Keynote speech at conference, "Positive Discipline," sponsored by North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute, North Carolina Pediatrics Society, North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children, McCrandall and Associates, August 23, 1993, Raleigh, North Carolina.
I am honored that you have asked me to speak on this occasion. The effort to educate parents, voters and child professionals, especially teachers, of the value of positive discipline, is an effort critical to the future of North Carolina. The Children First movement across this nation seeks to inform decision-makers of the need to place the needs of children at the front of any agenda, political, economic or social. To many people, children are not important enough to be placed first. To the politician, for example, a child may not be critical because a child does not vote, does not contribute funds to political campaigns, wields no real power in any political sense. Children are the easiest segment of our population to ignore. Any politician will tell you, children do not bite, so worry not about how they are treated.
I am the national spokesman for the Coalition for America's Children, an organization representing almost three hundred national and state organizations. We at the Coalition are proud to have the North Carolina Advocacy Institute as one of our members. One of the goals of the Coalition is to inform politicians of the importance of children, to insist on their support of children's needs and to inform the electorate of the positions taken by office-seekers and the record of office-holders. Perhaps children don't vote but the forty million members of organizations represented in the Coalition do vote and are ready to vote-in-proxy for or against politicians on children's issues.
Let me explain the importance of children with a statistic. Children represent thirty per cent of North Carolina's population, but children represent one-hundred per cent of North Carolina's future. The future of this state is with us today, that future is alive in the minds and hearts and stomachs of children living with us now. How we nurture and develop those minds, how we place kindness and love in those hearts, how we feed those stomachs, will determine the sort of society existing in North Carolina in the next millennium. The children in early-childhood programs today will reach their majority in a dozen years, in 2005, 2006, 2007. The new millennium, the new world is upon us. It is up to us to assure that that new world will be what we want it to be.
Many people are shocked by the violence of our society, the drugs, the crime. Others are discouraged by the failure of many schools to educate our children well enough to take their place in the modern world. Illiteracy is shocking. Are we going to compete with the European Market, the Asian Rim, our hemisphere neighbors with a work-force deficient in the most basic skills? Will America design color-coded assembly lines because our workers lack the skills to read and to calculate? Where do our good citizens think these conditions originate? They originate, my friends, in early childhood.
The former United States Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, points out that a teacher has students for a few hours a day, much of the time attending to administrative work to satisfy the bureaucracy. The child is then returned to his or her environment, which, for about forty per cent of our children, means an environment in which they are at considerable risk. Lamar says that without broader resources, a teacher faces an almost impossible task. Consider the child who is abused by parents. Not many, you say? The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, of which I am a director, the North Carolina Chapter is also a supporting agency of the Institute, the National Committee has issued statistics indicating that almost two million children are abused in this nation each year. I, personally, consider that figure to be low, low because it is virtually impossible to measure fully the emotional abuse of children. For many parents, emotional abuse is a style of parenting, one probably passed on by their parents. "Oh, you are such a dumb kid. A "B"! Why I never got anything less than an "A". I'm ashamed of you. Do me a favor. Get out of my sight. I don't like you. You have misbehaved again. You are more trouble than you are worth. We're sorry we ever had you. To think of all the trouble you have put us to. Go away. I don't like you." You have all heard those many words. Many of our children hear those words again and again, from toddler stage on. By the time such a child reaches kindergarten any self-esteem has been destroyed. The most important person in this world--the parent--has told that child she is of no value. Such a child can have a significant intelligence but will be unable to learn. A teacher is faced with an impossible task in trying to educate such a child, to undo the emotional damage inflicted by the parent.
Emotional abuse of children is but one of many conditions which inhibit the ability of a child to learn, the ability of a teacher to educate. The many other conditions endured by many American children is a litany of despair. We are the wealthiest nation on earth but over twenty per cent, one in five, of our children lives below the poverty line. We are the only modern industrial nation to have made children its principal underclass. The Food Research Center tells us that six million American children experience significant hunger each month. Hunger, in this land of fruited plain. So many of our pre-school children are not properly immunized against childhood diseases, that measles, diphtheria and whooping cough are in epidemic proportions in some populations. We are talking about diseases that were conquered by science several generations ago. Our failure to immunize is not a medical failure, it is a political and social failure. The federal government is now going to buy up the vaccine and make it available to all children in need. This is good, but this is not enough. For many parents, education is needed. For many more, particularly single parents, the problem' is access. The vaccine may be free but the need to take half a day off from her minimum wage job to get the child to the vaccine, still makes it expensive.
Many of our children have no relationship with a health professional. Almost fifty per cent of America's population with no health insurance are children. We know the best medicine is preventive medicine, but we fail to reach millions of the prime candidates for preventive medicine, our children.
There are probably a quarter million children in the homeless population in this wealthy nation. They may live in shelters with their parent or parents. They may call the family car, home, and you can be sure it's not a Mercedes. Some children live in cardboard boxes, for most children a delightful game, for these children, critical shelter.
