Back in the early 80's I had a summer job as a door-to-door canvasser for the Oregon State Public Research Interest Group (OSPIRG), a consumer protection lobbying organization in the mold of Ralph Nader. A group of us would be dropped off in a neighborhood right around dinner time with our maps and clipboards and we were to knock on every door with the goal of soliciting $15 memberships. I had mixed feelings about what I was doing. On the one hand, I fully supported the work of the organization. On the other, I was fully aware that my presence on people's doorsteps just as they were sitting down to dinner was, to put it mildly, an annoyance.
I appreciated the people who would firmly say, "No thank you," and send me on my way, but most Oregonians were too polite to interrupt me in my banter, which was a sort of verbal foot in the door designed to not let them get a word in edgewise until I'd gotten to my point, which was to ask them to cut me a check. This was the point that most people would finally get to say something like, "That sounds like important work, but I can't afford it" or "I'll need to do more research," which I knew were attempts to say, "No." But without the actual word "no" I'd been taught to press forward because these people, according to the man who had trained me, were showing that their "sales resistance" was wavering.
"Sales resistance" is something we've all developed to a greater or lesser extent. Most of us don't like being "sold," especially when we're just going about our business, like sitting down to dinner. I'm actually surprised that more people didn't just slam the door in my face back in my door-to-door days. I know that I feel accosted when targeted by those street corner versions of myself younger self who spring up around downtown Seattle, trying to persuade me to support this or that cause. It's intrusive, and on those rare occasions when I've engage with one of them, their banter strikes me as insincere and manipulative. In other words, it's not a genuine interaction, but rather one in which I'm cast as a player in someone else's agenda.
It's a dynamic that plays itself out in classrooms wherever educators place their agenda ahead of their relationship with the children in front of them. Most of us know that many children have their own version of sales resistance when confronted by adults with an agenda. They are the ones who, in their own way, say, "No thank you," and close the door in your face. These are the ones we tend to label as unmotivated or defiant, the kids who simply refuse to do the worksheets or sing along during circle time. They have other things to be doing. Others are more polite. Yesterday, in our Play First Summit Facebook group a teacher shared the story of a boy who kept saying, "Turn the page," as she read a storybook to the group. She took it as a sign of his enthusiasm for the story until she got to the end when he said, "Finally! Now we can go play!"
As a door-to-door salesman, I made my money on two kinds of people: those who genuinely supported OSPIRG's mission and those who simply didn't have enough sales resistance to say "No." From the former, I obviously accepted their money gladly, but the later made me sick to my stomach and are the reason I didn't last the summer in that job. These are the children I worry about the most, the ones who have been worn down by the persistence the salesperson, who quietly go along, perhaps not shining, but not making trouble.
Anyone who reads here often knows that I believe that school should be a place where children follow their own agendas and that adult agendas, if they have a place at all, should be secondary to those of the children. It's why I'm opposed to the kind of top-down, data-driven curricula I see out there, where teachers must march children through predetermined material. It's just a big sales job, placing children in the role of those poor people who I interrupted at dinnertime. I'm proud of the hundreds of children I've sent into the world with a keen ear for BS, who know that their own agenda is important, and who have a healthy ability to resist a sales pitch.
Day four of The Play First Summit is upon us. It's still not too late to join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.