One on One: Spare the rod

Educator and best-selling author Richard Curwin says kids should be taught how to make better choices, not punished for misbehavior.

Richard Corwin 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Richard Corwin 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"While working on a book for parents," recounts Richard Curwin, laughing, "my eldest son responded to my yelling at him by retorting: 'I'm going to write your publisher and tell him what you're really like!" On a more serious note, Curwin - author, with Allen Mendler, of the best-selling guide for teachers, Discipline with Dignity - says that being the father of three boys definitely impacted his thinking on the broader issue of what kids need to flourish, and how best to steer them in the right direction. In the fall, Curwin, 65, will begin imparting his expertise to students at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, where he has obtained a post. This is after making aliya from the United States last September, following in the footsteps of two of his sons, one of whom lives in Jerusalem, and the other in Efrat. Curwin, too, has made Efrat his home, and pauses to praise its residents for their warm reception and respect - in spite of his not being religiously observant in the predominantly Orthodox community. That he is especially sensitive to the behavior of his neighbors is not surprising, considering that this, in a nutshell, is the essence of his life's work. In fact, Curwin believes, the most valuable thing kids need to learn in the education system is not the material in the curriculum, but rather how to treat others with empathy. According to Curwin - who has written, lectured and taught extensively on strategies for enhancing the teacher-pupil relationship - all adults in a child's life have the responsibility to help him or her "make better choices." It is this, he asserts, that is the real goal of discipline. And by discipline, Curwin says, he doesn't mean punishment for the purpose of making a student who is misbehaving fear doing so in the future, but rather providing the tools that will enable him to opt for other outlets. One can imagine teachers in this country rolling their eyes at this particularly tall order, arguing that their overloaded classrooms don't afford them the luxury to devote the kind of individual attention Curwin's methods would seem to require. On the contrary, Curwin claims, teachers in such a predicament can't afford not to learn how to help their problem students behave. Furthermore, he stresses, "School is not for good children. It is for all children." In this country, pupils call their teachers by their first names. Is there a connection between this kind of familiarity and an overall lack of discipline, rise in youth violence and a decrease in matriculation scores? I think so. Calling teachers by their first names, in addition to what I have been told is often an overly casual way teachers dress in this country, gives students the impression that they are on the same level as their teachers. Teachers should be friendly, but there's a difference between being friendly and being friends. Friends have to support you. Teachers sometimes have to do things to students that students might not like. Students can feel betrayed if they aren't graded the way they think they deserve, or face a consequences for misbehavior. So, when teachers try to develop a friendship-type relationship, it affects the learning and behavior of their students. Yet you say that teachers should be friendly. Does that mean they shouldn't be strict? It is not how strict a teacher is that makes the difference; it is how consistent and clear, and how much he or she reinforces what they believe. There are some wonderful teachers who are strict, and some equally wonderful ones who are not. A friendly teacher is one who knows students' names, who greets them in the hallway or at the door, who doesn't embarrass them in public, but talks to them privately about issues of discipline. Such teachers have empathy, and if a student is having trouble at home will take that into account - or will know when a student is in a bad mood and maybe give that student some latitude. But this is not the same as being their students' friend. What, then, is discipline? It used to involve knuckle-rapping, and in some places still does. My definition of discipline is somewhat different from other people's. In my view, discipline is a way to teach students how to make better choices. Say a student responds to being called a name by pushing the name-caller. This is an example of a bad choice. While self-defense may be legitimate, hurting others is not. In other words, there are better ways to respond. So, discipline is a way of guiding them to make a different choice. One way is through punishment - knuckle-rapping and the like. Making them suffer, so they won't want to do it again. This generally only works with good kids; it almost never works with tough kids. If it did, there wouldn't be any tough kids. What really works is teaching them better solutions to their problems - in other words, not only teaching them what to do, but how to do it. Isn't that the job of parents? It's the job of every single person who comes in contact with children, in whatever context. You've heard the expression "it takes a village." This may be a cliche, but it's true that anyone who has responsibility for children's behavior - whether it's parents, aunts, babysitters, storekeepers, teachers - needs to help children make good decisions, which is one of the hardest things in life to learn, and none of us always makes the right decisions. It's a lifelong process. Due to a growing divorce rate, more children than ever before are being raised in single-parent families. A common feeling among divorced parents is guilt, which often causes them to try to "make up for it" through different forms of leniency, including with money. What effect does this have on discipline? It goes back to what I said earlier. It's not so much what you do as how you do it. There are good single parents, who create homes in which kids get what they need, and there are two-parent families in which kids do not get what they need, because both parents are so busy, and they compensate by buying their kids things. Then there are also some terrible single-parent families, because the