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November 5, 2015
There is a fairly disturbing video circulating the Internet this week: a substitute teacher appears terrified as students verbally, and even physically, threaten her. One boy goes so far as to raise a chair in the air, as if preparing to strike her.
Although there may be an understandable and perhaps prurient interest that is fed by watching this video, we don’t feel it worthwhile to link it to this blog. After all, we don’t know the whole story, and the video is itself merely a snapshot of what happened. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to think of this incident, and wonder how it could have gone so badly. There is really no excuse for what we see on the screen.
While the antics of the students in that classroom seem barbaric and out-of-control, you need turn no further than William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to begin to make sense of what might have happened. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it involves a plane crash on an island where only a handful of British school children survive. Despite their initial efforts to remain civilized and ordered, as they imagined adults in the same circumstances would, eventually, their self-imposed social order collapses. There is bloodshed, tyranny and trauma. Lord of the Flies is not a happy story, and many who read it regard it as a cautionary tale of what happens when humans, and especially young humans, are left without the leverage and infrastructure of a civilized society.
If we start with this novel as a means of understanding what might have happened in that classroom, we are drawn, perhaps uncomfortably, to the possibility that the behavior of these children was an understandable and even predictable result of an absence of rules and regulations that would have otherwise prevented this kind of terrifying moment.
Here’s where what I’m about to say may receive some pushback. I imagine the kids in that classroom, even the young man holding the chair over his head, were also terrified. I haven’t spoken to these kids, and if I did, it would be unethical for me to comment on their state of mind, but please understand that I’m not trying to make a psychiatric diagnosis here. Instead, I’m wondering (and I hope that you’ll wonder with me) what it feels like to have allowed yourself to get so out-of-control, that there is nothing to really hold you back.
I’m wondering, in other words, how the absence of limits and rules affects child development. To be sure, we have no way of knowing whether the children in that classroom have sufficient limits set on their behavior at home. In fact, it is entirely possible that these are good kids with good parents. We really don’t know. What we do know is that, at least for the perceived duration of the video, the classroom was in a state of potentially disastrous anarchy. We also know that a lack of rules and limits makes kids both frightened and dangerous. Remember: the whole point of Lord of the Flies is that these, too, are good kids, with good parents, who find themselves in a kind of no-man’s land where it is entirely up to them to keep alive the values that they’ve been taught. And, as the story progresses, they fail miserably.
With these caveats in mind, let’s talk about disciplining and setting limits for children and adolescents. What do we know about how best to impose disciplinary control? How can we instill in children the self-control that we value and even require for our society to work?
Here are some things to keep in mind:
These issues are complicated. Again, what we see in that video is awful, but we can’t let its awfulness keep is from carefully dissecting what might have happened and what can happen when kids are operating in the absence of rules. There is NO EXCUSE for the behavior we see in the video; but we also need to understand how kids can get to that point in the first place.