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Home > Research Articles > Setting limits in a beleaguered society


Saturday, November 16, 2002

Schools are seeking ways to impose discipline in order to deal with the problem of violence, but educators and psychologists claim that the real problem is that the system has abandoned its educational role. Some contend that the war situation has filtered down into the schools and is preventing the promotion of democratic values.

It is impossible to separate the burning psychological and educational issues affecting children from the condition of society and the state - at least according to psychologists and educators. "When I immigrated to Israel 30 years ago, the issue at the center of attention among educators and psychotherapists was self-confidence," says Dr. Roberto Mittelpunkt, a psychiatrist and education lecturer at Beit Berl College. "At that time everyone was busy with the question of whether a child had confidence, if he lacked confidence and what should be done to strengthen his confidence.

"Now, everyone is speaking about limits: Does the child have limits? Does he lack limits? Are parents and teachers succeeding in setting limits for him?"

Mittelpunkt believes that the correlation between the psychological issues and the major national issues at various times is not accidental. "Thirty years ago, after the conquering of the territories and after the Yom Kippur War, self-confidence - its existence or harm to it - was the big story in Israel. Today, the true problem is the lack of borders. There is certainly a reflection of the national situation in the private, the psychological arena."

Restraint, not reinforcement

Everyone agrees that the Israeli education system has recently demonstrated a helplessness in the face of certain aspects of youth culture: the incidents of aggression and violence and expressions of emptiness and alienation. In their despair, school principals and educators now want to educate parents to reinforce their parental authority. The assumption is that their overly permissive relationship with their children is the root of the problem.

Principals are inviting speakers to talk about "rehabilitating parental authority" at parents' assemblies at the beginning of the school year. The lecturers talk about the problem in terms of a power struggle. They believe that if the parents set limits for their children and stop treating them as if they were the center of the universe, giving in to all their whims, then there will not be violence in the schools and the teachers will be able to do their work properly.

This conservative approach (as described in the article "Rescuing parents from the tyranny of spoilt youth," published in this paper on October 29) is quite common just now in the education system. There are, however, other educators and people who deal with youth who are outraged by this approach. They contend that it is dangerous to focus only on the issues of parental authority and limits and feel that the big educational problems stem from a misunderstanding of the role of the school in Israel today. They claim that focusing on parental authority and limits diverts attention from the main problem.

One way or the other, the question of authority troubles many teachers and parents. Orchestra conductor Itay Talgam has lately been speaking in dozens of forums - of educators, supervisors, principals and teachers - on "The Challenge of Standing Before the Body of Children and Their Parents."

In his lecture, which is structured as a discussion, Talgam suggests distinguishing the similarities between the roles of teachers and of conductors. "The challenge is how to combine the many and varied sounds authoritatively but not tyrannically, and to obtain the maximum cooperation and satisfaction."

In a lecture-discussion held about a week ago in Rishon Letzion, with teachers and parents from the community school in that city, Talgam showed his audience six types of conductors in action and asked the participants which type of leadership was closest to their ideal. There were those who favored the style of Ricardo Muti, with his fierce facial expressions instilling fear, or Toscanini, more wrapped up in himself and strict. Most of those at the school meeting, however, chose the smiling Carlos Kleiber - a conductor imposing his will on the orchestra with congeniality - or the impassioned Leonard Bernstein, foregoing the baton in order to conduct a dialogue with the orchestra, taking pleasure in the players and responding to them with his whole being, infecting them with his exuberance.

Talgam said that Bernstein's style is the most difficult one to apply to an orchestra: to transfer the power to the players to strengthen them, to let them fulfill themselves, to make their voices heard. And that is the role of the educator, according to Talgam - to expand on the ideas that the students proffer, to blow life into them, in the deep sense of the word.

"The education system's focus on the issue of the violence and the question of the students' limits and discipline is actually an evasion of the issue," says Talgam. "It is a terrifying reflection of the desire to sidestep the dialogue on other issues in life, [such as] the national issues.

"It is a type of despair the stems from fear, and which has infected the education system too," continues Talgam. "If school principals have given up on the important things and are focusing on discipline, they are creating a certain, diluted reality. In an organization that functions properly, discipline should be a marginal issue."

Dr. Eli Katz, a clinical psychologist and author of the book "Uf Gozal" (Let Them Fly), about the relationship between parents and adolescents, says that this involvement with limits is "the garbage can of all the deep and important issues that are connected with coping with adolescents."

"Our job is not to restrain the children," says Katz, "but rather to fill them with strength, to enable them to fly."

"For this reason there is no need to rehabilitate parental authority," adds Mittelpunkt, "but rather to rehabilitate the parents' self-esteem - inasmuch as [the noun] `authority' comes from the [Hebrew] verb `to trust,' I can respect the authority of someone whom I can trust. Parents and teachers have to have self-esteem and be able to be receptive to the children's distress and help them."

