Years ago when I wrote my very first book, someone read it and was quite dismissive. I didn't mind that the person didn't like it. That's life, and I don't begrudge anyone their opinion. I did, however, bristle a bit at what I thought was a patronizing response. This was especially true because this person didn't have any particular credentials or expertise other than that they considered their opinion to be that of an expert.
Some time later, this person published a book. I was a judge in a competition in which the book was entered. I read it and thought it was pretty good. Not great, but good. But there were some very basic mistakes I thought this author had made--the kind of things many first time authors (myself included) do early on.
Other works in that contest were stronger and so I honestly voted for one of them.
Still, it reminded me of a basic lesson in life that applies to parenting. Be kind to others. Don't judge too quickly. You may well be in the same situation someday.
One of the points I try to make often is that middle school kids are kids. By definition, they are not very mature or experienced.
Adults have experience to draw on. They have perspective and what I call emotional depth perception. Kids have none of these things. They are currently making the mistakes that will give them experience and help them learn perspective.
That process is much like walking. You simply have to learn on your own. No one can do it for you. There are no short-cuts.
So, it is important to remember that children, yours and others, will do stupid things. They will act in ways that hurt others. They will embarrass you. They will do things that will be totally in opposition to what you have taught them. They will.
They will go to school with others who are in this same phase. Other children who will do stupid, mean, ill-advised, thoughtless, careless things that will mortify their parents too.
It is easy to sit and judge another person's child as being deficient, malevolent, or poorly brought up. Resist that urge and show the forbearance you would like when your child does the same thing.
I say "when" and not "if" on purpose. If your child never messes up then something is seriously wrong and he or she is not progressing or maturing in a normal way.
Sometimes being tolerant is easy. Perhaps another person's child just does something immature or silly, but no harm is done. That's easy.
However, what if that child does something that hurts your child's feelings? Or causes them to lose an important ball game? Or get a bad grade on a project? Or any number of other things.
Now it's harder. Anytime our children experience difficulty, those incidents trigger the mama/papa bear instincts in us all. However, I strongly suggest resisting the urges to get involved. Absorb the drama, don't feed it.
Don't talk about it with other parents, don't form a negative opinion. Just let it go--and give your child the gift of learning how to let go as well.
Life tends to change the roles we play often. It's best to establish a merciful standard of judgement, not knowing when we will need it applied to ourselves or our children.
Note: I'm not talking about allowing your child to be in danger. I'm not talking about bullying. But don't conflate bullying with garden-variety, plain old immaturity. Bullying generally involves a few criteria: 1) A power imbalance; 2) An element of intentionality, and 3) A continued, consistent pattern. Bullying is a real problem and it needs to be dealt with as it has harmful complications. But it's important to make sure that it's really bullying. Most of unkind, hurtful, immature things I see are not bullying.
Assuming we are not talking about bullying, show the same forbearance that you would hope someone will show your child when s/he does something stupid or mean--as they most assuredly will.
Some time ago, I had a wild and unruly kid in my theatre program. A parent (not the parent of the child) asked me why I didn't come down on him harder. I demurred and said something non-comital, but I didn't tell the whole story.
I directed my first play at the age of 15, and did the second and third in close succession. Like most 15 year olds, I was immature. This meant that I had insecurities masked as a large ego, and was prone to be impatient.
My plays met with some success, which made me even worse. I was terrified of not meeting the expectations I'd established.
During one of the plays, The Wizard of Oz, one of the stage crew made a mistake. He was supposed to move a rolling platform out on-stage during a blackout, before the backdrop came down. The platform that held the Scarecrow who was not supposed to be mobile yet.
Well the kid forgot. I don't remember if it was an honest mistake or goofing off, but I was livid. The lights went up and there's a cornfield backdrop, but no platform and no Scarecrow.
The resourceful actor playing the Scarecrow realized his platform wasn't coming on, so he lifted the backdrop and crawled out underneath it and then stood as if he was on a post.
I was livid. Furious. Enraged. Seething. I ran backstage and pulled that stage crew kid out in the hall and let him have it. I don't know what I said, but I was furious and out of control.
It took me a few years and some hard lessons to realize that during a performance, I get tense and can get very, very angry.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to allow for this. So, I made a few rules for myself. I don't wear a head-set during the performance since I don't want to be in the position of yelling at the light tech if they mess up, or screaming at the stage manager if a set change goes awry.
I always calm down after a few minutes, so I've learned to not allow myself to act until that happens. This provides a buffer that keeps me from making a mistake I'll later regret.
The reason I didn't come down on this crazy kid in the past was because I didn't trust myself to do it in a rational way. I felt that my tendency would be to be too harsh, and I had to adjust accordingly. In my mind, it was better to not come down on the kid in question than to come down in disproportionate anger.
