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Listening to Our Children

by Anastasia Strgar

Over the weekend I attended a seminar about how to revolutionize education in American schools.  In this seminar, the speakers discussed the institutionalized nature of the American school system- how the average new  teacher quits after 5 years, even sooner if working in inner city schools surrounded by children who know the names of different types of pot or guns before they know how to read.

Despite the very obvious holes in the system, there are people- like Lori Grossman of Mindful Schools and Kwame Scruggs of Alchemy, Inc. who have figured out ingenious ways to work with kids in a sustainable way in a system that’s entirely unsustainable. In Mindful Schools, mindfulness teachers work with classrooms for 15 minutes at a time about how to be mindful of their breathing and how they’re feeling. The program’s seen so much success that first graders that had previously been unable to sleep can now sleep. Alchemy, Inc. works with urban black males in middle and high school by teaching them lessons of traditional masculinity through the telling of African myth. Twenty-four of twenty-eight boys ended up going to college.

Ultimately, what these kinds of educators understand about children is something that many others working with children simply don’t-  that it’s essential for children to be as respected as we expect them to be of us. They need to be held accountable for their actions, but so do we. Most importantly, they deserve our full attention in the same way that we expect theirs.

Yesterday at the barn, my fellow staff was called out by some kids about his own behavior. In a long-winded explanation, the kids bravely confronted their superior by saying they don’t feel respected when he does things a certain way. He handled it incredibly gracefully and we immediately had a discussion about how respect goes two ways and that we want them to know that we want to hear what they have to say, that it’s okay for them to ask questions, and that they deserve our full attention as much as we deserve theirs.

Structurally, systems that work with children (and I’m speaking in a general sense here)- whether they’re schools or group homes or other treatment centers, tend to be hypocritical. They expect respect, but don’t give respect, they expect children to pay attention without really teaching them how, and they don’t teach children that it’s okay to question they’re superiors or the system. In my opinion, it’s hard enough to take constructive criticism from a fellow adult, but even harder to take it from a child. Often, children point out things that even other adults don’t see, so it takes an incredible amount of grace to receive that criticism, apologize for not being better human beings and then improve upon our approach.

We don’t gain a child’s respect by making us fear them. Fear does not equal respect. Love equals respect. And by loving a child, that does not mean we let them get away with anything, it means that our discipline is meant to keep them safe (and that they understand that) and it means that they understand that they can ask questions and seek the same kind of respect we expect from them.

If we approach teaching in this way, then we create people who will grow up and continue to respect the world around them, themselves and others. If we approach teaching the way we have been, then we get more of the same. I think it’s time for a change, don’t you?

Anastasia Strgar, a recent graduate from the University of Oregon with a B.A  in journalism, has been writing about love and relationships for several years. She has written short stories and romance novels, penned the love and sex column  in the  school newspaper and wrote several blogs. As the eldest of founder Wendy Strgar’s four children, she has been inspired by watching her parents’ marriage and strives to put those lessons to use in her own relationship. She believes that teaching her peers early on about how to maintain healthy relationships  is essential to creating a future generation of loving partnerships. She currently works as the Director of Public Relations and Magazine Editor at Good Clean Love.