Yelling at a Child to Stop Yelling is Inappropriate, even in the Inner City

DC school before Brown vs Board of Education, 1942

In college I applied for a job in South Central Los Angeles as an educational coordinator (tutor) I was asked during the interview did I know how to handle kids. I answered, “Of course I do.” I explained that I was going to school to be a teacher and that I would have lesson plans and go over rules and expectations for the tutoring sessions.

The people interviewing me stared at me. They narrowed their eyes and said, “You do understand you’re in South Central and it takes a certain kind of personality to work in South Central?”

As a 19-year-old I was completely naïve as to what they meant, but now over ten years later it’s very clear what they meant. I took that job and though I did a great job tutoring the children and having them follow my rules, they were a bit too loud for the people who had hired me. I hadn’t really gotten hip to the fact that I was hired as “security”, my employers wanted me to be a bit more aggressive, meaning they wanted me to yell at the children.

They wanted me to yell at them when they wanted the children to do something.

The kids would be playing and a person from Beverly Hills would come down the hall and tell me to round the kids up, because they wanted to show them something cool. It was always some random enrichment they wanted to expose the kids to, but when those random things happened they wanted the kids to line up and stop what they were doing immediately. There was no schedule, no consideration for the children’s time, and when I couldn’t get the children to line up immediately it became about them being from the inner city and me being too un-inner city like.

“You’re too soft spoken,” they would say, “You need to be more hard.” Someone even said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you need to be more black.”

I’m a black person and I don’t yell at kids. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t threaten kids. I don’t make empty comments about calling mom, dad, or grandma. I have never done that and I never will, but in the inner city often times there is an expectation that you yell and be “stern” with the children. There is a strong expectation of that if you happen to be black.

There is this idea that in order to get children from the inner city to comply that you must treat those children as if they were dogs. If you go to conferences about the urban child you’ll hear sugar coated versions of that statement over and over again by people over 50 of every race.

Sometimes if a person is white and not from the inner city and they want to show that they have worked in the inner city they put on an urban inner city voice to show they know how to get the right tone to control the kids. Everyone always claps for those kinds of performances.

The problem with this is that people act the way you expect them to act. It is a self fulfilling prophecy. It boggles my mind that while we’re testing 24/7 with the alleged purpose of every child having success in college, we’re treating young children, particularly in the inner city like they are hardened criminals in the best cases and like wild animals in the worst cases.

In various educational setting, the “enrichment” scary after-school programs in particular, there seems to be a harshness in the way people talk to young inner city children. Often times it seems as if staff members view the children as if they were prisoners being ready to be transported to another location any time any transition happens.

I visited a school in a southeast inner city neighborhood in Los Angeles the kindergarten through second grade ate together. I sat in the lunch room and watched the kids line up in complete silence. I saw the kids sit down with their trays in complete silence and begin eating in complete silence. A little kindergartner made the mistake of talking, yes talking not yelling just talking, a man with a megaphone shouted to her to get up, because she was going to come with him. She looked terrified. I was horrified. Was this school or jail?

I remember the most horrifying thing about it was that the staff at this particular school were so proud of the fact that they had terrified compliant seven-year-olds and had taught their students to eat quietly with their heads down like they were in county jail. What kind of social skill is that to teach a seven-year-old? I’m sure at Harvard you can talk during dinner.

It is just as inappropriate to eat lunch in complete silence with your head down as it is to stand on the table and have a food fight.

Districts that have this kind of behavior management style often have intense behavior problems in their junior high schools and high schools. It is very clear to me why this is happening. This kind of behavior management style that works very well with seven-year-olds sets a very weak foundation for fourteen-year-olds.

In the lower grades we should teach children to behave for intrinsic reasons that build community and self respect. When we teach children to behave because if they do not they will get in trouble we’re taking away power from a child. What happens when you’re an inner city child with a troubled home life and detention isn’t scary to you anymore? What happens when you as an inner city child who decides you want your power back? You are going to act in a way that is actually appropriate for a person who has been stomped on and yelled at from birth to nine years old. You’re going to be disrespectful and mean, because that is how you were treated and that is how you were taught to act if you want to get anything done.

This is not just the schools fault there is a disrespect in how people in the inner city are treated by all people. It is as if poverty isn’t a socio-economic condition, but some kind of disease you catch from misbehaving or some kind of twisted sadistic westernized view of Karma.

But in the schools I think society has the best chance of at least instilling in children the value of appropriate behavior owing to its benefits to the community. The idea that you have to yell at inner city children or be more stern with them is an outdated idea that creates inappropriate behavior later in life.

~by Mrs F

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