Kindergarten Dynamics Reflect Ills of Israeli Society

What happens there, between the kids in the kindergarten? What are the implications for the years to come? According to a recently-published book, a lot of the ills that beset Israeli society are already evident in the sandbox.

Two young girls, one with braids and the other a pony tail, are holding hands. To the outside observer, it is the most idyllic snapshot of the innocence of childhood. But whosoever stops and follows the two girls with his eyes will discover that within a few minutes, the shyness will disappear and be replaced by a premeditated and complicated game.

children playing on swings
Dan Keinan

Casually listening to the conversations of three-year-olds at play will reveal that the girls are constantly giving each other roles and tasks: one is a mother and the other is a girl named Adi, and the opposite. They lay the dolls down to sleep, walk around the backyard, build forts with chairs. Sometimes there are power struggles. There are no still moments. But a strange thing occurs when they are approached and asked about the game, who is Adi, and what is so special about her: one girl shrugs her refusal to answer, and the two pack up their belongings and migrate to the other side of the room. The makeshift home is abandoned.

Because of the concept 'The Child Is Paramount,' "Children today find it difficult to cooperate, to obey the teacher, and to concede. This difficulty can lead to aggression."

Dr. Ada Becker, a lecturer on Psychology and Child Development at the Kibbutzim College of Education says that even at this tender age, children maintain complex relationships, far from the prying eyes of parents and teachers. "Kids build an entire world unto themselves, and do not want adults interfering or supervising. They develop their own language that can't be understood by us. They have their own internal set of rules."

I'm entitled!

Becker sat in the sandbox for years in order to study the relationships between children and their socialization process. "Sitting in the sandbox" is the name of a technique of observation in kindergartens. Her analyses and observations appear in her recently published book "Who Did You Play With Today In Kindergarten?" alongside studies that were conducted mainly outside of Israel. In her book, she lays out the secret story of the social world of young children - a world that has not been sufficiently studied in Israel, in her opinion - and extrapolates from it a metaphor about adult society. The conclusions are not always warm and fuzzy. "For the most part," Becker says, "what goes on in children's social circles in kindergarten is similar to our own society, and the challenges that we face in trying to create a gentler and more empathetic society."

Her book touches upon the question of why we are a territorial and aggressive society. Becker determines that there are two contradictory phenomena that exist in Israeli society that are difficult to reconcile. "On one hand, there is a strong emphasis on communalism, closeness, cohesion and long-term socialization, which are hallmarks of traditionally collectivist societies. On the other hand, this is a Western society that is characterized by individualism. A person is expected to be independent, achievement-oriented and enterprising, to develop a career, to become famous and creative. This conflict manifests itself here in the paradoxical coexistence of cooperation right beside aggression. The conflict grows in strength because of our precarious existence and the feeling that we are a society under siege and in conflict, and so we develop a defensive posture. We still need the mutual aid that we had in the past, but we no longer value it internally."

The conflict between these two approaches, the good of the whole versus the good of the individual, exists in every educational institution and kindergarten, as well. "On one hand, the kindergarten is a democracy," Becker says, "but on the other hand, authority must be obeyed. And in between the two, every child struggles to find his or her unique place." Becker says that the characteristics that generally define children are often economic ability: what kind of clothes they wear, and what kind of SUV drops them off at school. It is indicative of their parents' worldview. The problem is that the presence of the economically and otherwise powerful parents undermines the authority of the teacher. In an individualistic society, there is no coordination between the education received in the school and the education received in the home.

Until the age of six, Becker says, there are a lot of interactions over possessions and space. "There is a great concern over territory: which games will be played, who will ride the Big Wheels, who will sit on the see-saw. There have to be clear rules for establishing relationships, and this is clear to the teachers. There are messages like 'get in line,' but there are no stable guidelines that determine relationships in the kindergarten all year long."

