Teaching Social Norms, Part 1

4971760940_7d1f02d417This 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.

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91 thoughts on “Teaching Social Norms, Part 1

  1. Kazzy, this is awesome.

    Apparently, at a young age, at about 4-ish, children know what is right and wrong (in broad strokes), but do not know that they are supposed to feel good about it, while later IIRC by 10, they know right from wrong and also know that they are to feel good about doing right and bad for doing wrong. In this series, are you going to cover this? and if you are, can you tell me whether this stuff is explicitly taught or is this part of socialisation with their peer group or something else? I don’t need a detailed answer now, just an idea of whether I can look forward to it in this series.

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    • I never thought about it in such terms (and would quibble on the ages), but there are efforts made to help kids understand the inherent value of doing good and to develop intrinsic motivation. I didn’t plan to touch on it, but certainly can because it is something that can and often is taught (or, perhaps better put, encouraged).

      If there are other suggestions for the series, I’m all ears. No guarantee I’ll cover them, but I’ll do my best.

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      • As the mom of kids with pretty extreme learning differences from the norm, one of the things I always struggled with was how to effectively teach/model self-advocacy; how to effectively say, “this task is very difficult for me, it will take me a lot longer,” or to ask, “Is there another way I can show the same mastery of this material?”

        Looking back, I’ve come to the conclusion that helping children express how they best perform empowers and enables them to do well, and removes a lot of the need to act out that’s often rooted in frustration. You’re thoughts would be valued, Kazzy.

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        • Heh. The problem is, in all but a small handful of schools, that child’s self-advocacy will be ignored. And in far too many, it’d be seen as back-talk.

          In my ideal school, 12th graders would be able to build block structures instead of write term papers, if they could successfully demonstrate mastery of the skills and concepts via that method and medium. Instead, we take the blocks away when they’re 6 and trade them for desks. Sigh.

          I can certainly speak more on self-advocacy. I can’t guarantee it will work, though.

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          • Allegedly (I have no kids and can’t comment) but in California it is common for there to be no-desks in public schools until late elementary or early middle school.

            At least in the more progressive and wealthy areas like Marin and maybe San Francisco.

            I only know this because I was once at an event and struck up a conversation with a woman who lived in Marin and was or is an elementary school teacher. She said that desks have been banished from elementary school. This was over the summer so I can’t remember the details of the conversation.

            But I remember being on the east coast and sitting at desks from the 1st grade onwards so maybe it is still more traditional out there. Public schools look very different in California at least from the outside. Most of them seem to have campuses and multiple buildings. Back on the East Coast, there was only one building.

            I go back and forth on alternative education or am somewhere in the middle. I am highly skeptical of Waldorf Schools* and “unschooling**”. I’m the old fashioned type of liberal that believes in good public schools as an important social good and socio-economic equalizer. Not the anti-establishment kind of liberal who sees public schools as being sheep-producing factories. This has always been a tension on the left. But my natural inclination is that it is preferable to get rid of elite private schools over giving a handful of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds access to Dalton or Philips Exeter or a Waldorf school.

            *Waldorf seems to be a mixed bag. Half the kids seem to come out fine and graduate college in a normal order but a lot also are functionally unable to read an write until the 6th grade and become drop-outs and slackers.

            **When I explain “unschooling” to my non-American friends, they think it is the stupidest concept they have ever heard of. These are people who in many ways are further to the left than me. I find it interesting that Americans seem to be the ones who come up and advance alternative education methods largely. Though Montessori and Waldorf are originally European. They seem to have really soared in the States above anywhere else.

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            • Somewhat tangential to the topic, but our neighbours recently moved their child out of a Waldorf school because, as much as the kid was enjoying it and learning well, the environment was completely white – there was not one child or teacher of colour.

              We live in a city that’s majority white, but an all-white class is still a big distortion of the overall social environment.

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  2. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Both.

    Truly wonderful. I wish all little boys had a Kazzy in their lives. Little girls, too.

    I’m amazed at how you from separated the value judgements (boys don’t kiss boys) from the personal space norms (if I’m uncomfortable with a kiss, it’s okay to say no).

    Kudos for sharing this.

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  3. I am deeply impressed at the precision with which you analyzed and segregated the various norms implicated by the situation.

