Sunday, March 11, 2012

Schools, Suicides and Stockholm Syndrome

Without fail, when I talk or post about the public school system and compulsory education among people I know who have children in the system or who plan on putting their children into the system those people tell me, "Our school is different/better/good," "I went to public school and I turned out fine," "What you are saying is really hurtful to teachers and the people who work so hard to make schools a wonderful place," "My kid loves school."

And there are times when I doubt myself and all that I know to be true about education, learning, schools and society. I may for a moment wonder if perhaps I am part of the lunatic fringe or if I drank one too many cups of the Kool-aid.  But then I look at my children, our life before we entered the school system and the detrimental affects of seven years in the system. I remember how much fun we all had together before school convinced my children that they should only be friends with kids in their grade, who were their exact age. I remember how easy it was for all of us to learn together, to explore all kinds of interests with books from the library and adventures into the world. And I see my children shy away from things because they are "educational," and how they are still figuring out what exactly it is that they love to do, something that was never an issue before school entered their lives. As a family we are still finding our footing in our relationships with each other and with learning after three years out of the system.

This week there was another teen suicide in our community. The girl had been bullied for two years. As I read further articles I found that there have been at least seven suicides locally, all teens in middle school and high school, in the past year. Those are the seven we will hear about, the kids who died, but there are so many more kids in crisis. Statistics and estimates vary but there are at least 11 attempted suicides for every one reported suicide.

As the parent of a girl who was bullied in middle school I know how difficult the situation can be. Will contacting the school make it better or worse? How do you support your child when the people they are required to spend hours with every day are making them miserable? How do you deal with girl bullies, who often use non-physical methods of torment which are much less obvious but no more less destructive than they physical abuse favored by boys? The psychology of bullying is complex and the roots are found in the families, schools and society that have caused children to feel that having power over someone else, making someone feel small and helpless, singling people out because they are different and punishing them for not conforming makes you feel strong and important and gives you power in a world where you ultimately have very little control. Because those who bully have usually been bullied, by other kids maybe but most likely by the adults in their lives. And as with most kids they have grown up with very little control over how they spend their days, who they spend them with, what they eat, when they sleep, when they stand up, sit down, talk and even when they can use the bathroom. These kids have been belittled, demeaned, disrespected and neglected by the very parents and schools that say that bullying must stop. And this probably confirms that I am a part of the lunatic fringe but I contend that the bullying starts at the top, you know, with the government. No child left behind really means no child shall not conform, and every school district must do whatever it takes to ensure conformity.

And if you doubt that teachers can be bullies let me introduce you to my daughter's 1st grade teacher who forced her six and seven year old students to walk silently in a single file line with their arms crossed on their chests where ever they went. If she deemed their walking was not up to her expectations she would routinely make them walk the distance again. And one day when those little children, most of them six years old at the time, failed to line up quickly and quietly for library she made them practice standing still and silent in a line for 50 minutes. And when those very young children started to cry or even went so far as to throw themselves to the ground in desperation she said they were being defiant. She told me this with no guilt or shame or acknowledgement that she might have been pushing things a little too far. Actually she sounded annoyed that those students dare to defy her by "throwing fits." I talked to another mother of a student in the class and she had no idea that it had ever happened. She also didn't know that her son spent many hours sitting alone in the hall because he was academically inclined and often got bored during class and his inability to sit still and be quiet made him a target for the teacher's wrath. This could happen to your child and you would never know, kids often don't report their teacher's bullying because they worry their parents will come down on them for misbehaving in class, or as they grow older because they have come to accept that they have no power in the classroom.

And if you have read everything I've written so far and you still think I've had too much Kool-aid, that your school is different, that your child loves school, that your experience is or was different then I have two words for you: Stockholm syndrome.

"In psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness." Thank you Wikipedia. 

Go ahead, defend your captors who have become the captors of your children. It's understandable, really it is. You have grown up in a society that tells you from birth that you have to go to school. As a parent you have been primed since your child's birth or before with materials on Kindergarten preparedness and the importance of development from birth to age five, the importance being that you need to pack as much as possible into the formative years so your child won't already be behind when they enter school. You have been encouraged to put your child in daycare, preschool and then kindergarten. You have read books to your child about the wonders of kindergarten and you and every other adult in their lives has primed your child's pump with worlds such as, "Wow! Now you're 5 and in the fall you get to go to Kindergarten with the big kids!" And maybe that first year really is great, sometimes it is, but as the years stretch from K to 12 the magic wears thin. At that point it doesn't matter, the system has you and your kids. You believe that your kid has to do the homework the teacher assigns even if you know it's too hard or too easy or totally irrelevant, you cave to the principal's authority when she suggests your child needs medication to help him sit still and be quiet, you let the school district tell you what time to get up in the morning, what your kids can wear that day, and even if they should stay home and play in the snow or get on the bus as usual. You blindly trust the standardized curriculum and the classes required for graduation. You become the schools enforcer of homework, attendance and dress code. You accept that teens rebel because that's what teens do, never realizing that most of the angry words and hurt feelings that spring up between you and your child are grounded in the requirements of the school district. You support the schools agenda often to the detriment of the things your child passionately loves to do. Video games are a waste of time, drawing manga will never pay the bills, and sports are only important if you are good enough to score a scholarship in the future. You and the district make sure your child knows what's really important: math and science and passing the tests.

