September 8, 2013

Students feeling pressure to blend in

As schools emphasize self-discipline, difficulty in achieving that is treated as a disorder and unconventional behavior is suppressed.


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It's not surprising that in the age of "teaching to the test" we expect kids to line up behaviorally as well. But why the drift toward self-discipline?

Weil suggests that the desire to fashion kids into self-regulating machines reflects adult fears that our own lives are out of control. (We're awash in temptations, she argues, including the siren calls of technology and cheap, tasty food.)

Add to that the breakdown of traditional modes of punishment. Since the students' rights revolution of the mid-1970s, teachers who take hard-line tactics with wayward kids live in fear of the retort: "My dad's gonna sue."

Sweet, Rousseau-like theories about children's natural goodness uncomfortably shift the blame for misbehavior onto the school and curriculum -- not a popular angle with teachers. So that leaves internal discipline. Give kids a skill set that allows them to regulate themselves. Interpret mischief as psychological defect. Therapize and medicate as needed.

I was a more interesting child than I was a teenager. Sometime around puberty I figured out that I could win approval and awards by working assiduously on my homework every night, following the rules and participating gamely (but not too much!) in class.

Before I discovered grades as a key to self-esteem, though, and made my bargain with the dark forces of conformity, I didn't really care what my teachers thought.

Sometimes I completed assignments; sometimes I put on plays or explored the backyard instead. When I thought a question on a worksheet was stupid, I wrote it down: This question is stupid. I was a lackluster student and my own person.

Looking back, I don't fault high school for encouraging students to follow the rules, and I'm not advocating that we coddle disruptive kids.

But I do wish authority figures had taken the time to remind us that life isn't only -- only -- about buckling down and getting things done.

It is also about passion and inspiration, two untrammeled furies that resist a lot of self-regulation.

By pathologizing kids' unconventional behavior, "we're suppressing their natural, messy existence," psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," told Weil of kids today. They are "going to file the largest class-action suit in history, because we are stealing their childhoods."

That sounds a little extreme to me, but perhaps we are making those years a little less memorable.


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