What if resistance is not as it seems?

What if, when confronted with kids’ resistance to things we want them to learn, we stopped asking questions like these:

Why does she have to be so oppositional? 

Why doesn’t he just do it and get it over with? 

Why hasn’t she learned the value of education we’ve tried to instill? 

Why is he so lazy?

… and replaced them with questions like these:

What is she trying to say? 

What does he need that he’s not getting? 

What is she actually objecting to?

What is he fighting for

What if kids are resisting because they know that whatever we’re insisting upon is not a good use of them, of their time and their capacities?  What if the task may be something of potential use to them, but only in another context or at another time?  What if right then, the thing we’re so bent on getting them to do is actually a distraction from or a detriment to something else that would put them to better use; would move them forward more readily?

Math is once again a good example.  What if the child who’s resisting a page of math problems is doing so not because she’s lazy but because right then, her brain isn’t ready for it, or the presentation of it makes no sense to her, or it’s so out of context and so disconnected from the things she knows and cares about that she can’t get it to sink in no matter how hard she may try?

It may well be that the math on the page will be useful at some point and in some context, but in the current context it’s not only not putting her mind to good use, it’s not serving our goals for her because she’s not learning anything. She can’t learn anything if she’s fighting it off, and no matter how much we beg plead cajole or threaten she’s not going to.  (Even if she does the problems.  Even if she gets them right.)

When kids get some breathing room from the constant commands and mandates we issue, it’s possible to find out which things feed their intellect and curiosity, which things their brains are ready to take in, which things they recognize as good uses of them.  Kids almost never get the chance to find their way to these things because we’re so busy superseding their efforts. We think we know what kids get out of the things we want them to do (like reading). And we think we know that they’re not getting anything, or much, out of the things they would choose to do (like jumping curbs on skateboards and folding paper into airplanes and doodling and talking to friends and balancing things on top of other things only to kick them over).  But we can’t know what they’re getting. We’re not inside their brains and their experience.

When we stop assuming that kids’ resistance is the result of character flaw, behavior disorder, or faulty training, and instead assume that they possess a natural commitment to workable participation and contribution, it becomes possible to see that kids are not so different from us – just people attempting to navigate a path through the myriad options and challenges that characterize life on earth.  If we build our relationships with them based on the expectation that everything they do is in pursuit of the very life of contentment and contribution we say we want for them, the journey can be much more pleasant and productive for everyone.

And we don’t have to forgo the completion of things we’d like them to do. In fact it’s by refusing not to inquire into their actual experience that we ensure that kids will only do things for external reasons (the avoidance of punishment or the pursuit of reward).  If we want kids to become contributors and participants – people who engage themselves in the learning opportunities available to them because they recognize the value of those opportunities, not just because someone else tries to make them – it’ll be because we become willing to consider more empowering interpretations of  their behavior.

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