And even when children are so desperate that they are suicidal, parents and child still see school as the answer. Even then parents fail to put their foot down, reclaim their child's life and bring their child home. Why? Because they can't see any other way. Even when their children's lives are at risk they still identify with the captors, they still believe in the system because after a life time, 30 or more years, of being told that school is sacred they truly believe that without school their child will have no future. But here's the truth: when a child commits suicide they have no future. When a child is freed from the school system not only do they have a future, but their future expands and brightens, as do their chances of growing up to be a happy, fulfilled, functional adult.


  1. Heck, if you're drinking Kool-aid, then I say, pass it on over, my friend!

  2. Thanks for being so articulate about this! Amazing how long it took me to let go of the system- first, to remove my son from a system that failed him and second, to let go and let him OWN his life. The irony is that I still hadn't owned MY own life yet- years of believing what others had told me was important, starting in school, of course. Great article!

  3. Love this. So well stated!

  4. Yep, this is exactly why I took my boy out of school...all of these reasons...great post.

  5. Very well written. Are you in Oregon by chance?

  6. I'm just over the border in Washington :)

  7. "Go ahead, defend your captors who have become the captors of your children." First of all, I agree with a lot of what you have said- the system isn't working how it should. It does have broken people in it. It does have "bully" teachers. It does fail to meet the diverse needs of the swelling populations and thinning budgets. But not all public school system educators are "Captors" whose sole purpose is to destroy children. Some of us are actively in the system to attempt to set it right. Please don't blanket an entire system with complete and utter hopelessness--- some of us are still on the front lines, trying to turn the tide.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this comment.

  8. When you write blogs you sometimes generalize things to make a point, if you try and cover every "yes, but..." you would have to write a book every time or give up writing all together.

    I volunteered extensively in the school system for 6 years. I know quite a few teachers who are doing their best to work miracles within a broken system. Some of then are close friends. I admire their desire to keep trying to make things better against all odds, but I also know that they often burn out or end up leaving the system.

    I am aware that teachers are almost as much captives as the children. However, teachers are also enforcers of the system, they have to be to keep their jobs. (But for them it is a job and a choice to stay or leave, children do not have that choice.) I've seen some of the best teachers resort to negative means of controlling children or abuse their power in big and small ways, it's hard to be in the system and not perpetuate it.

    Ultimately I meant that the system is the captor, not the teachers individually.

  9. I've just discovered your blog when I saw your post at google plus. I've subscribe and read a few of your posts.

    I want to share that my girls are young, but recently, a mom and friend who has two teen boys, told me about her hardships because they are rebellious, when one of them loved to read, now he hates it, when the other loved math, now he does not like to have to show how he solve the problems... they are unmotivated young fine boys.

    I suggested to my friend who is a ps teacher like I was for 6 years, to get them out of school... but you see, the Stockholm syndrome must be ingrained. And I don't mean this sarcastically, she is a wonderful person, but she told me it won't work, because they won't respond to her as a teacher. I stopped there. That's the point. They don't need a ps teacher at home if you were to get them out of the system.

    I'm glad I found your blog. Thanks for letting me share.

  10. Absolutely agree with this, very well put.

  11. Interesting thoughts re: the system. I do understand the idea of being "burnt out" by it all- I've seen it, too. But I also believe in trying to fix it- or at least what small part I can. I guess we each have to navigate this world with our children how we can and pray we make sound decisions on their behalf.

  12. School...

    ...possibly the most depressing institution ever invented.

  13. I loved your article but how as a parent that barely made it through school how can I take my kids out and teach them the subjects that they need. I have a year 1 and an year 2 (autistic) and a year 5 it worries me that I will hold them back. That is the only reason I keep them in school I hate it when they come home upset over what has happened that day.

    1. That's a great question. <3

      I'd consider why you struggled in school. There are a lot of reasons people fail in school that in no way indicate that they would be unable to support their children in learning. It could be that school wasn't a good fit for how your mind works and how you learn. It could be that you had a school or adults in your life who failed you in ways that hindered your natural abilities to learn. And it may be that school was trying to teach you things that weren't relevant to you life so you just weren't interested. Of course, there are many other possibilities.

      Secondly, I don't know where you are located, so I don't know what's available to you or what is required to home school, however, I'd suggest you look in your community for other educational opportunities. There are many more options, including online, independent/charter schools, educational co-ops, and curriculum you purchase.

      Finally, you don't have to know everything. You don't even have to know more than your kids! My kids have taught me many things, but also, there are things they have learned that I haven't. The challenge isn't in knowing everything, it's in finding the resources, or supporting your kids in finding the resources, which may take the form of other people or Google or whatever matches what they want to learn.

      :) I encourage you to explore the different home school and independent learning options.