mother or father is so entangled in their own misery that they impart it to their children. There are also some wonderful two-parent families. So, I wouldn't define a home by how many parents there are in it. I would define it by the relationship that exists between whatever parents there are and the children. That being said, obviously, the more parents there are to love a child and give him what he needs, the better for the child. And the more stable a home, the better. Because of the above, children arrive at school from very different households. How can teachers deal with such diversity in terms of discipline? What you're really talking about is socialization. Some kids are more socialized than others. Some kids are able to make the adjustment of being in a different environment, knowing what the expectations are and, for the most part, following the rules. Some kids are not able to, because they haven't learned. I often think that the biggest problem kids have in school is their parents, many of whom just assume that their kids are going to learn social skills, and then spend more time punishing them for inappropriate behavior than teaching them what is appropriate. If a child doesn't know how to do something, it doesn't matter how much he is told. I can tell you, "Don't hit," and you'll say "OK." But then someone calls your mother a name and you smack that person, because that's all you know. The same goes for learning good manners - like not interrupting or sending text messages in class, not hurting classmates' feelings, not doing homework. That's all well and good when you're dealing with very young children, whose habits you're trying to shape. But what about the behavior of kids in high school? Do teachers really have time to make up for all the preceding years, during which certain students were never taught to behave appropriately? Teachers don't have time not to do this, because kids who misbehave not only prevent themselves from learning, they disturb others in the process. Teachers do not get to choose their students. And school is not for good children. It is for all children. We can't exclude those who misbehave; we have to teach them how to behave. In fact, the most important thing children learn in school is how to treat others. It's far more important than any content. In fact, 80 percent-90% of jobs haven't even been invented yet. Information changes. We don't even know how many planets there are the solar system. When I was a kid, we were taught that there were nine. Now that number is disputed. In other words, knowledge is not static. Still, teachers here will tell you that with 40 kids in a class, it's impossible to give individual attention to those who misbehave, while the students have to be prepared for their exams. Teachers say they can't do it. They could if they learned how. For example, take a teacher who's right in the middle of a math lesson and notices a student at the back of the room who is talking to someone else or otherwise not involved. All the teacher has to do is say, "OK, class, sit with the person next to you and try to solve the equation on the board." Then, while the students start doing it, she goes back to the one who's in the back and - very quietly and privately - says, "I really need you to pay attention. It's very important to me, because we're learning something that matters." Then she should stay there to make sure that by the time the rest of the class is finished with the assignment, the student in question is also doing what he's supposed to be doing. If that doesn't happen, she should remain there and teach the class from that spot. Now, no student I've ever known in my life will fool around when the teacher is standing right next to his desk. Obviously, this is just an example of handling an immediate situation. It doesn't solve the problem. It's like going to the emergency room, where the goal is not to cure a patient, but rather to stabilize his condition, either before he's released from the hospital or before he's admitted to it. The goal is to stop the bleeding, so to speak. Discipline works the same way. The first interventions are to stop the bleeding. This is the "stabilization strategy," one of two strategies teachers need. The other is the "solution strategy." The stabilization strategy is represented by the example of the kid in the back of the class, whose teacher gets him to stop disrupting by proximity. The solution strategy comes later, after class. It involves asking the student what was bothering him and letting him talk. At that point, I like to do what I call "reframing" - allowing me to agree with what the student was doing, but not with how he was doing it. Say the student says he was bored. I say, "Well, you have a right to be bored, and sometimes classrooms are boring. If you need a way to distract yourself, that's OK. Let's find a way to do it that doesn't bother someone else." What about removing disruptive students from the classroom? I think it's a mistake to do those things. Do you think teachers who send kids to the principal's office are copping out? No, I would never call it that. Teachers are overworked and under pressure. Sometimes they get angry. They're human. And most do care very much about their students. But sending students to the principal's office is the wrong message. It's like telling the whole class that the principal is a better or wiser authority than the teacher. This causes students to lose respect for their teachers. And anyway, it doesn't work. What about suspension - another frequently used disciplinary tool? Suspending students gives the message that learning doesn't matter. A punishment should never involve taking away something you believe in. Suspending a kid from school is like saying to a kid, "All right, if you're bad at the table, you can't eat your vegetables." That's stupid! The only justifiable reason for removing a kid from school would be if his behavior was dangerous - if he had a weapon, for example, or broke the law. Speaking of weapons, the US has seen events such as the Columbine massacre, as well as many other cases of violence among students and violence against teachers. Though so far not to that extent, school violence is also on the rise in Israel. How do you explain this? Yes, I have been told by educators that violence is one of the most serious problems in the Israeli school system