Teaching Social Norms, Part 3
This is the third 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. Click the links for Part 1 and Part 2. In Part 3, I will discuss a broader ethos that I have not necessarily received pushback on, but that I feel is fairly foundational to my teaching and which might surprise many.
As an early childhood educator, it might surprise you to hear me say this but… I hate sharing. No, not like THAT. I am quite generous in sharing my own things with others (though I do have a few very specific, perhaps odd lines-in-the-sand*). But I am not one to make “Sharing Means Caring” a mantra of my education philosophy. Quite the contrary, actually. I’m far more likely to believe that, “Mandated sharing means disrespecting the autonomy of individuals.”
Let me present a scenario:
Malcolm is working in the block area and has been productively for 20 minutes. He has constructed himself a multi-story tower and added some of our people props to round out the play narrative, including the only two dogs. They are fairly integral to his play as the multi-story tower represents an apartment building like the one he lives in, which each floor inhabited by a different family. And, much like his own family has a dog, each family in the building also must have a dog. Along comes Jennifer. She wants to build in blocks also, electing to build her own farm house. Her play also requires a dog. She insists that Malcolm share one of the dogs with her.
As the teacher, how would you respond?
Here is what I would say:
“It looks like Malcolm is still using the dogs. There are a few things you can do, Jennifer. You may ask Malcolm for a dog, but he might say no. You may ask to join his game and work together with the dogs, but he might say no to that, too**. You may ask to use the dogs when he is done. You may pretend that one of our other toys is a dog. Or you may change your idea so that it doesn’t require a dog. What you may not do is demand that Malcolm give up something he is currently working with.”
Most kids will employ one of the offered strategies. Some will not. They will get upset, insist that they need a dog for their play, insist that I’m not being fair, insist that Malcolm is being mean. This, in turn, opens up a litany of follow up conversations and questions which I won’t, for brevity’s sake, expand on here. However, no matter which route I take in responding to these, one message is clear, and it does explicitly discuss sharing, albeit in a different manner than might be expected: You share this classroom with many other children, all of whom also have wants and needs, and sometimes that means not getting what you want. It is why we come to preschool: to learn to share our world with others.
For a long time, this broad position might have put me in a small minority among teachers, and likely still puts me in a minority today, though I can report meeting many others who share a similar sentiment. My reasoning behind such a position is borne out of a pretty extreme support for individual property rights. It is why I am vehemently opposed to eminent domain and why I might argue that even individuals have a right to nuclear arms. And while shared classroom materials are not the property of any individual student, when they are being constructively put to use, I largely see them this way. Not entirely, but largely. For instance, I would intervene if I saw hoarding behavior, if a child gathered up all the dog toys just to have them but wasn’t constructively putting them to use. I’d press that child to determine how many were actually required for his play and return the rest to the group. I’d also intervene if they were being used in such a way that put them in harm’s way for future use by others. I’d stop a child who was destroying materials because while they might be hers to use in that moment, they are not hers in perpetuity.
And, when explained this way, I’m not sure that this puts me in a minority amongst my fellow countrymen and women. One of the principles that America was founded upon was property rights. And even when dealing with shared or communal property, we still give a certain deference to those currently making use of them. I think of public basketball courts… if a game is going on, newcomers must wait their turn; they can’t reasonably expect to jump right into the action. So I feel wholly confident that this social norm, this value is one I ought to impart, lest I create kids who think they have an entitlement to the property of others.
Now, I should add, this doesn’t mean that I don’t encourage the children to be mindful of others. In the above example, if Jennifer couldn’t move on with her play sans dogs, I would encourage her to explain to Malcolm how his choices made her feel. Aware of the impact of his wholly-legitimate-choices on the emotions of another, Malcolm might approach the situation differently, and were he to do so (e.g., saying, “Well, I really want each family to have a dog, but I really, really don’t want Jennifer to be sad, so I’ll give her one), he would be applauded for his thoughtfulness and generosity. But he’d still be wholly within his right to say, “I’m sorry this makes you upset but I can’t change my game right now,” a decision for which he would NOT be chastised.
Ultimately, a primary part of my approach to teaching young children is preparing them to be social animals. For many of them, my classroom is their first school experience. And with single-child families on the rise, many of them are interacting with peers for extended periods for the first time ever. But this will be the expectation for them for the foreseeable future, meaning that more than the alphabet or counting or writing their name, learning how to interact with others is of the utmost importance. And sometimes this means not getting what you want, a hard but crucially necessary lesson to learn.
* I think of a time I went out for drinks with my family. I ordered a Bloody Mary with extra olives because I really enjoy my Bloody Mary with lots of olives. My sister reached for one and I knocked her hand away. “But you have so many!” “I know. Because I wanted a lot. If I didn’t want all these olives, why would I have explicitly asked for them? Get your own damn olives.” This incident lives on in family infamy as evidence of my callousness, though I like to think of it as evidence of my sister’s disrespect for my personal autonomy.
** This is derived from an approach that Vivian Gussin Paley advocates in her book “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play“. I’ve adapted it to be that any game which involves two or more children must be open for all children to join but that children playing independently can opt to remain doing so. In the former scenarios, I work to strike a balance between allowing the initial participants in the play develop rules that retain crucial elements of it but which aren’t overly tedious to the inclusion of others (e.g., if children are playing house and others want to join, they can’t prohibit newcomers from choosing their own roles, be they additional mommies or crime fighting super heroes, but they can insist that all participant abide by the rules of the house, which might require SpiderMan to holster his web shooter). While I don’t always agree with Paley, she is one of the most thoughtful writers on working with children and puts my attempts to discuss the development of norms and values in children to shame. She has many other books, all of them must-reads if you are interested in this topic.