    And as barf-inducing as the lesson you wound up giving the whole class was, it seems to me to be very much the right one. I think your division head found not only a political solution to mollify the donor, but also a way thread the needle between advocating for the healthy norm, against the unhealthy norm, and expressing the concept in terms immediately understandable by five-year-olds.

    I confess that early in my adulthood, I socially encountered some teachers who approached their task with a, shall we say, casual attitude towards their students, and this colored my initial impression of teachers as professionals. That is quite the opposite of what I see here — this is analogous to sailing slalom in high winds. Kudos, kudos, kudos.

    With that said, Calvin’s dad needs to chill.

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    • I didn’t mind having to teach the kids that lesson and have since recognized the value of teaching certain social norms explicitly. I didn’t like the way it came about, which included my Division Head having to sit in on the lesson. I didn’t mention in the essay but the parents spent a bit of time insinuating I was gay because of my response and sought my ouster. My administration did well to insulate me from this.

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      • Do you get that a lot? I mean about parents thinking you’re gay for being a male in a profession that is seen as dominated by females and for espousing socially liberal views. And do many parents push for your ouster because of that?

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        • I have had a lot of wondering. I’m on year 3 now at my school so most folks know me well enough. I also got married during that time and now wear a ring, which probably quiets it.

          I should say that it has only been intimated to me that the parents pushed for my ouster; it is probably more accurate to say they strongly expressed their discomfort about my sexuality. Whatever that means.

          I’ve learned it just comes with the territory. I am never offended if people think I’m gay because I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. I do get bothered if they start stereotype trolling, but that’s just an obnoxious thing to do regardless of the target. It is frustrating because that, along with the rampant suspicion of pedophilia, keeps a lot of men out of early childhood, a real harm to our young students.

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      • Be glad you work for a decent district. Where I am, if there was a relatively rich parent insinuating a teacher was gay, they’d be quickly shuffled off and gone by the next year.

        I think the core of your observations lie in to this:
        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, dagnabbit, their son just shouldn’t be getting kissed by another boy!

        It is my suggestion that Calvin’s parents ought to have a notation in files, somewhere, to keep an eye out in case there may be child abuse going on at the household. If “dagnabbit, their son just shouldn’t (insert phrase of disapproval here)” then I wonder what the disciplinary action will be when Calvin decides to experiment with anything else the parents don’t approve of.

        Especially when his parents are willing to fly off the handle, accuse a teacher of being gay, and try to have the teacher fired over the idea of a peck on the cheek between two four-year-olds.

        I’m sure you noticed what the dad really wanted: he either wanted a major “don’t do that” scream to single out Simon, or he wanted the teacher replaced with one who would. I suspect he also asked if they could just move Simon to another homeroom, though you don’t mention it.

        And I’m 100% sure that at their house, his son was told how Simon is being raised by inappropriate parents, and that Simon’s family do bad things, but not to worry because dad would “protect” Calvin from teh evul gayz.

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        • I don’t know about abuse. Calvin’s dad seems so think that it’s okay for people he doesn’t have to interact with all that often or directly to be gay, because he can abstract it away and never really confront it. But it’s not okay for someone he has to deal with to be gay.

          Which, of course, actually adopting the attitude, “It’s not okay to be gay.” I’m not going to try and justify that attitude, one with which I disagree.

          Whether we like it or not, though, teaching your kids “It’s not okay to be gay” is something a parent is allowed to do. Unless you’re going to take the position that this is inherently abusive there’s nothing else in there that would suggest to me that Calvin’s dad would render inappropriate discipline in the event of other kinds of misbehavior (failing to clean his room, willful resistance to appropriate parental guidance, inappropriate treatment of household pet, etc.). Calvin’s dad apparently thinks it’s not okay to be gay, and he’s trying to protect his son from behavior and people he thinks are harmful and bad. He’s doing it because he loves his son, not because he’s abusive towards him.

          It’s not for the school to step in to the parent-child relationship and forbid the father from teaching even a regressive, ignorant, and backwards attitude. He can teach his son to be a racist and it’s still not the role of the school to countermand that. It is the role of the school to say that “At least while you’re here, you will treat everyone with respect.”

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            • Not saying it isn’t.

              But there’s a line where we have to say that’s the domain of the parent and just because we don’t like how somebody else uses their rights, the rights are nevertheless rights and we are bound to respect them. Otherwise, they’re not really rights, are they?

