I learned, or rather re-learned, a couple of important lessons about working with adolescents recently and I've been thinking about them quite often.
The other day, I received a wonderful, detailed three-page thank-you letter from a student in which she very sweetly detailed the things she and other students appreciated. (Incidentally, this was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me and I relished every word! But that's a different story).
Besides being really wonderful on a personal level, this also gave me the opportunity to get some insight into the kinds of things that adolescents value and appreciate.
As I read and re-read this letter, I was fascinated by something. Almost everything she thought significant enough to mention was something that most adults would probably consider to be on the smaller, less-significant side of what a teacher does for students. In fact, I was a little surprised by the things that she remembered and noted.
This dear student didn't mention the big, life-changing sort of thing. Rather, she mentioned things like buying the students pizza at the end of a long dress rehearsal, or keeping a cabinet of snacks they can access during after-school rehearsals. Calling them silly nicknames or just being cheerful. Being patient and not angry when someone makes a mistake--even a big one. Laughing along with them at things they think are funny
Of all the things she listed, there was only one thing that an adult would have considered to be terribly serious or significant.
That's the first lesson. When I teach kids, I am going into their territory, trying to get them to follow me to mine. I'm not one of these romantics about kids--I don't think they are superior to adults and I don't think the world would be better if we acted like kids. I think our job is to lead them to adulthood.
That being said, we have to start where they are. We have to respect what is important to them and we have to try to speak their language, so to speak (not literally. Nothing is worse than an adult who tries to use cool teen vernacular. In fact, I do this as a way to annoy my daughter. It's so grating)
The second lesson I learn comes from looking for the common pattern in all these things she mentioned. I see a few things, and they teach me a great deal.
There is a line Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol that I really like. Scrooge, seeing his first employer says, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil."
It occurred to me that adolescents spend their lives in a situation where they are always the subordinate. They are (and should be!) under the direction of adults--parents, teachers, coaches.
But when I think of how completely we adults control their world, I consider the quote from Dickens. We, the adults, have tremendous power to make their lives happy or unhappy. I find that quite sobering and need to remember that. It is so easy to snap when I'm in a bad mood or to act irrationally. And being human, this will happen. And sometimes I think it needs to, honestly. But it makes me consider very carefully whether I make them happy or unhappy when they are under my authority.
I think perhaps that is why this student, and presumably, her peers, responded so much to these ostensibly little things. I suspect that getting pizza made them feel cared for and valued--that they were important. I don't know that they really sense that a lot. They may hear it, but I'm not sure how often we model that they really are important.
Third lesson: I also really believe that most adults (myself included) do not fully realize just how much adolescents value fun, nor how important fun can be.
There is an old quote that one hears often about children and play: "The work of childhood is play." The idea is that children learn what they need to learn by engaging in play, that they develop in important ways by playing--physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and so on.
I am coming to believe that the work adolescents is fun. I'm serious about that. I believe that in many ways, adolescents learn and develop by having fun. Adolescents are under so many pressures--social, physical, academic--and I think fun helps relax that pressure temporarily. I really believe it is the language they speak.
This reminds me that if I really want them to learn something deeply, to remember something, that I need to make it fun.
I believe that some day my students will also realize that I taught them some bigger, more serious things. I've certainly been trying to do that.
But this letter reminded me that when I'm trying to teach adolescents, when I want to reach them, I need to meet them on their terms--and those terms involve fun, snacks, and laughter. And if I meet them there, they might listen to me when I want to speak. And I would do well not to minimize the things that get me on their ground as trivial.
In my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of parenting and teaching is finding the balance between holding firm to limits and when to be a little flexible. As a new parent and teacher, I erred on the side of holding with adamantine firmness and no yielding. When that didn't work and had some undesirable results, I went through a phase where I was constantly negotiating and changing. That didn't work either.
I don't pretend to have found "the" answer on this one. It's tough, and I think it changes a bit with the personalities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of each child, student, or class.
But I have made some progress over the years and I feel like I have found a few principles that help guide me.
Let me frame this with a quick anecdote that illuminates the ideas I want to mention.
Last week I had a truly enjoyable class with my 8th graders. We worked on some challenging pieces, accomplished most of what I had hoped to musically, and we also had fun. I don't mean that anyone left saying, "Wow, chorus was just like a party today!" However, there were lots of smiles and laughter, and generally a good spirit in the room. Class ended leaving me feeling good and from their faces and the tones of their conversations as they left, I think they felt good too. In between working, they joked around, were silly, and made me--and themselves laugh. But we also got the work done. In my book, that's a perfect class period.
I've had this group of students now for three years. To be very frank, in 6th grade they drove me crazy. They were unfocused, undisciplined, and honestly, didn't sound all that great. In 7th grade, especially this time last year, they pushed me to the brink of madness and professional despair.
It's a large class--just under 40 of them. You can imagine with that many spirited, energetic middle school kids, it doesn't take much to create distractions and sustained, focused effort was difficult to come by.
There were times when I was so mad at them! Times I wanted to penalize them with demerits or harangues or grade deductions or Biblical plagues. Times I was furious. And I know there were times when I wasn't as patient as I should have been, or when I reacted more harshly than I would have wished.
Generally, though, I did not lose my temper or react in anger. My method was to set a few rules and then try to enforce them. If someone was out of line, he or she lost a point or two for each infraction. Often, I would have the student stay after class and we'd discuss what the misbehavior had been, what a better choice would have been, etc. This seemed the best way to me--even though it didn't yield immediate results.
Often times, I didn't feel I was doing enough and felt like a bad teacher. If I were a good teacher, I thought, I would be stricter. They would behave and there would never be any doubt who was in control. I never acted this way with my teachers when I was a kid...
At times, I felt ineffective, guilty, frustrated, and incompetent.
And then they became 8th graders. Greater maturity and self-control kicked in and both their willingness and ability to follow the rules and engage in class increased steadily--to the point that we can have fun and do good work.
Happily, in those years when they were growing, I preserved my relationship with them. There is, I think, trust between us. I love them dearly and I'd like to think they like me okay too. I think that some of them even try harder because of the relationship, and are more open to doing the things I want them to do. Our final concert is Tuesday night and I'm really excited for it. I think it's going to be good--which is, of course, what the goal was all along.