The litany goes on and on. We, simply put, do not treat many of our children very well. Who cares? If a mother is an addict, who cares? We ought to care because all of us in society pay the very high price of her failures. If a parent is an abuser of his/her children, who cares? We all ought to care, because we pick up the tab when that child becomes an adult illiterate, a substance abuser, a criminal. If a mother remains on welfare, trapped there, who cares? The people who pay for the cost of raising that welfare family ought to care; the people who pay for the children in that family who fail to function when grown, ought to care. Our failure to nurture children successfully is very expensive public policy.
I took my car to the service center the other day and, after an inspection, my friend Charlie handed me a list of the needed maintenance. I said, "Charlie, I hadn't planned on spending this much." Charlie smiled back, a smile I've seen before. "O.K.," he said, "'pay me now or pay me much more later." That's the way it is with children. The cost of children's programs, in education, medicine, social services, counseling, are relatively inexpensive, certainly when compared to tanks and planes and warships. The cost of remedial programs, illiteracy, substance abuse, dealing with the criminal aspects of substance abuse, the police, the criminal justice system, prisons, well, now that is costly. Care for children today or pay much, much more later. Good early childhood classrooms are much cheaper than prison cells, the last time I looked.
What has all this to do with positive discipline and corporal punishment in the schools? It is impossible to deal with issues in the classroom unless we deal with the issues facing children outside the classroom. For example, an abused child, emotionally or physically abused by a parent or guardian, is going to be a disciplinary problem in the classroom. Before we physically punish a child for his behavior, we ought to do a little digging to determine the underlying reasons for that behavior. If we do not do that much, that child will remain a disciplinary problem and will be back through the revolving door, again and again. Even the dullest teacher or administrator should know when something is not working.
I live in a rural part of this nation, in the beautiful Green Mountain State of Vermont. I once came upon a fellow beside a barn. He was banging his head against the side of that barn. "What in the world are you doing," I asked. "Plain to see," he responded, contempt for my ignorance, in his voice. "I'm pounding this nail in this loose siding plank. I must have a neat barn." "But," I said, "you can't hammer a nail with your head. It doesn't work." "Maybe so," he said, "but I'll be durned if this nail is going to get the better of me!"
I sometimes think that people approach corporal punishment with that attitude, "It may not be working, but I'll be durned if this kid is going to get the better of me!" Why not abandon this loser, corporal punishment, and try something that works?
Allow me to tell you a story. It begins, "once upon a time," but it is no fairy tale. It is a story that has happened hundreds of thousand of times and continues to occur. Once upon a time there were two boys, pre-adolescents. One was named Josh, the other named James. Josh was a problem in school. Twelve years old, Josh should have been in the sixth grade but he had been left back several times. He was, what his teachers called, a serious problem in discipline. He would not sit still in the classroom, he would not be quiet. He never paid attention and his only consistency was failure. Order was necessary in the classroom, everyone agreed on that, everyone but Josh. The assistant school superintendant saw Josh on a regular basis. Josh spent enough time in that man's office to be tenured. Part of the time in the office was spent on the wrong side of the paddle. The superintendant was basically a kind man. He made Josh feel the sting of the paddle but never did him physical harm. He was careful that Josh did not end up in a hospital emergency room. While he paddled Josh, the superintendant remembered the words of his own grandfather. That boy should get a whupping he'll never forget!" That's what happened, Josh never forgot those whuppings, nor did he forget the whuppings he received from his father at home. Josh was a well-whupped boy and he never forgot. He remembers them to this day, fifteen years later, sitting in his small cell in the state prison.
You see, Josh was well whupped but he never became responsible. You can't beat a child into responsibility. Josh was temporarily obedient after each whupping, but it was only temporary. Josh was soon back in the superintendant's office for another course in discipline. Josh remembers it all too well, dropping out early, trying alcohol and drugs, stealing to support his habit and, finally, the violent episode that brought him to his present home--state prison. Josh learned from those whuppings that violence was considered by the authorities in school as an appropriate method of problem solving. Never, in all his years in school, did anyone attempt to find out what was bugging Josh, what were the underlying causes of his misbehavior. Apparently that was too obvious and too intelligent an approach in the education of Josh.
By the way, Josh is costing the taxpayers 32,000 dollars a year, to say nothing of the cost of his many crime sprees. He never contributed a thing to society. He gets free health care. They made him a partial dental plate last year, because Josh never did take care of himself. He pays no taxes. We pay the taxes. Aren't we a bright people?