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              • I give parents a TON of latitude in how they raise their children, even if I vehemently disagree with many of their choices. I might point to something and declare it “abuse” during a conversation like this if I am attempting to highlight the inconsistent way in which that latitude is given (e.g., a poor black kid with a lackluster lunch is assumed to be malnourished while a middle class white kid with a lackluster lunch is assumed to have a parent trying some whacky diet; you wouldn’t believe how often this assumption is made with zero evidence outside the contents of the lunch). But, yea, I think parents should have the right to raise their children to be homophobic, even if I find it deplorable.

                I do think it is possible, in extreme examples, that the instillment of such hate could rise to the level of abuse if it is psychologically or emotionally damaging to the child, but I think you’d have to make a pretty strong case of such and I don’t think you need new laws to pursue such cases.

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              • We don’t know if Calvin is gay or not. We don’t know that Simon is gay.

                We know that Simon’s parents are gay while Calvin’s parents are straight.
                We know that Calvin’s parents have issues with gays, they couldn’t have been more plain about it if they walked in wearing Westboro Baptist gear.

                My suspicion is that Calvin already takes the brunt of this from his parents at home, who desperately want their son NOT to be gay. The behavior of Calvin’s dad has all the hallmarks of the sort of dad who is trying to make sure his son isn’t gay, who sees gays as trying to “recruit straights.”

                The reason they’re not ok with talking over it with Calvin, asking him to speak up about being uncomfortable with being kissed on the cheek by another boy, is that Calvin’s dad thinks Calvin is actually ok with it. That’s why they went after the teacher and school so hard; they want a 24/7 control telling their son to “not be gay.”

                Calvin’s dad is this guy. That is not something that should be left alone or someone in the future is going to see Calvin coming in with bruises to school claiming he “fell down some stairs.”

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                    • That’s called “observer bias”.

                      Forgive me if I point out that this is not an uncommon trend with your comment postings… you generalize a lot from your own experience. That’s fine to an extent, everybody does that. Generally, though, the right way to correct for this is to establish a pattern of behavior where you go and attempted to refute your own experience in the past. Find out how generalizable your experience actually is. Seek to refute your assumptions.

                      Sometimes this is worthwhile, and sometimes it isn’t. But it might do you some good to start examining things you know to be true with an eye towards proving them wrong.

                      Just to see how easily you can do it, or not.

                      Let me put it to you this way: I know plenty of more assholish parents who don’t physically abuse their kids than ones that do. There are about 700,000 abuse cases a year in the U.S., and there are about 74 million children under the age of 18 in the country.

                      That puts the abuse rate at just under 1%.

                      However, I generally find that the number of people who come across as bigoted, assholish, homophobic, racist… to *some* degree, about *some* subject… is somewhat more significant than 1%. Probably closer to about 40%. A lot of parents, for example, might be very squicked out by gay behavior and be otherwise completely upstanding citizens and great parents. Guessing that “people who are squicked out by gay behavior are going to abuse their child if they present themselves to be gay” is an enormous assumption on your part, not borne out by data.

                      The abuse rate for children is not correlated to “the parents are assholes about something” anywhere near a 1-1 ratio. Depending upon conflating factors, it’s more like somewhere between 1-20 to 1-60 or more.

                      So yes, you’re probably an asshole about something if you beat your child. But being an asshole about something is a crappy-ass predictor of your propensity to engage in child abuse.

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                  • Also, let’s sum up our data points:

                    1. Simon’s parents are gay men. Calvin’s parents are hetero.

                    2. Calvin’s parents made it perfectly clear (a) that they had issues with Simon’s parents being gay and (b) that their son should in no way ever receive so much as a kiss on the cheek from another male.

                    3. Calvin’s dad (and mom both apparently) took Kazzy’s refusal to instantly come down on Simon like a ton of bricks as evidence that Kazzy was himself gay, but moreover, should be fired for being gay. This was not just a one-off event but a campaign of sorts.

                    Now the conclusions I draw from these data points:
                    1. Calvin’s dad obviously has issues with gays. As Kazzy states, his own actions show this.

                    2. He obviously has issues with the idea that any member of his family might be gay.

                    3. He obviously believes that being gay is something that is “taught” to children rather than something that is innate to a person.

                    Do you disagree with any of those data points, or the conclusion I reach from them?

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                  • It’s not exactly a giant leap, especially if there was a sudden jump to the belief that Kazzy was gay.

