The Violence of Childhood

In talking with people about sociocratic principles, I find myself reminicing about my time as a vice-principal or college councelor and am once again reminded of the violence of childhood and how that violence shapes our understanding of governance because governance is, ultimately, about figuring out how to live together.

I have a clear memory of a first-grader who didn’t like math. Not hard to understand from my US American perspective perhaps, but unacceptable from the perspective of his parents, teachers, and other Chinese adults in his life. The reasoning was both psychological and pragmatic: to excel in math, self-confidence was important and the best way to develop self-confidence was through high test scores. Moreover, the logic continued, elementary math tests were simple and so there wasn’t any reason, except perhaps laziness or stubbornness for a child not to do well in math.

The boy’s first grade math scores were low by local standards; he was averaging between 88 and 93ish on tests, but his classmates were all forging ahead with perfect scores plus extra credit and, a friend helpfully reminded me, in elementary school most students received over 95 on math tests. Clearly the boy had a problem. Nevertheless, his parents were progressive in that they believed that if a student liked a class, he would do better in it and so it became imperative to talk their son into liking math. They thought that if he liked math then he would (1) stop being lazy and work harder and (2) stop resisting their efforts to make him do extra math problems and cooperate with his tutor.

So the parents talked to him. His grandparents talked to him. His teachers talked to him. Several months into this process, they scheduled a meeting with me so that I too could talk him. Nobody actually listened to him.

At the time, I spoke directly to the parents suggesting that the boy had a responsibility as a student to work hard in class and finish assignments, but had no corresponding obligation to like math or spend time each week with a private tutor preparing for Olympic maths, I was told that (1) I was too idealistic and (2) I was American and didn’t understand Chinese children. What didn’t I understand? The importance of elementary school math test scores? They aren’t actually important. And thus, our conversation came to ignoble cross purposes and the boy continued to dislike math and do relatively poorly at it. Over the next few years, parental and teacher conversations escalated into scolding and punishments, although to my knowledge the boy was never beaten for his math scores.

In retrospect, I think the boy’s parents were trying to tell me that I hadn’t assuaged their fears for their son’s future. I’m not sure I could have because for them math tests symbolized future potential to navigate the “real world”. What would happen, the analogy goes when a child went out in the real world, where life tests weren’t simple and failure meant… although this is actually where the logic stumbles because no one knows how low math scores might ultimately destroy a human life. The immediate source of parental fear seemed to be that if the boy didn’t excel in elementary math, he would do poorly on the Shenzhen high school entrance exam, subsequently do poorly on the gaokao, and then end up in a vocational school or worse, laboring as a construction or sanitation worker. Although here again, the logic blurs, because in Shenzhen rural boys who fail to get scholarships to high school end up working on construction sites and although these same rural boys also collect garbage, cleaning jobs go to rural girls who fail to get high school scholarships. In contrast, the boy’s parents were actually worried that the boy couldn’t do better than getting into a foreign university equivalent of Shenzhen University.

I regret that I didn’t actively listen to either the boy or his parents. Its possible that with more practiced skills I might have helped the boy come to terms with the inevitability of classes we don’t like and how to deal with contradictions between our feelings and our responsibilities. I might also have helped his parents have more reasonable expectations for their son’s test scores and a more respectful attitude toward his likes and dislikes; not their job to tell him how he feels.

When we don’t actively listen to children, we teach them that their desires and fears and joys and accomplishments aren’t important. What matters is that they fit into our graded boxes. Clearly the boy’s parents didn’t care if he actually liked math, they simply wanted to find a way of achieving better test scores. They disagreed with traditions of forcing a child to something he didn’t want to do, and so the solution seemed to be forcing him to like it, so that he would then become a pro-active math student. Equally clearly, I didn’t care about the parents’ fears, I just wanted them to stop wasting my time lamenting a first grader’s math scores. I disagreed with their valuation of exams and didn’t see any way of convincing them that disliking math is okay and thus the solution seemed to be getting them out of my office as quickly as possible.

And there’s the rub: I’m starting to understand the violence of childhood as the lack of respect we have for children’s abilities and desires. And this lack of respect blossoms into grown-up inabilities to actually resolve problems in ways that nourish each other’s lives. His parents left my office more deeply convinced that a huge cultural gap separates Chinese and US American people. I remained in my office anxious that another set of parents would schedule a meeting to talk their daughter into liking a difficult subject, like English. But what seems to have actually occurred was another instance of childhood violence in which none of us adults had the wherewithal to help a six year old learn simple concepts of addition and subtraction.

2 thoughts on “The Violence of Childhood

  1. was there really never an instance, as your essay indicates, that interest in or even a liking / talent for any other aspect of knowledge or ability like literature, art, music, sports etc might have been considered worthy activity and suitable for a child to pursue and excel in? was “math” short hand for educational importance or really was ONLY math the goal?

  2. For many Chinese parents math symbolizes academic excellence. Moreover, those students who are thinking of studying abroad tend to believe that because they are Chinese and because Chinese students have a reputation for being good at math, therefore no matter what else they are good at, they must also excel at math. Full stop.

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