Thanks, Schools, for Controlling Our Children’s Feelings. Somebody Has to Do It.

by Kyle Heger

Chalkboard with "ABC" written on it.

Even in these fractious times, there are a few things we parents can agree on. First, to succeed in our society, a person needs good behaviors. Second, good behaviors are largely caused by good feelings. Third, to make sure our children grow up to achieve success, we adults must control their feelings.   

Unfortunately, we parents can’t always do this. We try role-modelling, rewards, punishments, rules, orders. But their feelings won’t always conform. Most of us don’t have specialized training to deal with a task this daunting.  We don’t have time for it because we’re so busy working all day to churn out useful goods and services and spending the rest of our time consuming them.  

Fortunately, allies to help us control our children’s feelings are as close as neighborhood schools. Educators there are already experts at making students toe the line cognitively: keeping them on track with the right facts, figures and technical skills. What many parents don’t realize is that these educators are in a position to also control students’ feelings: their emotions, attitudes, opinions, values.

If you want to find out how to enlist local educators in this campaign, you could do a lot worse than getting them to follow the example being set by a small school district in the San Francisco Bay area that uses four basic approaches to control “The Whole Child.” Let’s call it “District X.”

Approach One: “Feel as We Say You Must.”

Sometimes direct approaches are among the best. District X has great success simply ordering children to feel certain ways. 

One of the main feelings it demands is positivity. A positive population is more likely to put its shoulder to the wheel. It’s less likely to waste authority’s time with foot-dragging or protests.

An elementary-school “Parent and Student Handbook” tells students, “Show a positive attitude ….” It doesn’t get much more direct than that.

In performance evaluations, conducted three times a year, a student here is measured on how well he “exhibits a positive attitude.”

Respect is another demanded feeling. In fact, it’s one of the “Big Three” rules at an elementary school in District X.  Most dictionaries more or less define “respect” as a feeling of high esteem. And, because the “Big Three” don’t specify what’s to be respected, the implication is that respect is to be universally applied. People who hold everything in high esteem don’t generally stir up much trouble.

It turns out respect doesn’t have to be earned; it just has to be commanded. The same is true of attentiveness. The “Parent and Student Handbook” requires students to “focus attention on the speaker.” 

Such dry language doesn’t go far enough to satisfy one gung-ho fifth-grade teacher. A sign in her classroom tells students, “Listen attentively the entire time with hearts and minds.”  If it was worthwhile for our government to try winning the hearts and minds of Vietnam’s population while we waged war there, surely, it’s worthwhile for our schools to try to win them in an effort to socialize our children.

The district even uses a canned curriculum to spell out for students which feelings should be avoided and which should be cultivated, engaging them in homework and in-class exercises to practice “managing” emotions. Called “Second,” it’s provided by the organization Committee for Children. “Disruptive” emotions that it seeks to “manage” and “calm down” include anger, frustration, worry, anxiety and blaming.  Feelings it seeks to cultivate include: focus, respect and being positive. You can’t get much more authority-friendly than this.

Approach Two: “Feel as We Say You Do.”

Educators here have also become skilled in a subtler form of manipulation: telling children not what they mustfeel but what they dofeel. Think of it as authority making a declarative sentence (“You feel enthusiasm.”) as distinct from an imperative sentence (“Feel enthusiasm.”).

In some ways, the declarative form is more effective. It assumes as a fait accompli that students are already doing what authority says they must do. There’s no wiggle room. It’s as if compliance were a metaphysical, perhaps a divine, given. The message is that authority, at the least, knows children’s innermost experiences, and, at most, creates them.

Students here are assiduously told by teachers and parent-volunteers that they will enjoy, are enjoying and have enjoyed field trips. If adults do resort to a question, it’s along these lines: “We’re going to have a blast on this field trip, aren’t we?” or “Didn’t you just love that field trip?” They’re too smart to ask dangerously open-ended questions like “How did you feel about the trip?” 

The “Parent and Student Handbook” shows educators here are masters of You-Talk by stating, “Our students want to contribute positively to the school. All students want to do well, be respectful … and value their learning.” 

Approach Three: “Express Your Feelings as We Tell You to.”

District X has another trick up its sleeve: It instructs students to express particular feelings. This accomplishes two things. First, it requires students to have these feelings. Second, it requires them to “share” these feelings, to commit to them publicly.

Some of what it does in this regard is already standard fare across our great land. Kindergartens are told, near Thanksgiving, to create posters saying what they’re grateful for. The grateful feel that benefits they receive are a gift from above, and, as such, can be removed or withheld if they don’t continue to please authority. 

And, of course, students are told they must say, “I’m sorry” even when they aren’t, as a way of “resolving” conflict. They’re told to use “dear” in letters’ salutations and “love” in their closings even if they have no affection for recipients.