Becker adds that all of this is influenced by the ascendancy of the concept of "The Child Is Paramount." Compromising for the sake of the collective, the need to share, living in harmony and being empathetic, all of these are passé; "Children today have difficulty cooperating, listening to the teacher and compromising. This difficulty can lead to physical and verbal aggression. The messages passed on by the parents are, 'Don't give in,' 'Hit back.' A lot of the messages received in the home translate to 'I'm entitled.' And because they don't concede easily, it's difficult for them to navigate conflict without getting aggressive."

For the sake of comparison, Becker observed religious kindergartens, where she believes children grow up in a society that still maintains the attributes of a collectivist society. She found that in these kindergartens children are more obedient, less aggressive and maintain relationships that are gentle and easy-going.

Kindergartens are a kind of microcosm of society, according to Becker, and the general societal and cultural processes – which include language, the concept of the 'other', and more – are imprinted and embedded in the children's souls; and when they grow up, they will educate their own children in this way. If we want a change, Becker says, we need an intervention by the parents and the teachers (see sidebar).

Who is a leader, who is an outcast?

According to Becker, children develop relationships from the age of two. Even beforehand, playing next to a child holding the same toy is the beginning of friendly communication. Around the age of two-and-a-half, intensive relationships develop, then complex three-way interactions that require coordinating activities and passing on moral messages, both verbal and non-verbal.

Becker compares socialization in young children, which parents tend to minimize in importance, to adult relationships. According to Becker, we can learn about the social faculties of the child and the adult he or she will become from what happens in the kindergarten. "It is likely that if you were a social child, you will adjust well in society. And that's assuming your formative years were normative. A traumatic event, or being removed from one framework and placed in another, could negatively impact upon your social skills."

Healthy friendly relations are made up of establishing a relationship, negotiation, standing up for yourself, empathy, compromise, and more. A leader is someone for whom all of these qualities come naturally. "We're talking about intelligent, verbal children that have good ideas for games and are skillful at emotional adjustments. Meaning, a child who does not become enraged or withdraw from conflict and instead has the ability to respond and explain. A kid that is fun to be around." A leader of the kindergarten will have a lot of playmates, but not a lot of real friends. "Five-year-olds are able to identify the king of the kindergarten or the queen of the class. They will have different names for them, 'Strongest in the Kindergarten,' and the like," she says.

And at the other end, there are children who are outcasts. "Why are children cast out? When in a group, you feel greater cohesion and greater standing when you cast someone out," Becker explains. She tells of a recent screening for a group of kindergarten teachers of a series of movies that she filmed in kindergartens, in which children only two and a half are observed casting out others. "They knew exactly what was being talked about, but this is a topic that is not spoken of in the kindergarten." Everything that happens in the rest of society happens in the kindergarten. By the age of four, kids are already casting out on the basis of looks: the fat kid, the girl with glasses, skin color, etc. Anyone different, exceptional – is cast out. "In kindergarten, we can deal with the problem if it is made a priority. Kids in kindergartens are capable of following different rules and ways of treating others – it's all up to the teacher."

What is a social kindergarten teacher?

Ada Becker teaches workshops entitled "Becoming a Social Kindergarten Teacher." According to Becker, the Ministry of Education errs when it formulates programs with an emphasis on cognition instead of empathy and sensitivity. "I am attempting to convince the kindergarten teachers to adopt a social agenda. I think that in this way a lot of the problems that children have with one another will be solved."

She differentiates between kindergarten teachers that initiate and kindergarten teachers that respond. "Generally, the teacher responds to what happens in the class: violence, fighting, lack of cooperation, and then she solves the conflict in the ways that she knows. I recommend that from the very beginning, kindergarten teachers craft a conscious social system. At the first parent-teacher meeting, the social issue is never discussed, only food and other logistical arrangements." She teaches the teachers how to appraise the buzzing beehive of social relationships between children, how to analyze them, and how to direct the children with a different set of social messages that include empathy and cooperation.