What got me excited about last week’s Review article about the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program is that it seems to be spreading to the whole community. To explain why, I’ll start with a frustration. Several years ago I was at a talent show at the middle school. While some of their classmates were performing, other students in the audience were not only not paying attention, they were talking and joking among themselves. Part of me wanted to go up to those disrespectful kids and tell them to be quiet, until I noticed that some of their parents were doing the same thing.
It was then that my white, bleeding heart, liberal, over-sensitive-to-other-cultures mind said to myself, “Now, settle down, Tom. You grew up in a German and Polish town in Wisconsin where the culture wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior, but you’re not in Manitowoc anymore, so be a little more sensitive of diversity.”
So I didn’t say anything to the kids or the parents. I didn’t want to offend people from another culture. The problem with that strategy was that my irritation level kept rising. So I was stuck. I didn’t like what I saw happening, but I felt reluctant to intervene because I believed that I and those other folks were not on the same cultural page. So, what right did I have to say they were wrong and I was right?
That’s our problem. On the one hand, we picture ourselves as being tolerant people. “Live and let live,” we say. On the other hand, the price we pay is hesitancy if not paralysis to actively be the village needed to raise the child.
You see, in that small town in which I grew up, everyone did think alike, more or less. If one of our neighbors observed me doing something especially good or especially bad, I knew that they would be on the phone within five minutes telling my parents about what I had done. They had this confidence that their values were the same as my parents, that the whole community had a consensus about what was right and what was wrong.
We don’t have that confidence anymore. Diversity is so overwhelming – generational, cultural, racial, religious, gender, socio economic – that we more often than not retreat into a live and let live way of leaning into the world. That may work if your neighbors are relatively well behaved – ie they conform to your standards – but it sure doesn’t work if you’re trying to run a school where the children come from families which view what is right and wrong differently.
What gets me excited about PBIS is that to my memory this is the first time that our village is trying to come up with any kind of consensus regarding what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Are we there yet? No, we’re not even out of the driveway, but at least we’ve turned on the engine.
I think it’s fine to emphasize positive behavior, but we have to know what acceptable behavior is before we can be positive about it. That’s why I’d love to see the process described in last week’s article not only continue but also include an intentional attempt to create some kind of community consensus about just what acceptable behavior is and what it is not.
Then, the next time I get irritated at the behavior I observe at the middle school or Summerfest or the pool in the summer, I will know when to keep my opinions to myself and when to say with confidence, “The language you just used is not acceptable, young man.” And when I see behavior that makes me smile, I can approach the young lady and say, “I’m proud of you. What you just did was great” and be pretty sure that I’m not just speaking for myself but for the whole community.
I have no idea how to get to that place, but I’d sure like to get all the stakeholders together and try.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.