In my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of parenting and teaching is finding the balance between holding firm to limits and when to be a little flexible. As a new parent and teacher, I erred on the side of holding with adamantine firmness and no yielding. When that didn't work and had some undesirable results, I went through a phase where I was constantly negotiating and changing. That didn't work either.
I don't pretend to have found "the" answer on this one. It's tough, and I think it changes a bit with the personalities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of each child, student, or class.
But I have made some progress over the years and I feel like I have found a few principles that help guide me.
Let me frame this with a quick anecdote that illuminates the ideas I want to mention.
Last week I had a truly enjoyable class with my 8th graders. We worked on some challenging pieces, accomplished most of what I had hoped to musically, and we also had fun. I don't mean that anyone left saying, "Wow, chorus was just like a party today!" However, there were lots of smiles and laughter, and generally a good spirit in the room. Class ended leaving me feeling good and from their faces and the tones of their conversations as they left, I think they felt good too. In between working, they joked around, were silly, and made me--and themselves laugh. But we also got the work done. In my book, that's a perfect class period.
I've had this group of students now for three years. To be very frank, in 6th grade they drove me crazy. They were unfocused, undisciplined, and honestly, didn't sound all that great. In 7th grade, especially this time last year, they pushed me to the brink of madness and professional despair.
It's a large class--just under 40 of them. You can imagine with that many spirited, energetic middle school kids, it doesn't take much to create distractions and sustained, focused effort was difficult to come by.
There were times when I was so mad at them! Times I wanted to penalize them with demerits or harangues or grade deductions or Biblical plagues. Times I was furious. And I know there were times when I wasn't as patient as I should have been, or when I reacted more harshly than I would have wished.
Generally, though, I did not lose my temper or react in anger. My method was to set a few rules and then try to enforce them. If someone was out of line, he or she lost a point or two for each infraction. Often, I would have the student stay after class and we'd discuss what the misbehavior had been, what a better choice would have been, etc. This seemed the best way to me--even though it didn't yield immediate results.
Often times, I didn't feel I was doing enough and felt like a bad teacher. If I were a good teacher, I thought, I would be stricter. They would behave and there would never be any doubt who was in control. I never acted this way with my teachers when I was a kid...
At times, I felt ineffective, guilty, frustrated, and incompetent.
And then they became 8th graders. Greater maturity and self-control kicked in and both their willingness and ability to follow the rules and engage in class increased steadily--to the point that we can have fun and do good work.
Happily, in those years when they were growing, I preserved my relationship with them. There is, I think, trust between us. I love them dearly and I'd like to think they like me okay too. I think that some of them even try harder because of the relationship, and are more open to doing the things I want them to do. Our final concert is Tuesday night and I'm really excited for it. I think it's going to be good--which is, of course, what the goal was all along.
I've come to believe that children and adolescents as not being able to meet many adult expectations. The job of parents and teachers is to help the child grow until s/he can function as an adult. But that takes time.
While they are growing, we have to set limits. I don't think that a child just emerges as a responsible adult with no input. I think they need guidance, limits, consequences, and discipline.
If they never have limits and consequences, they will most likely not make the right choices even when maturity gives them the ability to do so.
But I also think that there are times when the priority needs to be preserving your relationship so that you can come back and try another day, when time and maturity has helped them. In these cases, a tactical retreat may be your best friend.
If you fight too hard too early on you risk alienating them. I've done that. And once that relationship is damaged, it is very difficult to repair. I've had classes in which I came down too hard too often and I was never able to repair that. These classes never quite achieved all they might have, even when they were mature enough to be able to do so. I won a few battles, but lost the war.
I've learned that when I hold the line on something and refuse to yield, I often find, upon reflection, that it was a turf battle and not a real matter of important principle. That is, I have often found myself holding the line simply because I was going to show them who was boss. There are times when that's necessary. I'm not advocating just letting kids do whatever they want. And I think there need to be consequences when they make mistakes. But I've also learned to mis-trust my own judgement about what is important and what is not worth the fight.
Here are a few questions that help me navigate this tricky minefield:
1. What is my long-term, over-all objective here? Is it to have quiet in class, or is it to prepare for a concert? Is it to show them I'm boss, or to help them learn to respect legitimate authority and monitor their own behavior? I find that in the heat of the moment, I often confuse means and ends and end up going into battle for fairly trivial means and end up losing the war over the end.
2. Is there another way of achieving the long-term objective? Possibly more effective, and perhaps one we can identify together?
3. In the current situation, which is more likely to help achieve the long-term objective--holding my ground on the issue at hand no matter what, or preserving the relationship? I should note that there are times as a parent and teacher where I held my ground and felt it was more important than preserving the relationship.
4. Is there a way to make this win-win? I've noticed that I sometimes tempted to respond from a place where I'm preserving my authority, where I'm not going to let the little beasts get away with something, or because I'm angry--none of which are usually effective. The thing is that kids are the same. Just as adults/parents/teachers do that, I've noticed kids will dig in their heels and refuse to respond just to show you that you can't break them. These kind of confrontations are usually unwinnable. You might end up getting the short-term objective, but almost always damage the relationship and the long term goal.
5. Am I acting out of anger, hurt feelings, or disappointment? When I'm mad or disappointed, I nearly never make the right call. Ever. I have come to realize that when I'm agitated, I have terrible judgment.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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