“Play nice in the sandbox”

AS0000114FD07 Children, in park and adventure playgroundThese kids seem to be playing nicely together, right? And that’s what we expect of them, isn’t it? If they weren’t playing nicely together, the parents would be hovering to make sure everyone stayed happy and unharmed by flying sand or toys. We, as adults, are often told to figuratively “play nice in the sandbox,” typically when discussing heated topics or collaborating across disciplines. But I always feel the need to ask the question, “Do I really have to?” And, better yet, “Is it really helpful?”

Personally, I think the short answer to both of those questions is, “No.” In general, the notion of “playing nice in the sandbox” is flawed fundamentally. It is based on the premise that this “getting along” ideal is both necessary and helpful in all situations. But what we fail to recognize is the dangers in this type of thinking…this all or nothing thinking.

We live in a world where, if you disagree with someone, you are immediately labeled as (and shunned for being) “hateful” or “anti-_____” or “closed minded,” and the whole world learns of such “truths” about you as a person. There in lies the problem: disagreement is NOT, in any sense of the word, judgement. Our society’s need to be politically correct and accepting of every idea anyone ever had is, in my view, leading to the degradation of critical thinking and healthy debate leading to progress. Don’t get me wrong, people have value (as fellow human beings) independent of their agreement or disagreement with others and deserve to be treated as such. That, in no way, suggests that we must tread so carefully as to not ruffle any feathers. Being kind and loving towards other people does not preclude me from having strong opinions and sharing them (in respectful ways) and advocating for what I believe is best. It also means that others can (and should do the same) with people yielding their misplaced focus or trust when needed.

Let me give you an example from the life of a behavior analyst…I’ll even borrow from our previous posting on sensory diets:

Let’s pretend I’m a behavior analyst (well I suppose that isn’t a hypothetical) who is doing an assessment for a student who runs away from the classroom, and I learn it is happening to both escape work and access preferred sensory activities. I also notice that the frequency of running away increased dramatically after the first time an adult played with him in the sensory room. If someone were to suggest that this behavior was a result of a sensory need during difficult academic tasks and that he should be allowed to continue accessing the sensory room under these situations, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that that was directly observed to make the situation worse.

But, truth be told, the notion of “playing nice in the sandbox,” and the proponents of its universal value, would suggest that the best response would be to say, “Sure, we can definitely incorporate such a sensory diet in the midst of those tasks. I can definitely see how that is something he really needs.” Wait…hold on a second…didn’t I just say that this response already resulted in an increase in running away?! It seems to me, then, that that particular response is neither helpful nor necessary. It might help to make everyone feel included, but it certainly would be expected to help the student.

On the other hand, consider the following response: “I see how it might seem like he ‘needs’ these breaks because he is running off so frequently, but the data show that this pattern is actually leading to increases in running away. I would be more inclined to teach him a more appropriate way to request these breaks and to better tolerate longer periods of difficult work while removing access to the ‘fun stuff’ accessed by running away.” People would suggest (and I’ve experienced it personally) that I would not be “playing nice in the sandbox” because I simply “dismissed” another’s suggestion. But what I know about this 2nd response is that it was polite but clear regarding my position and offered an intervention that is more likely to result in a positive change for the student.

And, again, here is the problem: disagreement does not equal judgement, even though society tells us it does. I’m not judging that suggestion; I’m simply offering an explanation why, scientifically, we wouldn’t expect it to be effective and offering another option.

I work daily to build positive relationships with people that may or may not have the same beliefs and training and passions that I do, but I don’t believe that the only way to do that is to avoid ruffling feathers at all costs. It is only through being challenged on our beliefs and actions that we can learn to understand them, defend them, and change them (when necessary). Without being challenged, we go through life as lemmings, willing to follow each other off a cliff when there is a route to safety.

Personally, I would rather be shown why I am wrong and have the chance to be better than always be told I’m right while sacrificing my very being in the process. So the next time you feel pressured to “play nice in the sandbox,” resist the urge and exercise the practice of respectful honesty instead.