I've come to believe that children and adolescents as not being able to meet many adult expectations. The job of parents and teachers is to help the child grow until s/he can function as an adult. But that takes time.
While they are growing, we have to set limits. I don't think that a child just emerges as a responsible adult with no input. I think they need guidance, limits, consequences, and discipline.
If they never have limits and consequences, they will most likely not make the right choices even when maturity gives them the ability to do so.
But I also think that there are times when the priority needs to be preserving your relationship so that you can come back and try another day, when time and maturity has helped them. In these cases, a tactical retreat may be your best friend.
If you fight too hard too early on you risk alienating them. I've done that. And once that relationship is damaged, it is very difficult to repair. I've had classes in which I came down too hard too often and I was never able to repair that. These classes never quite achieved all they might have, even when they were mature enough to be able to do so. I won a few battles, but lost the war.
I've learned that when I hold the line on something and refuse to yield, I often find, upon reflection, that it was a turf battle and not a real matter of important principle. That is, I have often found myself holding the line simply because I was going to show them who was boss. There are times when that's necessary. I'm not advocating just letting kids do whatever they want. And I think there need to be consequences when they make mistakes. But I've also learned to mis-trust my own judgement about what is important and what is not worth the fight.
Here are a few questions that help me navigate this tricky minefield:
1. What is my long-term, over-all objective here? Is it to have quiet in class, or is it to prepare for a concert? Is it to show them I'm boss, or to help them learn to respect legitimate authority and monitor their own behavior? I find that in the heat of the moment, I often confuse means and ends and end up going into battle for fairly trivial means and end up losing the war over the end.
2. Is there another way of achieving the long-term objective? Possibly more effective, and perhaps one we can identify together?
3. In the current situation, which is more likely to help achieve the long-term objective--holding my ground on the issue at hand no matter what, or preserving the relationship? I should note that there are times as a parent and teacher where I held my ground and felt it was more important than preserving the relationship.
4. Is there a way to make this win-win? I've noticed that I sometimes tempted to respond from a place where I'm preserving my authority, where I'm not going to let the little beasts get away with something, or because I'm angry--none of which are usually effective. The thing is that kids are the same. Just as adults/parents/teachers do that, I've noticed kids will dig in their heels and refuse to respond just to show you that you can't break them. These kind of confrontations are usually unwinnable. You might end up getting the short-term objective, but almost always damage the relationship and the long term goal.
5. Am I acting out of anger, hurt feelings, or disappointment? When I'm mad or disappointed, I nearly never make the right call. Ever. I have come to realize that when I'm agitated, I have terrible judgment.
I spent the last two weeks writing about how important it is not to coddle and over-protect your child (here
) and then suggested some times that it might be appropriate to intervene (here
). Before I move on and leave the subject altogether, let me offer a cautionary tale from some years ago that, for me, puts it all into perspective.
This is really a tragic story and it makes me sad to write it, but I think it's important because it can prevent other people from suffering the same fate. It's a story I've pondered often in my own parenting efforts.
I once had a student who was a wonderful child in many ways. The student was talented, bright, and full of possibilities. This student had loving parents and the parents were enamored with their child. Everything the child did was celebrated and the parents worked hard to create a wonderful life for the child.
During the child's later middle school years, some small, problematic behaviors began to occur. Nothing major, but some less-than-ideal things. This is normal--it happens with every child as they work through puberty and the attendant stresses.
However, the parent made a critical mistake. Parent began to intervene. Instead of listening to the teachers and others who brought the behaviors to light, Parent became argumentative and felt that teachers were attacking Child. Parent began running interference for child--celebrating every achievement and ignoring the less-positive feedback.
Child began to grow entitled and felt untouchable and started to make some even less-desirable choices. Child eventually took some actions that led to more formal discipline by the school. Still nothing major--a serious talk and detention hall.
Parent was outraged. Furious. Felt it was unfair, unwarranted, and so on. Fought it every step of the way.
It will not surprise you to learn that Child grew up with a strong sense of entitlement. This had an impact on the way Child acted--more and more spoiled and disagreeable. Whenever natural consequences came, Parent intervened, seeing every disagreement in which the Child was involved as a conflict between justice and injustice. Even formerly trusted sources and advisors were shunned because they gave advice and counsel that was too hard and direct to be listened to and did not sufficiently celebrate Child.
Fast-forward a few years. Child struggled in high school. Teachers were impervious to parental pressure. Peers shunned Child, who had now become spoiled and engaged in self-defeating social behaviors and was unable to keep or maintain friendships. Worse, every action Parent and Child took to rectify the social situation actually made it worse.
But here is the tragedy: Parent was totally and completely unable to help Child. Parent couldn't see what was going on because Parent had become habituated to running interference and protecting Child from every blow. Parent saw every adversity as an injustice to be fought and a personal attack.
Child was bitterly unhappy, unable to function successfully and no one could help because those closest didn't see the problem. And Parent had effectively taught Child not to listen to or take criticism from anyone else. So Child was stuck and kept making choices that made the situation worse. I remember watching and thinking, "How can you do that?" but, like others, I was no longer a welcome source of advice or feedback so my hands were tied. It was very frustrating to watch and see--and not be able to help.
Everyone around Child could not believe Child or Parent could be so blind. No one could help, though, because those who cared enough to be honest were shunned and seen as the enemy.
This may seem an extreme situation, and I agree that the outcome is not common. However, it started out with very normal behaviors and giving in to very normal parental temptations. Those behaviors then became habits and it grew and grew.
This is something I try to keep in mind in my own parenting. In addition to the list of warning signs I posted earlier, I have thought of an additional sign: if you hear something from a teacher or coach, or the parent of a peer, listen. Sure, maybe they hate your child and have an axe to grind. But in my experience, that is fairly rare. Listen and watch. Maybe what they say is unfounded. But if you hear the same thing from multiple sources, you do your child no favors if you ignore it.
Last week I wrote a pos
t in which I suggested that many parents were causing problems for their children by coddling them far too much. The basic idea was that many parents habitually intervene, solving their child’s problems instead of allowing their child the growth that comes with solving their own problems and dealing with unpleasant consequences. I suggested that parents might usefully see themselves as coaches instead of shock absorbers, coaching their child on how to solve their problems instead of intervening.
