The Class that Cried


The tears kept coming—all through the quarter. Some students blinked them away, glancing sideways to see who had noticed. Some just let them roll.

These students were dads, practically all of them. And they had almost no access to their kids. Still they were sitting through a class on child development in a state prison school. Often it didn’t take much for another set of eyes to water.

One day, for example, we were focusing on autonomy versus shame—the second stage in Erikson’s model of psychosocial development.

“Two-year olds,” I told students, have a job—to develop independence. “And they bring lots of energy to the task. This is why it’s so easy to fight with a toddler. Your telling them what to do knocks right into their need to assert their will.”

“So what do you do?” an inmate asked. “They gotta get dressed and eat and go to bed and stuff.”

So we talked about giving them choices—all day long. Do you want to wear this red shirt or this green one? Eat Cheerios or Chex? Go to bed now or in five minutes?

“Do that with a toddler,” I told the students. “And you’ll likely see fewer tantrums and more cooperation.

In the back corner of the room, a burly man with tattoos marching up his arm stood and slammed a fist on his table.

“What didn’t nobody ever tell me this?” he asked. “I thought she was just being rotten!”

He swallowed hard and sat down abruptly. For the rest of class, he sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

After class, he stopped by my desk.

“Just wish I had known,” he said, his eyes suspiciously red. “We gonna talk about teenagers? That’s what she’ll be when I’m up for parole.”

And now I felt a burning in my eyes.

“We’ll talk about teenagers,” I said.


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