Hmmm. Honestly, I think this post begs more questions than provides answers. It is merely a dip into my own introspection and the journey I am trying to make from reciprocity to benevolent forgiveness.
Evolving the Ingredients for Reciprocity and Spite Author(s): Marc Hauser, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter R. Blake Source: Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 364, No. 1533, The Evolution of Society (Nov. 12, 2009), pp. 3255-3266 Published by: The Royal Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40485786
Portraying Society through Children. Play among the Waso Boorana of Kenya Author(s): Mario I. Aguilar Source: Anthropos, Bd. 89, H. 1./3. (1994), pp. 29-38 Published by: Anthropos Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40463839
What We Deserve, and How We Reciprocate Author(s): David Schmidtz Source: The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, Devoted to James Rachels (2005), pp. 435-464 Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115835