Over this past year, my school has embarked upon an ongoing discourse in diversity. Looking at many forms of diversity — ability, socio-economic, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, ethnicity, and agism — our school community asked EDGE (Educators for Diversity, Growth, and Empowerment), a group of educators in New York City independent schools, to help facilitate discussions among faculty and staff. Our focus was on understanding diversity in our community and how we can best work with the children and families we serve.
EDGE also worked with our trustees, engaging them in how to build a diverse school going forward.
Our spring faculty and staff diversity gathering will be led by the Rev. Robert Thompson, Chaplain at Phillips Exeter Academy.
The Fall 2008 issue of Independent School featured this article I wrote in the Independent School Parent section.
The other day I selected a book from my bookshelf because I wanted to remind myself of the last time I read from it to our Elementary and Middle School children. The book, The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976), is a collection of funny, meaningful stories about families, raising children, and life’s challenges, told only the way Erma Bombeck could write. The story I read was “Ralph Corlis, The Coach Who Played to Lose” and is about a father, who after the death of his wife, moved to the suburbs to carve out a new life for his two sons and himself. The part that is most meaningful to me is when Ralph is confronted by two Little League coaches who are trying to understand why he coaches his team to lose games. Ralph replies, “It’s hard to explain, but kids go all through their lives learning how to win, but no one ever teaches them how to lose. Just think about it. Most kids don’t know how to handle defeat. They fall apart. It’s important to know how to lose because you do a lot of it when you grow up. You have to have perspective — how to know what is important to lose and what isn’t important.”
I find that my years of experience as a father, educator, and individual have taught me that it is, in fact, failure that motivates and forces us to get things right, and yet we work so hard to protect our children from it. What originally drew my attention to the Bombeck story emanated from a paragraph from my last letter to the parents at my school, which talked about the “f” word. The paragraph stated “One word that would most assuredly not appear on any list [that describes children] and is one of the most helpful character builders for children and adults is ‘failure.’ Unfortunately, we shy away from using that word with children and each other, and yet, it is a word we have to live with our whole lives. For some, failure serves as a roadblock, for others it is an obstacle to navigate around to a higher ground, and still for others, it provides the inspiration to get it right.”
Imagine how life would be without trial-and-error. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and human resources, and professor of education, expressed this concept and belief best during his lecture at the 2006 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference when he said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
Robinson cites Dr. Maria Montessori in his lecture’s bibliography. Coincidentally, in Montessori Today, author Paula Polk Lillard states “It is psychological security, engendered in part by a properly structured environment, which gives children the impulse to try harder to face the unknown, including the unpleasant facts of life. The goal is to help children use their human energies to deal with the failures and disappointments of their lives and not be destroyed by them.”
This past fall, Dr. Howard Gardner spoke to the faculty and staff at my school about his theory on multiple intelligences. By placing emphasis on intelligences and abilities beyond the traditional understanding of intelligence, he broadens the scope of how we assess ourselves and our children. So, rather than focusing solely on linguistic and quantitative reasoning intelligences, he posits that human intelligence goes beyond the two and includes artistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic intelligences. Gardner helps to diffuse the definition of failure, and offers more avenues for children — and adults — to diversify their abilities and move beyond stringent definitions of success and failure. In his closing to those assembled, he displayed a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson “Character is more important than intellect.”
In the 2008 winter issue of this magazine, the article “Brainology” highlighted the value of trial-and-error in child development. (You can navigate to www.nais.org to see the full article). Author, Carol Dwek, researched the differences in children who have a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset about intelligence. Children with a fixed mindset believe “that intelligence is fixed, that each person has a certain amount and that’s that” while children with a growth mindset “believe that intelligence is a potential that can be realized through learning. As a result, confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks become ways of getting smarter.” Dweck’s article went on to say that “[children] understand that Einstein wasn’t Einstein until he put in years of focused hard work.”
How our children persevere challenges and overcome failure determine how successful they will become later on in life. I think Ralph Corlis had the right idea when he said, “It’s important to know how to lose because you do a lot of it when you grow up.”
I was their age when I heard President Kennedy's speech, and I can distinctly remember the same hopes for change that now fill their adolescent lives. Along with "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." our 35th President prophetically stated in reference to other countries "But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."
Similar to President Kennedy's words, how wonderful that our students heard President Obama's inauguration speech declare "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." and "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."
At Friday's school assembly, students helped faculty, staff, and parents understand an era of our country's history, by reading from Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and from President Elect (very soon to be President) Obama's New Hampshire, January 8, 2008 "Yes We Can" speech.
Students gave their own beautifully inspirational dreams and changes they hope for.
I often stream WCRB Boston on my computer while I am working. It plays light classical music.
