what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.
Consider what happens between children and parents. When each is asked to describe some aspect of their life together, the responses are strikingly divergent. For example, a large Michigan study that focused on the extent to which children were included in family decision making turned up different results depending on whether the parents or the children were asked. (Interestingly, three other studies found that when there is some objective way to get at the truth, children’s perceptions of their parents’ behaviors are no less accurate than the parents’ reports of their own behaviors.)
But the important question isn’t who’s right; it’s whose perspective predicts various outcomes. It doesn’t matter what lesson a parent intended to teach by, say, giving a child a “time out” (or some other punishment). If the child experiences this as a form of love withdrawal, then that’s what will determine the effect. Similarly, parents may offer praise in the hope of providing encouragement, but children may resent the judgment implicit in being informed they did a “good job,” or they may grow increasingly dependent on pleasing the people in positions of authority.
From both punishments and rewards, moreover, kids may derive a lesson of conditionality: I’m loved – and lovable – only when I do what I’m told. Of course, most parents would insist that they love their children no matter what. But, as one group of researchers put it in a book about controlling styles of parenting, “It is the child’s own experience of this behavior that is likely to have the greatest impact on the child’s subsequent development.” It’s the message that’s received, not the one that the adults think they’re sending, that counts.
I have experienced the teacher’s frustration year after year. The lesson was great, the kids didn’t get it. Alfie Kohn reminds me that impact is more important than intentions. This is not a new insight. I have struggled frequently with student’s own confusion about the unexpected impact of their casual teasing. “I meant it as a joke,” they plead.
“It wasn’t how she saw it,” I respond patiently.
We emphasize this point with our students and disregard it in relation to the impact of our own teaching. Life is not fair we tell ourselves in frustration as our best efforts and intentions fail. It does not really matter what we think we are doing, it is the impact on learning and the development of young people. We need to listen to Kohn and remember that at all times we need to maintain a critical stance about our practice.