I’m teaching theatre for a local summer camp, which isn’t something I would have ever imagined I would do.
And I think working with kids is giving me more empathy, not that I was lacking in that trait to begin with.
But kids are just tiny humans who have big feelings and precious few skills to deal with them effectively.
This past week felt long and the kids were so tired. I’ve never had them all come in before and just lie on the floor and say they want a nap. On Thursday, I was chatting with my supervisor in the lobby on my break while she watched one kid who gets overstimulated easily in class. She said, “Look at her. Now, what do you think would happen if I sent her back in there?” nodding to my room where the kids take their second break. And we both knew exactly what would happen if she did. A tantrum. But the girl was sitting quietly happily playing with legos. Perfection.
And my supervisor said that some of the kids get dropped off early and picked up late due to their parents’ schedules. Which might mean a kid is at camp from 7:45am to 6pm. That’s a long day. We don’t let grown ups have days that long. Why would we expect kids to be able to do it?
On Friday, I was tired, hungry, and stuck in the worst rush hour traffic of the summer trying to get to the grocery store. Stop and go traffic is still likely to send me into a panic attack. And thinking about things in the car, I realized. I get it. Sometimes I want to scream and kick things and bang my head against the wall. Or just run away. But the difference is, I can decide to go to the grocery store nearest my current location instead of the one closest to my house. I can eat a pack of crackers. I can buy a frozen pizza for dinner. Kids have precious little control over any aspect of their lives. If they are tired and hungry and anxious, an adult would likely just tell them they have to wait and that we’ll be home soon.
These kids have no say in when they eat, when they go outside, or for the most part, what they do in class. They have to get permission to get a drink of water. When I worked at a call center and I felt like I could never just go pee when I needed to, it was awful. I hated it. They don’t understand child care laws and that someone legally has to be watching them at all times. They just have to pee and get yelled at for opening the door without asking.
A few weeks ago, one of the counselors said the kids say I am the nicest teacher. And paying attention to the counselors who come into my classes sometimes now I see why. There are counselors who will try to shut down every impulse these kids have. My main concern is that no one gets kicked in the face, that no one needs an ice pack, and that no one ends up crying because they had a fight or someone called them a name. But this one counselor cracked down on these two boys making fart noises in the corner. Were they really hurting anyone? No.
And I get it. It’s exhausting to work with kids. It’s constant emotional labor. Who doesn’t want them to sit down and just be quiet for one second? But I think anyone who works with kids needs to really think about whether you have a legitimate reason for what you’re asking them to do. Is someone going to get hurt, or are you just trying to mold the world to your preference because you can because you are an adult? Now that I have the hang of behavior management a little more, I like it when kids push back. If I tell a kid to do something, when they inevitably ask, “Why?” if I can’t think of a logical reason, then that’s something for me to think about. None of this, “Because I said so!” bullshit that we grew up with. What is the reason? And if there’s not one, then why is the behavior being called out to begin with?
Sometimes kids are annoying. Sometimes adults are annoying. The logical consequence of that is that you probably won’t end up with many friends if you act that way. I ask the kids to stop screeching when it hurts my ears. But they can make a choice in that moment: do they care about me enough to stop? As adults, we’re always making that choice. We learn to control our impulses (for the most part) when it is in our best interests to do so, and we can make a choice to piss people off or annoy them. So can kids. And the other kids will call them out about it so I don’t have to.
I have to remember that what I’m teaching them is hard. It’s the hardest stuff there is. Theatre takes teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and a willingness to take the limelight when it serves the greater good. That shit is hard, even for adults.
When they say, “I NEVER get to be the leader,” or “We NEVER get to play the game I want,” or “I NEVER win,” even if it’s not objectively true, that’s how it feels to them. They are voicing the helplessness they feel in this system designed by and for adults. I get it now. I understand why the after school program I work with during the school year was founded on Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. We oppress kids. Adults fucking oppress kids all the time. We have all the power and they don’t. And I think we lose sight of that. I’ve made jokes about, “oh, it must be so hard to be four years old” myself. But it is. It fucking is.
Adults can have caffeine and alcohol. We set our own bedtime. We can eat whatever we want for dinner. I think structure and rules are good for kids. But I think the least amount of structure and rules necessary are what we should be striving for. If fart noises annoy you, think about what you would say to your coworker or roommate who was making those noises, and treat the kid that same way.
Kids are little humans. And after dealing with kids all day, I have more empathy for the big humans who sometimes struggle with the exact same issues. We’ve all been hangry. We’ve all said things in anger that we regret. We’ve all stormed out of a room when we didn’t get our way. Teach them to apologize by apologizing when you fuck up. Just let kids be human. And let yourself be, too.