Friday, August 26, 2011

Child Management. With an Iron Fist.

(Author's Note: check out the follow up post I wrote a year later for more child management!)
In the middle of the children's department at my library, there is a boat.
Yup. A boat.

This monstrosity lines the entire right (erm, starboard) side of the room with bright colors, steps and a facade that clearly screams: PLAY ON ME!

I hear it used to be worse. It used to have a steering wheel and I think paddles, and like, cannons, or something. Its safety has increased (there is now vinyl lining the steel sides, and the wheel was taken down after only two kids' heads got stuck and started bleeding). 

But the worst part about it, is it's a memorial. So that means, no matter how many times the staff can be like, "seriously, there's a boat in our library" it cannot be taken down.

I wish I was kidding or even remotely hyperbolic about any of this. Maybe there weren't any cannons (the only things that would give those powder monkeys any responsibility at all) but really, that's it.

At any rate, the staff have had this ongoing battle with the boat for like 15 years. I've heard that so much it's become just a number, but when you really think about it, this poor staff has been dealing with running, screaming children in the middle of the library every day since I began 9th grade. Seriously, the lead singer of the band in that link has become famous, fallen into obscurity, shamed his entire family and then he became famous AGAIN in this amount of time (oh, and he finally got people to stop calling him Hootie). So obviously, some change had to be made.

 When I started here, kids were being rewarded for reading on the boat, which was what the dept wanted them to do. Reading on the boat, rather than screaming and running in the middle of the library, was not, I gathered, a completely unthinkable task that required special restraint on the part of the child. As young as three, children can be expected to obey social conventions on their own, once they realize or are reminded what those social conventions are.
A former educator, I saw something happening that was a huge no-no in the education world: kids were being rewarded for expected behavior.  
                Think about that for a second:  imagine checking in books for a patron, and you notice that they turned their book in on time. Great! In fact, it’s such a good behavior that you’re going to give that patron 10 dollars (the going adult currency conversion for a temporary tattoo, I imagine). Why?
Because you’re surprised that they actually followed a basic direction?
Because you’re insecure in your expectations?

These are both recipes for disaster. From this reward system, 2 types of people will emerge:
1) The person who will look at you like you’re crazy and wonder why he/she has gotten money for doing what they perceive as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary 
2) The person who will, seeing they get paid for something so stupidly easy, check out books without reading them for the sole purpose of returning them, one at a time. Check out four books? Return them one by one over the next three weeks. 40 bucks for nothing.

Eventually, the people in #1 will turn into the people described in #2. Not because they’re sick of being Good Samaritans. Not because everyone is inherently evil.

But because, by rewarding them for expected behavior, especially multiple times, you’ve insulted their intelligence by saying “You did such a great thing, absolutely nothing! My expectations of you are so low that I am extremely impressed by this very simple thing you did.” And so their behavior is altered to meet your (ridiculously super low) expectations.

Children, even young children, aren’t much different. With the rewards we were giving for expected behavior, children were not actually reading on the boat at all—they just took books up there and watched the desk like a hawk, waiting to be “caught reading”. We shot ourselves in the foot for a bucketful of plastic rings and temporary tattoos!Children, like adults, will adjust their behaviors to meet the expectations set for them.

One of the first signs of intelligence in babies is their ability to manipulate a situation for their own gain (“when I cry, mom pays attention to me. So I will cry more, and get more attention”). This advancement of cognitive development can be frustrating, but is a necessary step toward critical thinking. The hard part is a child’s sociocentrism may not develop until the age of 7 or higher. This means, they don’t understand how their behavior affects others, and they think of everything in the world as an effect of or catalyst for their actions.

This is why “because that’s the rules”, said with conviction, is a completely acceptable way to keep yourself out of a “why” cycle with a 2-year-old. Even if you get into it, it will take a long time for them to understand; and even then, you can’t guarantee they will understand the great meaning of “consideration for others” or even “their safety, which is often beyond their control”. If you’ve ever heard, “No, I won’t get hurt. I know it!” from a toddler, that’s why.

If they are older and they ask why, you can add some reasoning. But keep it short. Your attention is a commodity and you don’t want to give kids the impression that they can receive it for a prolonged period of time if they are not living up to your expectations of them.

I need to add a disclaimer here that this, and any other suggestions I may give, is not to be a parenting tip. I encourage parents to get into the “why” cycle with their children, as this strengthens the familial trust bond, enhances vocabulary, and helps to develop a child’s sociocentrism and empathy.

This is not parenting. This is child management. Though they may have similarities, they are two completely different things.

So, now that “because that’s the rules” is an acceptable “why” answer, you can make the rules whatever you want.

Don't make that walking book go "Walking Book" all over your ass.
Our rule became, “This is the Reading Boat. There are books on the boat to read, or you can read your own book. But if you don’t want to read on the boat, the boat is closed.”
Here you have set a child up for success:
1) explain what the expectation is
2) give examples of how the child can meet the expectation
3) consequence of not meeting the expectation
Notice none of this has to do with the child’s previous actions at all. They don’t have to reflect that “oh, I was jumping” and then adjust their behavior to “not jumping” and then “reading, instead.” It is a simple action to move forward with:  “Read”.

