Dear Teacher, I Told My Kindergarten Daughter It's Okay To Get Out Of Line
I wanted to write preemptively to explain to you why my otherwise exceedingly well-behaved daughter may get in trouble in school today.
My daughter told me as we were sitting down to dinner last night that her low of the day happened in school when “Joey” kept touching her in line. She said she told him to stop but then he just mimicked her, “stop it, stop it” and continued to put his hands on her face.
This may seem like a small infraction in the kindergarten realm but these behaviors, amplified and extended into the next decade and beyond, are the indefensible basis for #metoo.
I know your job is tough and you can’t see everything. As a kindergarten teacher, you are tasked not only with educating our youngest students but socializing them to the academic setting and managing their sometimes erratic behaviors. I also know, per my daughter’s report, that “Joey’s” behavior requires frequent redirection and that his interactions with classmates can be tough.
As a pediatric psychologist, I have worked with enough kids to understand that those who are acting out have reasons for doing so. Self-regulation issues, parenting inconsistencies, family stress, exposures to trauma…the circumstances are often nuanced and complex. Sometimes it requires herculean effort to separate who a person is from their actions but it is something we must do in order to maintain perspective. These kids, fundamentally, aren’t “bad” kids.
But I have also worked with those subject to the “Joeys” of the world. Some use their words like their mama taught them and feel powerless when they are ignored. Others learned early that their words were inconsequential so they remain silent. For every action, there is a reaction. For every child who externalizes, there is a child who learns to internalize out of fear or a sense of inadequacy. I know, I used to be that little girl who kept her mouth shut to avoid conflict. I learned to be small and to blend into the periphery because it felt safer there. But the periphery is no place to live.
Kids need to learn to live from the nucleus. To the very depths of their beings, they need to believe that they have inherent value. As a person of value, they are entitled to space in the world. Personal boundaries in defining that space are healthy. Kids can and should enforce physical, mental, emotional and social boundaries in protection of their whole being.
At the most basic level, my daughter understands physical boundaries. She knows that her body is her own; she doesn’t have to give hugs out of obligation and no one has the right to touch her in any way that makes her feel uncomfortable. But at a more abstract level, she is still learning what it means to take up space in the world. Decades of research involving body language and personal space suggest she will have a harder go of it than her brother. Girls are socialized from the beginning to play nice and look pretty while boys are encouraged to play rough and get dirty. As adults, men are consistently more likely to exhibit expansive postures that convey dominance while women are more likely to make themselves small (read: submissive). This is replicated in stereotypical beauty ideals of slender women and muscular men. Space matters. Male procurement of more personal space in public settings by means of “manspreading,” a term officially adopted into the Oxford Dictionary in 2015, is just the newest acknowledgment of an age-old fact.
When I asked my daughter what she did after “Joey” continued to touch her face after she told him to stop, she just shrugged her shoulders and looked down. At the age of 5, she has already begun shrinking her boundaries and silencing her voice to accommodate others.
It is for that reason, Teacher, that I told her to fight back.
In an ideal world, her words will be heard and respected the first time. But in the event that someone invades her personal space and disregards her request to stop, even chooses to mock her, she not only has permission but is encouraged to stand up for herself in whatever way she feels necessary.
She knows to try and tell you as a respected adult, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t always work. There have been times when she has gotten in trouble for stepping out of line in the classroom, whether to retrieve a glove or to stand next to a friend having a bad day. Sometimes we are so dogmatic about following rules we miss extenuating details. We have all seen the kid so afraid to raise her hand during quiet time to request to go to the bathroom that she pees in her seat. That will not be my daughter.
I am raising her to step out of line, literally and figuratively, anytime in defense of herself. Don’t get me wrong, I respect your lines, but when they are not fairly drawn or enforced, she has permission to redraw them. This message is tempered by knowledge of who she is, one more inclined to obedience than rabble-rousing. If she were prone to aggression, I would reinforce emotion regulation and self-restraint skills but she already has those in spades. Healthy balance requires both self-initiative and self-control.
My daughter has an arsenal of options from which to choose should “Joey” continue with his overstepping of boundaries. Whether she opts to yell “stop it!” at the top of her lungs or whether she uses her tae kwon do skills to reclaim her rightful space, either is fine by me.
She knows that there are natural consequences to actions no matter what the rationale. She may get a reflection form in class or get sent to the principal even if she is acting in self-defense. But choosing to remain passive has consequences, too, consequences that may fundamentally alter her belief in who she is and what she is worth.
I am not a proponent of futile violence and I know what the Bible says about turning the other cheek. But I also believe that “there is a season for every activity under heaven…a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak…a time for war and a time for peace.” Learning to enforce boundaries better in the earlier seasons of child development may change the story downline from #metoo to #notme.
I am raising my daughter to take up her rightful space in the world. I am raising her to have a voice that she is not afraid to use. I am raising her to respect boundaries but to not be confined by those that are inappropriately drawn or inconsistently enforced.
So, Teacher, now you know where my daughter stands. In or out of line, I am behind her all the way.
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