I was watching a presentation online this morning by Alfie Kohn. Although familiar with Kohn’s work, I have never seen him speak before today. What an excellent and passionate speaker he is! One idea that he spoke about really resonated with me and I would like to look at it a little more closely.
Alfie talks about the old saying “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” This saying from folk wisdom implies that there is something intrinsically wrong with kids…and by extension with people. It says that people have a naturally tendency to be dishonest, greedy, selfish and are not deserving of trust. Therefore, people need to be controlled. This is Theory X and Theory Y stuff from Douglas McGregor that I came across in my masters courses.
Kohn argues in his presentation that in his experience, people only take a mile when they are consistently given inches in their lives. That is, only when they are over-controlled do they tend to take advantage. The last thing they need is more control, tighter regulation, harsher consequences and less trust, which is how we tend to respond.
Out in the real world, I have worked with many staff. They have acted across the continuum of Theory X to Theory Y. It is not one or the other, but we all have tendencies.
Last week I had a student in my office complaining that a teacher wanted him to sign a contract saying he was going to be on time for class that was upcoming next semester. The student did have a past record of not showing up for class on time. However, the student was excited about the new, more advanced class and was now upset because they had not been given a chance. No one else was signing the contract (not fair), and the class had not even started yet. I agreed with student and told them to approach the teacher with their solid arguments. I spoke with the teacher as well on the student’s behalf, explaining their concerns. The teacher changed their mind, no contract needed.
This was a bullet dodged, I can only imagine the reaction to the contract if it was put in place. Starting with mistrust is extremely difficult as we all know. Students need to know from us that we believe that they want to excel and that we will provide them with autonomy not control. This teacher’s heart was in the right place, they thought the contract would help them be more successful through control. But more control is not what people need. They need a chance to show us that they can exceed our expectations if only we start by giving them a mile.