Welcome to the fifth installment in a series of posts adapting Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules of Life to the context of eduction. All the posts in this series are collected here. This is not intended to be an accurate summary of Peterson’s views, it is merely what I reckon.
Navigating the world is tough enough when people like you. It’s nigh on impossible if everyone dislikes you. Peterson explains that not teaching children how to make friends and avoid irritating others is the cardinal sin of parenting. No one will love your children like you do, so, if you struggle with some of your darling offspring’s behaviour, how do you suppose people who have no reason to love them will respond when they kick off? What’s the likelihood that anyone else will cut them the slack you do?
This is a big deal. I’ve lost friends over their children’s behaviour. Sometimes it’s because our children can’t stand theirs, and so socialising becomes impossible. Sometimes it’s because some parents seem to go out of their way to make their children unlikable. Here’s an innocuous example: We’d invited a couple and their three children round for Sunday lunch. Their eldest is a bit precious and doted on a bit too much for his own good. But, when we were in the process of plating up and distributing roast chicken onto everyone’s plate, the father said, “Oh Wilbur likes a leg – can he have a leg?” Now, as it turns out, no one in our family is particularly keen on chicken legs so, on its own, this really wasn’t a big deal, but at the time I remember feeling a bit appalled. Chickens only have two legs, if six-year-old Wilbur gets one, that only leaves one to divide amongst everyone else. Anyway, I said nothing and Wilbur got his leg. We haven’t invited them back since.
Clearly this is all very trivial, and you might think my objections petty, and, in a way they are. The trouble is, people are petty, our objections are trivial. We’re highly judgemental and, once we decide someone is a budun we can be appallingly intolerant and unforgiving. Who would wish this kind of existence on their own children?
Especially when the alternative just requires a moderate amount of discipline. Simply telling our children ‘no’ when their demands exceed what society deems acceptable will do so much to make them likeable. Failure to discipline children has a high price. Peterson makes this warning:
What no means, in the final analysis, is always, “If you continue to do that, something you do not like will happen to you.” Otherwise it means nothing. Or worse, it means “another nonsensical nothing uttered by ignorable adults.” Or, worse still, it means “all adults are ineffectual and weak.” This is a particularly bad lesson, when every child’s destiny is to become an adult, and when most things that are learned without undue personal pain are modelled or explicitly taught by adults. What does a child who ignores adults and holds them in contempt have to look forward to? (p. 140)
Adults are predisposed to like children, and it comes as something of a surprise when they’re unaccountably brattish and unpleasant. We worked hard with our children to prevent them from being socially awkward; when visiting friends and relatives we would role play how to greet and speak them, how to look them in the eye and ask questions about themselves, rather than mumbling gracelessly. It worked. Other adults tend to like our children and they are both good at getting adults to teach them useful things and treat them in preferential ways. This is a valuable life lesson.
Those who work in schools act as surrogate parents. We operate in loco parentis – in the place of a parent. This is tricky because we can never be expected to love other people’s children as much as we will love our own, and so, it can be easy to let things slide. Why should we create a world of grief for ourselves by getting children to follow the rules?
There’s a simple answer: just as not all adults are naturally good, neither are all children. As I’ve argued before, if freedom is even possible, it’s probably not desirable. Without strong pro-social norms, we all have a tendency to act selfishly, with the strong exploiting the weak. Adults who work in schools are an interesting subset of humanity. We tend to be naturally altruistic, and interested in fairness and equity. On average, we probably care more than those who choose to work in, say, finance or construction. As such, we are unlikely to want to exploit the children in our care, and so, we’re likely to be exactly the sort of people who are good at setting reasonable boundaries and ensuring that children respect the rule of law.
The axiom to which I always return is this: What you permit you promote. What you accept becomes acceptable. If we fail to hold the line, then we make all sorts of horror possible. It is our moral and professional duty to provide clear, sensible and wise rules and them to uphold them.
Peterson suggests five principles for parents to successfully manage their children’s behaviour, which can be adapted for teachers
- Limit the rules – if there are too many rules – or if they are too complicated – then they become hard to follow. We naturally want to follow desire paths and rules should take account of this. What are the fewest possible rules we need in schools?
- Use minimum force necessary – obviously (OBVIOUSLY!) we should always avoid physical force unless there’s an imminent risk of someone getting hurt. What’s important is we should use the minimum compulsion necessary. What is the least severe sanction that might be effective?
- Don’t do it alone* – if you’re operating in isolation, without the support of your school, everything is harder. If children don’t obey the school’s rules it is each individual teacher’s responsibility to do something about it. This only works if the there is a system designed to support teachers.
- Understand your own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful – we’re much more likely to do something unjust when not being our best selves. This is made easier by adhering to #3 – if we’re alone we have little wiggle room, but if we have support, a calmer head can hep us out. We should always ask whether students have really broken the rules or whether we’re taking out our frustrations unjustly.
- Act as a proxy for the real world – school is a relatively safe environment to fail in. The punishments for mistakes are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults. If we balk at our duty to help socialise our students we will be setting them up for a life of misery.
These seem like sound principles on which to organise a school. Of course no set of rules is perfect. The possibility for exceptions must always exist, but an exception must always be exceptional. Otherwise we undermine ourselves, our colleagues, and all the children in our care.
Peterson finishes this chapter with these words:
Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational [adults]. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted. Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the [school], and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous [teacher] can bestow. (p. 144)
* Peterson’s principle involves the need for two biological parents to successfully parent children. I’m not at all sure this is actually necessary although parenting alone is always harder that doing it with a supportive ally.