today. How do I explain it? Well, for one thing, it's on the rise everywhere. And it is indeed, in large measure, a function of parents giving their kids things, rather than teaching them. This causes kids to be frustrated, on the one hand, and to have a sense of entitlement, on the other. They think they can have everything they want on demand. And, when they don't get exactly what they want, they feel betrayed. Now, most children don't get violent. But there are enough examples of violence in our culture that it's crossed the threshold. Is this less true of the Orthodox community and school system, where there is more of an emphasis on Torah values? From what I've seen in the US - I haven't been here long enough to observe this in Israel - religious schools tend to have fewer incidents of violence. But there, too, there are kids who don't know what to do with their frustration. Basically, children do what they see. They learn how to be adults by watching adults. And we teach children how to behave by the way we treat them. I have a golden rule: Do unto children as you would want children to do unto others, because whatever you do to a child, he's going to do to someone else. If you yell at a child, he's going to yell. If you hit, he's going to hit. If you swear, he's going to swear. It sounds as though you are firmly on the side of nurture in the "nurture vs. nature" debate. Haven't we all heard, however, of parents of both biological and adopted kids claiming that their adopted children - raised exactly the same as their biological ones - exhibit behaviors that are completely foreign to them? And what about identical twins separated at birth, raised in different households, who emerge with similar behavioral patterns? What I'm talking about here doesn't exclude nature; it just emphasizes the nurture part. Clearly there's brain chemistry that affects what people do. And when people do violent things, it has as much to do with their brain chemistry as anything else. I do believe in nature very strongly. But I will say that no two children in the same household have the same parents. Parents treat each child differently. And the nature part interacts with the environment. So, it doesn't matter what your nature is; you can still learn various ways to express who you are, what you feel and what you need. I can get angry - due to my nature - but express it by hitting someone, or by walking away in a huff. This goes back to children's imitative behavior. And when there is inconsistency between how adults act and what they tell children about how to act, children's values become convoluted. I once witnessed the mother of a boy who was caught fighting arrive at the school, and the first thing she did was smack him across the face, yelling: "Who taught you to hit?" As parents, we need to decide what kind of people we want our children to become, and then we need to be that way with them. What happens when a mother and a father disagree on what they want their children to become? How can there be consistency in a household when there is more than one adult setting an example? There are two types of consistency - external and internal. External consistency is when all the people in a child's life have the same rules and consequences. Internal consistency is when each person in a child's life is consistent with what he or she says and does. External consistency is relatively unimportant. By the time a kid is three, he's already learned several systems of behavior - with his mother, father, grandparents, day care - and how to maneuver each. It's internal consistency that really matters. What happens when an internally consistent mother insists that her four-year-old son wear a kippa all day long, while the boy's internally consistent father deems it halachically unnecessary until the child is older? To some degree, such a child knows that when he's with his mother, he has to keep his kippa on his head, and while he's with his father, he can be more lax about it. But here you're touching on a larger question: What happens when there's a philosophical difference between a mother and father? When I talk to parents, the first thing I try to do is find common ground, in terms of their values, such as whether they both agree that their child shouldn't hurt someone else. Almost every parent, regardless of style, would say yes. The same goes for whether their child should be honest, respectful, caring of others and abide by the rules of the house. Then, it's a question of detail. Then I would say, "OK, if one of you comes up with a rule, and the other doesn't enforce it, you're teaching your child that it's OK to choose which rules to follow." That's a bad lesson for kids to learn, because if it's OK to choose which rules to follow, the children will be the ones choosing which rules not to follow. Often those are the things that neither parents wants, such as for their child to smoke or have sex. What happens when both parents agree to exhibit consistency in the rules of the household, and both agree to keep the home kosher, yet when the kids aren't looking, one or both of them eat treif outside? Or when they don't want their children to smoke, yet they themselves do so and hide it? That's consistency, but is it healthy? First of all, I don't think we can hide anything from our kids. I think they know exactly what we're up to. Therefore, it's harmful. It's giving your kids the message that it's OK to say one thing and do another. And that it's OK to lie. But so many Jewish parents say they want their children to have some degree of religious upbringing - to provide them with the habits and tools early in life, rather than robbing them of the opportunity. Two of my sons are observant, even though I am not, nor raised them to be. They chose it on their own. If parents believe they can control their kids' destiny when it comes to these things, they're going to be in for heartache, or at least many of them are. But, getting back to that issue of hiding eating habits or cigarettes, I think it's better to be honest with kids, while explaining to them that we are imperfect people, which is why we may smoke, for example, but nevertheless don't want them to do it because it's wrong. But the really best situation is to admit it or stop it. If you don't think your children should do something that you are doing, maybe you shouldn't be doing it either.