All discipline comes from encounters with futility.


    This past week I’ve had the pleasure to speak several times with the Art Therapist who serves our school. He’s an amazing resource, and does wonderous work with the children in our building. It’s also a blessing for us to have him as he provides the “outside agency” which is essential for many of our children to qualify for special services through the district.
     I have seen him work his magic with many of our most challenging students, and have developed a deep curiosity for the work he does. I asked him this week, “If I were to read something that would help me better understand the philosophy which underpins your work, where might I start?”.
     “Easy”, he said. “Attachment Theory. It’s all Attachment Theory. There’s a video series at the local video shop by Gordon Neufeld. Check it out”.
     So, this has been my project for the past week, reminding myself of this work and watching these videos. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve read Hold on to Your Kids; Dr. Neufeld is always in the news around here, and in fact he’s coming to speak in the spring. There are many local educators, and programs, which are highly influenced by Attachment Theory.
     If you haven’t heard of the theory, there may be some pieces in here which could help you. One of the lenses it’s given me for the past week is the notion that children need to be able to FEEL FUTILITY when it is encountered.  Dr. Neufeld is famous for his quote “Nature has a plan”; he’s a developmentalist who believes humans have an innate method for pruning out behavior that isn’t beneficial, the Adaptive Process. When something isn’t going anywhere, when it won’t work this way, the energy sinks in and the child gradually stops doing what doesn’t work. But the key is, they have to feel the futility that comes from such things as breaking the rules, defying reality, always getting one’s way, balking restrictions, avoiding consequences, controlling others, or escaping the impact of one’s actions.
     As he explains it, when a child hits a wall of futility, it’s essential for learning that the feeling of futility sink in. Then, it stimulates the limbic system, and one of the results of this is to send a signal for tears. Again, in his words,
“Tears have always been associated with discipline, because most discipline is an encounter with futility. If the child is not moved to tears, or tears on the inside (sadness and disappointment), Nature has not been able to have it’s way with the child. We spoil children when we don’t act as the agents of futility when we need to be, and by not collecting the tears that should come in the wake of this”.
This results from having a soft enough heart to be capable of being moved to SADNESS and DISAPPOINTMENT by that which cannot be changed. The kids with the biggest behavior problems have lost their tears, in Dr. Neufeld’s view. They could no longer be moved from mad to sad. When you can’t move a child to sadness about that which cannot be changed in their life, they become a discipline problem.
     Now I’m not saying I’m a strong advocate for making kids cry, don’t get me wrong. But how many of us, as parents and educators, have seen a profound change in a child after they’ve had a good cry? I can recall it myself, crying myself to sleep, then waking up in the morning and it feeling like a new season, like I’d worked my way through something. The veil had lifted off whatever was troubling me, but I didn’t yet have the language to explain what had happened. As an adult, I’ve heard this explained as “it takes rain to make a rainbow”. Similarly, how many of us have witnessed the transformation in a child when they move from mad to sad, and soften to the reality in their lives? Tears on the inside, not visible to us, which they work through.
     So, I’ve been watching for examples in my life of adults who are not afraid of their children’s tears, and can put their arms around them and comfort them to work through the process.  In Dr. Neufeld’s view, this is essential for the child to progress through the issue. Help them find the soft tears of futility, not the hard tears of frustration, so the energy will recycle and the child will let go. This is nature’s discipline process; we need to be midwives to it and facilitate it.
     It’s made me curious about another question; if we protect our children from failure and disappointment, if we comfort them and take away their pain, are we denying them the chance to experience the valuable lessons that come from encounters with futility? If we did, how would that show up in our culture?
Your thoughts, as always, are welcomed in the space below.
Enjoy your day!
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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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One Response to All discipline comes from encounters with futility.

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