Recently, while listening, I heard a favorite that is perfect for helping young people appreciate classical music. Percy Grainger's "Country Garden" became popular in the beginning of the 20th Century and helped make him famous and financially secure. See what you think of the piece.
This article first appeared in M: The Magazine for Montessori Families in January/February 2007.
Do any of these voices sound familiar to you?
“Why are you always checking up on me?” “I can do it myself.” “I’m not on the computer. Don’t you trust me?” “Stacey’s mother lets her go by herself.” “Give me a break. I’ll do my homework.”
“I don’t think you should be at the movies by yourself.” “No way young man. You’re not being honest with me.” “This has gone on long enough. Clean it up.” “Don’t use that kind of language in this house.” “What was that I found in your drawer?”
Conversations with your middle school child ebb and flow, often depending on her/his frame of mind, a.k.a. mood. The middle school years — say, ages 11 to 15 — are the most difficult years in a human being’s life. Fraught with anxiety, confusion, rejection, and desperation and yet, balanced by elation, rapid growth, bounding confidence, and determination, these years are often the roller coaster ride of life that establish patterns that solidify the critical developmental years of high school and college. Over the past 30 years, I have worked with middle school children and parents and have seen patterns emerge — patterns based on observations, parent and child conversations, reading, professional development, and personal life experiences. The more I see and hear about the vagaries of raising middle school children, the more I am convinced that no matter how society changes, events during these tough years are fairly predictable. Unfortunately, predictability lessens with increased personal and family complexities.
Here are a few patterns I’ve observed over the years:
• How adults manage their lives provides important modeling and foundations for middle school children. Parents and their relationship with each other, friends, and children can provide the anchors for erratic middle school mood swings and nagging uncertainties.
• For the most part, the sixth grade to seventh grade transition is the toughest for girls, while boys’ toughest transition begins in the eighth grade . . . some of it because of the increased attention given to them by girls.
• When they are left on their own, middle school children want answers, and when they can’t get them from their parents they go directly to their peer group and draw opinions and notions from the media.
• Regulating the use of technology in the home has presented innumerable challenges to parents and schools and has presented, yet, one more point of contention in raising the middle school child.
• Parents and teachers often resort to blaming each other when the middle school child’s behavior is erratic, unpredictable, or disruptive to the family or classroom.
• It’s not all hormones that cause the vagaries of preadolescent children. The latest research on brain development demonstrates an inextricable link between behavior and development. (Read Barbara Strauch’s The Primal Teen to learn what is being discovered about brain research in teens.)
• Middle school children need understanding and latitude, especially when they are challenged by their peer group. Likewise, failures along the way are inevitable and challenge children repeatedly. (Read Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogul and “A Nation of Wimps” by Hara Estroff Marano in Nov/Dec 2004 Psychology Today Magazine to gain some important perspective.)
• Growing/changing bodies are an excellent barometer for children’s increasing self-consciousness about their looks, what they say, and how they are perceived by others; their world becomes magnified. They are particularly sensitive to criticism throughout these years.
• Uncertainty abounds as children and parents grapple with boundaries, freedom, affection for each other, and how to continue to love one another during this difficult time.
• Parents often defend their child with the statement, “My child always tells the truth.” but inevitably question this statement and constantly vacillate between supporting their child and finding the truth.
• Parents, particularly when it is their oldest child, are daunted by the struggle between giving up the attachment to their child and holding on for a little bit longer. The child’s friends and school are often the scapegoat as the parent searches for reasons why their child is initiating and persistent in the separation process.
Our adult, parent world is so different than a middle schooler’s world. Often our impressions of their world are based on our own personal experiences tainted by today’s media. So, accepting the patterns above can give us a better understanding of what is happening to our children and provide perspective in how we raise our children.
Based on the stated patterns above and to help us engage in positive, less emotional, and thoughtful conversations with our middle school child, here are a few basic suggestions to consider:
• Like Brer Rabbit’s briar patch tussle with Brer Bear in the movie “Song of the South,” the middle school child begs for freedom and no discipline but this is exactly what the child needs . . . AND wants. How much easier it is for them to say, “My dorky parents would kill me if they caught me smoking.” and be silently grateful in the end when they don’t have to engage in an activity they know is inappropriate.
• The middle school child’s fight between self-centeredness and being thoughtful of others’ needs is an on-going battle. Parents need to appreciate this battle and be flexible. Innately, middle school children are good, frightened, and gain strength from helping others. (Read “How to be Popular” by Dierdre Dolan in the April 24, 2001 New York Times Magazine to see how one eighth grade class proves this.)
