Teaching kids to value troublemaking


In the midst of teaching my troublemaking graduate course this semester I came across a children’s book that looked really cool–The Book of Timeouts: A Mostly True History of the World’s Biggest Troublemakers by Deb Lucke. One huge impetus for my work on troublemaking as an ethical and political virtue is to reclaim it for kids (and adults) as something they should do and never stop doing. I want my daughter RJP to be valued for her amazing troublemaking spirit and I want others (her teachers, the shows that she watches, adult figures in her life, the books that she reads, peers) to recognize and encourage that behavior in her. Of course, I want that for my son FWA as well, but I don’t worry as much about him. As a lot of feminist theorizing has revealed, young girls are particularly discouraged from talking back,  speaking out and challenging the rules. To varying degrees, they are often punished more harshly for their improper acts than their male counterparts.

Now, I am not talking about troublemaking as violent, disruptive outbursts in class or Bart Simpson-like pranks that are perpetrated to create chaos and destruction (and to repeatedly shame the already beaten-down Principal Skinner).  Continuing the Simpson analogy, I am talking about the Lisa Simpson version of troublemaking: the critical thinker who refuses to accept her teacher’s lectures as gospel and who is able to cut through the crap and uncover difficult truths about the larger structures that shape her and dictate how she is supposed to behave (I need to return to this image of Lisa Simpson as a virtuous troublemaker in another blog. What I don’t like about her critical thinking-as-troublemaking is how serious she is. She needs to lighten up and find the fun in challenging the system. Personally, I find her to be a little too self-righteous).

But, let’s get back to the subject of this blog entry: The Book of Timeouts. So, as I mentioned above, I was really excited to find out about this book. At last, a children’s book that valued troublemaking and offered a history of how famous historical figures have engaged in troublemaking in valuable ways! The blurb on the back cover seemed to encourage the reader to really think about how troublemaking has been used to make history (and not just in destructive ways): “The next time you get a time out, take this book and read about the most famous and infamous rabble-rousers in history…”.

But, my hopes for the book evaporated as I scanned it. Ahh, where to begin? When I first found this book I had imagined that it would offer a subversive take on history and argue for the importance of being a troublemaker (I know, my expectations for a kid’s book are little unrealistic. But, hey, it could happen). How wrong I was! The introduction starts promisingly enough:

For as long as there have been people, there have been people who were badly behaved, out of line, out of order, ill-mannered, inappropriate, or just plan unwilling to follow the rules.

Preach it sister! Okay, some rules might be important to follow (like red=stop and green=go or look both ways before crossing the street). But, when the rules become rigid roles of how little girls should behave (like “proper,” dainty, pretty and unthinking dolls) or mandates on what it means to be patriotic (not to question motives for entering war) or laws about whose love should be recognized and whose shouldn’t, well, then those rules should be questioned and maybe even broken. In those instances when those damaging rules are forced upon us, we need to behave badly. We need to be out of line or cross the line or eliminate the line. And, to engage in all of this rule breaking, we need to have instructive models for how to do it effectively. We need to be trained in ethically and politically responsible troublemaking practices that allow for social transformation and not just destruction. That do more good than harm.

Now, that’s what I thought this book could do. And, with this opening line, I thought it might. Troublemakers unite! Gather ’round and bear witness to the inspirational successes and failures of your ancestors (umm…where was I? Oh, right). But, no, not in this book. After that awesome opening line, Lucke writes:

Since you’re reading this book perhaps you too have, on occasion, been less than perfect. Maybe you woke up feeling full of yourself and like doing whatever you wanted. You got more and more out of control. Finally someone like your mom noticed and said, “You need a time out!” …If so, you’re not the first to have a time out, you’re not the worst.

And this is where the book goes all wrong for me. I see two big problems with this introduction (I will devote the rest of this entry to the first of these problems and take on the other problem later). By linking little kids’ temper tantrums with adult acts of rebellion, Lucke ends up lumping all forms of troublemaking together in her description. This flattens out the important differences that exist between specific forms of troublemaking and leads to the equating of little Johnny refusing to eat his vegetables or sit quietly at the dinner table with Susan B. Anthony refusing to be denied the right to vote or Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus (Yep, these are examples in the book. Perhaps the only two examples of good troublemaking).

Whaaa? What are kids supposed to make of that connection? Sure, as a mother of two young (3 and 6) kids, I am not interested in encouraging my kids to be crazy hellions who do whatever they want whenever they want. There should be limits to their behavior, but limits not based on what is Proper or Right, but on how their actions affect themselves and others. The best forms of troublemaking are aimed at transforming the world for entire communities and are always done with an awareness of how our actions impact others. Susan B. Anthony didn’t break the rules because she got up on the wrong side of the bed or because she was feeling “full of herself.” She challenged the law that denied her the right to vote because she saw an injustice being done to her and to all other women in the United States. And, Rosa Parks didn’t refuse to sit at the back of the bus because she was out of control. She did it because she was well-trained in non-violent resistance and an active participant in the civil rights movement. And, she did it because she saw an opportunity both to challenge (for herself and for her community) a racist bus policy and to help mobilize a strike against the Montgomery Bus Company.

