If boys don’t get what they need as kids, can it be made up for in adolescence?
“The healthy development of young children in their early years of life literally does provide a foundation for just about all the challenging social problems our societies and other societies face today.”
—Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard.
At the school where I teach, many of the students are products of uncommunicative, insensitive, or entirely absent adults. Brain research reveals that stable and nurturing adult/child relationships are critical to a young person’s psychological development. Those relationships provide a pathway for more successful social interaction throughout their lives.
But if someone doesn’t get what they need as a kid, can it be made up for in adolescence? And can that happen in a school setting instead of a home? A team of educators at our school is trying to find out.
One of our first classes is about “norms,” a word the boys struggle to define as they sit on their desktops in a circle of various postures. Anel walks into the class late, and silence falls. The only seat available is next to the principal.
Anel has a choice to make: restrain himself in deference to authority, or win cred with the boys by flying in the face of it. Just as he is about to mouth off, the principal beckons Anel to stand beside him. The principal is well over 6-feet; Anel is just a few inches shorter. The boy is not the least bit intimidated. He believes he’s in charge of the moment.
“So, Anel,” the principal says, “we’re talking about norms today. You know, a norm—what is normal, what is expected. What we bet will happen. You with me?”
“I got you. Like the norm of the principal is to get all up in your face.” The boys laugh. Anel gives his shoulders a roll and smirks with a pleasing nod.
“Has that ever happened to you at our school?” the principal asks.
“It’s about to,” Anel retorts, riding on his control now.
“Ahh, but maybe not,” the principal says. “Have a seat.”
Surprised, Anel passively complies.
Then the principal asks the group what the expected norms are when someone challenges their behavior in front of other boys. Everybody answers at once. They know what is expected and universally agree the results will be confrontational.
“Okay,” the principal acknowledges. “That’s what happens. That’s what we do, but what is the custom or norm of behavior expected by the school community?”
They all know the answer to this question, too: “Be a wimp.” “Be a pussy.” “Stand down.”
“Now, say it like I would,” the principal says. “Say what I would expect with words I would use.”
They imitate adult voices and take pleasure in coming up with answers: “Be respectful.” “Be goodie goodies.” “Act civilized.” “Don’t lie.” “Say please and thank you.”
“How might you expect the outcome to be different?”
“You don’t get your face pushed in.” “You get A’s.” “You graduate.” “You get beat up after school.” “You don’t get in ISS.”
The discussion precedes a lesson designed to build relationships with the boys and other adults in our school community. We divide them into groups of three. They are instructed to introduce themselves to assigned staff members, from custodians to administrators, who have agreed to help out. The boys are expected to give reports about the experience when they return to class.
They’re all abuzz upon returning to class. We calm them down and ask for a volunteer to start off.
Anel commandeers the first opportunity and deliberately trips on the line he knows he isn’t supposed to cross just so he can maintain some of his reputation as a slacker. But it’s evident he learned something: “I met Miss Elena who cleans in the building. She’s Muslim and that’s why she has that tow—uh, uh… her… ” He looks at a note he wrote on his palm. “Birka, she called it, on her head. That’s a birka. She’s a teacher in her country that she came from but I don’t remember the country.”
Miguel says he met a Spanish teacher. He told her she was very beautiful and that he hoped he would have her for a teacher one day soon. Damontre says he asked the cafeteria guy, Eddie Calder, why the kids who got free lunch couldn’t have chicken fingers, and Eddie said to ask the principal.
Fernando reports that he introduced himself to the school policeman: “His name is Officer Schaeffer. The kids call him Robo-cop, right? I didn’t call him that. That’s what they call him. Anyway, he was cool. He said he was a real cop, I mean like a SWAT team cop. Is that true?”
We hear about Mrs. Ellis in the clinic whose son plays professional basketball in Europe, and Mr. Xian who volunteers with the ESL program helping non-English speaking students with their assignments. “That Asian is old,” Jonathan reports.
And then, Sadique, having a moment of revelation, chimes in. “Hold it,” he says, looking around the room. “I know what you teachers are up to. The more people who know us, the less likely we are to get away with stuff, right?”