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Unruly American Children

Many Americans will tell you that family gatherings can be less than pleasant. Relatives who barely take the time to get together all year long meet at a Christmas party or summer barbecue for awkward discussions of the past year’s events, all the while trying to avoid potentially divisive topics like politics or religion. However, we can always count on one saving grace to make these functions tolerable: the presence of children. By observing how much our little nephews have grown and fawning over our nieces’ progress on the piano, we manage to distract ourselves from our own social incompetence. Children have an endless supply of charms that can make us laugh and loosen us up. However, unfortunately, sometimes children’s penchant for troublemaking can have quite a different effect.

Ever since my cousin’s twin boys James and Justin were old enough to walk, they have inflicted a reign of terror on our whole extended family. Notorious for tearing up gardens, scratching furniture and wreaking general havoc on anyone’s house, they cause more than a little anxiety on whatever unfortunate host is preparing for the next family gathering. And what is even more astounding is my cousin’s seeming inability–or is it unwillingness?–to control them. A few years ago, when they were about four years old, I stopped over at her house to find James finger-painting on the white wall of the house. Astounded, I looked at my cousin to see if she was going to try to stop them. Instead, she just shook her head. “He always does that,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll clean it up later.” A few moments later, when Justin assaulted me with his pocketknife, I decided it was the last straw. I handed my cousin the books I’d come to give her and hurried on my way. It was only as I was leaving that I heard her scolding them, her voice seething with rage.

With no children of my own, it would be easy for me dismiss my cousin as a bad parent. However, my attitude toward her plight changed drastically when I started working as a teacher–a job that in American society sometimes requires you to act as a substitute mother or father for parents who are too consumed with work to do the job themselves. Hoping to please my children and ingratiate myself with them, I was lenient, offering no penalties for later arrivals to class or late homework or forgotten books, letting them leave the classroom to use the bathroom or drink water as they pleased. Though I’d made rules at the beginning–no talking while the teacher is talking, be in your seats when the bell rings–I did little to enforce them. And soon, my laissez-faire attitude resulted in a class that was completely out of control. At that point my temper got the best of me; I yelled at the kids, hoping to quiet them. To my shock, my yelling received no reaction; it was as if I was not even in the room. And only then, much too late, did I realize the grave error I had made.

Like many first-year teachers, I learned this lesson too late. Since I went to school in a time when students would not dream of making the sort of disrespectful comments that they make to teachers today, I came into this profession quite naïve. Even though only ten years have passed since I was in high school, times have changed drastically. One thing is constant: school is tough. Learning to graph quadratic equations or master English grammar cannot be learned without disciplined, sustained effort. It requires tenacity, the desire to recover from one’s failures, and at times, to tolerate tedium. In this age of instant information, children are used to having the answers to their questions just a few keystrokes away. Bringing this desire for instant gratification with them into the classroom, many come to school wanting not to work, but to be entertained.

I agree that lessons need to be made interesting and engaging for students. At the same time, children cannot be entertained all the time. As adults, they sometimes will have to endure boredom, difficulty, and even severe hardship before they can get what they want. Moderate discipline is needed to help them to prepare for these future challenges. Rules must be made clear, and if a child breaks them, the authority figure–be it parent, teacher, nanny, coach, or whoever is responsible for the child’s welfare and safety–should respond not by getting angry, but by calmly and detachedly delivering the consequence for the broken rule, a consequence which the child should have been warned about before.

Child-rearing is different in every culture. Some newcomers to the US might find American parents too strict and uptight; others may be shocked by the free reign that children are given. But, with more and more diversions, more and more stimuli to distract them in a culture of mass consumption, kids are not going to be getting any more tractable any time soon. Parents should seek to maintain contact with their children’s teachers regarding their progress; such cooperation is essential to ensure that limits are set and that children learn to respect themselves and the people around them.

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