"Testing" Adults

From Growing Without Schooling 9

In his very good new book, Growing With Your Children (see GWS #8), Herb Kohl—like just about everyone who writes about children—says that they have to keep testing adults in order to find limits. I don’t agree. They do it all the time, no question about that. But I don’t think they have to do it, and I don’t think we ought to let them do it. There are other and better ways to find out the rules of family life and human society.

One year, when I was teaching fifth grade, I had a boy in my class who had been kicked out of his local public schools—no small feat. He was a perfectly ordinary looking, middle-sized, middle-class white kid, didn’t pull knives or throw furniture, no Blackboard Jungle stuff. It took me a while to understand why the public schools had shown him the door. In a word, he was an agitator, always stirring things up. One day, when everyone was trying to do something, I forget what, and he was trying to prevent them, or get them to do something else, I turned on him and shouted in exasperation, “Are you trying to make me sore at you?” To my great surprise, and his (judging from his voice), he said, “Yes.” It took me a while to understand, or at least to guess, that he had learned from experience that the only way he could be sure of getting the undivided attention of other people, children or adults, was to make them sore at him.

As the year went on, he improved, became only difficult instead of impossible. But he was still a long way from being at peace with himself—the roots of his problem were deeper than I or my class could reach in a year. Our school only went through sixth grade; what became of him later I don’t know. Meanwhile, he had taught me something valuable.

At about that time I was beginning to know the interesting but angry and difficult child of a friend. One day I was at their house, talking with his mother about something important to both of us. The boy kept interrupting, more even than usual. I knew by then that children hate to be shut out of adult talk, and tried from time to time to let this boy have a chance to speak. But on this day it was clear that he was trying to keep us from talking at all. Finally, looking right at him, I said, not angrily but just curiously, “Are you trying to annoy me?” Startled into honesty, like the other boy, by a question he had perhaps never really asked himself, he smiled sheepishly and said, “Yes.” I said, still pleasantly, “Well, that’s OK. Tell you what let’s do. Let’s play a game. You do everything you can think of to annoy me, and I’ll do everything I can think of to annoy you, and we’ll see who wins. OK?” He looked at me for a while—he knew me well enough by this time to know that I would play this “game” in earnest. He considered for a while how it might go. A look at his mother showed that, for the time being at least, he could not expect much help from her if the game went against him. Finally he said, “No, I don’t want to play.” “Fine,” I said. “Then let us have our conversation, and you and I can talk later.” Which is what happened.

That was many years ago. From many encounters I have since had with many children, I have come to believe very strongly that children as young as five and perhaps even three are well able to understand the idea of “testing”—doing something to someone else or in front of someone else, just to see what that other person will do—and to understand that this is not good. If I thought a child was doing this to me, I would say, “Are you testing me, just doing that to see what I will do?” If the child said yes I would say, “Well, I don’t like that, it’s not nice and I don’t want you to do it. I don’t do things to you, especially things I know you don’t like, just to see what you will do. Then it’s not fair for you to do that to me.” Children like big words; I would introduce them to the word “experiment.” If they tested me, I would say, “You’re doing an experiment on me.” If they said, “What’s experiment?” I would say, “If I pulled your hair to see how hard I could pull it before you began to cry, that would be an experiment.” I might go on to say that it’s OK to do experiments with things, trying to stand blocks on top of each other, or mixing paints to see what color you get, and so on. But it isn’t nice, it’s very bad, to do experiments on people, unless you ask them first and they say it’s all right. It’s especially bad to do experiments on them that you know they don’t like.

Where the line is between good experiments and bad—not an easy one for adult scientists to find, even those who look for it—is something that slightly older children might find very interesting to talk about. We would probably agree that hurting animals just to see what will happen—which some people do is bad. What about trying out medicines on animals to see which ones work, or work best, or maybe hurt the animals in other ways? What about making animals sick so that we can tryout medicines on them and see whether any of them make them better? These questions are worth talking about.

Finally, I would say to children, “Do what seems interesting, or exciting, or fun whatever you want to do. If I think some of those things are unkind, or destructive, or dangerous, I’ll tell you, and ask you not to do them. But don’t do things just to see what I’ll say."

As I said, I think children are perfectly able to understand these ideas, to see that they are fair, and to act upon them. When they do, it will make our lives together much easier.