I want my kids to know the difference between troublemaking that is selfish and not virtuous (the kind that involves going ape-s**t in Target and flinging themselves on the floor) and troublemaking that is aimed at a greater good and/or with others in mind (the kind that involves speaking up for another kid when a teacher or another student says something racist, sexist or heterosexist against that kid). I don’t want a kid’s book that encourages my kids to equate “bad” and punishable behavior with speaking up for themselves.

…And I don’t want a kid’s book that turns all of this “mostly true” history of troublemakers into a cautionary tale of why we should stay in line, follow the rules, and never challenge authority: they always lead to punishment in the form of kid time-outs (in the corner) or, later, adult time-outs (in prison). But, that gets me to the other big problem I have with this book’s introduction. And that will have to wait for another blog entry…

Feistiness and Feminist Ethics

STA has warned me that I need to take a break from the Brady Bunch and I agree. After all, this is not the Brady Bunch blog.

A couple of months ago, I was re-reading a great collection by Claudia Card called Feminist Ethics. In her introductory essay Claudia Card writes about feminist ethics and the virtue of feistiness. She argues that we need to stop being polite (and start getting real…arghh! Curse you MTV’s Real World). We need to cultivate insubordination as a primary practice in our ethical reflections and constructions. We need to be willing to quarrel with others instead of backing down. We need to constantly challenge the ways that ethical frameworks fix us into limited visions of what is proper or improper behavior.

I am intrigued by Card’s suggestions that the virtue that describes all of this rebellious behavior is feistiness. But I wonder, what are the differences between feistiness and troublemaking? Is feistiness to feminist as troublemaking is to queer? When I think of feistiness, my vision is (almost?) always gendered female. Actually, it is very specific: I think of someone I know — a fiery farm girl who has a glimmer in her eye and is always up for an argument. The problem is that I whenever I think of her I also always remember how her feistiness is perpetually kept in check through her limited and conservative roles as mother and wife. Maybe feisty is what happens to troublemaking girls when they grow up? Their seemingly limitless appetite for destruction (someone please stop me!) is tamed as they grow older and more proper and “responsible.” Is this what feistiness is? A muted form of troublemaking? When we (girls) grow up do we trade in trouble for spiritedness?

I want to believe that troublemaking is something that we should never grow out of. We should be able to grow older and wiser, more responsible and accountable and still engage in some fun and serious troublemaking.  And, we should be able to do all of this without having to tone down our rebelliousness so that it fits in the more attractive and desirable form of feistiness (It does seem to me that feistiness is quite often represented not as a threatening or troubling personality trait or type of behavior,  but as a desirable and “sexy” one. For more evidence of this claim, check out the myspace page for this “Feisty” from the Love of Ray J). I wonder what this film, “Tomboys: Feisty Girls and Spirited Women” has to say about all of this? I will have to watch it this summer.

But, wait… Feistiness could be connected to the female/feminine in ways that aren’t completely constrained by masculine norms or traditional feminine roles. I am reminded of this great paper I just read by my friend, KCF, where she talks about (among other things) the femme identity as negotiating and playing with feminine roles not just reinforcing them. Wow. So, could femme feistiness be one specific version of troublemaking? [see this and this for more on the femme identity]. What would troublemaking in this form look like?

A Fistful of Reasons, Part II: The Trouble with Bullies

And the obsession with this episode continues…I am not exaggerating when I say that I could write a book about Fistful of Reasons. Here are just a few things that I love about this episode and why it so compelling for my own work:

  • The focus on reason and its limits
  • The conflict between the “troublemaker” (Buddy Hinton) and the troubled (Peter and Cindy)
  • The performances of (failed) masculinity by Mike, Peter, Buddy, Alice, Cindy and the performances of (failed) femininity by Carol, Alice, Mrs. Hinton
  • The failed possibilities for alliance building between Buddy and Peter

I hope to get to all of these topics in future blogs. But before I do that, I want to write about an issue that seems particularly important in light of the recent accounts of anti-gay bullying suicides: the trouble with bullies. This spring, several kids committed suicide after being taunted, verbally abused, and physically threatened. As many have argued–like Box Turtle Bulletin and Advocate–the cause of these suicides was not just harassment but anti-gay harassment that could have been prevented if the schools that these students had attended had better anti-bullying programs in place (see this for more).