Teaching, not educating

Dvora Miller-Florsheim, a senior clinical psychologist and counselor at the Education Ministry's psychological services objects to the lecturers who offer easy methods for gaining control of aggressive teenagers. "It would be better to invite someone to speak about the loss of intimacy and empathy," says Miller-Florsheim, noting that she has found a few schools that have completely done away with home room teachers - cutting back on the educator's hours in favor of more hours in specific subjects, or asking a subject teacher to take on a "home room period," which has no real content.

Miller-Florsheim says there has been a clear trend in recent years for parents and teachers to be less empathetic and emotional and more functional. "There are more and more extra-curricular activities, teaching methods, disciplinary methods," she says. "Techniques. So it is no wonder that parents are happy when they receive clear guides for dealing with problems."

Miller-Florsheim says that the education system tends to isolate the issue of adolescent aggression - and other issues such as drug addiction - and removes them from the broad Israeli context. "Schools have to take into consideration that they are educating students who are about to enter the army," says Miller-Florsheim.

"The perspective of time is even shorter than that of most of their contemporaries in the west. These children are suffering from two types of pressure: on the one hand there is the consumer culture, which produces hedonism and favors excitement over emotions and consumption over needs, and on the other hand there is the pressure from the system, which encourages the denial of the national situation, of the pressing social issues."

Regarding limits, Miller-Florsheim actually feels that they are not such a big issue. "No society or person can live without boundaries," she says. "When the collective lives without defined boundaries it affects the individual. Today there are no limits, they are set by the level of fear. For one, the limit is the shopping mall and for another it is Wadi Ara. We mark our boundaries all the time as a response to fear and not as a value. That is also how we relate to children, or to any issue, as a matter of survival, responses to fears, without a view to the long term. We never delve into values or justification."

Miller-Florsheim says that parents and teachers have to be in touch with children and in touch with reality. "How many parents speak with their children about their future here, about the significance of army service?" she asks. "Not in the sense of `Will you be in a combat unit or pencil-pusher?' but in the deeper sense of the danger of death, ethical issues, existential reasons?"

Through her work with teachers, parents and adolescents, Miller-Florsheim has the impression that most of them are ignoring these questions - the real issues of the collective, which directly affect the adolescents - and do not deal with them at all.

To a certain extent this happens because the education system incorrectly understood the idea of "the child at the center." Rena Yitzhak, the speaker for the Israeli Committee for UNICEF (the UN International Children's Fund) and a lecturer on children's rights at Beit Berl, says, fundamentally the trend of putting the child at the center was positive. "Since the 1950s there has been an accumulation of knowledge on the learning process and child development," says Yitzhak, "and it turns out that it is necessary to adjust the content for children who are different from one another. Today we ask what does the child need in order to develop, in order to be creative and active in a democratic society, and to this we add the values of society. This does not mean that the child dictates the content, but rather that we take his needs into consideration when we design the curriculum."

However, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porat, a lecturer on the philosophy of education and a guest researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, says that this approach has been distorted. She says that there are those who think that putting the child at the center means that the child is responsible for his actions and his choices and that the system in effect no longer has an educational role.

Many teachers and principals forget that in fact the main role of the public education system is a role of socialization. "The education system in a democratic society must nurture commitment to democratic values and raise people who can ensure the continuity of the institutional existence of the state as a democratic state."

It is not easy to fulfill such a role, she admits. "In a country that is in a state of war, the effort to preserve the democratic existence is a subversive effort," she says.

This means that adolescents in the Israeli education system are suffering from two trends. One is the schools' shirking of their responsibility for educating children (with such claims as "The parents are to blame for the breakdown in values and discipline" and "the schools are suffering violence and vandalism from ungrateful children"). The other is the difficulty of the education system in fulfilling its educational role - despite its efforts - in a war atmosphere.

"In a war situation," says Ben-Porat, "society expects the education system to educate children toward values that do not promote democracy, such as loyalty, patriotism, nationalism."

Ben-Porat says that, in effect, if the schools fulfill their role as educators toward democracy, as the transmitters of the values of the country to the next generation, they will also free the adolescents as individuals. "The classroom should be a place for opposition to the unifying patriotic anti-democratic social demands. This means that in the classroom the teachers have to let the students speak, to open a discussion on topics that are usually not touched on. The teachers should ask questions about things that are considered taken for granted and discuss society's future.

"It is the education system's duty to increase the variety of issues that are publicly debated," says Ben-Porat. "To ask questions of gender, of consumption, of skin color - and to ask them as political questions. To discuss equality and discrimination and poverty, in the center of the country and in the periphery - as political issues. This is an opportunity to simultaneously mend society and release individuality."

By Orna Coussin