Teaching Social Norms, Part 1
This is the first in a series of posts where I will explore the interesting phenomenon that is teaching social norms. As an early childhood educator, I am tasked with far more than teaching kids their ABCs and how to share. As children move from 4 to 5 to 6 (the age range I teach), they can reasonably be expected to begin learning and following many social norms. As a teacher in an independent school, I am tasked with striking a balance between promoting my own norms and values, those of the school, and those of the parents, which do not always line up quite so neatly. This is one of those times.
Simon* is a spirited 5-year-old who is a bit of a social dynamo; he has the charm and looks to one day be a Big Man on Campus. He is the third child of four, all adopted by a same-sex couple. The fathers, like so many socio-economically elite parents, are sometimes a bit too focused on their own doings to the detriment of their children. They otherwise run a warm, loving household that is very affectionate.
Calvin is a more reserved 4-year-old; he has a quiet cool about him but is not one to speak up. He is the second of two children, both boys born naturally to an opposite-sex couple. The parents, like so many socio-economically elite parents, are sometimes a bit too focused on their own doings to the detriment of their children. They otherwise run a fairly strict household, one that is seemingly quite cold and devoid of emotions.
Calvin and Simon are good, but not best, friends and run in the same crew.
One day, I receive a frantic email from Calvin’s parents. It appears that Simon has kissed or been kissing Calvin on the cheek. They are quite bothered by this, as is Calvin. I write back that children the boys’ age are still learning the social norms of affection and that it is understandable that they might still err. Since I am speaking with Calvin’s parents, I focus on Calvin’s role, emphasizing that he should be encouraged and empowered to speak up if he is ever made to feel uncomfortable. If it is difficult to confront a friend, especially for more reserved children, and in that case he should approach a teacher. If this, too, was difficult, he was right to approach his parents about it. I also state that should I see the behavior again, I will prompt Calvin to share his feelings with Simon, as this will prove a powerful experience for Calvin in self-advocacy and will be far more effective in soliciting the proper display of affection from Simon than a lecture from me ever could be.
And all hell breaks lose.
Calvin’s parents are furious at my response. And being overly privileged as they are, they immediately call for a meeting with the Head of School. We have an emergency meeting at 7AM a few days later, with Calvin’s dad showing up to represent the family, a rare twist as mom usually does the heavy lifting.
Calvin’s dad wants to start the meeting by going on record that they have nothing against Simon’s parents. Which tells me they very much have something against Simon’s parents. He then wants everyone in the room (him, myself, Head of School, Division Head) to go on record stating that it is wholly wrong for little boys to be kissing. And this is where I had to object. First off, the sex/gender of the participants is meaningless. It is no more or less wrong for little boys to be kissing than it is for little girls to be kissing than it is for little boys and girls to be kissing. Secondly, his use of the word “wrong” contained a certain value judgment that I was not comfortable with. While I agree that kissing is not an appropriate display of affection for young children, and increasingly so as they move into early elementary grades, I do not think it wrong that a 5-year-old was unaware of this social norm.
Let me explain. Young children are largely egocentric. While we throw that word around a lot with adults, the clinical application is a bit more precise and focuses on the ability of the individual to understand a worldview and experiences other than their own. This is something that is only emerging in children the age I teach. So, if a child grows up in a household where family members regularly kiss to show their affection, they will assume that this is how everyone is and that kissing is wholly normal. Likewise, if a child grows up in a household where kissing is rare or only shared between romantic partners, they will assume that this is how everyone is and that kissing is not acceptable.
Simon, to this point, likely received no explicit instruction on this particular social norm. In fact, most social norms are not taught explicitly, part of why our social interactions in a heterogeneous society are so often fraught with awkwardness. So he was doing what felt right and normal to him and, in doing so, was expressing a family norm that I would consider both appropriate and healthy.
Back to the meeting. I explained that it was inappropriate for Simon to kiss Calvin, especially so if it made Calvin uncomfortable, but that Simon had not done anything “wrong” and I would not treat him as such; I would not scold or shame a child for doing something he didn’t know he shouldn’t have done. I went on to reiterate that an important skill we work on in my classroom and our school is self-advocacy and that this experience provided a great opportunity to Calvin to develop this skill, something he was otherwise reluctant to do. I stated that children tend to be far more responsive to social pressures from their peers than from adults and that Simon would be more likely to cease the behavior if he knew it made a friend uncomfortable than if Mr. Kazzy simply prohibited it. I also explained that the rule in my classroom is that no one may touch anyone else’s body without their permission, even if the touching is entirely without the bounds of appropriate physical contact**.
Unacceptable. Calvin’s dad thought it was irresponsible of me to expect Calvin to solve the problem on his own (not what I said AND completey underestimating his son’s ability), that I should simply tell Simon to stop (because Lord knows that if there is one word kids immediately respond to, it is “stop”), and, dagnabbit, their son just shouldn’t be getting kissed by another boy!
We went round-and-round a bit, with my Head of School proving largely useless because he had to balance protecting his employee with avoiding angering a social and financial player at the school. My Division Head was far more helpful, knowing how to massage the message I was struggling to convey in such a way that would make it palatable to Calvin’s dad (she knew the family well and thus knew how to reach them). We agreed that the parents would encourage Calvin to speak up as best he could if anyone ever made him feel uncomfortable and that I would do an explicit lesson on appropriate touching for the entire class, one that did not single out either Simon or Calvin.
So I did. And it was weird and awkward. “Today, children, we’re going to learn how to touch one another.” Barf. Since then, I’ve developed a simple mantra: “Hugs, high fives, and hand shakes are good for friends but kisses we save for families”. And, of course, I couple this with the aforementioned rule about requesting permission before touching someone else’s body. Because, ultimately, I do think that both statements summarize healthy interactions between and amongst young children, and are the norms we should strive for in our society. And it is something they do need to learn, explicitly if necessary, because our broader social norms will not always align with their individual family norms. But I will never, ever shame or scold a child for expressing the latter. And will never, ever hold a child accountable for doing something he is not aware he shouldn’t do (or not doing something he isn’t aware he should do).
* Names changed to protect anonymity.
** I balance this rule with a requirement that any and all touching, even mutually agreed-upon touching, meets my requirements for safety. So if Calvin and Simon agree to slug each other in the face, I can still step in and prohibit it. I want to extend as much liberty and autonomy to the children as possible, but do remember that they are 4- and 5-years-old and are not always going to exercise it safely.