A young black student raises their fist. More fists are raised by a crowd of students in the background.

We don’t prepare students for a world of potential oppression by oppressing them. “Better Get Used to It” is violence.

We applaud our children for surviving a ruthless system as if it is an initiation into being a functional human being.

Malaika Mahlatsi

We don’t prepare students for a world of potential oppression by oppressing them.

How to Ungrade | Jesse Stommel

Observation: The more that someone emphasizes the need to “prepare kids for the real world,” the less likely it is that he or she will focus on preparing kids to improve that world.

Alfie Kohn on Twitter
Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 86-87). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Alongside conditionality and scarcity we find the ideological engine behind BGUTI—namely, a determination to make sure that things aren’t too easy for kids. The premise here is not only that deprivation, struggle, and sacrifice are useful preparation for life’s hardships, but that there’s simply something objectionable about sparing kids from having to cope with deprivation, struggle, and sacrifice.22

I’m reminded of a famous ad campaign to sell Listerine mouthwash, which was based on the assumption that because it tasted vile, it obviously had to work well. The flip side of this way of thinking is that we ought to be wary of anything that’s too appealing. “Feel-good” and “touchy-feely” have become all-purpose epithets to disparage whatever seems suspiciously pleasurable. This is particularly true in education, where these terms are often applied to authentic ways of evaluating learning (in place of standardized tests), a course of study that emphasizes creativity (rather than the memorization of facts), and having students learn in cooperative groups (instead of alone or against one another).

Here, again, evidence that such practices are more effective may simply be waved aside. If something is enjoyable, that’s reason enough to describe it as touchy-feely and deem it unworthy of consideration. Progressive educators may make a case for creating a more engaging curriculum or for bringing kids in on making decisions, only to be informed rather huffily that life isn’t always going to be interesting (or responsive to kids’ preferences), and students had better learn to deal with that fact, like it or not.

“Like it or not,” in fact, is a favorite phrase of people who think this way. Another one begins “It’s time they learned that . . . ”—the implication being that children should be introduced to frustration and unhappiness without delay. There’s work to be done! Life isn’t supposed to be fun and games! Self-denial—whose adherents generally presume to deny others as well—is closely connected to fear of pleasure, redemption through suffering, and fury at anyone who coddles or indulges children. H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism seems apt here: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Sometimes one suspects that the tacit message from such traditionalists is: “I don’t get everything I want—why should they?” The educator John Holt once remarked that if people really felt that life was “nothing but drudgery, an endless list of dreary duties,” one would hope they might “say, in effect, ‘I have somehow missed the chance to put much joy and meaning into my own life; please educate my children so that they will do better.’”23 Is our primary goal to help kids take delight in learning, or is it to train them to do what they’re told, even if (or especially if) those things are unpleasant?

Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (pp. 113-114). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Regardless of the experiences that might be found among certain individuals, though, to endorse BGUTI is a way of saying to a child, “Your objections don’t count. Your unhappiness doesn’t matter. Suck it up.” (This attitude is made strikingly explicit with posters and buttons that feature a diagonal red slash through the word whining.)24 People who adopt this perspective are usually on top, issuing directives, not on the bottom being directed. “Learn to live with it because there’s more coming later” can be rationalized as being in the best interests of those on the receiving end, but it may just mean “Do it because I said so.” It functions as a tool to ensure compliance, which has the effect of cementing the power of those offering this advice.

Kohn, Alfie. The Myth of the Spoiled Child (p. 115). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

Some teachers say, “Life is hard and full of insult. We must prepare children to cope with it by giving them a taste of insult in school.” It is true that modern life is often like a rat race. People struggle to be first in line; they push, wrestle, insult, and lie.

Do we want to prepare children for such life? No. On the contrary. We need to tell children that rat races are not good for people. We want school to be not a replica of, but an alternative to, raw reality. Such a school needs teachers with sophisticated sensitivity and effortless empathy.

Haim Ginott

We have normalised violence against Black people in this country. So normal is this violence that instead of fighting a government that enables the creation of such violent and debilitating conditions for a Black child, we want to talk instead about how Black CHILDREN must just work hard, just endure the pain of poverty, the pain of neglect, the pain of being dehumanised, the pain of being second-class citizens in their own country, and they will be fine. We want to measure the strength of Black CHILDREN by how much pain and suffering they can take without breaking. Suffering is normal to us. We even romanticise it. That distinction is only truly meaningful because the student suffered to have it. We applaud our children for surviving a ruthless system as if it is an initiation into being a functional human-being, when in reality, it creates Black adults who spend their entire lives recovering from their childhoods (and often failing).

This violence that defines Black lives in our country is not normal and we must stop normalising it.

Malaika Mahlatsi

Read more about how “coddling” vs. “preparing for the real world” is bad framing on our “Coddle” glossary page.






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