The most spectacular example of the “Express Your Feelings as We Tell You to” type of manipulation here is a series of events and exercises held in District X last year under the rubric of the “Great Kindness Challenge,” a national program coordinated by an organization called Kids for Peace. Children had to make affirmations out loud in a group about how they “chose” to be “kind.”  They also were required to make posters in which they finished the sentence, “I will light up the world with kindness by ….”

Approach Four: “We Will Express Your Feelings for You.”

Using this tactic, District X bypasses students altogether, steps into their places and expresses their feelings for them. 

In the “multipurpose room” at one school, posters on the wall assume students’ voices, saying for them, “We Do Our best,” “We Know Learning Is Fun,” “We Are Part of a Caring Community.” 

Encouraging her students to “share” information about themselves, a fifth-grade teacher has no hesitation in speaking for them, sending them a note saying, “We are so excited to learn more about you.” 

A sign on a door, created by parent volunteers during Teacher-Appreciation Week boldly proclaims, “Thank you, Miss X. We Love You.” 

Bringing It All Together

One fifth-grade teacher brings these approaches to feelings-control together in her classroom. Three lists are posted there, based on input she elicited from students.  “Ways We Want Our Class to Be” includes the words “respectful, attentive, optimistic, compassionate, empathetic.” A “Please Do” list includes “be patient, be open-minded, believe in yourself, listen attentively.” A “Please Don’t” list includes “Be negative, give up, judge people.” 

The lists are clearly the result of “brainstorming” sessions carefully orchestrated by the teacher. Which words did and didn’t end up on the lists were, of course, a foregone conclusion. And, though brainstorming is typically done at the start of the group decision-making process, here it was treated as an end-product without going through a critical thinking or editing stage.

This teacher has announced she will have students sign contracts agreeing to abide by these lists. You can bet that when kids were tossing these words around in a top-of-the-head way, they didn’t know they’d have to comply with them. 

This visionary teacher also has students take turns serving as honorary members of the Feelings Police, or “scouts,” who watch for evidence that fellow students are complying with the above-mentioned lists in interactions with each other. 

What a great way to make sure that, right from the get-go, kids won’t develop unrealistic expectations that there will be anything democratic or empowering in group decision making. 

Parents in Unity

If you’ve read this far under the impression that feelings-control in schools is something supported only by the politically conservative, you’re in for a surprise. Sure, decades ago, in the name of “civil rights” for children, it was mainly people considered “Leftist” or “Progressive” that hamstrung authorities in public schools. Because of them, many schools no longer demand that children say prayers or say the Pledge of Allegiance. But times have changed.

Some of the most recent feelings-control efforts this district has undertaken have a decidedly progressive flavor. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, signs appeared in District-X schools proclaiming, “We believe: black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.”  Signs saying “No room for hate” have been posted in response to accusations that some high-school students in the district engaged in racist and anti-Semitic expressions.

But conservatives shouldn’t get too worried. Using administrative ju-jitsu, school authorities in the past have turned campaigns against school violence, sexual harassment and the marginalization of certain groups into rules against anger, spontaneous affection and value judgements. 

Tomorrow, if the winds of politics change, the signs posted in District X schools could just as easily read: “We believe: white lives matter, fetus’ rights are human rights, no war criminal is illegal, creationism is real, indifference is indifference, obedience is everything” and “No room for critical thinking.”  

Today, the practice of controlling students’ feelings isn’t tied to a particular political stripe. It’s hyper-political. It can accommodate the Red and the Blue, in fact everybody except those so radical they question the foundation of technologically-based consumer society itself.

School authorities in District X command one of the most important subjective experiences: conscience. They’ve decided in advance what social justice is. There’s no longer a need for messy grassroots debates. 

The district makes students learn “Social-Emotional and Social Justice Competencies” as measurable technical skills. In a “Social Awareness” component, it teaches kids to feel, “I care about others.” In “Relationship Skills,” they learn to feel, “I am a good friend.”  Often, the lesson is a blend of cognitive and subjective experiences. In “Knowledge of Social Inequities, children learn the lesson: “I know what is fair.” Yes, they know because their teachers have told them.

District X even makes forays into a subjective realm often considered more elevated than conscience: states of consciousness. It offers instruction in “mindfulness.” Perhaps the time will even come to revisit the idea of prayer in public schools. It’s not a bad idea, considering studies showing how useful such practices can be in making people happier and more productive.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you confidence in educators’ ability to put your children on the right path subjectively. But they can’t do it without the support of parents. 

So, elect the right people to office. Be the voice of reason on the PTA. Present a united front with educators. Help children work within the system. For example, explain that pretending to have demanded feelings is just as good as actually feeling them, if you do it well enough. Motivate them by explaining that in today’s competitive job market, employers are looking for enthusiastic team players who can share their organizations’ core values, missions, passions and love for customer service. With the right attitude, they can grow up to take a big bite out of the American Dream: fast cars, smart phones, trips to Epcot Center. The sky’s the limit.

More than anything, trust educators. After all, you’re a product of the system they’ve heroically sustained for decades, right? You didn’t turn out so bad. Neither will your offspring.

Category: Featured, Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing