I recently wrote about how much I love my son’s public school.

I still do, for many reasons. But there are also reasons I dislike it, so it was no surprise that three-quarters of the way through my son’s first year there, the school and I butted heads over our philosophical differences.

It happened when my son suddenly started struggling in the social and academic areas he normally excelled. I saw his confidence flailing and his love for school evaporate. He didn’t want to wake up. He didn’t want to leave the house. One day he put on the brakes completely and refused to walk to school.

This happened more and more over the course of a month, when it hadn’t happened at all in the previous six. Something changed, and I felt the overwhelming need to fix it. I emailed the teacher about something she said when we talked after school. No response.

Later that day, I asked my son why he didn’t want to go to school. He said he felt bad because he wasn’t coming home with purple tickets anymore. In the two previous school quarters, he came home with three or four green tickets, which are considered “acceptable” vs. “outstanding” purple tickets. In the last month, he started getting a green at least once a week, and then two or three. It was a definite change. (His pre-K class uses a modified version of the “stoplight” behavior management system).

I greatly dislike the stoplight system, but I didn’t want to undermine it. My son and I talked about what he needed to get a purple. It sounded to me like he didn’t understand, so I told him to talk to the teacher.

He talked increasingly about these tickets and the anxiety he had about them. I emailed the teacher again to let her know what I’d heard at home. The only response I got was to clarify how she distributes different colors, but no acknowledgement of my son’s changed behavior.

I talked to her after class on another “green ticket” day. The next day was the same, and when I approached her again after class, she lost her patience with me, and with my son. We argued in front of him and all walked away unhappy.

I contacted the principal and considered withdrawing my son from school (I had already been considering other schools for next year).

I felt so justified! After all, I am the person who knows my son best. I could see he was struggling, and it was ignored! When it finally was addressed, it was addressed in a way that offended me. How could I send him back?

When he walked into his classroom the next day I felt like I was leaving my heart to be chewed up and spit out by the giant machine — the “system” I read about ruining kids and sucking the creativity out of our young.

I called friends who agreed with me. We kvetched together until I got it all out. And then I talked to my dear friend and RIE educator Lisa Sunbury Gerber. She listened and agreed, and listened some more. She wrote me later that night:

Suchada, she said, no system will be perfect. You put him there for a reason. He is struggling, but this is his journey. Trust him and let him live it.

Wait, what?? This was the woman who taught me about RIE. She’s the one who works tirelessly to change the system, to educate people, and to protect children. How could she say it’s okay to let them chew up my son? It hung in air for a while.

And then I remembered. The reason I practice RIE is not to live in a bubble of respect and empathy.

I practice RIE to live in the real world. I practice RIE to face conflict. I practice RIE so my children will be resilient and strong. I practice RIE because I respect others. I practice RIE because people are diverse and will always hold different views. I practice RIE because not everyone will and that’s okay.

I put my son to bed that night and asked him what was good about his day. He said nothing. I asked him what would be better about tomorrow. He said getting a purple ticket.

I wanted to rip apart the whole system. I wanted to march into the school offices and talk to them about how systems like this damage children and encourage unhealthy competition and don’t teach anything about empathy.

But I just kissed him and said good-night.

This is his struggle. He can do it. I have to trust everything we do at home supports him, and that I can put him out into the big bad world for three hours a day. Of course he will struggle. We all struggle. We fall flat on our faces and screw up and say dumb things and behave badly and embarrass ourselves. But we only learn when we pick ourselves back up and face it again. I can’t do it for him.

When he woke up the next morning, he said, I’m going to get a purple ticket today, mama. I’m going to try my hardest.

I trust you, bub. I can’t wait for you to tell me about it.

When I picked him up from school, he was at the front of the line, waving his purple ticket for me to see.

So this is my lesson in public education. I question many of the values instilled there. It makes me cringe to hear the way people there talk to children. It hurts my heart to see my child getting excited about what I consider a meaningless reward.

But it’s not my journey.

All I can do is model the world I want and let him live in the world we live in. And then trust that he will become exactly the person he needs to be.

To learn more about RIE parenting, click here.

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