Thursday, July 3, 2008

Justice among Children; The Playground's Social Contract

"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice."

-Charles Dickens

I've been working at a daycamp for many weeks now, and the absolute hardest part of the job, the part that one day had me in tears, is the conflict between my espoused principles and what my job requires. This isn't kill-people-for-money big, but it is be-disempowering-after-years-of-youth-activism big. The crux of the issue is that, in providing a structured environment, it means denying kids options, and there is very little empowering about the structure I have to put in place.

My visceral, at-the-moment reactions to the moral quandary, as phrased in twitter messages, were "Games aren't play - they are ten thousand little justice issues", "The only way to survive my job is to become everything I hated about supervising adults. Asshole is my new job title", and "I'm in the wrong line of work.". It was, as I've mentioned, a trying time (this is at least the third time I've tried to post about it). But I think I'm wrong about most of what I said then, and I've a bit of perspective now to try and make sense of things.

1. "Games aren't play - they are ten thousand little justice issues"
Play, as best I've gathered from a childhood and time spent at three different camps (one as camper, CIT, and counselor; one as camper and CIT; one as just counselor), is a safe context to understand the workings of the world. Some of it is the physical aspects of play - how do I throw the ball, what feats of coordination can i do now? But a lot of it is more than exercise. Games are frameworks, small social arenas with their own special rules, dynamics, and elements of chance. Playing a game, kids understand what behavior is allowed, what isn't, and what of the grey area can be gotten away with. This is why games raise justice issues, and why those issues are so important. If kickball, with a half-dozen rules, isn't fairly enforced, how are rules in society at large supposed to function? If the kid who cheats gets away with it, and the kid who gets hurt causes the end of the game, what does this mean for how to act in the future? Will cheating be encouraged? Will injuries be played down, so as to avoid the negative social consequences of ending a game? Kids may not explicitly express all of these thoughts, but they are going on, and they affect the child in a profound way.

There was a child who thought that physical harm was an appropriate consequence for him to bring on a child who cheated; while obviously it wasn't, it was an epiphany of what justice and fair play meant for that child. Play is 10,000 justice issues, but it should be; it's a relatively same consequence to explore human interaction, and to figure out the limits of acceptability.

"The only way to survive my job is to become everything I hated about supervising adults. Asshole is my new job title".

I'm going to respond to this with a quote by the most classic of moral compasses:
“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” - Niccolo Machiavelli

Not that I want to be feared; that's a terrible thing, and scaring children isn't anything like just or empowering. Still, feared and loved in part constitute respect, and the warning against being only loved is a warning against being a pushover out of kindness. No one wants a pushover; for an obscure historical reference, the first Partition of Poland took place a generation after the Polish nobles collectively removed power from what they felt was an oppressive king. For a more relevant example, look at Reagan vs Carter for an example of stubbornness and uncompromising language triumphing over appeals to diplomacy and negotiation. Those in positions of power, it seems, have an obligation to act in ways that those they have power over will not like. (This is a key component of the argument against even having power structures). A power-structure free world is hard to do, however, and while the institutions I most cherish aim to expand the number of people who hold/exercise power (or consensually surrender it), they don't abolish power structures. Power structures, for lack of a better term, get shit done. And part of that involves receiving criticism for actions taken. This is morally reconcilable with who I am so long as I make sure to hear discontent and dissent, and factor that into future actions. The institution as is doesn't have a large empowerment component, so my turning their input into actions is the only way (that I can see) that I can honor the kids inherent worth and dignity, and a commitment to the democratic process.

"I'm in the wrong line of work."
I don't think I am, not entirely. I don't like the moral quandary, and I don't like the work with children I've had most recently (the daycamp, tutoring in various forms in New Orleans), but there is plenty of work with children that I enjoy (UU Kids Camp, Appel Farm, the Model UN conference Tulane put on for New Orleans High Schoolers). And my passion in life is power dynamics, an interesting set of which I deal with every day at work. That's fascinating stuff, when I get the chance to abstract it later. Direct work with children, and participant involvement in the dynamics I'm studying, may be the wrong thing for me. But that is far from certain, and the opportunity to be an observer in a capacity such as this greatly strengthens what knowledge can be obtained.

It's not perfect, but already I'm bouncing around theories. Without thinking, I've even worked my summer objective (study social contracts) into my general understanding of what my work is. It's not perfect, but it's a doable thing. And for those still wondering about my mental health, I think I'll be okay.

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