One of my students has a habit that drives me nuts! When she senses that she is in “enough trouble for the day” she starts giving me compliments. “I like your shirt Mrs. Maurer”, “I sure like your pen.”, “I like your stickers.” It’s a manipulative coping mechanism that she has surely learned somewhere in her environment. Someone in her life hears her compliments, smiles and softens, and lets her off the hook for something she has done. Well, it has the opposite effect on me! It makes me want to lecture her on good behavior and independence and responsibility.
Another of my students behaves quite admirably if I’m in the room with him. If he is with another teacher or out in the hall on the way to the restroom he turns into a much less appealing person. I’ve talked with him about behaving well because it is the right thing to do, but for the most part it falls on deaf ears. He behaves in the room because I expect him to and he likes me. If I’m out of sight, well there is no one to please.
These two children have obviously figured out that one of the keys to happiness is to please the adults around them. Of course this is something we encourage. We want them to please us. We want them to respect and obey authority. We want them to follow the rules. But it is clear to me that there are two kinds of people in the world- those who obey because of a personal set of moral principles and those who obey because they fear getting caught doing otherwise. The latter group will do almost anything if the odds against punishment are favorable.
I don’t think most people understand the seriousness of these little behavior issues that arise in kindergarten. “Kids will be kids” is the attitude of most adults. But after ten years of working with this age I can tell you that our attitude should be “kids will be adults”. The little behaviors and habits of childhood become the basis for their life skills as adults. As an example, I had a student who lied to me all the time. I know most people don’t take the lies of children seriously. “They just make up stories”, “they get confused”, “they don’t understand”, are excuses I hear from parents. But many children quickly learn that telling the truth gets them into trouble, and they figure out how to tell adults what they want to hear. My little liar has gone on to a higher grade and is still lying to her teacher. I had another student who stole things from my room and from other children. He went on to stealing cars with his high school buddies.
I don’t think we need to fear every little behavior problem our children have. After all, these are the years when children are exploring their options and testing their limitations and developing their ideas of who they will become. But I think we should be alert to repeated behaviors and habits that indicate they have already chosen a destructive path.