Yet another benefit of being small

February 27,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Sometimes I feel as if one of my main missions in life these days is to grouch at the people around me about responsibility.  At home both my husband and I are spending more and more time each day trying to curb T.'s newfound love for making messes everywhere she goes.  Be responsible! Don't forget to clean up! We tell her, over and over again until our reminders stop sounding cheerful and instead take on an edgy, nagging tone.  But she's become like Pigpen, trails of mess following her everywhere like a cloud of dust. Coincidentally, the edgier our tone gets, the better she is getting at tuning us out.  And L.'s sense of what his responsibilities are continues to be a work in progress.  Daily we draw up schedules and calendars and reminder lists, daily we fight the same battles over and over again.
 
At work, I spend a good 5-7 minutes of each class period each day trying to encourage my students to take responsibility for their lack of work, or poor work, or poor attendance.  Today, looking around at a near empty classroom, I found myself curtly lecturing the students who were there about the pitfalls of not coming to class, then I stopped myself when I realized how ridiculous it was to talk about such things with the same small group of students who always faithfully show up each class period.
 
I guess it's silly to talk about poor attendance to YOU when you're here, I said weakly.
 
They stared at me.
 
Yesterday I had a meeting at 11:00, in a building across campus.  It was pouring rain, and I had piles of work to sort through, writing to be done, quizzes to grade--I wanted that precious hour so badly.  I leave campus at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I can pick T. up from preschool, so giving up that hour from 11-12 was truly a sacrifice.  I was sorely tempted to stay in my office; to hunker down at my desk and let the rain pour against the windows.  I thought about excuses I could make for my absence at the meeting but even as I thought about these I knew I had to go. I'm not sure I understood (or still understand) why I needed to be at that meeting, much in the same way, I'm sure, that T. isn't fully certain why she needs to clean up her room. I knew, however, that if I didn't go I'd be letting down a colleague, and making myself look bad in the process, and this was enough incentive for me. I have much to be gained from not looking bad and being responsible often ends up feeling a lot better than the alternative--rebellion. In fact, I felt downright good about myself as I trudged off with my meeting folder and umbrella. My students are old enough to grasp this, yet somewhere along the way in the responsibility-learning process, they failed to grasp just how symbiotic a relationship responsibility can be.
 
I tried this responsibility-feels-good approach out on T. later that day, after having nagged her for an excruciating amount of time to pick up her crayons, which were lying in a messy pile on her bedroom floor.
 
See! I said triumphantly, pointing to the now neat row of crayons lined up in her plastic box. Don't you feel better knowing your crayons are put away?
 
T. looked at me, with that same blank stare my students had given me earlier that day.
 
No, she said quite simply.  I like my crayons on the floor, NOT in the box.
 
And then as soon as my back was turned, she dumped the whole lot again onto the floor and I found her, minutes later, humming to herself as she surveyed the rainbow mess.

Rebellion, it seems, can feel good--at least to a four-year old.