The other part of the story is about James. He was in the sixth grade and not doing too well. He was a behavioral problem. James was in a school that used a different approach. The school acted as triage system to identify kids with problems. The social services worker assigned to him found that James, too, was being beaten by his father. The man was desolate over the recent death of his wife, James' mother. Family therapy was made available and in months the situation turned around. Not much more to tell you about James, except that he became a good student, self-motivating, high self-esteem, a responsible human being. James finished college, went to law school, then to work for a fine law firm in Atlanta. After five years with the firm he has been invited to become a partner. He will make 105,000 dollars a year and will work very hard for it. He and his wife pay hefty real estate taxes on their lovely home and together they pay about forty thousand dollars in income taxes. The very small investment that the school made in James in the sixth grade is paying off handsomely. Wasn't that a bright school system?
For many years, those who fought to abolish corporal punishment in the schools were accused of favoring chaos in the classroom. A mid-western legislator asked me at a hearing, "Why don't you believe in classroom discipline?" I told him that my strong belief in classroom discipline, the fostering of a learning climate, was one of the most compelling reasons to oppose corporal punishment in the classroom. It is counterproductive. It does not achieve it's stated goals. It destroys classroom discipline.
The American people smugly think of themselves as the brightest people on earth, we refuse to learn from others. It has been over two-hundred years since a Polish teacher has been forbidden to strike a child. 165 years in the Netherlands. We were pitting brother against brother in the War between the States when corporal punishment was banned in the Italian States. The practice was banned in Belgium, France and Austria in the nineteenth century. It's now seventy-five years since corporal punishment in schools was forbidden in the old Soviet Union. In the last half-century, the practice has been outlawed in China, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Virtually a "who's who" of our cultural heritage has left the cruel practice behind. Why? Because it doesn't work, that's why. Stop hammering your head against the barn nail.
Those of us who oppose corporal punishment in schools and in the home are in the forefront carrying the banner of order, of discipline, of responsibility. There are better ways, methods that work. Being an obedient child is not enough. It's too temporary. A child must be taught to be responsible, to respect others, to respect herself. A child must not merely have our values forced upon him only to abandon them a few years later. A child must understand and respect our values, to internalize our values so they become his/her values. A child must learn that the future lies in her/his actions, to take responsibility for the future. We must develop high self-esteem in our children, to give them the knowledge that they can accomplish, that they can succeed. All this and much more can be achieved through positive discipline, the long-lasting, the life-time discipline.
We believe in positive discipline, in setting limits, in fostering indepedance, allowing children to learn by making mistakes without severe retribution, trying again. We wish to see these methods applied from the earliest years because we know the child experiences the greatest emotional and intellectual growth in the first six years of life. Intellectual growth? Yes. Once we referred to the college years as the years of greatest growth. Now we have come to understand that our greatest intellectual development is in those first six years, the set-up years, I call them. Ancient wisdom seemed to know this long before our fancy studies and research confirmed it. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."
I spoke of Lamar Alexander earlier. Lamar, as many of you know, was also Governor of neighboring Tennessee. Six and a half years ago, Lamar and I founded a company called, Corporate Child Care. The company was designed to supply developmental child care to the employees of American business. We knew the great need for more than the conventional custodial child care, where a child is kept out of harm's way but where no developmentally appropriate program is in place to meet the needs of children at this developmentally critical stage. We now have over thirty developmental centers from Florida to Illinois. I am happy to see the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children and the North Carolina Head Start Association as supporting agencies of the Child Advocacy Institute. It is critical that positive discipline begin in early childhood in our programs. It is never too early to develop responsibility in a child. Positive discipline is an integral part of early childhood developmental programs.
The issues involved in positive discipline in the schools and in the home are of vital social and financial interest to every citizen in North Carolina. "I have no children," you say. "Why should I be concerned?" You should be concerned because you pay for the failures of parents and the failures of teachers. This is not a private issue. This is the most public of issues--the future. You, the North Carolina taxpayer, are paying for the mistakes of the past. Child abuse, corporal punishment, substance abuse, crime, illiteracy, teen pregnancy are all costly failures of our society. Teen pregnancy is a direct result of a break-down in values, our failure to nurture children to internalize our value system. You, the taxpayer, pay for the cost of this. An early-term baby, quite frequent in teen births, can cost over 100,000 dollars in the first twelve months, more if there are developmental problems. You pay for this. Disillusioned kids turn to drugs and alcohol and crime. Feel sorry for them? You can if you want to but one thing is certain; you will pay the cost of police and the courts and the prisons. An illiterate unable to fill out a job application? You pay for the public assistance necessary. Very costly, very costly.
Also read THE TIME IS NOW by Bob Keeshan.
If you are going to pay for all these failures why not step up and be heard, demand success. With positive discipline our parents and our teachers can nurture the future, raise our children to be responsible, caring human beings, raise them to be something quite wonderful, taxpayers!
At the Coalition for America's Children we are fond of a saying with which you may be familiar. It is an African proverb which states the equation simply but with eloquence.
"It takes a village to raise a child."
My good friends, we are the village. Let us set to work to raise the child, the responsible child.
See Bob Keeshan 1927--2004 -- TV friend to children as Captain Kangaroo, Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2004.