                    Some parents can be all sorts of involved in their kids education (sadly few are, and a few who are take it way too far) but jumping to a immediate, right-away emergency meeting with the principle over one 4 year old pecking another on the cheek?

                    That’s…a little extreme. Kazzy’s perfectly right in that little kids do that all the time, because 95% of their social experience is their parents kissign them and their siblings as a sign of affection. Same sex, opposite sex — they barely get gender at that point, and they certainly don’t get “boys don’t kiss boys” unless you have absolutely drill them in it.

                    They’re a year or two short of the cooties phase, even.

                    It’s entirely possible the Dad is simply inexpereinced with kids (perhaps this is his only child) and is not a big kisser, and so it’s just a vast, vast shock to him that little kids do stuff like that.

                    But if that was the case, why would he assume Kazzy is gay?

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                    • Trying this again.

                      From Kazzy’s notes:
                      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.

                      Dad’s not inexperienced with kids, so that’s not a valid attempted excuse. He’s got big homophobia issues, big enough to turn a peck on the cheek between 4-year-olds into an assertion that the teacher is gay and should be fired.

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                    • MA,

                      There is nothing, zero, zip, nada to suggest that Calvin or his brother are suffering any form of abuse at home and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible to say the least. The family is very religious and politically conservative. There is clearly a certain discomfort among the parents with regards to homosexuality. But both boys are well-adjusted and speak quite genuinely and lovingly about their father.

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                    • Kazzy,

                      I thank you for clarifying.

                      But both boys are well-adjusted and speak quite genuinely and lovingly about their father.

                      I hope it stays that way. Given the father’s propensity to fly off the handle, I have to wonder. Your description of “Calvin” reminds me greatly of a classmate who spent several weeks living at a friend’s house following his “very religious and politically conservative” parents who had “a certain discomfort among the parents with regards to homosexuality” attempting to discipline him “back into the fold” of heterosexuality with a leather belt.

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                    • I think we all hope it stays that way. My hunch is Calvin’s dead is not unlike many out there. What stands out is not so much the “what” and the “how” but the “why”; if Calvin’s dad reacted the exact same way to his black son being the victim of racism, you probably wouldn’t describe him as “flying off the handle” or imply/suspect him of abuse. And while I would never equate being the victim of racism with being the target of an unwanted kiss from a same-sex playmate, it is possible HE would see those things as similar.

                      I think we can rightly denounce and reject his “why” without overreacting to his “what” or “how”. When dealing with independent school parents, many of whom have positioned themselves to be independent school parents via a certain aggressiveness and no-holds-barred-approach, you come to expect this kind of crap when things don’t go their way.

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                    • Kazzy,

                      There’s a major flaw in your logic.

                      We do not have a problem in society with black parents trying to “beat the black” out of their kids, or “pray the black away.”

                      We do have a serious problem of children who are struggling with understanding their sexuality, and same-sex attractions, being the victims of “beat the gay out” or “pray the gay away” attempts.

                      And while I hope your assessment of Calvin’s father is correct, it’s pretty clear he believes that being gay is something chosen and that gays “recruit” from the straight population (else it shouldn’t matter that his son got kissed on the cheek, because it shouldn’t be able to turn his son gay). Which puts Calvin at enormous risk 10, 12, 14 years down the line for any number of forms of physical or mental abuse in the percentage chance (whatever it is, studies varying wildly due to the trouble of getting honest data) that Calvin turns out to be homosexual or bisexual.

                      And the thing that scares me the most about this? The parents who do these things to their children have convinced themselves that they are acting out of love. They actually do, in their own sick twisted way, love their kids even as they inflict the worst mental damage any parent could ever inflict.

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                    • MA,

                      I think you’re making a number of assumptions.

                      I don’t know if Calvin’s dad (Mr. C from here on out) thinks homosexuality is a choice. He might not want his son being kissed by anyone, particularly other boys. So it’s possible that his sense of inappropriateness about the situation is partly a function of the sex/gender and partly a function of a general feeling on affection.

                      And, even if it were, it is possible that his position would drastically change if Calvin or his brother were to come out. I have a close family friend who were deeply religious and opposed to homosexuality (though I do not think would have gone to the lengths Mr. C did if a similar situation happened to their sons). But when their first son came out, they loved him no less and moved away from the faith that told them their son was a flawed sinner. It is possible that Mr. C would do the same if presented with the same scenario.