• Preparing an environment that is structured and predictable with flexibility and freedom to explore can provide the optimal setting for the middle school child. Two examples: 1) Without parental prompting or badgering, children must have their weekend homework completed before Sunday dinner. Progress can be monitored by parent-teacher communication, progress reports, and periodic inspection of graded work. 2) Children attend the movies or shop at the mall accompanied by parents, but once inside, the children can move about on their own, checking in with the adult at periodic intervals.
• Understand that there are nature AND nurture forces working on your middle school child. Unfortunately, there often is no predictability to what works when.
• It is especially important to be a good observer and to listen to your child. We, as parents, often want to give our children the answers — our answers, but all they really want is to have someone hear their story. Through observations and listening, establish a baseline for your child’s behavior, then use that baseline as a barometer for measuring subsequent behavior. When their behavior is not in line with the baseline, extend your antennae for closer observations and listening.
• Use all available resources to give you perspective. Teachers, other education professionals, other parents, and pediatricians are important, readily available advisors. Read, read, and read all that you can about preadolescent and adolescent children. Good young adult books can be very insightful. (Read Kira, Kira by Cythia Kadohata, which is the latest Newberry Medal winner.) Outside perspective can give you the confidence, rationale, and conviction you need to deal with your child.
• The behavior you see today will not last forever. Deposit your child’s good behavior in the bank, and get ready to make withdrawals repeatedly, always trying to maintain a positive balance.
• I believe that we need to embrace two assumptions when raising a middle school child: 1) they are good people and they are trying their best to please their parents and teachers; 2) our children at one time or another will distort the truth as they make their way from childhood to adults. It is up to us to carefully guide our discussions and actions with our children so that they are not forced into positions of having to be untruthful to us AND themselves. Avoid placing undue pressure on them. (Read The Pressured Child by Michael Thompson.)
• Above all, provide unconditional love for your middle school child — even when it isn’t warranted. Know that you have to set aside your own desires to feed their voracious needs. They must know that they are the most important people in your life. One fool-proof way to demonstrate this importance and love is to have your evening meals together as a family — no excuses . . . for anyone.
Keeping in mind all of the above and with understanding, patience, patience and more patience, middle school children and their parents can have conversations using:
“Thanks for understanding. I get it now.” “I’m sorry but I am so unsure. Thanks for agreeing with Dad on this.” “You’re right. I shouldn’t have jumped the gun.” “Can we talk about this later?” “I do trust you.” “I love you.”
I love to see children’s faces when they look at my bow tie. You can see the quizzical look as they grapple with the tie’s unconventional appearance, and you can almost make out their lips as they say, “Hey, buddy, get a life. What’s with that thing under your chin?” Well, I should heed my little friends’ wisdom and think about changing to traditional ties. This all came through loud and clear to me one day . . .
The Head of the Middle School and I were standing by the front door one morning, greeting parents and children, when I noticed two behemoth sanitation trucks parked where our buses pull up to the curb to drop off our children. Knowing that the trucks' drivers were probably around the corner in Bagel World, I said to my colleague that I would be right back. As I trundled around the corner, I did give thought to the fact that I was wearing a bow tie and my sanitation engineer friends might not take kindly to my interrupting their coffee break with an irksome request. Anyway, I moved toward the entrance to Bagel World and was caught short as soon as I stepped into the shop. Directly to my left, sitting at the corner table, were four men clad in green NYC Sanitation Department sweatshirts; they were engrossed in conversation, enjoying their morning coffee and breakfast treats. “Excuse me,” I said in a somewhat squeaky voice. “Could you move your trucks? They’re blocking the area where our busses drop off our children.”
It was the hefty, buzz-cut gentleman who looked at me and mumbled “&*$@#” - which I think meant something like what my young friends were trying to tell me. I backed away and smiled, hoping that they took me seriously and moved their vehicles. I sauntered back to my station to continue my greeting duties. As I explained my experience to Bill, our facilities manager, he made very clear to me in a fatherly way but with a chuckle, “Dane, bow tie or no bow tie, this is New York. You have to speak up if you want something done.”
They did send the junior member of the crew out to move one of the trucks. I chalked up their response to the fact that because children were involved, they did acquiesce to my appeal. In the end, I did resolve to continue to wear bow ties because I like them; give greater credence to the advice of my little friends; and send Bill the next time a message needs to be sent to a sanitation crew.
Dr. Dweck sets the tone of her book right from the beginning when she writes “A little note about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven’t always followed it in this book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences with prepositions. . . I’ve done this for informality and immediacy, and I hope that the sticklers will forgive me.”
I believe this is what makes this book so accessible for so many readers. Shame on those fixed mindset thinkers who cannot get past the documentation, research, and data crunching that go along with scholarly books.
Using athletes and business leaders, Dweck offers example after example to help the reader understand the differences between fixed mindset and growth mindset and how the latter will prevail in the lives of those who are more likely to experience long-lasting satisfaction and success in life.