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Golden Rule Misgivings

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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"Treat others as you want to be treated."

Teachers often employ some variation of that maxim in their classrooms—sometimes as an explicit lesson, sometimes in response to a conflict. (E.g., “Would you like it if someone did that to you?”) It’s a useful tool in many situations. But the golden rule, as it’s known, leads to a few notable problems. Consider the following examples:

Brian is using wooden blocks to build a house. Lucy asks if she can help, and Brian agrees. Lucy then adds a ramp on one side, but Brian responds by declaring that there’s only entrance, on the opposite side.

Meanwhile, Shauna and Mario have decided to be members of an imaginary family. Shauna wants to be the mother, she wants Mario to be the big brother, and she wants to pretend they are going to a movie theater. Mario, however, wants to be the dad, and he wants go to a restaurant.

Let’s say that I want to help Brian be a bit more inclusive of others’ ideas. I can ask him to imagine that he’s in Lucy’s place, but if he’s honest (i.e., if he’s not simply saying what he thinks I want to hear), he will likely still prefer that there be only one entrance. That is how he thinks the house should be, regardless of his role in the social interaction.

Similarly, Shauna and Mario have differing ideas about how their scenario should play out. Ask Shauna to exercise the golden rule and she might conclude, “If I were Mario, I would want to be the brother and I would go see a movie.” To her, that sounds like the most fun.

What Other People Want

Different people want different things, which is what the golden rule often fails to address. A more complicated version of the rule might ask children to imagine not just that they are in a different position, but that they also have different thoughts and feelings. However, that’s a difficult task for a young child, especially in the midst of fast-paced social interactions.

I suggest skipping that convoluted process. Don’t ask Shauna to imagine that she is Mario and then imagine what she would want, given his situation, his thoughts, and his feelings. Instead, just ask her to figure out what Mario wants. In my experience, this approach opens a dialogue that quickly reveals children’s preferences, thus clarifying what they must do to make each other happy.

The Golden Rule in a Diverse World

From a much broader view, I wonder if an overreliance on the golden rule has left us ill equipped in our modern struggle to accommodate diverse cultures. It might lead us to believe that other people are more like us than they truly are. And when that disposition is ubiquitous, people in the majority culture will probably be less likely to integrate those in the minority, and those in the minority will be pressured to assimilate.

Although that speculative assertion lacks any evidence that I’m aware of, I believe there’s some truth behind it. If, to some small extent, I can remove the default thought, “Other people want the same thing I want,” and replace it with “Other people want to be happy just like me, but they might want different things,” then I believe my students will be better prepared to navigate the complex social and cultural environments they will encounter throughout their lives.


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I am a teacher at Creative Scholars Preschool, a small, privately owned school in Chicago. Although my students are preschool aged—in their last year before kindergarten—my classroom looks and functions more like a typical kindergarten. I have learned in my years of teaching that young children are remarkably capable. I strive to find new ways to understand and enable the surprising faculties of young minds.
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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016