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Balancing Ego & Safety

Not all tutoring is done with books. When my four-year-old student abruptly sprinted for the 4th story window, I sprinted after him. I lunged and grabbed him by his shirt–the child now with half his body outside–and pulled him to safety. We thudded onto the ground of his apartment. I tried my best to cradle him as we landed, but we both hit the floor; I landed on my hip and he landed on his butt. After the shock wore off, he sobbed and complained that his bottom hurt, but the one thing that was for certain was that he had learned his lesson. Normally, I do my job and feel like my students perform better on tests. My students get into the finest kindergartens. Great. I take pride in that. But after this incident, I felt more like a father or an older brother. I felt like I had tutored this child on the real world. I felt more than pride; I felt genuine joy. I felt the circle of life swirling. I saved a kid’s life. At age four, a child will accidentally kill himself if left to his own devices. He’ll fall in the pool or out the window. He’ll stick his tongue in a blender. But we can be more than glorified babysitters. With my physical, quick-thinking action, I showed the pup that the pack leader is here for him. The bruise he felt on his bottom would serve as a small reminder of the near catastrophe that he almost caused for himself. He was grateful for it.

When his mother called the next day, I picked up the phone and after exchanging hellos, she asked about the incident. I told her there was no need to thank me. “Thank you!?,” she cried. “My son has a bump! You’re lucky I don’t sue!” Yes, I am lucky she didn’t sue. She is also lucky that I was quick enough to save her son’s life. I explained to her that the kid was just playing and decided it would be funny to do what he did, and I disciplined him properly. I told her she could look forward to a safer, more aware child. She was appalled. She could not believe that I told her son that he did something wrong. He could do no wrong in her eyes. His decisions were his decisions and we have to respect them. It wasn’t the bump on his bottom that the mother was concerned about; it was the bump on his ego. Someone had told him and physically shown him that he was not perfect.

I lost that job, but regained it after the mother called me a month or so later and told me that her son was begging for my return. Ah, the puppy barked for the pack leader to return. Children crave discipline. Children crave rules and structure. The reason the replacement tutor was not able to get this child reading as well as I had was because the new tutor was not properly balancing discipline and praise–both of which must be given frequently and appropriately.

The world has certainly zagged. We zigged for a long time in what many people, including myself, feel was the wrong direction. We forced men and women into separate boxes. We let bullies bully. We didn’t treat kids like they were special. We didn’t give enough attention. When I say, “we,” I mean the education system and the culture as a whole. But today, we are zagging way too hard in the other direction.

Picture this scene: A momma duck is walking with her baby ducklings in single file across a busy street. One of the cute little duckies falls out of line and starts meandering around. The momma duck does not ignore this and keep walking to the pond. The momma duck quickly and instinctively gets out of line, runs over to the stray duckling, bites it in the face, and forces it back in line. Then, the momma duck returns to the front of the line, as calm as ever, and continues the march to the pond. Sure, that duckling’s bill might be a little sore, and sure all the other ducklings saw this and might chuckle a little bit, but the duckling has learned that he is not the boss of the world. The duckling has learned to follow instructions and is now content, swimming in the pond with his family. The momma duck that says, “well, this isn’t how I would cross the street, but I dare not damage his ego by telling him that his way is the wrong way,” is the momma duck that watches her duckling get smashed by a truck.

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