Some people who read this post will be surprised. I am known, I think, as being fairly patient and kind. But that was not my nature and not how I started. By knowing my weaknesses I was able to develop rules for myself that helped me compensate for and work around the weaknesses. These habits served me well, allowing me the time to develop patience. The habit became a stand-in for the actual trait.
I find that when I check my temper, I do err a bit on the side of indulgence. However, and this is important, I don't error nearly as far on that side of the spectrum as I would if I were erring on the temper side. I am closer to where I want to be, even though I'm not perfect. A good teacher is both loving and strict, right in the middle of those two attributes. But my natural tendencies might pull me ten or fifteen degrees too far towards strict. If I compensate, I might end up four degrees on the kind side. I'm much closer to the ideal, even though I'm still not perfect.
We are all going to make mistakes. No parent will be perfect. No teacher will be perfect. In my mind, the trick is understanding where we are likely to make our mistakes and then adjusting. Sometimes we might adjust a little too much. But I would argue that in those cases we are still more likely to be nearer the ideal than we would with no adjustment.
I've met some parents who are, by nature, helicopter parents. Their every instinct and trait pushes them to that extreme. They need to figure out some rules and guidelines, and develop some habits that will check them in this tendency. They might go too far to an extreme sometimes, but their child will be better off, I think since that extreme will be closer to the gold mean than the helicopter parenting.
I've met other parents who are the exact opposite--Tiger parents who could stand to mellow out a bit, for their children's sake.
All of us have natural weaknesses, areas where we are likely to make mistakes.
I've come to believe that, as parents, we don't get to choose whether we'll make mistakes. But we can, I believe, choose which mistakes to make, understanding that some mistakes may actually get us closer to where we want to be.
I think in the next few weeks, I'll do some blogs about figuring out where our weaknesses and blind spots are, and how we go about this process.
I thought I'd post a follow-up to my post last week about the long-term value of disappointment. There are a few important essentials to remember when dealing with disappointment. While I'm coming from my experience as a middle school theatre director, I think most of these principles are applicable in many different areas and endeavors.
First of all, remember that you are seeing this in very subjective terms. You are focusing on your child and how they feel. That's fine, and it's your job as a parent.
But the teacher/coach/director/whomever does not have that luxury. That person has too look at the general welfare of everyone involved. S/he cannot consider personal feelings, dreams, or ambitions.
And the truth is, you wouldn't want him or her to do this. Seriously, you wouldn't.
I will assume the reason your child wants to be in the play, on the team, squad or club is because they enjoy the activity. Keep that in mind. But I will also assume that they want to be in this play/team because the program is pretty good and the child feels that the program can offer them something.
But the program is only good because the person in charge focuses on the good of the program. The moment he or she starts letting personal considerations be the basis of decisions, the quality of the program begins to decline. And then, the very experience you had wanted for your child begins to suffer. Or, should the director/coach make decisions for your child based on personal reasons--but assess everyone else on merit?
So, don't be angry that the person who built a program good enough to interest your child continues to run the program with the same standards and approach that helped build that program. Also realize that if you are upset, you are the one who is breaking the tacit agreement. They've done their job--and unless they insulted your child somehow or were rude, then they've done exactly what they were supposed to do. Note: not casting/playing your child does not count as insult.
If your child gets a smaller role or doesn't start, or whatever, put your natural resentment away. Be grateful your child gets to have an experience they ostensibly love and be a part of a program they want to join. If they don't even get on the team or in the cast, then I have a few suggestions. Talk to the person in charge and find out if there was a reason. Maybe there is something your child can learn and improve in--a particular weakness or deficit that can be made up with time and attention.
Or perhaps not. And that's okay too. Maybe this isn't the hobby or pursuit that is best suited to your child.
But let me give a caveat with that. Every year, I have people come talk to me after auditions and ask for feedback. Some of them are sincere and want to hear what they can improve. Others just want me to give some compliments or to promise them that they'll do better next time. I don't have much patience for the first, and cannot promise the second. Only ask if you truly want feedback. And, also realize that there may not be much you can do.
I can't speak much about athletics, but in theatre, sometimes it's not that a person has a deficit. Sometimes it's just a matter of "fit." One person clicks in the role better than the other. It's just the way it is and it has nothing to do with talent or anything. Think Will Smith and Will Ferrell. Both are talented, highly-paid professionals. But they are not interchangeable. Different roles would fit them in different ways.
Here are a few more thoughts.
It's almost never personal. You and your child might experience it personal terms, but for the director or coach, it seriously isn't. All my life I've heard people say that some coach, some director, some choreographer, some authority figure played favorites. They cast so-and-so because they liked her better, or gave such-and-such more playing time because his dad is their friend, a donor--whatever.
