November 7, 2009

Choose Your Battles

This advice is common, I'll admit, and it takes practice to implement.  And by practice, I mean mistakes.  I think most adults in a position of authority can think of at least one time recently that they did not choose their battles wisely.  This is part of the balancing act of parenting or supervising children.

But I saw a truly awful example of a poor choice just recently.  At the end of the day on Friday, a teacher was leading a line of students toward a bus; a lone boy approached from the opposite direction, running.  The teacher called out, "Walk.  Walk.  Walk!"  but the boy, who may or may not have heard, kept running and only slowed down by the door of the bus.  At this point, the teacher, in a voice most would use to scold a dog, ordered the boy to turn around, walk back to where he was, and then walk to his bus.

Disbelief and rage erupted on the boy's face.  He turned and, glancing back frequently, retreated several feet.

At this point I should say that I understand the need to maintain order during a school dismissal.  It is vital.  But, at the same time, I have to acknowledge a few more things:  it was a sunny, beautiful Friday afternoon; the boy crossed the street carefully before beginning to run in a spot where he was safe from cars; and there were no other students around.  He seemed to be running out of sheer joy at the end of a Friday, celebrating the beginning of his weekend in a vibrant, healthy way.

Once the boy had walked far enough away to satisfy her, she ordered him gruffly to 'walk to that bus.'  He began walking, but the teacher suddenly turned her head to watch another group of students; and in that second, the boy broke into a sprint!

I actually smiled, and almost laughed.  But, of course, she turned and saw him and made him go back again.  My heart sank and I had to look away.

Now, I am not advocating a lack of discipline, but the punishment should fit the crime.  Instead of giving him a brief talking to and sending him on his way, this teacher choose to humiliate that boy.  She left him two choices: to take his shame and debasement or to make a brave, foolish attempt to assert himself.  Who could be surprised that an 8-10 year-old would resent embarrassment and take the stubborn road?

I'm impressed by that boy's spirit.  That kind of stubbornness often shows a sense of justice stronger than what is found in the adult in question.  But I pity him; if the adults in his life keep making bad choices in how they deal with him, he is looking at a life of hating authority figures, becoming bitter and defensive and acquiring a severe chip on the shoulder.

It is our responsibility to choose our battles wisely, not because it makes our lives easier, but because our mistakes make an impact, for better or for worse.  If you realize you've made a mistake, can you choose the high road, take a deep breath and say "let's try this again?"  Children need consistency, but they also need adults who can admit when they were wrong.

If you were wrong, make it right.  Look around: most adults still haven't learned that lesson.

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