This is why you get a faster reaction when you say “Walk, please” instead of “No running!”
Try it, I promise.

Sometime we don’t even make it to the consequence part. Just hearing the expectation is enough! But what happens if they don’t follow the direction the first time?
Answer: you kick them off the boat.
You don’t have to be stern or raise your voice. You can walk over, and even quietly, let the child know that the boat is closed for them and they need to leave it.

This information can be delivered effectively, if you:
--- Mean what you say.
If implementing or stating a consequence scares you, practice in the mirror. It may sound stupid, but it works. Once you can tell yourself that the boat is closed, or whatever it is, in the mirror without laughing at yourself, then you actually can dole out the punishment meaningfully. Your expectations will be clear to all if you internalize them.
---Are sincere in your effort.
Sincerity here is showing, with your whole self, that you believe the child is capable of meeting you expectation.  This includes expressing true disappoint in the person’s inability to meet your expectation.
The consequence becomes your personal disappointment. Once this happens, you’ll never have to make an empty threat again.
Make your approval a commodity. They’ll want to do something because you believe they can. It will be a step toward turning someone’s external motivation into internal motivation, since they know they can meet expectations (make sure to acknowledge as soon as they do—“Allright! Thanks for reading on the boat, that’s awesome!”). They’ll repeat the behavior in the future. But this time, instead of needing more positive reinforcement, they’ll remember when you said something because of what they did that made them feel great. Their self-efficacy (belief in their own capability) will improve.

Reading nook: crushing the dreams of young sailors since Aug 2011.
*TL;DR? Above is a write-up I did, considering some professional development I'm giving soon. Some links are funny.* 


  1. Thanks Beki! It means a lot that you like the things I had to say. Especially since you are not only an experienced educator, but also that you're about to be a new mom!

  2. 1. There is a boat in my library, too.

    2. It was ostensibly put there so that kids could read on the boat.

    3. However, kids have discovered that it's much more fun to run across the deck, climb on the rails, and swing from the ropes (YES THERE ARE ROPES).

    4. Yes, many an hour have been spent telling kids not to climb on the boat.

    5. Our director installed the boat and is in love with it. He is retiring in October. HMMMM.

    Glad to know we're not the only ones sailing the turbulent seas of having a boat in the children's room...

  3. OMG Abby. There should be a support group...

  4. I'm all about whimsy in a children's department, but sometimes you really have to wonder what people think when they do some things...such as putting pyramids with pointy edges all over a children's department.

  5. Julie, coming from a place where I had to make a daily ethical decision whether or not to give my kids pencils, I cannot agree with you more.

  6. Too funny. I read this post and realized that I must surely know where you live. I live in the area and totally recognize your boat. My children have actually read in it. Kids think it is cool, but yeah, what a difficult thing for the librarians.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Library Lady! And actually, since writing this post the behavior on the boat has gotten even better than it was; but kids still use it, and even think that reading on the boat is the fun part! Amazing what a few signs and some chairs can do. And staff attitude toward the existence of the boat has actually gone from "Can't wait to get rid of this" to "well maybe even after or redesign we could keep it." :) I still vote for getting rid of it, but we're making the best of it in the meantime!

  8. I really think this has the potential to change everything about how we interact with the kids in our children's department. Thank you so much for posting this.

    We don't have a boat, thank goodness. I already overuse the phrase "This is a library, not a playground! You need to _______"

  9. Please tell me that when the library is closed and the kids can't see you, you do dances on the boat while singing about your flippy floppies and nautical themed pashmina afghans. I think that would be the only way I could deal with a boat!

  10. Thank you for this great post. My library has a huge train. It's supposed to be a reading train...but you know how that goes. To make matters worse, we can't see the train from the desk. Kids love to climb on the engine, in between cars, over the benches...

  11. We narrowly avoided a dragon! Lucky for me the Assitant Director was my predecessor in the Children's department and could very easily envision the results of a giant dragon snaking down the middle of the room. It was priceless to have the the architect who had suggested the dragon come in a few years ago with his first child, a 2 year old mountain climber, who couldn't resist climbing on every chair, table and stool she could find. After plucking her off yet another perch he looked at me and said, "Now I know why you didn't like the dragon!"

  12. We have a boat built into a wall, and use it for storytimes and then let kids play with stuffed toys in it. Thankfully, everything on it is bolted down (including the steering wheel, which no one can get their head through). Our major problem, besides stopping kids from climbing the sides (We can see them from the desk.), is noise. I do have to tell kids to keep it down in there, because it can echo through the library. Actually, I got in trouble once for getting too loud during a storytime!
    The only official injury I know of in the boat involved an older man in a wheelchair who didn't pay attention to where the ramp was.