Moving on from Maslow

The first and second parts of this series of blogs explored the pyramid diagram and critiqued the use of his theory to devise behaviour management strategies.

I have written and rewritten the opening of this post three times now. I went for the let’s go point by point through the criticisms. Then I went full-on progressives know shit about child abuse angle. Then I thought of just sticking some diagrams in to tell the story. None of those felt right, though. I don’t want to have a go at anyone because even those progressives who tout ideas I disagree with are not doing so because they are bad people or because they are trying to cause harm in this situation.

Changing is hard for a lot of people; it can be hard on occasions even for people who cope with it well on the whole. Each new experience can be met with varying levels of courage, resistance or hopelessness.

So here are the things that I think are problematic about the adoption of Maslowesque beliefs.

All the needs that Maslow mentions are real, the idea that we are cut off from some as a result of deficiencies is something that has come less from Maslow as from others. But given how much of the received wisdom in education is a game of Chinese Whispers, one can see how it has morphed into any deficiency at a lower level means higher levels needs are absent.

Thus, we have the school of thought that says if a child’s home circumstances involve neglect or abuse we need to meet their lower order needs first – such as food and self-esteem before we can expect them to cope with schools rules based on values and ideas of right/wrong. It’s not their fault they can’t meet the expectations and that we need to accommodate their behaviour as a result.This so often turns into constantly shifting boundaries to avoid ‘punishing’ the child by enforcing consequences for rule breaking. Even though this is at odds with the fact that all children need boundaries to feel secure, it is seen humane and caring to act in this manner.

There is no evidence of this. In fact,  I would argue the exact opposite. We are products of our experiences and some of those raise our consciousness and awareness. If anything, children who live in a family where domestic violence is the norm, are being confronted with moral issues and dilemmas repeatedly. They are shielded from explanations of what they are seeing and understanding their experiences, their feelings which are related to these and the ability to come to terms with it. Children who have experienced intense physical abuse are confronted with the real possibility of death during that experience. Who doesn’t experience confronting one’s own morality at a spiritual level? What evidence is there that young children don’t? The only explanation I have been presented with repeatedly is the blessed pyramid.

I find it bizarre that the very people who talk about dealing with children in a ‘holistic’ manner ignore these needs in a child so willingly.

If I am honest, I think they do so because they don’t know how to help. It’s easier to feed a child when they are hungry, cuddle them if they seem upset, placate them if they are angry, make excuses for poor behaviour and deliver discrete but meaningless self-esteem lessons. Having pushed for children to see counsellors, I have been disappointed how little impact they have on the children referred. It seems teachers are not the only one to take Maslow’s hierarchy as the ‘TRUTH’ and act accordingly.

Let’s get this straight:

  • Being an adult who cares does not mean that you know automatically what is needed by a child.
  • Growing up in a positive home environment is not immunity against entering abusive relationships. I will come to this in further posts examining the cycle of abuse, something we are not trained to know or understand.
  • Comparing a loving home and one that is chaotic, and trying to make up for the gap between them is not the answer. If it were, it would work, there would be no need for excuses.
  • Compensating children for their negative experiences with positives ones is a trivial exercise unless the negative experiences are explained and the effects acknowledged and dealt with. The problems that are causing the confusion, aggression, sadness and loss are all there. As teachers, you can’t change this by changing your behaviour because it isn’t your behaviour causing the major problems in the first place.

There is one incident from my childhood which stands as an indicator of how wrong assumptions made by well-meaning adults can be:

One of the things that happened when the tension between my parents got very intense is that family members and friends of my parents would try to intervene and mediate to help them. This would involve them meeting  in what we called the ‘front room’ – the nicely furnished room for guests while we, my brothers and I,  would be in the living room (that we used daily). We could hear the muffled agonising of our parents, the angry shouts, attempts to calm, etc.

On one occasion, my father stormed out of the ‘meeting’ that was being held, shouted he was off to pack his bags and leave as he had had enough. The three of us looked at each other with utter relief. Finally, there was to be an end to constant cycle of tension, aggression and uneasy compromises. I was 7/8 and my brothers were a year and two years older respectively. We were so pleased and discussed what it would mean but in the end, it was clear that it would mean some level of peace at home, which we desperately craved.

Only half an hour later this hope was snuffed out completely. One of my parents friends came in and told us not to worry because they had sorted it and dad would be staying after all. I still remember the look on my brothers faces which would have mirrored my own. We had come so close to an end to the daily misery only to be plunged back in with no end in sight. It was one of the most dispiriting events of my childhood.

But, you see, the friends and family were convinced they knew what we wanted and needed and misunderstood our unhappy faces. They thought it was because he had said he was leaving and we were still unsure. So they ‘reassured’ us some more that he would be staying. When that didn’t produce any happy response, they brought my dad in to say it, as a final reassuring measure. Then they left.

Their assumptions were understandable, based on cultural norms and what they believed was best for the child. But they didn’t understand what it was like to live in that environment day after day. The toll took on us and how it made us feel. As we were to tell mum many times, we would have supported her if she had wanted to get divorced but what held her there wasn’t us but cultural expectations, co-dependency and immaturity. Those who were supporting her were subject to the same and had normalised unhelpful attitudes and beliefs.

Those who advocate excuses need to remind themselves that they are not neutral. Being able to care for and love a child does not mean that you are not subject to:

  • cultural and societal norms
  • received wisdoms
  • unquestioned assumptions
  • narratives told from particular perspectives
  • prejudiced ideas and beliefs

They also need to stop pretending that they are not affected by:

  • unhealthy beliefs about relationships
  • their emotional needs
  • incomplete understanding of the home lives of the children they are trying to help
  • emotional immaturity
  • lack of knowledge and understanding of the emotional, moral and spiritual effects of living in an abusive environment
  • an underlying perfectionism which sees children growing up in these environments as perpetual victims because of the ‘damage’ done by childhood
  • an inability to accept that one is wrong or has made mistakes
  • an inability to effectively evaluate the impact of interventions
  • caring more about virtue signalling
  • wanting to appear superior to others
  • wanting social approval by acting and behaving in a particular way

In the next few weeks, I am hoping to collate more information from the research out there to see what we really know about the lives of children from abusive homes and why so many of the interventions in place fail to improve the behaviour of children in our classes. In addition, I will examine the conformity of the ‘excuses’ model.

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