I'm not saying this never happens. But in my experience, it happens far, far less than I hear people say it does. The truth is that most coaches want to win games. Most theatre directors want the strongest cast. It's really pretty simple. I suppose all of us are subject to human error, but I am convinced that these sort of things happen far, far less than I hear people mutter. They might make mistakes, their plans and strategies might go amiss. But I really think most people in these positions are trying to do the best you can.
More likely is that the teacher/coach/director is simply balancing a myriad of factors that most people have absolutely no idea about. And, it may be that your child's best interests are one of those factors. I have had students in the past who had nice voices or good acting skills--but crumpled under even mild pressure or difficulty. Giving such a child a lead would be incredibly cruel
I've learned from long experience that the best way to get through this kind of thing is to trust the good intentions of the person who made the decision--and then move on. My son wanted badly to be the Drum Major in his high school marching band. He did not get that position. I still think he would have been good. But he had a wonderful experience his senior year anyway. What he really loved was marching band. And that is what he got to do.
There are days when I look at myself and wonder how in the world I manage to tie my shoelaces and drive to work. You know--the days you start to wonder just how dense you can be?
Today was one of those days. I realized something and wanted to kick myself. Let me explain.
Last week, my MSM post was about rewarding and reinforcing good behavior rather than trying to change less-desirable actions. And I really believe that. But you have to be careful with what you reward.
Last spring, during March Madness, I came up with an idea I thought was pretty good. You see, the boys in my middle school chorus classes tend to grumble and growl instead of singing. They don't want to sing high notes and so they try to sing everything an octave too low. But their voices don't really go that low. So it ends up in a sort of monotone growl.
We working on a song and I was at my wit's end. Could not get them to sing the right notes. They weren't even high--just higher than the growls they were doing.
In a flash of inspiration, I had them line up in my classroom and take turns shooting foul shots in the basketball hoop I keep there. They each did and then we talked about baskets. Some shots miss completely, so barely make it, and some arc up over the rim drop down through the hoop and swish through--nothing but net.
We talked about singing like that. Singing up and over and landing down on the note. Going high if it needs it, but not shooting too low on our singing. Nothing but note (see what I did there?).
Well, I felt like it worked. We did that exercise and then sang and it got better. I developed a specific conducting motion to remind them of this idea.
The next day things were bad again. So I had them line up and do the same thing. And again it improved a little.
Do you see the problem? Do you see what I did without meaning to?
I rewarded their bad singing. Everytime they did this badly, they get to shoot a basketball.
I stand by the initial idea. It was a good idea, I think. A way to help them translate a concept into something familiar and kinesthetic.
But to be more effective, once we'd had the initial lesson, I should have let them shoot hoops whenever they did it well--not when I wanted to remind them of what to do. Without meaning to, I set up a powerful incentive to not sing the way I wanted them to.
So, I believe in rewarding good behavior and positive actions.
However, you have to be careful with the way you do it!
And now I have learned and will be changing this situation tomorrow.
First of all, please note that I said when your child does something wrong. Not if. When. The chances are very remote that they never will do something wrong.
Over the years I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation something like this:
"Mr./Mrs. X, your child did such-and-such a thing."
"What? But how could he do that? We've taught him/her better than that!" The thing is, the parent is completely truthful. They have taught them better.
The sort of incidents I describe here are usually moderate infractions. They are a little more serious than very minor things, but not terribly major either. For example, someone taking something small from another person, destroying some small object, or showing disrespect.
For example, I once had some students who were rehearsing in another teacher's room. They saw some candy in the room and took it. When I told their mom, she was appalled. "I've taught them not to steal!" She was angry with them, and a more than a little embarrassed.
This actually happens quite a bit. Kids see something laying around and since it doesn't apparently belong to anyone, they take it.
Or, they ruin something, some property belonging to someone else. This is almost always thoughtless, rather than malicious. Parents respond to this like the issues of minor stealing. "I can't believe he would do that! We respect other people's property in our house..."
The list can go on and on. Kids do things all the time that adults consider to be stealing or cheating or destruction of property and on and on. The parents are baffled because they feel they have taught their children to be honest, to respect property, to not cheat, and so on.
The children, however, are often baffled as well.
Here's the thing to remember. Adults are able to generalize and apply to specific situations more than kids. We hear "don't steal" and know that means you don't take anything that doesn't belong to you. Kids hear that and agree with it--but it doesn't necessarily translate down to the micro level of taking some candy from an empty desk. The same kids who would never consider robbing a bank or taking an iPod from someone simply don't connect the dots to less dramatic
The basic principle to remember is that, as far as the kids can see, they haven't done anything all that wrong. The adult sees that they've stolen. They see that they were hungry and a jar of candy was sitting there. And, being a bit egocentric, they sort of just assume it was there for their use. Or, even more likely, they simply didn't think about anything at all.
