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Alfie Kohn Confronts BGUTI

by Laurie Block Spigel

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Further reading * Response from a homeschooling parent

Alfie KohnThe opening keynote speech at the 2013 AERO Conference on Long Island was packed with listeners waiting to hear Alfie Kohn, popular author on parenting and child psychology. Mr. Kohn has an easy manner and ready sense of humor, traits always welcome in a speaker. He tackled three serious aspects of our current educational system: competition, failure, and BGUTI, an acronym that stands for Better Get Used To It.

You might think that these things have little or nothing to do with homeschooling, or the student-directed, child-led approach to learning. But most of us come from traditional schooling, and we have found that re-educating ourselves can be a larger challenge than educating our children. We were raised in environments fraught with competition and failure and we were all told BGUTI. Children forced to compete with each other quickly look down on their low-scoring peers, or feel like failures compared with their high-scoring peers. It’s an atmosphere ripe with meanness. I have heard BGUTI from the time I was a little girl. When I was in 4th grade my mother met with the principal to beg him to switch me to another class because I hated the teacher. My mom listed six reasons that would all lead to my improved performance if my class were changed, but the seventh reason, that I would be happier in the other class where I had more friends, made the principal shout, “Aha!” His eyes widened as he expressed my first example of BGUTI. “You want her to be happier, but it’s a cold, cruel world out there, and the sooner she learns that, the better.” It was not the last time that I heard someone argue that I had better get used to it. In fact, I heard this in a question just last week at a homeschooler’s meeting in New Jersey. A parent suggested that since we live in a very competitive world, shouldn't our children learn how to compete at an early age?

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The BGUTI argument has two major flaws, which even a child can see (I was nine when I saw the glaring holes in my principal’s statement). Firstly, we are predicting a difficult future for our children when we say they Better Get Used To It. We are saying that their future will be hard, and they will need to have weathered competition, failure, and even bullying. (I once heard a parent insist that exposure to bullying would build his children’s character.) This predication of a dire future is severely limiting, and it prizes a competitive spirit over a creative one. I maintain that creativity is a more important survival tool than competition, and, as Ken Robinson noted in his famous TED talk, a competitive environment kills creativity.

Secondly, BGUTI implies that the only way for our children to achieve success with a difficult future is to withstand these same difficulties at an early age. This is short-sighted thinking. Repeated victimization only weakens us, and learning to submit to a poor environment doesn’t teach us to rise above it and overcome it, but to sublimate ourselves to it. It is not a character building experience, but a soul crushing one. The true way to empowerment lies in removing ourselves from the negative environment. When I tell parents that the best, most empowering lesson they can give their suffering child is to get out of the system and homeschool, they blink hard and say, “Could you say that again?” We have all heard BGUTI so often that this is what we expect, and the answer that you should not get used to a bad situation, but you should in fact change that situation as quickly as possible, is a solution that is rarely suggested.

Thanks to Alfie Kohn, I now have a new term that I can use to explain the folly of BGUTI to parents. Now I want a positive acronym that defies the BGUTI argument. Consider: DPUWI, Don’t Put Up With It, or LIF, Learn in Freedom, or YLIYO, Your Life Is Your Own.

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Further reading:

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Response from a homeschooling parent:

Your newsletter is outstanding (as always) & I enjoyed reading all of your articles. I was especially moved by your review of Alfie Kohn's talk. What a sad, but typical story of the principal & your mom---BGUTI---it's a cold, cruel world out there....

I practically danced to our last IEP meeting at the CSE in the Bronx. Aside from the RSA that I haven't used, I didn't need their services anymore. During the IEP meeting in August, I didn't know how incredible our homeschool experiences would be, but I was confident that at least the child-led learning would be better than what they could offer. There's always a parent representative in the IEP meetings. The meeting was so relaxed & this parent opened up to me about her son. After describing his anger & depression, she sighed, "My son is 13 & I've already lost him. At least he will know how to deal with the cold, cruel world." I don't remember what I said, but I know that through our experiences this year, I have FOUND my son!

Love the new acronyms: LIF & YLIYO.

Leah Fine, homeschooling parent
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