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Is there a conflict between raising a self-governing child without being a permissive parent? Or between being a parent with firm, high expectations, and one who has a good relationship with her children?

I remember watching the wise and experienced Miss M. follow her class of first graders down the hall. They walked single file, orderly, and without talking. They were governing themselves, or were they? Miss M. was a very firm teacher. Did they walk obediently from fear? Sometimes I thought she lacked that extra connection with her children that I cherished. She definitely had an imposing presence.

I always worried when she’d come to observe one of my lessons. “Please children,” I would mentally send out to them, “raise your hands and let me call on you for an answer!” Usually, bless their intuitive hearts, they did.

I admit, my classroom was a bit more relaxed than the other well-governed ones at our small school. Sometimes when we’d get into a good conversation, conventions became forgotten and the students would simply speak their ideas. Generally I remembered to remind them to raise their hands.

But when I gave the daily spelling test with sentences such as, “Empathy. Michelle had empathy for Ryan when he was forced to walk the plank. Empathy. Next word, structure. Lauren’s favorite structure on the ship was the crow’s nest where she liked to climb.” (I often used their names and they became more invested to see what the next sentence would be.) However, inadvertantly, a student might interrupt the test to ask what a crow’s nest was. Then we’d all divert to discuss the thrill of getting up to one. Our spelling tests usually took much longer than in the other classrooms. Especially if there was a sea battle story during the test.

Yet, when we walked through the halls, my students exercised the same discipline as the revered Miss M.’s much younger class, at least I hoped so. My children kept neat desks, though occasionally we had to have desk inspection prior to lunch, and they all turned in their weekly Word Studies on time. But the time that best showed their self-governing was prior to class, when they’d arrive at school, and before the first bell rang, get out their large green dictionaries, or other tools and work on those Word Studies, or borrow language notebooks from each other to get their own notebooks current, or copy history or science notes from a missed class if they’d been sick.

I do think a child can learn to self-govern, be obedient to an adult, and still feel relaxed enough to confide in them. I loved when they’d come to me before class to tell me about something special, a new pet, a friend’s birthday party, or what they had decided on for their science project. I remember the day one young man couldn’t wait to tell me his mother was expecting a child after more than twelve years of attempts. We rejoiced together.

I wrote about Discipline in another post. It is the essential moment when self-governing happens. If a student needed a private conversation with me in the hall, I’d ask them if they knew what they had done that had been inappropriate. Followed by, “What is the right thing to do?” Then I’d remind them, “You know what you need to do, you have the knowledge and the ability to govern yourself. If you govern yourself, life goes smoothly. But if you do not govern yourself, I have to govern you. We have to have these talks in the hall, and I have to give you consequences for misbehavior.” This was said with loving, firmness. They knew I meant it. First time offenders were asked, “Which do you choose?” After they chose the right answer, I’d wink at them and acknowledge how brilliant they were and we’d go back inside. However, repeat offenders had to receive the consequence, but were still encouraged to choose better next time. I never had to visit with the same child in the hall more than twice in a semester.

These children were learning the fundamentals needed to grow up to be self-governing members of a family and society.