The response to this post was gratifying and I received a lot of very good feedback. Along with that feedback, a number of people asked if there were ever times to intervene and so I wanted to spend a little time on that today. If we accept the idea that children should usually solve their own problems and experience the consequences of their bad decisions, when should a parent jump in?
Obviously, there is no hard and fast rule that will be universally true with every child. Still, my experience as a teacher (in which I've watched other people's mistakes) and a parent (in which I've made my own mistakes) suggests a few principles.
Let’s begin with this premise: when you solve your child’s problems for them, or when you intervene in their life, you are doing harm. You are robbing your child of the ability to develop problem-solving skills and to gain the confidence and growth that comes with solving problems for his or herself.
So, every intervention has a potentially negative side effect. Like medicine, however, sometimes those side effects might be a worthwhile trade-off. So, I think you have to approach every situation by asking if the benefit outweighs the side effects. Is the situation so important that assuring a specific outcome outweighs the negative consequences of intervening?
Let me give two examples. A few years ago, my son was playing football and injured his back. The doctor said he could continue to work out with the team provided he avoided some specific lifts. The coach, however, put pressure on my son to continue those lifts.
In my opinion, this was a case where parental intervention was warranted. The potential for my son to have long term back problems far outweighed my concerns that he learn to solve his own problems.
Another child struggled for a number of years with an authority figure. This particular child encountered the authority figure frequently and was convinced the authority figure disliked them. This child asked us to intervene but we refused. We offered suggestions and coaching but never actually intervened. We felt like this was a case where the long-term consequences were not sufficiently grave to overrule the child’s chance to learn and grow.
Not every case is as clear-cut as those two. I have noticed a lot of parents get a bit tied in knots when the actual situation is minimal, but could have potential long-term implications. For example: The child in question failed a test. The parents concede one bad grade is not a big deal. However, failing that test might lead to the child being removed from an advanced math class and that could have problems for getting into a good college, etc .
The problem is that if you apply this sort of “if/then” thinking, you can get worked up about anything. Almost any normal bump in the road can be a crisis if you project in a straight-line about the potential consequences. “If she gets kicked out of honors math, then she won’t be considered for Valedictorian. If she isn’t Valedictorian, then she won’t be as competitive for college…” If you have to go more than two if/thens into the future, chances are that the situation is not all that serious.
There’s another question, though. Let’s accept the premise that failing a math test means your child won’t get into a good college. That might mean that child is not a good fit for that college. Put another way, colleges accept/reject potential students because they think those students will succeed or fail there. If constant parental intervention is the only way your child will get into a particular school, chances are that your child will not be successful or happy there.
The reality is that getting a degree from a top tier college is not a requirement to having a happy, fulfilling life and successful career.
However, having the ability to solve one’s own problems, having confidence, and being strong enough to experience and overcome adversity are requirements to having happy, fulfilling lives and successful careers.
Think about that for a minute. In intervening in order to help their children with ultimately unimportant achievements, coddling parents actually are sabotaging what they hope for their child: a good life.
The reality is that most successful people have struggled, usually greatly before achieving success. In fact, I don’t think I have heard of a super-successful person who did not go through a period of profound difficulty, usually more than one.
I do not believe that a bad test grade, or even a bad report card grade will really ruin a child’s life for years to come.
So, when should you intervene?
1. When your child is in danger of physical injury.
2. When your child is in an asymmetrical conflict with important stakes. For example, if your child is in a serious conflict with an authority figure, you might need to level the playing field. I would not assume this is the case, though. In fact, I would assume this is not the case until I had convincing and repeated evidence. Note that both the asymmetry of power and the important stakes matter. I had a child once who had a teacher that didn’t like her. I didn’t believe her at first, but over time came to think that the teacher just really didn’t like her. However, the teacher in question didn’t grade her unfairly or anything. It was unpleasant, but not serious, so we just let it ride. It was a good experience for her growth. Sadly, not everyone will like us through our lives. Had the teacher consistently graded her unfairly because he didn’t like her, then I might have gotten involved.
3. When a decision has a serious chance to cause long-term and irreparable damage to your child (note: claiming emotional damage because they didn’t get playing time or didn’t get a good part in the play does not count).
A caution: if I am totally honest, I will admit that my feelings are closely tied up in my children. If someone hurts them, I feel it. If someone is unkind or unfair, I feel it. Consequently, it is so easy to end up responding based on how I feel. Sadly, when I do this, I am almost always wrong. Responding to situations because I feel emotionally involved almost guarantees I will make the wrong decision.
First of all, if you haven't yet, go down and see the pictures from The Little Mermaid.
To me, it is pure middle school magic! Also, click here to find out how you can win an advance copy of Penumbras, the sequel to the Kindling
Now, with that out of the way, I want to address an important and serious subject. Over the years, I have had students I feel very confident will succeed and students about whom I worry a great deal.
There are two or three things that really make me worry. One of the top worries I have is about over-protective parents--a setting which seems more and more to be the default. These parents seem to see themselves as portable shields, designed and required to run interference for, shelter, and protect their children from any disappointment, danger, harm, or even unpleasantness and mild inconvenience. I really believe this sets up the child for a lifetime of serious problems, and that's why I'm writing about it in very candid terms.
Many of these parents have considerable resources and are able to do a very good job of being shields. And that is the tragedy. They shield their children from these things, but in the end, they shield their children from growth, challenge, achievement, and the ability to solve problems.
Life is hard. It is a constant challenge. Most of us have to spend our lives figuring out how to make it work, how to get by, how to solve our problems. The older we get, the more challenging life becomes, and the larger and more complex those problems are.
I've seen this in my theatre program over the years, although I have heard similar stories from coaches and teachers of all disciplines.
I once had a parent call me to tell me their child, who was quite talented, could not come to rehearsal. It was an important rehearsal and I asked why the child would miss. Well, Child didn't feel well. Was there a fever? No, but the child was kind of snotty and the throat was a bit irritated, just didn't feel great. Turned out the child had allergies. I had to explain that the child would need to come to rehearsal. The parent seemed truly stunned.
Another time, a student hurt his/her finger before rehearsal. It was not broken, no medical attention was required. Nothing could be done but wait for it to get better. Unpleasant, even painful, but not materially or functionally not useable. We had a major rehearsal that day, but the parent insisted on taking the child home.
Guess who I can never trust with a major role? I say that not out of malice or pique, but rather because that child is now very weak, not having had chances to push through problems and grow stronger.
