Starting Point: Not Your Mama’s Discipline

Love children for their curiosity and precociousness, and you’ll create more self-reliant, considerate adults.


When I was young, my parents lectured me about “staying out of grown folks’ business.” I was constantly told I was “five going on 25.” Whatever my natural age, my soul was always going on 20 years older than that.

And this wasn’t necessarily a compliment.

If anything, this was a warning. This was my parents’ passive aggressive way of asking me to stay a child—a thoughtless, carefree and, above all, opinion-free child.

I was anything but those things.

I was outspoken as a child. I found pure joy in correcting adults’ grammar and offering my young opinion on life issues. Of course I knew that being told I was “five going on 25” was my parents’ way of politely saying, “Honey, it’s time for you to close your mouth and play with your dolls.” That couldn’t hold me back, though.

I treated my parents’ house as my own. I never told friends they needed consent before coming over for a play date. I made it clear the neighborhood kids could not play in my front yard or on my swing set without my approval. My parents reminded me, “You don’t pay for anything. You’re a child.” Yet to me, showing responsibility always made sense.

Now, I am actually 25 (going on 45!). The tables have turned. I’m the adult, and the kids look at me that way.

In college, I had started teaching piano lessons, and since then I’ve been teaching kids for years. Today, I’m tasked with helping build the string music department at a small private school in Miami, Florida. Parents enroll their children in my school as a way for these kids to grow creatively, individually and as team players. Every day, dozens of students test my willpower to discipline. I watch how they respond, to what they respond best, and how they grow afterward. So here’s my logic, based on what I’ve learned being the real teacher: Love children for their curiosity and precociousness, and you’ll create more self-reliant, considerate adults.

Six Going on 26: sermons instead of conversation

I was six (going on 26). Everyone had just sung me “Happy Birthday,” and my favorite TV show was about to start. This was In the House, with LL Cool J and the actor who played Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Everyone gathered around the TV with cake and ice cream.

Ten minutes into the show, my cousin jumped up, shut off the TV, and said she and my other cousins weren’t allowed to watch In the House.

You have to understand: My uncle was the pastor of our church. My cousins were the model family of home-schooled children in the ’90s. I had known they weren’t allowed to watch the show, of course. But this was my birthday, it was my house and that was my favorite TV show.

One of us could have simply left the room and started a new game. Instead, my cousin and I went back and forth turning on and off the TV. We were like Timon and Pumbaa having a bug debate in The Lion King.

“Slimy bugs!”

“Crunch bugs!”

You get the idea. Gosh, I love the ’90s.

Several rounds later, my mom came downstairs and asked what was going on. I told her the summary.

“She doesn’t even live here, and it’s my birthday,” I argued. It felt so logical any jury would have to take my side.

My mom was never a juror. Instead of taking my side, she gave me a sermon about playing fair. She reminded me this was her house. She could and would end the party if I couldn’t get along with our guests.

I understood being fair. Yet I remained confused about how she had dismantled my impeccable logic. Even at age six, I understood the basics: This was my birthday. This was my house. I had home court advantage. It felt like a universal rule.

And it is, of course. Unless you are a child.

25 Going on 45: testing conviction

I try to not make the same mistakes I made as a kid.

Recently, I was lounging with two of my middle-school students before their after-school lesson. We were catching up on all the gossip middle-school girls need: what their weekend plans were, boys, the fear of high school and (my favorite!) trying desperately to get the secret recipe to the cookies I’d made that day.

During the conversation, I checked my phone. It’s a terrible, unfortunate habit, I know. It comes from being an introvert. Checking my phone is my default in social settings. However, one of my students quickly brought me back to the physical world.

“Oh, you’re on your phone?” she said, pausing her story. “I’ll wait.”

She had used the same tone I used when I needed to get her peers’ attention in class. She remained stoic and serious (which thankfully helped keep from cracking a smile). Because all I could do in the end was laugh. I tell my students all the time to be respectful and present. Now, I wasn’t doing either.

Part of me wanted to say, “I’m an adult. I have important things to attend to.” And, “I’ve been multitasking longer than you’ve been alive.” But I didn’t. I didn’t want to use my adult status as an excuse for my behavior.

So I smiled. I put down my phone. I gave my student — and in this moment, in a sense, my teacher — my full attention.

I also jokingly asked her if she’d been waiting to use one of my lines against me.

Like any intelligent person she said, “Yes!”

Conviction comes like the wind, unexpected and uncomfortable at times, but mostly refreshing.

A Teacher of Little Teachers

As an educator, I encourage my students to question everything. I tell them to hold people, both authorities and peers, accountable. I didn’t have that luxury of open questioning as a child. I resented the contradictions I saw in adults as a result. The same person telling me to “mind your manners” would get into a car and explode with road rage. Mom would yell my full name, “LySaundra Janeé Campbell!”, if I ignored her while I was on the phone. Yet if I interrupted Mom while she talked with a friend, she would declare World War III. There was way to much of an emphasis on “do as I say, not as I do.” It made zero sense to me. The cliché may be popular, but it’s hypocritical and shies away from placing responsibility on the sayer. It’s no way to bring up the next generation.

So I make it my goal not to teach my students contradictions.

Children still need discipline. We need to demonstrate consistency, creativity and self-confidence. Being respectful is imperative. We do not become adults and suddenly earn the right to disregard others. I teach my students common courtesy, and then I show them what that looks like.

My students are individuals. They are not drones. We cannot pass them carelessly, through the education system as if they are pieces in a factory. I see this perhaps the best, because I work in music education.

In string ensembles, my students are far from factory produced. They are individuals coming together as a team. My first- and second-chair violins, violas, cellos and basses need to have their own identities. Each has a different timbre, tone and sound. Yet whatever the piece may be, each instrument must work together to make a beautiful piece come alive. That never changes, whether you’re a child or adult musician, whether you play in a fourth-grade music class or an internationally acclaimed philharmonic symphony.

An Open Environment to Grow 

The precocious children call me out on my hypocrisy when I show some. I measure my success, the point I know I’ve done my job correctly, when my students are able to do this. I am a successful teacher when my students show signs of having begun to develop into explorers and seekers. They demonstrate curiosity and inquisitiveness, and they are riveting to watch as they blossom into anyone but conformists.

Today, my classroom is a shared, open environment. As a child, I had my swing set, my house and my TV shows. But they were not really mine. They were not construed as shared with me.

Today, by contrast, my students have their classroom, which is their home away from home where they can explore their ideas, their feelings, and their dreams. They have the freedom to challenge the world around them.

And me? I have a bit more wisdom than I did when I was a child. But I’ll heed the lessons any eight-year-old (going on 28) wants to show me over what an adult tries to tell me any day.



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