These tragic cases point to the physical, emotional and psychic consequences of bullying and raise the troubling questions: Who is to blame for these suicides and who should be held responsible? What sorts of actions can we take to ensure that these tragedies stop occurring? How have our traditional strategies for dealing with bullies failed to protect our children?

In “A Fistful of Reasons,” the issue of bullying is taken up as Cindy, Peter and their parents (comically) struggle with how to solve the problem of Buddy Hinton and his bullying behavior. Buddy taunts Cindy for lisping (a gay signifier?) and threatens Peter with taunts and physical violence (calling Peter’s masculinity into question?). Here are the different ways that they try to address the problem:

  1. To stop Buddy from teasing Cindy about her lisp, Mike and Carol try to train her to talk properly. They give her a tongue twister book so she can “get over her lisp” and talk just like everybody else. Almost the whole family (Mike, Carol, Alice, Greg, Peter and Bobby) help her with the exercises in the book. At first this method doesn’t work but by the end of the episode Cindy’s lisp has magically disappeared.
  2. To stop Buddy from threatening and taunting Peter, Peter’s brothers Greg and Bobby attempt to shame Peter into fighting Buddy: “If you don’t fight him, everyone’s gonna call you a coward.” (or a sissy or a fag?)
  3. To stop Buddy from teasing Cindy and calling her a baby, Mike and Carol encourage Peter to stand up to Buddy (like a man) not by fighting him but by using “calm, cool, reason.” They reinforce this lesson (especially after it fails for Peter) by attempting to use reason themselves with Buddy’s parents.
  4. After these other methods have failed, Mike gives Peter permission to “defend himself” against Buddy. When Peter admits that he doesn’t know how to fight, Marcia and Alice give him some boxing lessons.
  5. As I discussed in another entry, Peter finally solves the problem by punching Buddy and causing him to lisp. All of the kids laugh at him and he loses his power to bully others.

Continue reading A Fistful of Reasons, Part II: The Trouble with Bullies

A Fistful of Reasons, Part I: The Title

Why did they call this Brady Bunch episode a fistful of reasons? I imagine the writer (Tam Spiva) or the producer (Sherwood Schwartz) thought it was clever. And it is, but not in the way that they probably meant it to be–as a play on words. Calling this episode a fistful of reasons is an insightful way of signifying how reason and violence are often inextricably tied.

In my first entry on this episode I wrote about how the conflict between Peter Brady and Buddy Hinton demonstrated the failure of reason to successfully mediate conflict. Throughout the episode, Peter, Mike, and Carol all attempt to appeal to reason as the way to resolve conflict and to deal with Buddy the bully. Consider Mike Brady’s fatherly advice to Peter about how to handle the Buddy situation:

Fighting isn’t the answer to anything. If it were why the biggest and the strongest would always be right. That doesn’t make any sense does it? Did you try reasoning with Buddy Hinton? Explaining to him why he shouldn’t tease Cindy? Reasoning. Calm, cool reasoning. That’s a lot better than violence. And it’s the only sensible way to settle differences.

Peter, Mike and Carol all try to reason their way out of the conflict: Peter tries to reason with Buddy. Mike tries to reason with Buddy’s dad. And Carol tries to reason with Buddy’s mom. In each case, reason is no match for violence. Peter gets a black eye. Mike gets “escorted” off of Mr. Hinton’s property. Carol barely restrains herself from mixing it up with Mrs. Hinton.
Continue reading A Fistful of Reasons, Part I: The Title

Paying Attention to Troublemaking

There are all sorts of ways to make trouble and in this blog I am interested in giving serious attention to as many of them as I can find or imagine. Here is an image of troublemaking that resonates with some of my own practices.

About 7 years ago I spent a month at my family’s farm in Upper Michigan with my mom. We went hiking a lot, exploring as many different trails as we could find. One day we decided to hike a trail to a waterfall. It was a hidden trail–hard to find and full of ticks. As we neared the end of the path, I noticed that there wasn’t one big stream that rushed over the rocks to create a waterfall, but a number of small streams. The water in the streams was moving fast and you could see how each little stream was eroding the ground that separated it from the others. As I studied the streams, I kept thinking about how they were slowly, patiently and persistently wearing away the ground.

Years later as I developed my own theories about troublemaking (how it works, what it does), I was reminded of that image of the streams and the waterfall. Troublemaking can be intense and provocative. It can anger or alienate us. Troublemakers can challenge us in intense and violent ways. Their methods can be confrontational and immediate. But troublemakers can also be patient and persistent. They can dedicate themselves to always thinking, always challenging, always asking questions. Never stopping. And, through this persistent process, they can unsettle the ground that fixes us in limited understandings of the world.