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Here’s an email I received after my show today:


I’m a middle school teacher. I don’t live in your area but I heard your conversation today. I’d like to say that parental denial is a HUGE problem for teachers. I deal with their kids all day and when I attempt to tell them about the trouble their precious children cause in the class so often they resist. They REFUSE to believe that they are raising children with crappy attitudes who behave badly in the classroom. Some kids refuse to do ANY work and then their parents blame me for it. What happened to holding your kids responsible?? Sorry to rant but this really gets to me. I give my all for those kids but some of them just have NO interest in cooperating and their parents just aid and abed them. What is wrong with some of these people?? They want to find a thousand people and things to blame for their kids behavior…. except they never want to blame… THEIR KID.
Please don’t use my name if you use this.

I responded to this person privately.

But let’s explore the themes in her/his message.

You see, generally, when a kid acts like a jerk, we, as a country, engage in all sorts of philosophical contortions and mental gymnastics to figure out who we can blame for his jerkiness. Johnny cuts third period, or picks on the overweight kid in gym class, or shouts vulgarities at his teacher, or otherwise acts inappropriately, and we begin to weave our tangled Web of Blame; desperately attempting to pin the guilt for his malfeasance on some third party. Should we point to the teacher? Or the school system? Or TV? Video games? Perhaps the medical establishment ought to be called onto the mat for this one? Maybe the politicians in DC? What about the UN? The wealthy elite! Society! Society is to blame! Soon, we are hovering high above planet Earth, indicting all of God’s creation in this complicated game of Whodunit.

Yet, somehow, one lucky guy manages to shrink out the back door, while the rest of us smack each other with broken bottles and pool cues: Johnny. Johnny, the kid who actually did the bad thing. Why is it that we can blame the entire universe for a kid’s behavior, yet the kid who committed the infraction isn’t even included in that universe? Why can’t we ever explain the bad actions of a child by coming to the conclusion that the child chose to act that way, and ought to be the sole individual implicated?

Sure, he could have horrible teachers. Or he could be a victim of an unfair system. Or there could be a conspiracy against him.

Or, you know, he could just be a human being with free will who chooses to do the wrong things.

Sometimes there isn’t any need to add complexities to an issue that is really quite simple. Your kid is a human being, he has a brain, he makes choices; occasionally, or (in some cases) often, he makes the wrong choices. Sometimes that wrong choice needs to fall on his shoulders. We can discuss societal, systematic, and environmental factors that contribute to the overall picture, but his free will transcends all of that.

I am no apologist for the public school system. I’m not the president of the Government-Run Education Fan Club. I’m not in the club at all. In fact, I often find myself at odds with its more active members. I’m a home school advocate, but even I can recognize the impossible position we put teachers, like the one who emailed, in when we start from the premise that OUR special snowflakes could NEVER be responsible for their own actions. We discussed this predicament on my show today; I reiterated my “sometimes kids are just jerks” thesis, which also prompted this message from a concerned woman:

“Matt… what an awful thing to say. Kids can never be jerks.”

Yes. That’s real. An adult human actually typed that sentence. “Kids can never be jerks.” And we know what she really means when she says it: MY kid could never be a jerk.

This is the sort of parent that teachers have to deal with on a daily basis.

Teacher: “Ms. Johnson, your Billy cussed me out this afternoon when I tried to get him to take a test. His actions were inappropriate.”

Ms. Johnson: “Inappropriate?! How dare you! If he refused to do his school work right before verbally assaulting you, I’m sure he had a good reason. I’ll be reporting your bullying to the principal!”

I especially feel sorry for middle school teachers. God bless these brave souls. I’d rather be a guidance counselor to serial murderers at a maximum security prison than teach English at an American middle school. Good Lord in Heaven, middle school students can be absolutely horrible. They might be OK on an individual basis, but you mix all of them together, with all of that puberty and all of those hormones, and you’ve got the ingredients to bake yourself a Lord of the Flies flavored cake. Kids can be challenging at any age. People, in general, can behave badly when put together in large groups. It’s the mob effect, and it’s a very real phenomenon. But there’s something about middle school — it’s just different; it’s worse. A lot worse.

A case could be made for abolishing middle school entirely and banishing them all to a desert island, or another planet. You simply can’t put these kids in groups of more than four without half of them turning into rabid raccoons. Last week seven middle schoolers came to my door selling candy bars for a fundraiser for their soccer team. I turned the hose on them. What choice did I have?

I remember my days in 6th, 7th and 8th grade when parents would come to visit during class time. I’d look at the dad of the kid who made the substitute teacher cry only a few days before, or the mom of the girl who spends all day thinking of new ways to ostracize and humiliate her less popular female classmates, and I’d think, “do you people realize that you’re raising barbarians?”

Answer: no. But only because they don’t want to realize it.

I also recall being somewhat of a problem kid at that age myself. I didn’t do my schoolwork, I acted out; I wasn’t quite the terrorist that some of these kids become, but I had my moments. Do you know what else I remember? CHOOSING to act that way. I had a mind. I wasn’t a robot. I wasn’t an animal. I knew it was wrong to shirk my schoolwork and misbehave, but I did it anyway. My parents were awesome, most of my teachers were competent, but I still CHOSE to go against them. I chose it. I was responsible, and nobody else. Immature? Sure. Pre-programmed and destined to be a jerk, even against my own will? No. My parents understood this and so they held me accountable. I’d come home with a less than impressive report card and try the whole “the teachers hate me!” routine, but my mom and dad, refusing to be outwitted by a 12 year old, didn’t take the bait. I cried to them. “My teachers say I’m a bad student and they yell at me! Waaaah!” They weren’t sympathetic. “Well, stop being a bad student and maybe they won’t need to yell at you.”

This is in stark contrast to the way some other parents might respond. “What?! They YELL at you?! Nobody should ever yell at my pumpkin, I don’t care what you did!”

I don’t know. Maybe I was the first, last, and only middle school brat to purposefully and knowingly misbehave, but I doubt it. Maybe I’m the aberration. Maybe my experience doesn’t apply to anyone else. Maybe I was the Universe’s Only Guilty Adolescent, but I find that hard to believe.

I’ve read some of the stories about this “Knock Out Game” that a bunch of teens have started playing. Apparently, they sneak up behind unsuspecting strangers and attempt to knock them unconscious with one punch. That’s it. That’s the “game.” A bunch of cowards, of course, and they ought to be thrown in prison; I don’t care if they’re “minors.” The age of reason comes considerably sooner than your 18th birthday, and humans with the capacity for reason understand that the “Knock Out Game” is vile and evil.

But maybe we ought to consider why we seem to be producing so many “kids” who are so utterly detached and cold. Could it be that, among other things, we aren’t effectively communicating the message that YOU are responsible for YOUR actions, and those actions have consequences? Maybe we should think about introducing our little angels to things like work and responsibility. Maybe we should get them acquainted with duty and discipline. Maybe, just maybe, when the teacher calls to tell us that Susie is a disruptive delinquent in English class, we should direct all of that frustration and disappointment at Susie, not her teacher. Maybe Susie ain’t quite the saint you fancy her to be. Maybe you’re severely damaging her chances at success and happiness in life by shielding her from the aftermath of her own horrible decisions.

Maybe your kid gets in trouble at school because he chooses to do things that will get him into trouble. Maybe he chooses it on purpose, even though he knows better. Maybe it’s his fault, and nobody else’s.

Just something to consider.


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