Sometimes I see very talented kids who are emotionally weak because their parents have coddled and cosseted them so much, always running interference. These kids, talented though they may be, will never get more than a very minor role because they can't handle the stress
. Sometimes the most mild criticism, or even a small snafu like a costume problem will send them off into tears. There is no way that they could handle the stress of a leading role. It would be cruel to them--they would buckle and break under all that pressure.
Ideally, if you are lucky, you have parents who prepare you for this by letting you grow and develop your problem-solving skills. Ideally, parents let you fail and fall. They keep you from serious danger, but they allow you to trip and skin your knee. They don't intervene when a friend is unkind, or when you don't make the team. If you get in trouble at school, they ensure you are fairly treated but don't push teachers or administrators to make changes for you.
If you are lucky, your parents seem themselves as coaches who help you navigate problems, not as shields who will protect you from the problems. The exception, of course, is if a child has some kind of special need, for which persistent advocating may be needed. Even then, I do think that the more autonomous they can be, the happier they will become. I'm not talking about those situations, however.
The flaw with the shield approach is that no parent will be able to protect their child forever from everything. Eventually, problems will break through. And that child, no matter how old, will be ill-suited to deal with them.
Here's the problem, though. When I explain this to people, they nod and agree. What I'm saying seems obvious and makes sense to most parents--and it's easy to spot in other people. However, many of those people who do the nodding then turn around and coddle and shield their child in the most obvious ways.
Of course, as a parent, our instincts are to jump in and protect our child. And there are times we have to. That's our job. So, how do we know if we are being appropriately protective, or too much of a coddler?
I don't have all the answers, but I've been observing parents now for a long time, both as a teacher and as parent, myself. Here are a few thoughts I have, these are symptoms that you might be too much of a shield and not doing enough supporting and coaching. I use these questions to perform my own regular self-analysis. As I wrote these out, I saw a few areas where I need to pull back a bit.
1. Who has the most contact with your child's teachers/coaches/other adults? You, or them?
2. If your child has a problem getting homework done or preparing for a test, is your response to ask for an exception or to help your child see the bad grade as a lesson learned?
3. If you do ask for an exception, who asks--the child or you?
4. How often do you find yourself asking for exceptions to policies (school, team, classroom, etc.)?
5. When an exception is warranted, who does the asking, you or the child?
6. If your child does not get enough playing time in their sport, or a good part in the play, or a desired grade, etc., is your reaction to focus on the teacher/coach/director and their choices, or to analyze what your child may or may not be doing?
7. If a discussion is warranted, will you have the discussion, or will you prep your child to have it?
8. Do you feel that your child deserves the best, regardless of his or her efforts?
9. When your child is upset, do you spend more time giving comfort or more time helping examine the extent to which their actions may have contributed to the problem and looking for ways to prevent similar problems in the future?
10. Do you spend a lot of time managing, directing, or intervening in your child's social life?
11. Do you take personally the amount of friends that your child has?
12. When your child has a social problem, do you assume it is the other child's fault, or do you have a sense of your child's weaknesses and how they might contribute?
13. Do you see your child as a wonderful, nearly perfect gift, or as a lovable but flawed human in need of frequent guidance and correction?
14. Do you feel that your child's success in elementary and middle school is very important and a high priority?
15. Is your job to protect your child from problems or to coach them through challenges?
16. Do you frequently let your child miss or go late to school or other commitments so they can sleep in because they seem a little tired (not talking about being sick)?
17. Do you frequently find yourself feeling that your child is just not valued by multiple people in their lives? Coaches, teachers, etc.?
18. Are people out to get your child?
19. Do teachers, coaches, and others frequently fail to see just how gifted your child is?
This isn't a scientific test, but these are some warning signs. Answering some of them may just mean you are a cautious parent. We all do some of these things at times. I think the persistence of behavior is important. If these things happen a lot, then it's possibly a problem and calls for careful self-reflection.
A key indicator to me is the amount of intervention you are doing and about what. If you have a folder full of emails to teachers asking for exceptions, explaining special circumstances, detailing why something's not fair--the chances are pretty high you are coddling (assuming your child does not have some kind of special need--that is a different story altogether). This is especially true if you are intervening repeatedly in things that don't really matter--or won't in a few weeks or months (eg, playing time in a game, grades on a test, role in a play, mild disciplinary issues, etc).
If you answered in a way that suggests you are spending a lot of time intervening in your child's life, or if you see them as usually being the innocent in every problem, you are probably shielding them too much. You might serve your child well by reflecting on this. Maybe even talk to someone you trust and asking their opinion (be ready for honesty, though).
I know it's hard to allow your child to struggle and hurt. I hate doing it! But they need the experience now if they are going to be happy and successful. Hard times during adolescence nourish the soul, allowing it to grow big and strong.
A butterfly cannot fly without the strength that comes from its long struggle to fight to emerge from the chrysalis. Without that opposition, it ends up weak and stunted, unable to do more than flutter on the ground a bit. Don't rob your child of the chance to fly!
Learn to say, "I'm so sorry. What do you think you could have done to make that situation better?" or "Why don't we talk about some ways you can fix this problem?" or "You need to talk to Coach So-and-so or Mrs. Such-and-Such. Why don't we think of some things you can say." "I know it's hard, and I'm sorry you are hurting. I love you very much. I know you can work this out. Do you have any ideas..." "This was a choice you made, and it brought a consequence. Do you see what the choice was? If you would like a different consequence, what different choice could you make?"
And so on.
Maybe next week we'll talk about when, why, and how to intervene.
When I was in 7th grade, I had an experience that may seem mild as you read it, but to me, it was traumatic to the point I still remember it.
Two days before Christmas break (what we called it back then), my history class had a substitute. In the way that kids do, we sensed weakness and the whole class went crazy. Like, literally. Talking, shouting, throwing things, and so forth. It was a complete and total rebellion. My heart breaks for this woman now. But at the time, it was a lot of fun. Especially for a kid like me--a rather tame, shy, rule-follower. I was not one of the ring-leaders and my contribution was fairly mild by comparison--I believe I sang "Jingle Bells" at the top of my lungs. Pretty heady stuff indeed.
