Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The rhetoric of inclusiveness

Long time no post...busy...etc.

But here's a quick sketch of something I've been ponderin' on lately.

For a while now I've had this vague, unarticulated sense of discomfort with the rhetoric of inclusiveness and sharing that's so common in daycares, preschools, and the K-6 setting. As you probably know, usually I'm all about inclusiveness and non-violent communication and all that. But I think there's a pretty serious misapplication of these otherwise good ideas in this context. It seems to me that there's a very important piece getting lost in the dialogue, and it's a piece that's especially important for girls.

Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships is an important part of being a healthy, functional adult. Having a sense of your own worth, and your right to defend yourself against abuse or a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable is critical. And establishing a sense of autonomy and ownership of self is foundational to both of these. My thought is that with the excessive emphasis on inclusion and sharing and avoiding conflict as much as possible that's so common to early educational environments, this important foundation gets lost.

The insistence on referring to every child in the class or group as "your friends" even when there's a legitimate conflict going on is one example of this dynamic. In an adult context, we interact with people every day whom we would not choose as our friends. We can be polite and kind to them without making them a friend. In fact, if that person is rude or abusive to us, it would be ridiculous to think of them as "my friend" simply because we find ourselves in the same place with them on a regular basis. And yet this seems to be what we're expecting of children. You'll often see adults expecting kids to share a toy they just began playing with, or to include other children in a game they're playing even if it's not a good time in the game to add more players. And then there's the old expectation that children will reciprocate with physical affection to another child or an adult who's demanding it, even if the child is feeling shy, or is not in the mood for the physical interaction.

So we teach them that they can't say no; they can't pursue their own projects uninterrupted when another child decides they want to participate or use the toy in question; they can't politely and respectfully decline to be friends with someone whose company they don't enjoy... And then we wonder why they have such a hard time establishing healthy boundaries in their relationships as teens and young adults.

So what I'm thinking is this: Inclusiveness and non-violent communication are perfectly consistent with establishing and maintaining healthy personal boundaries. But somewhere along the line, someone got the idea that being kind and inclusive requires a person to become a doormat who cannot defend themselves or politely excuse themselves from interactions that make them feel uncomfortable. And the fact that this has become such a dominant paradigm in classroom environments is unfortunate and counterproductive, to say the least. I think we often learn more about relationships from negative interactions, but only when a healthy way of handling conflict is encouraged and modelled for us.

It seems to me that empowering kids to value themselves and see themselves as autonomous beings who deserve to stand up for themselves and be heard is as important as teaching them to be inclusive and considerate. In fact, it seems to be the mirror image and counterbalance. Instead of  "I'm OK, you're OK," it's "you're valuable, and so am I."



  1. I ran into this issue when my stepson was in after school care during elementary school. The program was not affiliated with the school, but it operated on school grounds. Nearly all of the kids in the program were students at the school.

    The school allowed kids to set boundaries and politely decline to play with others, but the day care did not.

    The rules were set up so that the only way child A could refuse to play with child B was for child A to be engaged in a solitary activity like reading or drawing (and even then if child B sat next to child A, child A could get in trouble for moving.)

    My stepson had problems with another boy. This boy had a long history of lying and cheating at games. My stepson got in trouble a few times for refusing to play with him. In the course of dealing with the issue, it came out that my stepson had tried to politely decline and move on to other activities, but the boy followed--essentially chasing him from one activity to another.

    We pushed the folks running the program about the rules. We pointed out all of the things that you mentioned--about how it teaches kids that their own boundaries aren't OK and fails to teach them how to deal politely with people they don't like. We also pointed out that it taught the other boy that lying and cheating was OK, and that manipulating the system to force someone to play with him was OK. They agreed to talk to the boy and his parents, but absolutely refused to amend the policy. I still get mad when I write or talk about it!

  2. Really interesting thought. I'm a huge proponent of allowing my kid to set his own boundaries with regard to his physical space, and like that his school does too, but they also refer to everyone as friends and you raise an interesting point about it. I'm going to chew on it for a while.

  3. Shannigan10/12/2012

    I think this is a great example of how people take a good idea that they don't fully understand, or they don't think through very well, and then misapply it.

  4. Michael10/12/2012

    Maybe the idea is that kids are naturally self-centered, and so you have to go a little too far in the other direction to correct that. Like Aristotle's idea of bending the stick back in the other direction in order to straighten it.

  5. Sammich10/14/2012

    It's an interesting dynamic for sure. What's really remarkable is how out of line with our greedy and self centered culture the rhetoric of sharing is. In a world where success is measured by how much stuff you can grab before the next guy gets a shot at it, this seems a bit out of place.

    1. It's another way our educational system fails to prepare kids for the workplace. Not that the ethics of the workplace are right, but it seems like school should prepare kids for it, for better or worse.

  6. Anonymous10/16/2012

    Children should have some personal rights to hang with the playmates they want to. It's obvious that socialization at some level is important, but not at the expense of a child's personal autonomy and the development of their self image as an independent, thinking human that can make judgements and learn from them.

    A great way to develop screwed up and unhappy adults is to teach children that their world view should be contingent upon what everyone else thinks & feels and that they have to always get along with others.

    As parents know, children old enough to attend day care are well on their way to having developed personalities and are pretty damn perceptive. Everyone doesn't want to hang with everyone else and these little goofs certainly don't need adults bossing them around all of the time and telling them exactly what to do and who to do it with.

  7. I have siblings that are a lot younger than me, and I've noticed that about their preschool - and now elementary school - too. I don't remember my elementary school having such an emphasis on sharing and "being friends" with everyone in the class.

  8. So, do you think this is an anti-bullying response on the part of the schools?

    1. It does seem like it could be an attempt to counter bullying, but it doesn't seem like it would be that effective. I think you can require kids to be civil to each other and not allow mean/nasty treatment of the few by the many without requiring them all to be friends or play together all the time.

      It just seems like an overreaction to the bullying problem (if that's what it is). I can be polite and civil to my unpleasant neighbor without being her BFF, and it seems to me that kids can grasp this difference pretty easily.

  9. I think this trend is parallel to the no keeping score and no winners and losers in sports trend.