We live in a school culture within a parenting culture that expects its children to fit in and embrace that culture.
For many children acculturation happens seamlessly. But for at least 1 in 5 children*, it requires giving up oneself, shifting off base, and surrendering to a non-nurturing authority. In other words, understanding that you are wrong and the other is right. Parents are expected to take on the role of enforcer using consequences, threats, punishment, withdrawal of what is most cherished—coercive tactics to manipulate children into being who they are expected to be.
These are the children we see as defiant and oppositional. The square pegs society tries to fit into its round holes. And if they don’t adjust enough, they become the troublemakers, the problems, the ones we fear our children will grow up to be. These are the children who are tough to raise and who cause problems in classrooms.
At home, they fight the rules and argue every direction given. Parents complain they never listen, won’t do as they’re told and refuse to comply. At school they are considered disruptive, attention-seekers. The problem worsens with reprimands, isolation, and punishment. Counselors are brought in but counseling that typically focuses on training the child to self-control, keep emotions in the “green zone”—messages that unintentionally say You’re not right the way you are. This “help” further identifies the child as the troublemaker, the one who can’t get along, the one who isn’t like the others who don’t need a counselor’s help.
The message is loud and clear to all the “normal” children—this is the child with a problem, the one not to trust, to stay away from, to tattle on, to make fun of. All children are harmed in this process of coercion by isolation.
Why do we think making children feel alone and wrong is going to motivate them to do what we want? If they acquiesce, it is out of fear which leads to stress and anxiety.
What we miss seeing in these children is their intense awareness of justice, of knowing what is not right for them, that they can’t, not won’t fit. These children have a sensitive litmus monitor to anything that does not feel fair to them (to them being the operative words). They tend to be smart, easily bored, charismatic (class clown), extremely loving, highly sensitive both emotionally and physically (too light, sound, smell, clothing, stimulation) and fiercely loyal. They want desperately to do the right thing, but they can’t do what someone else thinks is right if it doesn’t fit who they are. They have a strong sense of personal integrity. We miss these aspects because they can be so hard to get along with since their idea of what is right doesn’t fit with what is needed to maintain acclimation both at home and in the classroom. They resist, they fight, they cannot acquiesce.
I believe these are the potential leaders of the world when given the chance. But we do our best to censor them at every turn, so they are rarely able to meet their potential.
So, what to do?
- First, we must acknowledge and support their “squareness” seeing it as different, not wrong. These children are often trouble-seekers, not trouble-makers*. They shine a light on hypocrisies, wrong doings, unreasonableness, and inequities in our culture. They are the canaries in our coal mines. Unfortunately, when we don’t listen to them, they can no longer listen to us. When we try to force them to change, they wither and become the real trouble-makers of society.
- Instead of sending them off to therapists (although this can be helpful), we need to better support parents in doing the work that therapists do. Parents, therapists, teachers, principals all need a new mindset through which to view these children.
- We need new and different schools in every community that are project and exploration based made just for square pegs. They need an environment that serves their way of thinking, that fosters their unique creativity. That square peg when supported, seen and heard for that unique perspective, could change the world.
- This is hard for parents schooled in the I’m the parent and I know best philosophy when their behavior is not what is expected. Parents and teachers must step across the gap to stand shoulder to shoulder with these trouble-seekers so they learn to trust themselves and the authorities in their lives. Parents and teachers need to see the disruptive, attention-seeking behaviors as signals of their pain, frustration, confusion, powerlessness. They must learn how to connect with that emotional level, leaving the behavior aside. Punishing, reprimanding, threatening undesirable behavior denies everything that provokes it.
- We must learn to address the child’s experience rather than insist the child understand and be considerate of ours. Once children feel accepted, consideration becomes easy. Acceptance doesn’t mean allowing all behavior. It means, I accept that you are feeling in a way that causes you to behave in this manner. Their emotions must be allowed as uncomfortable and inconvenient as they are, so we can learn from them, not shove them back inside to fester.
- Instead of denying their emotions with There’s nothing to be upset or scared about or You’re fine or Calm down, we must help them feel okay by naming emotions, sharing our own, letting them know they are gotten. And not make them feel that the “green zone” is the only good place to be.
- Their unacceptable behavior must be interpreted as cries for help, not as evidence for admonishment. Disruptive, provocative, rude, angry behaviors are the child’s attempts to be heard. Instead of ignoring, punishing or silencing that behavior, connecting with the need to be heard and understood will eventually calm the child. But when they are given the chance to be heard only under certain circumstances determined by the authority—using the right words and tone, at the right time, on the right topic, they are not usually cooperative because they still cannot trust themselves. They need to be heard even when what they are saying is inconvenient, angry, troublesome and provocative.
* The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive, by Dr. Thomas Boyce
* Troublemakers, by Carla Shalaby