40. No

When a child says no to a teacher, it raises an issue that we used to consider simple. In elementary school, I never said no to a teacher. I’m pretty sure I would have had trouble if I had. Occasionally, I witnessed what happened if a child said no to a teacher. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It didn’t inspire me to change my ways. I saw spankings, heard yelling, and kept my mouth shut like a “good boy.” And this was a public school.
When I first started teaching and parenting, I considered it one of my jobs to teach children to say no. Abuse of children had still not reared its head as the issue it is today; I had a different reason in mind. I was thinking more of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and all the other adults who had had the power to make people do what they didn’t want to. I didn’t want to become one of them. To me, sending people to war is the worst form of abuse. The selective service system inspired me to learn to say no.
It didn’t take long for me to decide that saying no to a teacher about schoolwork or behavior was not on the same level as Ghandi’s refusal to obey apartheid laws, or Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus. But I was never comfortable with the aspect of the authority role that suppressed children’s natural ability to refuse.
Later in my career, the issue of refusal took on a new look. A few years ago, parents and teachers were officially given a new message: children need to learn to say no. At first, they were only supposed to say no to certain drugs. Then a little later, abuse also surfaced as an issue. “If someone tells you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, just say ‘No.'” Authority figures were telling children to do what authority figures used to forbid: say no.
I’m glad to have shed the confusing authority role I had as a teacher. I’m also glad it’s getting confusing. Even if we lived in a world free of harmful drugs and child abuse, I believe it would still be important to allow children to refuse. We want children to grow up with self- confidence and integrity. It may be simpler, at first, to answer “Why?” with “Because I said so,” but it never was a satisfactory answer, and is less so now.

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