Kids Can Smell Fear

Do you remember what it was like to be a kid? I mean, besides the nostalgic memories of gallivanting on bicycles around your neighborhood with your friends and obsessing over your first crush. Do you remember what is was like to wake up every day – sorry, get woken up every day, and being told not to eat another bowl of cereal while you were rushed out the house and quickly into a classroom where your teacher told you what was important and what was inconsequential? And then making sure you were home by a certain time, just to go play a sport you had a fading interest in? Do you really remember what your brain was telling you as a 12-year-old on a daily basis? At times, I wish I could but then quickly remember how shitty it would be to go and do it all over again for free. Don’t take my next words at a hundred percent cost value – but I think kids are a lot closer to adults than we give them credit for. But they are also still kids. So somewhere in between their evolution, perhaps from third grade on, they are half-animal half-evolved human. And in the case of their interactions with teachers, you better believe kids can smell fear.


I had a conversation with my nephew and, in between discussing the latest Drake vs. Pusha T beef, we talked about this topic. This idea was actually on my mind as I rode my bike home from the gym and passed a bunch of geese. I had never been afraid of geese in my life until I decided to waste time on Facebook the other day and watch a mindless video of them attacking humans. Nothing too graphic but it did look like their beaks gave one hell of a pinch if they caught you. Plus, they are big as shit. There were two geese about 12 feet from the sidewalk as I peddled by. They looked at me and I looked at them. They are friggin’ geese, but I was scared. I wondered if these feeble animals could smell my fear.


To a teacher, kids are powerless. Like geese, kids know that “fully evolved” humans rule their environment. But every now and then, kids, like geese, “beak up” and run an adult off a lawn. And in the classroom I’ve seen this on many occasions.


We don’t give these kids enough credit. They are evolving into actual real adult-like people, and if you don’t come correct, expect for them to deal with you in a way.


Simply walking into a classroom as a teacher and assuming that you are going to “manage” it merely because you are the adult in the room is your first mistake. Children are around adults all day and night, thus they have, at the least, rudimentary skills in negotiation tactics. And, despite not knowing what I thought as a 12-year-old, I do know that I didn’t ever enjoy doing math and science. I did it because I had to. And just like a good majority of society, people go to work every day because they have to. Just like “the real world” there are consequences for actions; the difference is, for students those consequences are rather inconsequential. In adulthood, them things get real.


But I do think that kids understand this. They have been told by either a teacher or a family member that school is preparation for the real world. And a large majority of kids probably take this sentiment “in” on some sense of a realistic continuum of understanding. But just like the day your boss isn’t in the office – these kids always take advantage of the supply teacher. And you can ask any supply teacher; they do it from third grade on. Reason why – they smell the weakness in the air.


I usually end these blogs with a conclusion that ties things together while providing some sense of direction for folks who are immersed in the game of education. But for this one, I really have no last words of wisdom. These thoughts are just tethered theories provided by geese on my ride home, a convo with my nephew and perhaps most importantly, witnessing teachers getting chewed up and spit out by collections of 13-year-olds and then having them ask people like me why it happened. My answer in a nutshell to the latter scenario is rather simple. These young kids are more adept than you think. And the one thing you should know about them is something we, as adults, have all forgotten. They are more genius, mature, and internal than we give them credit. As teachers, we seldom notice unless we are truly reflective in our practice and actually have adult-like conversations with our kids, starting with abstract questions like, “do you think kids can smell fear?”



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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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