                      The sequence of events isn’t impossible. It does happen and will likely continue to happen, unfortunately. And it could happen to these boys. But we can’t assume it will, or even that it is likely. There are simply too many variables and too many unknowns; hell, I may be completely misjudging their feelings on homosexuality because they never spelled it out explicitly; I’m only working off what they did say and how they said it and what others told me.

                      If I had any real reason to believe Calvin or his brother were in any real danger, I would not only be charge ethically with reporting the threat, but legally (as a teacher I am a mandated reporter). To this day, I have no reason to suspect this.

                      I appreciate your sensitivity towards the very real threat that many gay youth face. But I also ask that you reserve such harsh judgement until there is real evidence to justify it.

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  4. Kazzy, here’s a question about self advocacy: Have you ever run up against parents who think that children should be seen and not heard and should just do what they’re told to and therefore have butted heads with you for teaching their children self advocacy?

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  5. ‘“Hugs, high fives, and hand shakes are good for friends but kisses we save for families”’

    & fistbumps reserved for terrorist commie dems.

    Seriously, great post, you’re doing the [spiritual vision / diety of your choice]’s work with these kids.

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  6. “We aren’t paying for authority figures to be anything less than authoritative! Why, in my day, our teachers would have looked at the cultural norms and instilled them in accordance with the obvious intentions of the parents. If the parents didn’t want the kids to be socialized, they would have been homeschooled!”

    Sigh. You handled that better than I would have.

    Your new/improved classroom mantra is, I reckon, as good as a mantra as is possible to generate. (Lord knows, if you included daps/pounds/terrorist fist bumps we’d have parents complaining about that too. “Mr. Kazzy said that a dap was okay.” “DID HE NOW???”)

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  7. Heh. Teaching cultural norms is always troubling. Boys in Arab cultures form intense crushes on each other and men are constantly kissing each other on the cheeks. Often, these friendships are deeper than the bonds of brotherhood. Yet these are among the most homophobic cultures in the world. Americans are so silly about their personal space: it’s a constant topic of private jesting in other places. In Guatemala, people jam up against each other in queues, everyone except Americans.

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    • And yet, Americans are more Huggy and Touchy/Feely than people in Singapore and probably China and Japan as well. Public displays of affection are more acceptable in the US than in East Asian countries and India (notwithstanding the two recent, very public rapes) as well.

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      • That’s a cogent observation: societal norms differ wildly from each other. Singapore is a particularly varied stew pot of cultures: out of curiosity, are there cultural equivalents to Singlish, traits unique to Singapore itself, independent (or perhaps synthetically derived ) from Singapore’s many distinct cultures?

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          • I’d never heard of Kiasu-ism before. Sadly, there is a cadre of lawyers who act this way during litigation, so while the term may be unique to Singapore, I am sad to assure you that netiher the attitude nor the behavior is. (Chope-ing is also… odd. Do you have to use the tissue paper first because if so, eww.)

            But the most interesting thing I read in the Kiasu link was this:

            …in particular if the person being barged is outwardly western in appearance; an “ang moh” (roughly translated as “red hair” or “red skin”).

            I remember being amazed to learn that in some of cultures, the color of the ocean is considered green rather than blue. Is this kind of the same thing? Do we European-descended folk really look like we have red skin to people from Pacific Rim cultures?

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      • IIRC, Japanese women can be fairly touchy and feely with each other in their friendships but I lived in Japan over ten years ago. Touching between men and women is more nuanced. You might see a couple holding hands (but probably n0t). You would never see the kinds of Public Displays of Affection that are common in the United States.

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        • Except in parks after a certain time of day….eesh. One of my most traumatic experiences as a teenager was wandering through a park in Shinjuku and blundering into several couples having…uh displays of affection.

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      • In Japan, schoolgirls routinely grab other girls breasts.
        There is also a traditional game where people poke at other people’s bottoms.

        And we aren’t even mentioning schoolchildren trying to touch their teacher’s penis. (Granted, this is a more specific situation, with an American teacher. The kids wanted to know whether he was indeed big down there).

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  8. Kazzy, I don’t want to derail this post, because this wasn’t your point – but both sets of parents are said to be “a bit too focused on their own doings to the detriment of their children”.