The next day, the teacher got back. And the ring-leader was found out. He was sent to see Mr. Reese, the Vice-Principal. As he was marched off, a dread silence fell over the rest of the classroom. Especially when the intercom beeped and the ring-leader's sidekick was requested. The period progressed like this--every few minutes the intercom beeped and another wrong- doer was invited to go see Mr. Reese.
Those of us who were on the bottom rungs of the insurrection started to see where this was heading. The big dogs got taken first. Then, using some terrible and nefarious methods, Mr. Reese was getting them to name names. They folded like camp chairs and sang like canaries
Mr. Reese worked with brutal efficiency and before long, I had been summoned down to his office. I'd never been there before. The dread was I made my way back there almost choked me. This was where really bad kids went. And there I was! I felt like Luke Skywalker going to face the Emperor (except for the matter that I was the bad person in this scenario. But anyway...)
Panic rushed through me and I had what I recognize now as an anxiety attack. I can still remember the pattern of the wood panelling behind his desk. He looked at me and said something like, "Brady, I'm surprised at you." I looked at the floor and muttered something. I couldn't think, let alone talk.
My punishment? Oh, that man was ghoulish, I tell you. Cruel! I was to go home and tell my parents what I had done. They were to sign a note indicating that I had discussed the incident with them. And I was to return it to Mr. Reese.
Oh, the horrors!!!!!! My anxiety blossomed to full-blown panic. This was not going to go over well. My parents were not okay with misbehavior in school and I knew it. I was going to be in BIG trouble (a brief divgression here. Remember the days when kids were terrified of parental reaction to their misbehavior in school? In our current moment, the parents not only don't generally punish misbehavior, they get mad at the teacher. Reverse this, and you would reverse many problems in education today).
I left to start my Christmas break with a growing pit in my stomach. I knew I was going to be in trouble. Big trouble. I thought about the note I needed to get signed. Should I do it that night? No. No sense in starting the break off with a major punishment. I kept procrastinating. Over and over. Not tonight. Wait until after Christmas. And on and on. I had a truly miserable two weeks, torturing myself over and over with what my parents were going to do.
One especially miserable night we went to visit my aunt and uncle, whom I adored. But they had a section of wood panelling in their living room that looked exactly like the panelling in Mr. Reese's office. I just sat on the couch all night wanting to be swallowed up and disappear forever.
This was such a powerful experience that I can still feel the dread and fear, the terrible anxiety. In fact, a certain pattern of wood panelling will send me into a cold sweat.
I'm not sure exactly why I was so scared. But I was terrified and that was a very miserable Christmas break. I don't remember much about beyond that it was really unpleasant.
The night before school started again, I forced myself to talk to my dad. If I didn't have the note for Mr. Reese, then Mr. Reese would call him and then I'd be beyond dead.
I made my way to my dad's study. I think my sister went with me for moral support and also so dad wouldn't kill me since I had a witness. They'd never laid a hand on us before, but this time I'd done something REALLY bad so you never knew.
The story poured out of my trembling lips. Dad said something like, "I think you've punished yourself more than I could ever punish you and I don't think you'll ever do this again." And that was it. He signed the note. Done. I took it to Mr. Reese who said something like, "Thank you Brady." He might have added something else along the lines of, "You know I was surprised when they mentioned your name. I sure hope you don't do that again. Say, how's the French Horn coming...." (Yes, I played the French horn. Want to make something of it? Yes, I was a nerd. But Mr. Reese had been a band director and had played the French horn so he often asked me about).
I've thought many times about this experience as I've been in the role of the parent or school official who must hand down discipline. There are two lessons I see in this experience:
1. There are times when students need to be disciplined, period. There need to be consequences for misbehavior. There must be consequences, but there must also be judgment and discretion. I've rarely regretted showing a degree of mercy in discipline. I've learned that the gentlest possible correction is often the best way to start. One can always re-visit and add more stringent consequences if the behavior is repeated. Justice and mercy mix well and compliment each other when dealing with adolescents.
2. No one could have possibly known how traumatic this experience was for me. No one knew all that was going on in my mind. And I'm not sure I could have told them had they asked. Understand that the inner lives of adolescents are highly charged, very emotionally complex places. Your child's emotions are like an iceberg in that you will probably only see a very small part of what is going on. The rest is below the surface. So, be patient. Understand that, regardless of what you see, there is probably an awful lot they are dealing with. It may be illogical, it may not make sense. It might be largely blown out of proportion. But that doesn't change the reality of how they feel and experience it.
If you are the parent of a girl, there is much for you to celebrate. Because of the nature of the subjects I teach (music and theatre) the reality is that most of my students are girls (with some notable, wonderful exceptions) and working with them is a wonderful joy. They are organized and mature, and full of something I can only describe as life and light. When I think of my female students as parents and teachers (which I think of as the highest callings as they are what I do) and leaders of companies or governments, I rejoice. Their intelligence, competence, energy, and deep goodness will be assets to the future and I believe they will change the world in many good ways.
Talking about girls and boys in education is fraught with danger. You are almost sure to offend someone. Sadly, many of these discussions are politically charged and highly polarized. While I welcome civil debate and dialogue, I'm not in the mood for an argument. So, if you want to disagree, you are most welcome. But if you leave a charged, accusatory comment, just know I'll probably delete it. It's sad that we have to throw out so many qualifiers and caveats, but here we go. I want my students of both genders to live happy, fulfilling lives. I think that right now in our culture, boys and girls both face a lot of challenges that could keep them from this goal. Some challenges are general to their age group, while some seem specific to their gender. I think being a parent and a teacher means that you need to be aware of these challenges and act accordingly. I hate the idea that if you try to help your girls, you are anti-boy, or that if you are worried about boys, you are anti-girl. Hogwash. Good teachers and parents care about all of their students equally and are concerned about anything that might rob them of happy lives.
But being equally concerned does not mean that you are concerned about the same things. In large measure, my girl students face one set of challenges, my boy students another. If we are to help them, we have to be honest about this and understand that different cultural phenomena have disparate impacts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and anything I write about girls could we usefully applied to some boys. And vice versa. But at some point, you can get so tied up in knots that you end up not saying anything. And I think this is important.
There is an old cliche about the military--that they always want to fight the last war. I think that to some extent, teachers and parents do the same thing. During the 90s there was a lot of concern about various issues with girls. These issues were discussed and an on-going effort was made to address them. I'm not saying we're done. But at the same time, I think that we're still focused on fighting some of the battles from 20 years ago and are oblivious to some newer threats.
