When I was 9 years old my mother put me in jail. She did it after my brothers and sisters and I tried our luck at the five finger discount. She came home, told us to get in the car, drove straight to the La Palma Police Station and told us to wait for her as she talked to an officer. Ten minutes later all four of us, my older brother and two sisters and I, were locked in a cell with an exposed toilet and a dirty cot. My mother sternly said, “If you continue to live like a thief, this is where you’ll end up.” She then turned around and left, returning thirty minutes later to four traumatised, yet enlightened children. That was the first and last time I ever stole anything in my life.
I share that story not to indict my parents with charges of cruel and unusual punishment, but rather to show how serious they were about teaching their children a very crucial lesson in life. As a mother and teacher I constantly observe the behaviour of children around me. While living here and experiencing the behaviour of Icelandic children on a daily basis, I see that the respectful fear that was so unforgettably instilled in my mind is lacking. It also disappoints me to see such a deficiency of etiquette and politeness in the way they interact with each other as well as with authority figures. Which leads me to question: what is the reason behind the lack of discipline and etiquette of so many Icelandic children?
The biggest clue I got into answering this complicated question was given to me straight from the horse’s mouth. Last week my students had to give oral presentations on their family structures. As the students shared information on what kinds of things their families could do to improve, about 60% of them said that they wished their parents didn’t work as much and were at home more often. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that in order to raise your child with examples of positive behaviour and courtesy you have to be present in their lives enough for them to see it. One of the most famous verses from the Bible on child-rearing is Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his child, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” What makes this verse so simple and true is that it reaffirms that loving your child involves the act of teaching them how to behave and treat other people in a consistent manner. Although other factors such as peer pressure, TV, music and video games, can easily add to the lack of discipline among Icelandic children, I do believe that the absence of the parental figures in the home is the biggest contributing factor to this collective problem.
Since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the media revels in sensationalising the violent and unpredictable behaviour of American school children. However, it’s usually a few “bad seeds” that are at the centre of all the controversy. When I taught in Brooklyn, New York, for three years I definitely experienced the “bad seed” behaviour, but the majority of my students showed respect for teachers and other authority figures around them. Most kids understand their purpose in attending and excelling in school because the American culture associates this with success and power. When I arrived at my classroom door every morning, my students would line up before I opened my mouth. They knew that they couldn’t enter the classroom unless it was done quietly and in an orderly manner. These were routines that weren’t foreign to them. They had done this since kindergarten. There was a legacy of school behaviours that I didn’t have to teach and I appreciated that.
In my experience I can honestly say that I was surprised certain school behaviours were not already in place when I started teaching here. Students would often put their feet on their desks, would come into the classroom talking loudly and would constantly have to be reminded of their roles as students. I oftentimes get the question, “Why?” and immediately think, “Do you know who you’re talking to?” The interesting thing is that this behaviour is a silent type of rebellion. It’s not always loud and obnoxious, but more stubborn and uncooperative. Although this type of dissonance mixed with an absence of basic manners does not always make for a very enjoyable learning environment, I have to think to myself, if it really does take a village to raise a child, then let me be the first to do my part.