    I take this to mean that maybe they don’t take quite the interest in their child’s education that maybe they should; but do you have any opinion on whether many parents are just *too* involved (“helicoptering” – for that matter, Calvin’s dad could have said, “we’ll let Mr. Kazzy and Calvin handle this one on their own”, without escalating the sitch like he did – maybe he would have been better off to “focus on his own doings”) and the differences between European and American parenting styles (or heck, even the styles of our parents vs. today?)

    I feel like there is forever a balanced middle-ground being missed there. I don’t want to pawn my kid off on a teacher for his rearing; but I also don’t need to be involved in every little detail either – parents do, and should, have other things to worry about, and kids need to learn some self-sufficiency as well. Will this be a future post?

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    • I can certainly speak to that. I don’t know if it is post-worthy, frankly, and it doesn’t fit into the broader “Social Norms” theme I’m working with.

      But, in a nutshell, some parents are way to involved and some are way too uninvolved. And there are many different things in between that. For instance, Calvin’s parents, mom in particular, is hyper-involved on some issues, but ones that are largely focused on her own preoccupations and not actually on the boys. This situation is a perfect example. If Calvin was feeling uncomfortable or unsafe at school for other reasons, it likely would not have garnered the same level of response. But because it touched a nerve for THEM, it became a big deal. So, it is not that they are uninvolved, but that their involved is more self-serving than one would hope.

      Most parents fall healthily in the middle. They might slightly skew one way or the other and on their worst days and in our worst venting sessions we might describe them as being at an extreme, but that isn’t the case.

      In my particular school, there is a bit of the “trophy kid” phenomenon, which really bothers and upsets me. But this is part of a broader sense of self-delusion that infects my particular population. Lots of loveless marriages and kids pawned off on nannies while appearances are kept up for outsiders. That kind of thing. Very sad, really.

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        • Just to be clear, I didn’t mean to be dismissive in declaring it not “post-worthy”. I’m just not sure I have much to offer beyond what I’ve written here. I know some major news magazines have tackled the ‘helicopter’ parent phenomenon and I’m sure we’re all aware of the problems that plague the children of absentee parents. I’d basically just spend another 1000 words hemming-and-hawing over how some folks are like this and some folks are like that and most folks are in the middle and there are pros and cons to both approaches and we must also remember that children are hard-wired to a degree and are only somewhat a product of their environment, blahblahblah.

          Hmm… okay, maybe that WOULD make an interesting post. I’ll see what I can cook up.

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  9. In my experience, an unwanted kiss on the cheek or the lips is the least embarrassing of situations with kids. Kids are sometimes weirdly inappropriate with each other. They show each other their bad bits and will touch themselves in public and say weird stuff. We’ve all seen it. And yes it can be awkward to teach kids appropriate social norms (especially if it is your friends’ kids or your nieces or nephews, I can only imagine being a teacher) especially in the moment that it happens; you have to sail between the Scylla of shaming them and the Charibdis of letting them run too wild.

    What bothers me is that Calvin’s dad wasn’t angry that Kazzy didn’t make sure Calvin was okay. He wasn’t mad that Kazzy didn’t know about the situation to keep it safe. He wasn’t mad that Kazzy didn’t have a well-thought out plan to stop the problematic behavior. He was mad that the other kid didn’t get punished.

    Look, I get it. If one kid had punched my kid or did something more harmful than making her uncomfortable, I might -for a brief few minutes- want punishment for the other kid. We can’t help but live vicariously through our children. And so when they are harmed, we feel harmed, and we want retribution for ourselves. (Sad but true, IMO.)

    But because I’m not a psycho idiot like Calvin’s dad, I count to three and calm down, and realize I shouldn’t want a small child to be punished simply for doing the sort of things that children do (kissing, punching, whatever). As long as the teacher is making sure my kid is safe, and I can help my kid process what is happening, it isn’t up to me to make sure there is punishment (even a shaming talking to) for other people’s children, especially when they are doing things that are well within the bounds of ordinary for small children (some bullying, some sexual innapropriateness, swearing, etc.)

    If I had to guess, I’d guess Calvin’s dad has some issues involving threats to his own authority that make him pathologically domineering, which may be why his son is so quiet. Just a guess. So he is trying to remove all threats to his son’s authority, but that ain’t going to work. Kazzy is right to try to give Calvin safe spaces to stand up for himself where he needs to stand up for himself. Calvin’s dad may very well be pathologically afraid of those situations in his own life and (via projection) in his son’s, so much so that he is willing to try to intimidate and bully his local school into making sure his son’s authority is never threatened.

    Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think the dad might be less of a homophobe and more just generally personality disordered.

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    • I think there’s a simpler answer: He’s worried his son will be ‘turned’ gay.

      Imagine, for a moment, you’re of the mind that “sexual orientation” is taught, not innate. You truly believe that people choose to be gay, or are raised gay (after all, in your mind, gays can’t reproduce so they can only maintain numbers by ‘conversion’), but it’s something that gets chosen.

      Now you’ve got the son of two gay guys kissing YOUR son. While he’s young and vulnerable. He’s practically recruiting the kid to the gay cause. Right there in school. Where he’s supposed to be safe.

      Why isn’t the kid being punished? He’s trying to turn your kid into a homosexual. He’s 4 and the gays are already trying to get his hooks into him.

      It’s not kids being kids. It’s a deliberate, manipulative attempt to program his son to be a queer. And if Kazzy isn’t scrambling to stop this highly inappropriate sexual programming, Kazzy must be on it — either deliberately helping out or just uncaring and crap at his job, if he can’t stop gay programming assaults in his own classroom.

      It makes sense — if you think gays are out to convert the straights, and that gay parents would raise gay kids to turn other kids gay. It’s crazy dumb overreaction to innocent kid stuff if you don’t think that.

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      • I don’t know if that’s a simpler or more obvious explanation. You might be right, of course. There are a number of plausible explanations and we’ll never know which is correct.

        IMO, every idiot knows that kids sometimes do inappropriate stuff like kiss each other without being gay or having some kind of sexual obsession or disorder. IMO, what bothered the dad was not the kissing, but that Calvin actively didn’t like it and Calvin wasn’t strong/authoritative enough to stop it. IMO, that’s why the dad stepped instead of the mom, who usually handles things. If Calvin and Simon had been showing their thingies to each other, and Calvin just thought it was funny, that would’ve been mom’s domain. Dad comes in when Calvin is perceived as being threatened, and dad’s reaction to the threat to Calvin seems more like anger at the other kid than concern for his son’s safety/well-being.

        But you are right that the evidence is ambiguous. I am guessing that when Kazzy met with the dad, the dad was rigid, a bit perfectionistic, legalistic-formal in his arguments, unwilling to listen, and generally controlling. No rage, just a simmering anger and a refusal to allow anything that wasn’t exactly what he wanted. Hyper-controlling.

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  10. Fab post, Kazzy.

    In my observation, Early Childhood Education is a minefield. I mean, y’all have not only the same tricky balls to juggle endemic to teaching kids in 21st century USA, but on top of that your students are all cute/affectionate/adorable vs. stinky/pimply/gangly.

    As other commenters have already pointed out, there are many cultures the world over where boy/boy kissing is the norm, even within cultures where homosexuality itself might be considered criminally aberrant behavior. But I’m also reminded that nearly every young American boy goes through a period where they think girls are, well, gross and icky. And of course, the vast majority of those boys don’t end up discovering they’re gay.

    That said, the bulk of this drama seems really all about Calvin’s Dad and how Calvin’s Dad’s long cultivated grown-up hangups effect his family and his family’s world. My heart breaks for Calvin.

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    • ktward, you’ve said in a much kinder way the same thing I was saying when I said that there ought to be a note in Calvin’s file to keep an eye out in case of familial abuse.

      Somewhere down the road there’s a high probability Calvin’s going to walk into school or a summer job with bruises and try to claim he “just fell down some stairs” or “walked into a door.”

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      • M.A., you’re getting close to rooting for Calvin to be abused in order to vindicate your prejudices. Stop it already.

        Proleptic aside: Precisely because I can’t stand the “you’re a bully for not respecting my bigotry” widget that now comes standard in the US anti-gay attitude market, I feel compelled to point this out. Being a jerk doesn’t make Calvin’s dad a child abuser.

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        • you’re getting close to rooting for Calvin to be abused in order to vindicate your prejudices. Stop it already.

          No, I’m not.

          I am terrified that Calvin will be abused, because in my life I have seen the pattern play out before with very similar characters. There is an ocean’s difference between that and “rooting for Calvin to be abused” and you ought to apologize right now.