There is one threat that concerns me a great deal because I worry it will rob the girls I teach of the ability to live a happy, successful life. In fact, there are a few things that sometimes keep me up late at night worrying about my students. And this is probably the biggest fear I have for my female students. But I don't hear it spoken about much. I should also note that some boys struggle with this as well, but I don't see it with them nearly as often. I did 20 years ago, but now not so much. Instead, I see this with nearly all my girls.
Let me start by saying that I define success as living a happy life, engaging in productive activity of some kind, helping others, and fulfilling the goals you set for yourself. To me, success is dying someday thinking, "I had a good life."
Imagine a hypothetical middle-class girl coming of age in today's world. Statistics suggest that if she simply follows the cultural mainstream and there are no interventions of any kind, she is likely to do well in school, go on to college, probably advanced degrees, get a job, and will most likely achieve some degree professional success depending on her level of ambition.
The reality today is that a girl who simply floats in the cultural mainstream will most likely be taught in many ways that she should be ambitious, that her ambitions are good, and that she should focus on fulfilling her dreams and goals.
However, this is where things begin to get tricky. There seems to be a lot of attention paid to achieving goals and following dreams, but less so to prioritizing and deciding which of those goals and dreams are worth the effort. Assessing whether it's healthy to do everything. In other words, we are saying very loudly, "You go, girl!" But we are not providing very good roadmaps or direction on exactly where to go or what to do along the way.
I recently read an article about a new phenomenon being observed more frequently: young women in the corporate world, mostly-unmarried and childless, are burning out by the age of 35 or 40. These were women with bright career futures, women who were not generally dividing their efforts between home and work. Experts were at a loss to explain it (although many tried).
I don't pretend to know all the factors, and I'm sure there are many I don't understand. But I have an educated guess at one of the factors.
Many of my female students have difficulty participating in an activity and simply enjoying the intrinsic benefits. Instead, there is an almost frantic focus on achievement and success, as signified through external metrics. For example, every year, I encounter a growing number of students for whom being in the play is not simply an artistic and/or social experience. Rather, it is an important stepping stone. It is a box to check on the resume, and it is important to quantify it. Therefore, having a lead is important, or having an official title.
People have always wanted leads. That is not new. People wanted them for various reasons in the past: personal glory, the excitement of a challenge, personal growth, etc. But now, I feel that students want them because it is important to excel, to achieve and this is one way to denote that. I feel that this is especially true with young women.
In recent years, titles, awards, and other markers of success have been increasingly important. I perceive that students are participating in many activities, not because they are inherently rewarding, but because there is a drive for girls to achieve and excel and to have that measured and quantified in some way.
This is driven, I think by many things. I have noticed that there is a very steady and consistent pressure on young women as early as elementary school. Some of that is parental pressure and I think that comes from three sources. First, I see parents who are justly proud of their daughter's maturity and competence. In celebrating these traits, however, they unwittingly create a situation where their child to prove this over and over. A steady pressure builds, with each success not being celebrated as much as creating a ratcheting effect where the pressure mounts for the next big thing to be equally or more successful. Secondly, some parents are very focused on having their daughters have a resume filled out for college. Thirdly, some parents seem to feel driven that their daughter will compete with any possible boy in any possible endeavor--which means she must excel in every possible activity and endeavor.
Pressure is also exerted by a culture which increasingly tells women they can and should have it all. Many girls seem to have absorbed this cultural message, without ever receiving any guidance that might balance, channel, focus, or help them contextualize it.
So, I see bright, wonderful girls achieving, achieving, achieving at younger ages. At first glance, it's exciting to watch. It's gratifying for parents and teachers and I'm not arguing that we should impose artificial restraints or discourage achievement.
But I do think we need to teach wisdom and balance, provide guidance and context.
Eventually, life teaches us that you can't always be the best. You can't do more and more and still give everything 110%. You can't be valedictorian and the lead in the play and feed the homeless every night and be a champion kick-boxer. At some point, you will wear out and burn out. Energy is a renewable resource only when used carefully. Time, while renewable, is finite and limited.
It used to be that we recognized that some children were good at math. Some were good at art. Some were great at reading. And so on. Now, we seem to want every child (especially girls) to be academic superstars, stand-outs in every subject. While playing travel soccer, doing Tae Kwon Do and saving sea turtles. That sounds exhausting to me.
Not every goal is going to be of value to every life path. I am constantly amazed and delighted by how much young women can do. They have tremendous capacity. But that needs to be carefully watched. Stewardship and judgment are called for. They have long lives ahead. Their childhoods and adolescence should be times of preparation and growth, developing the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources for a long and happy life. Middle and high school should not be the culmination.
Achievement in the early years, should be, I think, a by-product of pursuing joyful activities, and not so much an end in and of itself.
It sounds exhausting to me to begin at a young age and start worrying about achieving and defining success almost solely by external measures. Instead of having a childhood, many female students seem to be having an intense, extended internship. So, yes, if you start being a super-achiever at 10, or younger, then I can see why you would start to burn out at 40. That seems very predictable to me.
I'm all for kids achieving amazing things. I directed my first full-length musical (91 kids) at the age of 15. It set me on my current path and continues to be a point of satisfaction. But I didn't do much else, including homework. And I did it because I wanted to. It grew organically out of my interests. It wasn't about creating a resume (although that was a happy side benefit).
I think that we should help them any child learn to ask some basic questions. 1) Do I really want this? 2) Is this worth the inevitable sacrifices and trade-offs? 3) What are those trade-offs and sacrifices (in my experience, neither girls nor boys at this age have much concept of what these are likely to be). 3) Is this something that is going to bring me joy or am I simply doing it because I to achieve something? 4) Does this move me towards the goal of living a balanced, happy, life? 5) Do I want to do this, or am I trying to please someone else, or prove something? 6) Are my reasons for doing this fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic? Again, all of this is true for boys as well--I just don't see such a push for them to always be stand-outs in everything.
I think one of the best things that a parent can do to help a daughter prepare for long-term success (and by that, I mean the ability to live happily in the life she chooses) is to help her relax a bit. Parents might want to relax a bit, too. Life is more than a college application. Remind yourself that your daughter is a child. She doesn't have to be CEO yet. Yes, she may have tremendous capacity. But as an adolescent, she is, by definition, young and immature. She needs to develop perspective, balance, and emotional maturity. I wish more people understood that being mature in one domain (being organized, for example, or responsible) does not mean that the child is equally mature in all other domains and facets. Some very organized students might not have a lot of emotional resilience, for example.
