Compliance or engagement: Which do you prefer for your kids?

Like many parents, I always enjoyed taking my sons to their first day of school when they were young. One year in particular stands out.

My elder son was just starting the second grade, his second year at this school. As we walked in on the first day of class, it seemed as if a party were going on. Kids were roaming the halls, teachers and staff were talking to each other and the kids, asking how them about their summer and telling them what a great year it was going to be. Amazingly, they even talked to me, asked me how my summer was, if there was anything they should try to get my son to talk about from his summer vacation.

In other words, “we’re glad you’re here, we’re going to take good care of your son.”

The next day I took my younger son to his first day of Kindergarten. I had to sign in at the front desk before walking him down the hall – an incredibly dingy, quiet, and deserted hall – to his new classroom, where we found about 10 of his new classmates sitting quietly in their chair, hands folded nicely on their desk. No one was talking to them, even the teacher. Especially the teacher, who greeted us with a curt, “Welcome to class, just find a desk and sit down while we wait for announcements.” Huh??? As I walked back out the hall, I took the time to look in on the other classes along the way. I was greeted by much the same as in my son’s room.

The message I took from that school: “we’ve got your kid for the day, as long as he does what we tell him there will be no problems.

As many of you know, one of my sons is autistic and attended a private day-school while the other attended the local public school. Care to guess which was which in this story? (I’ll give you a hint: we were very fortunate that our autistic son went to the school he did.)

The first school is all about engagement, the other all about compliance. You may recognize this theme of compliance and engagement from Dan Pink‘s latest book, Drive. These two schools are also representative of a key theme in Seth Godin‘s newest, Linchpin, that we are churning out future “factory workers” when we should be developing artists.

More on that tomorrow in my review of Linchpin.

9 thoughts on “Compliance or engagement: Which do you prefer for your kids?

  1. I prefer engagement and I hate the word compliance. We want our kids to learn and develop not be in a kind of custodial care for the day being compliant.There is also a danger in compliance when it comes to vulnerable children especially as they need to be able to stand up for themselves when needed. A strong will in a child is a great thing and a great motivator for engagement in activities and learning.Compliance knocks out the willpower and takes away motivation and innovation.Behaviour is about getting on with others not merely doing what others say all the time.


  2. Brett –

    Second grade sounds much better than kindergarten. It’s unfortunate that the kindergarten school operates that way.

    Being a compliance guy, I’m going to object to your characterization. Compliance is about setting the rules and making sure the rules are followed.

    Both classrooms have rules. They are just very different sets of rules. You shouldn’t equate compliance with a rigid environment and mindless obedience. Compliance is about making sure everyone knows the boundaries and encouraging good behavior. An important part of compliance is setting good boundaries.

    Some boundaries are imposed by law. You’re stuck with those.

    The rest should be set up to get the best out of your people. We all work and learn better knowing where the line is for being bad.

    I would argue that the kindergarten has a bad set of rules. Compliance with those rules results in less engagement.

    Take a look at Dave Snowden’s view on a kid’s birthday party:

    I already have “Drive” on my reading list. I’ll take a look at Linchpin.


  3. Absolutely engagement!
    I had a similar experience with a previous school my son attended- they wanted “compliance” written into his IEP. I bucked, and explained that (in a nutshell) I felt it important that he be given the opportunity to make an informed decision. If that decision is wrong, he would have to accept the consequences, but at least allow him to make that choice. I want to try and teach my child that it IS okay to say “no”, and he DOES have that choice. Not necessarily to be “compliant” for other’s convenience.


  4. The focus in the private school for children with autism, mentioned above, has to be on engagement. It can be an enormous challenge for teachers to get children to engage in learning when they have a disability such as autism. Compliance will not bring the children out of themselves though it may get them to do what they are told. School needs to be mainly about teaching not mainly about discipline or compliance. This is down to expert teaching and teachers who are able to engage the children so that they are naturally interested and learn because they really want to. If there is a problem with learning the focus needs to be on the teaching methods and on reasons why and not just blamed on the child as in comments such as “non-compliance”. Good behaviour comes naturally to most children who are given a stimulating environment which engages them in learning and treats them with respect.


  5. Doug,

    It was actually Dave Snowden’s video that prompted me to write the initial draft of this article. Of course, in that draft I used the terminology of complexity to describe the schools: the 2d grade class is an example of a complexity approach to school, the kindergarten an example of an ordered approach.

    There is not doubt that the two class rooms had very different sets of rules. Not only different in type (rigid vs. flexible), but also in their intent.

    The purpose of the rules in the kindergarten class was to establish the desired outcome (“If you follow these rules, we will be successful”). In your comments, you wrote that “compliance is about setting the rules and making sure the rules are followed”. That is exactly what happened in the kindergarten class. I admit that this is an extreme of compliance, but in my experience (and the experience of many other parents, especially of special needs children) this extreme is by no means uncommon.

    On the other hand, the purpose of the rules in the 2d grade class were to, in the jargon of complexity, to “manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries” (or “find out what the kids need to learn and help them learn it, within the boundaries of what is acceptable”). This involves engagement on the part of the kids, since coherence can’t be achieved without their active participation.

    I also have to object to your use of the terms “good” and “bad” in the context of behavior, of either adult employees or children. I think it is up to the individual, not the organization, to determine if that individual’s behavior is good or bad. The organization may not like a behavior, but that just means that the individual is not doing what organization wants, not that the individual is “bad”.


  6. If only life were as simple as “good” and “bad.” You are right. Those terms are too broad.

    I had lunch with Dave Snowden when he was in Boston a few months ago and one thing we chatted about was some of similarities between knowledge management and compliance. Both fields got a bad reputation early on for taking a top-down, authoritarian approach. You saw that authoritarian approach in the kindergarten classroom.

    In the two classrooms you have two dramatically different sets of rules. One is built on authoritarian principles and the other is built on engagement principles. In one, they think they can structure a complex system with rigid rules. In the other, they recognize the complex system and merely set boundaries on behavior.

    In the end I’m just trying rescue “compliance” from being equated to the rigid, authoritarian approach seen in the kindergarten classroom. But that is a longer story and longer discussion.


  7. Doug,

    “In one, they think they can structure a complex system with rigid rules. In the other, they recognize the complex system and merely set boundaries on behavior.”

    Exactly. I wish I could have said it so succinctly.

    Good luck on rescuing “compliance”. The very name has a negative connotation from an individual’s point of view, even though the word itself is neutral.


Comments are closed.