There is no sinner like a young saint.

Aphra Behn

I just read this post on why Teaching is Wonderful and while teaching is wonderful (if astonishingly gruelling) I take issue with the argument presented that children are better than adults.

Now obviously children are ace. (I have two of my own and they are – usually – delightful.) The only thing I really miss about not being a classroom teacher are the often hilarious and heart-warming daily interactions with kids.

But they’re no better than anyone else. Children are not naturally good. They can be as mean-spirited, spiteful and selfish as, well, anyone else. Children, like adults want to get the most reward for the least effort. If behaving well requires less effort and produces greater reward, they’ll behave. But if it seems easier and more socially acceptable to muck about, then they probably will. Poor behaviour is a choice and telling them otherwise just undermines their ability to get on in life.

Every working day a child will delight me by doing something beautiful, selfless, and motivated by honest good will: giving away their pocket money to charity; writing (in their own time) a heartfelt letter of appreciation to the author of our class book; helping another child with their work; coming in at lunchtime because they want to help me tidy up or do a job.

Presenting children like this misses some important truths. Why is this worth pointing out? I see the Romantic notion that children all little angels corrupted by the adult world as a dangerous fiction. It leads to make two mistakes:

  1. We don’t see them as they truly are.
  2. We feel guilty if they’re not good.

Much better if we saw children honestly as the complex but immature beings they are – full of soaring beauty and ugly failings. Golding’s The Lord of Flies suggests that without adult guidance and authority, children will revert to barbarism (although adult authority can be equally savage.) I’ve seen enough cruelty and cynicism from children to inure me against the belief that being ‘good’ and ‘kind’ is in any way natural.

And much better too if we acknowledged that children’s misbehaviour is not teachers’ fault. Yes, we are responsible for dealing when they step out of line, but we don’t cause it.

Some years ago I taught a boy, let’s call him Ben, who had a diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) He behaved perfectly in my lessons but was hell on wheels for various other teachers. In particular his relationship with his French teacher had descended to a running feud; his behaviour towards her was appalling. The school decided to confront his outrageous shenanigans by offering him a mentor. And because I got on with him, Ben nominated me as the teacher he most wanted as his guide. After one particularly horrific low I confronted him about what his behaviour:

  • Ben: It’s not me sir, it’s my ADHD.
  • Me: But how come you don’t have ADHD in my lessons?
  • Ben: That’s ’cos you’re alright sir.

Ben was exercising a choice. He chose when and where to behave and pay attention. The school’s expectation of him was incredibly low, but in the end he was permanently excluded after committing one atrocity too many. If on the other hand the expectation was for him to jolly well do as he was told, I’m sure we would have done him a far kinder service. At the very least he’d have had an early lesson about consequences and had more time to settle in to a new school.

Teaching is wonderful. Children are wonderful. But they’re no more kind or good than you or me.