My suggestion in cases like this is to not overreact. The child needs to be taught. You can help them connect the dots. They will inevitably say something like, "But I didn't know that was Mrs. Z's candy!" To which you reply, "Yes, but you know it's not yours, right? It doesn't matter who it belongs to you when you know it's not yours. That's stealing. I know you didn't think it was, but that's the definition of stealing." And so on. The child made a mistake, but did not mean to go against your teaching. There was just a connection that didn't happen.
Try not to react out of embarrassment. I have done this as a parent, and I have seen other parents do it. In cases such as these, it's easy to overreact. You are upset at the child, and you are also embarrassed. There can be a temptation to show everyone that you are appalled by really coming down hard on the kid. This is the time to remember that it's really not about you.
There should be discipline of some kind, but it should be a chance to learn, not to be punished or humiliated. Paying for the stolen or damaged item and a sincere apology can go a long way.
In many places, it's the season of graduation and year-end celebrations, so I think it might be valuable to talk about the giving of awards. Specifically, what to do when your child doesn't get one.
Last week, our school had an awards assembly. During this awards assembly several awards were given. My Kindergarten son did not receive one--although several of his good buddies did.
As we drove home, we had an interesting conversation. At first he mentioned the awards ceremony (I didn't bring it up), assuring me that he hadn't wanted an award. But as we talked, he opened up enough to admit that he was struggling with the fact that he didn't get an award and his friend did.
Here's the thing: he had a wonderful, wonderful year. I'm talking so wonderful that he cried on weekends and was discouraged over Christmas and spring breaks because he couldn't be in school.
He loved his year! But at this moment, all those happy memories and all the fun he had were quickly minimized because he didn't get an award. Hold that thought for a minute.
Back to the story: I assured him that this was very natural and normal and then we talked about the choice to make. He could focus on feeling unhappy for himself, or try to be happy for his friend. I explained that each of these feelings were sort of like living things. Whichever one he fed with his thoughts and feelings would get bigger. I asked him which one he thought was the better thought, which one he wanted to encourage.
Happily, he decided he wanted to try to focus on being happy for his friend.
It's funny because as soon as he made that conscious decision, it didn't seem to matter to him anymore--and his good memories of the year are back.
Awards are kind of a mixed blessing, aren't they? They are wonderful when you get one. When you don't? Not so much. People really struggle with this. I've found that myself. I have been in many situations where I was nominated for an award that I didn't end up winning. Let's be honest--it stings. It can even hurt. The human response is to be mad at the winner, or the givers of the award.
But this is the wrong response! It's wrong because it's unfair to the others involved. It's wrong because it's arrogant and narcissistic (why do we assume we deserved the award? Perhaps there were factors of which we aren't aware).
But mostly it's wrong because it will bring misery to the person who indulges in this kind of response.
Here's the point I think is important to consider. If your child is being nominated for an award, chances are it is something they like and are good at. Chances are they have fun or draw some satisfaction from this activity. Focus on that, not the award! Focus on the intrinsic value, focus on what they learned and did. Don't focus on the award--or the lack thereof. If you do, then you run the risk of tainting those happy memories. And that would be a huge shame. It is the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish if you think about it.
Over the years I've noticed something. The people who don't get awards are tempted to let the lack of the award make everything that came before of no worth. In other words, someone might have years and years of happy memories from an activity--a sport or plays or something else. They might have had fun with their friends, learned and grown, and had all kinds of other benefits. The day before the award was given, these were good and happy memories, and their recollection of their time in this activity was positive.
But then--they don't get the award and suddenly it all changes. Those happy memories become nothing and an expiration date appears. Happy memories fade and hurt and bitterness appear. And that leads to unhappiness. Don't let that happen!
It's not only that memories can be ruined. I've also seen relationships ruined over the lack of an award. Teacher-student relationships that were close and wonderful, or the relationships between two friends or colleagues that became strained. What a shame!
Especially because, short of a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize, most awards don't really tend to mean as much as life goes on. Seriously, how many adults are still all that excited about the awards they won in elementary or middle school--or even high school.
However, it is a sad mark of the times that parents and students are driven to quantify every activity by achievement. We can no longer simply enjoy doing something. We have to be the best--and prove it. I have seen students collect awards and accolades like some people collect stamps. But they get no joy from these awards. Only misery if they don't get one. It's the 21st century equivalent of being a miser. These are adolescent Silas Marners.
Which is my son going to treasure more in the long run? A really great Kindergarten year or getting that award? Chances are, had he received an award, he would have forgotten in a week or two. A year and it would be ancient history. But his good and happy memories of his year? Those can last a lifetime.
So--when your child doesn't get the award, stop a minute. Acknowledge the sting, but then re-direct. Focus on what they got from the experience. And give them the gift of memories and growth that will last for the rest of their lives.
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.
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.