That fact that she gets good grades and is mature in many ways for her age does not mean that she's done growing and ready for the adult world yet. The fact that a red wagon can carry some loads successfully does not mean it is ready to be used as a moving van. If you keep heaping more weight on it, it will collapse one day. I think children (both boys and girls) need longer, more protected childhoods, and that childhood is the best preparation for happy, productive, adulthood.
Help her realize that not every test and assignment is make-or-break. Help her realize that there are, and always will be, trade-offs. Help her learn to pursue activities for their inherent value, not because one must always be "successful" as defined by very external, narrow markers. One does not need a formal title to enjoy an activity or to feed one's soul. Being goal-oriented can be a good thing, but not everything can or should be measured in goals. At a minimum, goals should be carefully chosen to focus on personal growth as opposed to fairly limited notions of achievement.
It seems to me that this approach is far healthier, and far more likely to lead to a satisfying and joyful life lived on one's own terms, instead of a a joyless life of box-checking, resume building, and eventual burn-out.
I have a vivid memory of something that happened following the very successful opening performance of one of my plays. The performance had been quite good--one of our best at the time. There was a feeling of celebration in the air as people congratulated the cast, each other, and of course, me. I was talking to the parent of one of my students, but our conversation kept getting interrupted by kids running up to give me a hug or adults complimenting me as they walked past.
The parent to whom I was speaking looked at me with some apparent envy and said, "You have the best job in the world."
What he didn't know was that earlier, I'd taken my ten-year old car to the mechanic and was now looking at a $500 repair bill that was going on my credit card--joining a long, sad history of similar car repairs.
Why do I drive an old car that needs so many repairs? Because I'm a school teacher and it's what I can afford.
In that moment, it did appear that I had a wonderful job. And I do. But he was seeing something that happens literally twice a year, and he wasn't seeing the other parts of the job. He didn't see the students talking when I wanted their attention. He didn't see the sleepless nights as I worried the play wouldn't come together. He didn't see the hours and hours of rehearsals, the hundreds of emails managing the most mundane details and logistics. He didn't see the conversations with disappointed students or with angry parents when the cast list came out. He didn't see the fact that teaching, while rewarding, does not include large compensation. Please understand, I'm not complaining. Teaching brings many rewards and my school treats me generously. But everyone knows that you will not make a great deal of money as a teacher. It's a fact of life.
I am amazed at the number of people who do not realize that choices have consequences. Some are good and some are bad. I chose to become a teacher. It has brought a lot of wonderful things into my life. It has also brought some difficult, stressful, and even heart-breaking things as well. I imagine that if I'd been a surgeon or a lawyer, I would say the same thing.
I know this seems glaringly obvious. However, as obvious as it may seem, I'd say the majority of people in my experience do not act, or live, as if it is obvious (I'll admit that I include myself in that group sometimes). To the contrary. So I think we can all use a reminder.
You can't choose to be a teacher and then complain about driving an old car. You can't choose to be a heart surgeon or CEO and then complain that you don't have time with your family. You can't choose to spend time with your family and then complain that you don't have a high-powered career.
During my high school years and early twenties, I dreamed of performing. If not on Broadway, at least in regional theatres and summer stock. I was pretty good. Objectively speaking, I think I could have probably made it. Perhaps not big, but I think I could have done well enough to make a living.
But I wanted a family. I wanted a wife and children. I didn't think I could do both. And when I got married, my wife and I decided we wanted children right away, and that she would stay home with the children and be a full-time mom. That meant I need to work regular hours to support the family. Which meant I couldn't pursue my dream of doing musical theatre on Broadway. (Incidentally, I am glad I made that choice. For me, it was the right one).
The reality is that life is full of trade-offs. Contra popular wisdom, you really can't have it all. Every choice will bring consequences that we'll love, and some we won't. When we encounter the consequences we don't like, we tend to start thinking we should have made a different decision.
There are some decisions that are clear-cut choices between good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, right and wrong. But many, I think most, choices are not so clear-cut. They will have advantages and disadvantages. Wisdom teaches us to think about this and make an informed decision, understanding that we will need to accept the consequences we don't like along with those we do.
Middle school students really struggle with understanding this. So much of what we teach them is phrased in right/wrong terms. And that's appropriate when we are talking about whether to experiment with some behaviors and substances. But it's important, I think, to help them learn to be a little more nuanced in their thinking.
Every year I'm surprised by people who are surprised that participation in a school play means that there are some late nights when homework doesn't get done. Or that learning lines requires giving up some other activities in the evening. And so on.
I've found some success in this regard by asking lots of questions: "If you choose x, what are the the positive outcomes likely to be?" "What are the negative outcomes likely to be?" "What sacrifices might you have to make?" "Will those sacrifices be worth it?" And so on.
Middle school students are coming up on some major decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. Learning now to understand trade-offs and consequences is an important skill that we can't teach too soon, in my opinion.
We can go this pro-actively by walking kids through a series of questions before a decision is made. We can also do it retroactively by discussing consequences with them. "Why did you get a B-?" "Because the teacher hates me." "What did you do to earn a B-?" "Well, I talk a lot in class." "Was it fun to talk with your friends?" "Yeah." "Is it fun to get a B-?" "No." You're going to have to figure out which you want. You can't have fun in class and still get an A+." And so on. In my opinion, teaching retroactively is extremely important, and a step many parents fail to do because they are often working actively on helping the student avoid the consequences of their actions.
I know it's not Monday. But I've been gill-deep in finishing one play and starting another. So I'm late.
Let me talk about a very difficult subject with a personal anecdote. In high school, I had a friend who was very funny. So was I (at least in my own mind). Together, we were hilarious. Or so we thought. Actually, we were sarcastic and sharp to the point of being quite mean. It's not one of my better times in life. One night, we heard about a party all our friends were having--a party to which we had not been invited.
We are furious and hurt. How could our so-called friends be so cruel as to leave us out? We vented and raged and had our own party, wallowing in bitterness.
At some point, I confronted one of our other friends. He told me that we were had been excluded because we were so sarcastic and caustic that no one wanted to be around us.