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          • Somewhere down the road there’s a high probability Calvin’s going to walk into school or a summer job with bruises and try to claim he “just fell down some stairs” or “walked into a door.”

            Whoa whoa whoa. Dude, I’m hoping you know I’m one of your champions here. I remain so. But this is perhaps a good example of when you say something that rightfully ruffles feathers.

            To be clear: my heart breaks for Calvin because, based on Kazzy’s post, Calvin’s dad has some personal issues to work out and, rather obviously, one of those issues is homophobia. No matter what the issue, it’s tough on any kid when they are the conduit by which their parent(s) work out their own crap. And this is why my heart breaks for Calvin.

            But if you’re going to assert that Calvin is at high risk for actual physical abuse because Dad’s obviously homophobic, you’re going to need more than my sentiment to back that up. Personally, I’ve known plenty of kids with at least one homophobic parent who were not ever physically abused. I mean, if being homophobic (even vehemently so) were an indication of an abusive mentality, surely we’d have some kind of data to support that? To my knowledge, being homophobic is no more correlational to child abuse than being gay is to pedophilia. As in, no correlation.

            I appreciate –I’m sure we all appreciate– that you have personal experience that has left you with the impression that Calvin’s dad might turn out to be an abusive parent. But you need to bring more than your own personal experience to back up such an inflammatory assertion. Just saying.

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            • For the record, in general, let me just say that I hate that I can’t edit my own grammatical errors once I punch the Submit button. (Apparently I’m too dang lazy or inattentive to edit before I click Submit. I can’t really argue with that.)

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      • Bring guns? No. Well, if they bring a weaponized toy for show-and-tell, I have no bones with it, even if technically it is against school policy. I’ve gotten light sabers and vehicles that fire missals and the like, but no guns. My guess is parents would never send them in anyway.

        If they build guns, I don’t stop them. But the same rule applies: You may not shoot anyone without their permission.

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      • Responding slightly seriously to this, I will say that if A) I was in completely control over the design of the environment AND B) didn’t have to worry about scum-sucking lawyers like our ol’ friend Mr. Likko, I would give the kids a LOT of latitude before I started nanny-stating them.

        For instance, an ideal playground is one that is pretty hard for a child to get seriously hurt on. High surfaces should be secured in such a way that they can’t jump off them and low surfaces should be used for just that. Slides? Go up them if you want… what’s the worst that happens? You slip and fall back down. Etc.

        Interestingly enough, and as I’ve touched on elsewhere, if you were to watch me supervising my kids on the playground and my assistant, she much more conservative than I am politically, you’d here me intervene once or twice assuming normal play. Her? Every 5 goddamn minutes.

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  11. I want to take a moment and thanks everyone for the response to this. I’ll tackle some more issues in future installments, some of them derived from comments here. I can also do other forms of education posts, but want to stick with the “Social Norms” theme I’m exploring here for now because I am currently thinking about that and increasingly so as I toy with the idea of moving into administration.

    I also want to say that I hope folks will cease the character assassination about Calvin’s dad. I have a few choice words for the man myself, because of this and other situations, but the man has done nothing to raise suspicion that he’s anything worse than a bit of an ass, and perhaps a pompous on at that, who probably has issues with homophobia. But that was not meant to be the focus of the post. The focus was how we impart social norms, how we socialize kids, around a topic in which there is some much individual and cultural (both on macro and micro levels) variance. Intimacy is a deeply personal matter, yet we must arrive at some general agreement on how it will be approached. I am charged with passing on that general agreement in a way that offers no blame or shame to those who might independently opt for something otherwise. That is what I wanted to (and feel like I largely did with mots folks) tackle here.

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      • Because I wanted to explore what we do when a teacher’s, school’s, and/or parents’ norms come into conflict, which they did here. I felt one way about the way we socialize kids towards appropriate affection, including what we ought to consider appropriate affection. The parents felt differently, for a host of reasons. The school was somewhere in the middle, with its position informed by things outside the best interests of the children (which is simply how the world works, like it or not). Somehow, something had to be done.

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    • Thanks for your kind words. And ha! I chose pseudonyms based on initials, because I’m lazy. No allusion should be made to any other Calvins, real or fictional. I will say that my Calvin did maintain a security item (a blanket) longer than most kids. Perhaps a Tiger is in his future…

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