Posted by Karen O'Hanlon
How was your Presidents’ Day? Splendid three-day weekend, or maybe you didn’t get a holiday and resented having to work while so many others played? As for me, I had the day off, but spent most of it waiting for a repairman come to fix my wonky dryer. I guess I was lucky he was working at all that day!
As I sat waiting, I began to reflect on my youth when there used to be two February holidays—one for Lincoln’s birthday and one for Washington’s. That’s how it was when I was growing up in the 1950‘s, and those holidays were so important that we paid a lot of attention to them in school. After all, George Washington was instrumental in creating The Union, and Lincoln is the one who kept it from falling apart.
However, I don’t remember these kinds of history lessons being shared when I was small. What I do remember is what my first grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, taught our class. We learned that George Washington chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree (oh my!) but bravely admitted it, and that Honest Abe Lincoln never ever told a lie.
Lincoln especially had a perfect sheen. He was portrayed in stories as a kind, selfless and serving man, one who sacrificed to stand up for his ideals about equality. He was the kind of fellow who would give up his fee as a lawyer so as not to burden his poorer clients.
I loved it! To me, Washington and Lincoln both represented strong American principles—commitment to honesty and concern for others. By the end of sixth grade, I had read every children’s book on the library shelves about them.
Adults used those early stories to teach children important values. But the lessons were simple—one-dimensional. The books I checked out from my elementary school library about Lincoln and Washington reinforced how perfectly they exemplified admirable American qualities. In all the books I read as an elementary student about Lincoln and Washington, not one book ever voiced any criticism of either. Perhaps, developmentally speaking, it makes sense to steep younger children in idealistic and moral lessons without saddling them with the inappropriate burden to critically analyze. But I think my parents and my teachers fell short by never guiding me past myth and into a more realistic understanding about those two presidents and others like them.
I don’t fault my parents too much. They seemed to believe that you couldn’t succeed in life if you weren’t honest. My dad was a businessman, and once told me that it never occurred to him to be dishonest with his colleagues or customers. He said he didn’t know people could be dishonest and still succeed. Extending that idea, and naive as it may sound, my parents automatically accepted that a person was honest just because they had succeeded or risen to a leadership role.
By the time I reached high school, history was taught as a series of dates and events with no attempt to analyze between the lines. I could pass the tests just by regurgitating the facts. Without a context for analyzing history, I was still an idealist who, much like my parents, assumed that we lived in an honest society.
In the late '60s, I was a college student and still naïve. My generation wanted to believe that wars were a thing of the past, or at least only entered into when there was no other recourse. We fervently disliked prejudice because, as Washington and Lincoln had fought for, everyone had the right to respect, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness.
It was quite an unwelcome shock when it became clear that there was a gap between my ideals, which I thought came from the real world, and what was actually happening. Looking back, I think that by sixth grade, I was ready for a deeper understanding of world events. But no teacher ever addressed that.
I am not advocating against teaching ideals and values. We definitely need to set standards that challenge people to be better. But I also believe that today’s adults need to step up to their responsibility as children’s guides. We need to be clear about what we are teaching and take action when children are ready for more. Not an easy task! It takes effort, commitment and even some self-reflection. I like to call it “practical idealism”.
Start with these ideas:
1) Lead by example.
There is no way around being a role model when you are working with kids. Integrity is important. Establish principles in your life that are broad enough to accommodate your experience as it grows and stick to them. My favorite principle is honesty.
2) Recognize that learning to analyze and evaluate are processes that are too sophisticated for small children, but totally appropriate by the time kids are about eleven to twelve years old.
History lessons should evolve as children get older. Lists of dates and facts can only go so far. Don’t let older children off the hook when it comes to building better understandings about the relationship between events and human strengths and weaknesses.
3) Keep at it.
Working with kids, especially different age groups requires you to recognize their stage of growth and what they are ready for next. Challenge yourself and them to continue growing both emotionally and intellectually. It’s not easy but it is important. And kids pick up on the level of respect you have for them as they are finding their own way.
4) Be a guide not a controller.
Too often I think we want kids to continue to accept a simple set of rules. If they would just do that, it would make everyone’s lives easier. At least in the short term. But our responsibility is not about getting them to tow the line. We need to help them learn how to assess situations and come up with real, principled solutions. And they have to know how to do that on their own. It's ok if they fail at times as long as they learn from failure.
5) Take a long view, keeping ideals as goal while maintaining perspective.
Adults who demonstrate a willingness to examine their own presumptions about ideals are taking a long view and showing kids how to trust their own process of maturing.
Let us not be overly protective of kids. Instead let’s give them the tools they need to assess their own values and stand on their own two feet. To me, those early stories about Lincoln and Washington were great, and suited my level of development. However, if adults had worked to help me understand more, I don’t think I would have been in such shock when the 60’s arrived.