That hurt. And it made me mad. And then I realized he was right--and that he had just done me a huge favor by helping me understand what I was doing wrong and giving me the chance to fix it.
It took a while, but with some sustained effort, I was able to change my habits, smooth the rough edges away, and end the year with a very rich and rewarding social life.
I'm so grateful my friend had the guts and honest concern to tell me the truth. He really did me a huge favor.
Okay, let's talk about a very depressing problem that I think most kids (and parents) face at some point in their lives. What do you do if people leave you out of social activities, conversations, etc.?
This is a really painful situation to be in and the cure may seem worse than the sickness at first. But, over the years I have seen people navigate this and come out on top by applying some basic principles.
So, if your child comes home and says that no one likes them, or they are being left out, etc. what do you do?
Sometimes, this might just be in their heads, or at least, not as extreme as they think it is. In 7th grade, for example, no one feels liked. No one feels included. I've written about this before. So, let's leave this aside. Let's assume that your child really is being excluded.
Your tendency will be to see your child as the victim and the others as malicious bullies. Please, for your child's sake, don't do this. In some cases this might be true, but in my experience it is usually far more complex than this.
This is where the cure starts to be a bit painful. You need to try to realistically assess how your child is contributing to the problem.
Over my years in teaching, I have known children who were charming with adults and were really quite nasty to their peers. You need to be open to the possibility that your child is doing something that is off-putting, possibly inadvertently. This is very difficult. It's where you earn your parenting stripes. No one wants to acknowledge that their child might be the issue. But most time when I see social problems, a lot of it rests with the child in question. Peers will vote with their feet. If someone is mean, catty, snide, arrogant, whatever--no one will want to be around them and no amount of parental intervention can ever change that.
How do you find out if this applies to your child? Well, you ask teachers or coaches or, if you feel you can, the parents of their peers. Obviously, this is sensitive and you have to careful in how you approach it. You can't, for example, say, "Hey, your child is excluding my child for reasons I don't understand. Is there something she did to make your daughter act in such an unkind, petty way?" You will need a bit of diplomacy and tact.
You will also need to be prepared for the possibility that they will tell you the truth. And it will hurt. And you will feel defensive and want to lash out or at least defend your child. Don't do this. Bite your tongue. Listen. Nod even if it kills you. And thank them for caring enough to be honest.
I've learned over the years that most people really do not want to hear difficult truths, even when those truths could free them from various problems. I've seen so many difficult situations that could be solved with relative ease IF the people involved could understand the situation and make some changes. But too often, that requires confronting painful realities.
So, if you are lucky enough to get candid advice, listen and thank them. Then think about it and see if you think there is merit to what you hear. Is your child pushy? Bossy? Full of him or herself? Have they been unkind, etc.
Once you know, you can make a plan to try to fix these problems. But wait, there's more and it's IMPORTANT! Like, All-caps important.
It is human nature when we feel someone pulling away from us to push ourselves towards them. The more they pull away, the harder we push towards them. This is almost always a mistake. You will have to help your child stop. If you're in a social hole, stop digging. Whatever is going wrong needs to be fixed, and the current actions have caused the problem. So, stop.
This is hard because your child will be wanting to see instant results. They might have been arrogant for six years, and then they stop for a week and will wonder why things haven't changed. They'll have to be patient and let the others see that they are changing.
Sometimes, a direct conversation might be useful. "Hey, I realize I've been kind of mean and I'm sorry. I hope you'll give me a chance to show you that I want to be better..." Other times, you just have to let time go by and let people see it on their own.
One strategy that might help is to let some time go by where there is a complete suspension of contact (or as complete as is possible)--a few weeks. During this time, your child does not keep pushing themselves onto the group. This is sort of a demonstration of good faith, a chance to clear the social palate, so to speak. After a few weeks, and yes, this will be a painful and lonely time, they might start reaching out to one or two people, inviting them to do something like go see a movie or whatever--something simple, something with a limited emotional and time commitment, etc. Your child needs to essentially woo them back, showing that they can be trusted.
It's important to resist the temptation to be clingy here, or to rush the relationship--it's very similar to dating, really--the same pitfalls and the same bad consequences, namely being alone.
Yes, this is painful, and yes, it takes some time. But usually, if you don't do something like this, the problem gets worse. I've seen so many kids over the years who just absolutely sabotage their social life by being a bit of a pill, and then, when people retreat, pushing hard. A strategic retreat, some honest self-assessment (with parental guidance) can make a huge difference.
And, the rewards are well worth the discomfort.
One of the drawbacks of my profession is that my professional success essentially rests in the hands of 12-14 year olds. Yeah. Think about that for a minute. If they do their work well, then I'm the most amazing director ever. If not, then I'm losing my touch.
Because of the nature of theatre, there are ups and downs in every production. Moments when you are sure it will be the greatest thing ever, followed periods of certainty in which you are quite sure that you'll be lucky if you can get a job as a bagger in a grocery store.
These ups and downs are even more pronounced in middle school theatre, I think, simply because adolescents are, by nature, up and down. So, a production filled with them will naturally reflect those ups and downs.
So, until the performance, one just never quite knows how it will be. I've heard coaches talk about how they don't know if they'll win a game or not--it depends, they say, on which team shows up. I feel like that sometime. I see how the play can be good--or not. Depending on which cast shows up that night--the focused, energetic one, or the giddy, goofy one. The funny thing is that theses casts are made of the same kids.
All this to say, I'm delighted to report that opening night of My Fair Lady was good. Actually, very, very good. One of our best, I'm told by people who would know and whom I trust. I'll post pictures when I get them. I'm excited to see them, actually, because I always knew it would be a visually beautiful show. But I'm happy to say the students lived up to the quality of the sets, costumes, and props. Magnificently.
This is not an easy show and I was apprehensive about choosing it. But it fit the talent profile of the students I have more perfectly than anything else I could find. So, I took a deep breath, jumped, and we did it. So proud of them.
This shot below is of Prof. Higgins' study. It's part of a turntable that revolves to reveal different sets at different times, and this picture is taken from the wings off stage left. The study is ready to be turned into place.
I know I'm strange, but one of my favorite things in the world is looking at empty sets--ready to be used but not in use at the moment. There is something about the latency and potential of it all that really intrigues me. The other picture is an opening night gift. I post it because I also really like cookies.