Telling it how it is: Does the truth have to hurt?

Delivering the right message is more important than a blunt one.

A radio show got me thinking recently. The host discussed the NZ Rugby Association’s decision to monitor the Small Black games because of the enormous score differences between some teams. There is a recommendation to cap the maximum score at Small Black games so children don’t feel upset about losing 100 – nil. This news item turned into a general debate on whether we should tell people the truth. Should we tell them the facts about their ability or indeed anything that we feel they should know, even if the facts might upset them? Or do we sugar coat it and disguise it, or even hide it, as the rugby association appear to be doing?

The radio show held a phone-in survey, and of course, the consensus (actually it was about five callers to this one radio show!) is that we as a nation want to know the truth regardless, just gives us the hard facts and be done with it.

Does the truth have to be harsh facts? And is it really about being sugar-coated and PC, or being hard and truthful? I felt that the DJ and his callers missed the point: We are training these small rugby players; we are honing their skills; and the score is a small part of the process. However the score also plays a vital role in developing team moral and individual optimism. A team of small children defeated by a goal score of 100 – nil may find it hard to see beyond the score.

Depending on how sensitively the result is handled, the news can impact these players’ attitudes and ambition for the next game. The sports coach needs to decide what outcome to focus on and in doing so he determines what will guide these young players down the path to greatness, rather than the path of apathy. Maybe “match fixing” isn’t ideal, but the intention is to educate rather than denigrate, to find solutions rather than state problems.

It’s strange how we often connect caring and understanding and emotions with being soft. I believe this reluctance to acknowledge and even accept feelings as part of being human leads to frustration and undesirable behaviour as children and adults struggle to communicate their emotions. An advert featuring a high-profile ex All Black suffering from depression has taken us, as a country, a tiny step forward toward embracing our feelings and understanding that emotions

makes us human. It is possible for children and adults to “feel,” while still living in the real world of hard facts. Teachers have implicit values and beliefs about emotions that are demonstrated every day within our classrooms. Our displays, our seating arrangements, our class rules, our desk location all give clues as to what we value and what we believe is important – even our routines convey our view about emotions and hard facts. For example consider the following

  • How do we change our class jobs list?

  • How do we choose children’s work for display?

  • Who gets to decide on the class rules?

  • How do we mark work?

  • How do we give feedback?

Softening the hard facts for children is about training them, gradually exposing them to the hard and often harsh facts that as adults we learn to take on the chin. We aim to gradually desensitise children to the shock of apparent failure or loss, enabling them to develop skills and values and beliefs about themselves that provide a strong foundation for dealing with bad news, poor results, or direct criticism. It’s about being clear about our learning outcomes: What do we want the children to experience? Do we really want them to experience pain or failure? Or is our outcome for them to learn how to deal with pain and apparent failure? Or to realise that pain and failure can be redirected to help us strive forth or re-approach a task with new information? After all pain is nature’s way of giving feedback – we need to change something we are doing (Friedman,

2005). Perhaps what we need to focus on is the questions we encourage children to ask when they receive the hard facts. Anthony Robbins (2002) places great importance on the questions we ask ourselves. He suggests using empowering useful questions such as:

  • What can I learn from this? or

  • How can I improve for next time? or

  • What training do I need to do to have another go?

All too often we focus on debilitating, destructive questions – like why does this always happen to me? This sort of question takes us on an endless journey to nowhere. The need to balance the hard facts with a soft approach is reflected in the concept of learnt helplessness, a phenomenon

where the subject gives up despite being able to achieve a result, purely because for so long he has “failed”’ at something (Martin & Pear, 2003). If children feel overwhelmed by failure, such as a goal difference of 100 – 0, there is the tendency to stop trying altogether.

We can’t completely control children’s learning, they learn in spite of us. However, we can within our classrooms and schools have some control over the learning experiences. We need to consider how we can provide a range of opportunities that allow children to experience, deal with,

and question the hard facts within a safe, supportive environment.

There are times when the hard facts can’t be disguised and children can’t be prepared for receiving them. Observations, emergencies, bad news and accidents all require quick efficient communication of the facts. But if we strip feelings from all our personal, social and educational experiences and only represent the facts, we lose sight of what it is to be truly human. We all know how this lack of emotional connection affects the lives of autistic and aspergers children. As Anthony Robbins points out, our reality is only our perception of the world. Do we really want to encourage our children to perceive their world as one of only hard facts?

Yes there are winners and losers in life, in sport, in games, in singing competitions and in exams – but that’s not to say the losers never win or can’t win next time or that they shouldn’t ever try again. Te Whaariki (Ministry of Education, 1996) discusses learning dispositions, and perseverance is one of them: How do we foster this disposition if we only ever give the hard facts? We foster it by providing a supportive, caring environment where children feel capable of picking themselves

up and having another go, knowing that they can control how they feel about themselves and they can control what they do in the future to change the outcome.

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