The other day, I had a conversation with my sister. She is a very intelligent person and a devoted mom, and she thinks deeply and often about people and relationships--especially parenting relationships and issues.
She posed what I thought was a very perceptive and intriguing question. I've written frequently about my belief that parents needs to coach their children. The parent, I believe, is supposed to tell their children when they do something wrong and help them correct it. This means correcting bad behavior, bad social habits, and so on and so on. I think that many (but not all) social problems are at least partly the responsibility of the child having the problems and that they can improve their lot with honest feedback.
My sister, without disagreeing with the premise, pushed me on this a little. How, she asked, do you do this without making your child paranoid, or becoming a constant voice in their head that they will hear the rest of their lives, one that will make them feel awkward and insecure, etc.? How do you do this while still sending them messages that you love and accept them? Especially when you are trying to help them address quirks in their personality that cause social problems?
Her questions got me thinking, and we had a very interesting conversation as we batted ideas around. I've been thinking about this and want to pass on a few thoughts.
First of all, I believe that every parent knows their children better than anyone else and a parent's gut feeling will, I believe, be far more likely to be correct than advice given by even experienced, well-meaning bloggers. I think the united approach of a father and mother is powerful and will almost always be right--when the parents listen to each other and then work together. I recognize that situation is not available to everyone, but where it is, I strongly encourage it. Regardless, you know your child. So, keep that in mind.
With that, here are my thoughts on how and when to provide correction and coaching.
1. A master teacher and leader in my church once said, "Correct the problem, not the incident that brings it to your attention." I think that is incredibly powerful. Reacting in the middle of a situation is sometimes necessary, but I find that my judgement is not usually optimal in the heat of any moment. I think using specific incidents to bring up a topic can be useful, but I think responding to specific incidents, in the moment, is not wise.
2. The correction/coaching needs to be about them, not about you. That is, you need to be teaching them because you want them to be happier and better, to have more friends, to be more successful, etc. Not because they embarrass you, or because you are mad, etc. This can be a tough one. Most parents I know have children who have done things that leave them embarrassed from time to time. It's important to make sure that your motive in correcting them will really help them and is not simply because you are annoyed or embarrassed.
3. The correction ought to be focused on specific behaviors and choices, which can be controlled, as opposed to personal traits and characteristics, which are more difficult to control. For example, telling a child that they talk too much may be less helpful than saying that you've noticed they are not listening to their friends. Talking too much is a bit vague. It might make the child feel stupid, or embarrassed. It's difficult to measure or monitor. However, focusing more on what people are saying, asking a question or two for everything that the child says--that seems much different to me.
4. The correction ought to be balanced with sincere compliments and expressions of love. And I don't mean saying, "Honey you're a great kid, but...." I mean that we need to be looking for things to praise about our children and that they ought to hear this kind of thing more frequently than the correction. I would suggest that the praise not be extravagant, and that it be tied to specific choices and behaviors. "I'm so proud of the way you have focused on your homework this week...." as opposed to "You are so wonderful! What a smart kid!"
I heard a statistic on some NPR program years ago. It was about happy marriages and went something like this. Happy marriages have honest communication about problems. However, the ratio of positive to negative comments was something like 7:1. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was not far away from that.
5. The coaching should be done in a direct, clear way. Beating around the bush, hand-wringing, and trying to soften blows seems to usually backfire and make it seem like a bigger deal than it really is. The image I like to think of is a scalpel. If you have surgery, you want a surgeon with a fast, decisive hand and a super sharp scalpel. Not someone hacking away with a butterknife. Correction should be done quickly, decisively, and with clarity. And then it should end and you should start sewing them up and helping them move on.
After years of trial-and-mostly-error, here's a pattern I've found useful with my children.
"I need to talk to you--I need to teach you something. It's not a big deal, you're not in trouble, but I want to have a conversation and I need your attention. You can chose when, but it needs to be in the next few days."
When they come to you (and if they don't, then they lost the chance to choose when the meeting is, so you grab them), you say, "I noticed the other day that you were pretty sarcastic when you were talking to Mrs. Johnson. Do you know what I mean?"
If necessary, you provide specific examples. I have found it useful to try to be a mirror and hold the behavior up for them to examine by repeating what happened in as clinical a way as possible--no emotion, not judgment, just repeating what I saw.
Sometimes they will understand right away that the behavior was problematic. Other times you might have to help them see it.
Once they see the problem, then you can help them think of a better way to handle the situation. And then it's done. Take them out to eat, play their favorite game, watch their favorite movie--whatever. Change the subject and do something that shows you love them.
That's what works for me. I don't think there is one way to do this, anymore than there is just one kind of parent and one kind of child. I think you have to do what works for you and your own style.
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.
I wrote on Friday about how we were having call-backs for our production of Seussical. Energy was high, and kids were genuinely excited. It was fun to see their faces and the pride and joy they couldn't contain as they considered the wonderful possibilities ahead of them. Auditions are exciting, full of the wonder of the possible, untainted by sometimes disappointing realities.
We had call-backs--and they were grueling. The last candidates, myself, and my assistants were all here until about 8:00 p.m. Maybe later. It's all a bit blurry.
I spent a good bit of Friday night stewing and thinking and pondering.
Often the difficulty is not in trying to decide who should get what parts. It's generally very obvious. This year, I had two choreographers, an intern, and my daughter there and as I checked with them from time to time, we are all unanimous. It was very clear who was best suited for the parts.
The difficulty lies in two things. First of all, the emotional impact. It's difficult knowing that your choice will hurt someone's feelings. More on this in a minute. The second difficulty lies in the domino/jigsaw puzzle effect. If Person A is Part 1, then who will be Part 2? Those kind of things make it very tricky. Even more tricky is trying to make sure that every member of the ensemble is in a few different songs, etc. With 130 kids, trying to balance all these imperatives requires a lot of thinking.
But, I digress. I want to talk about the lesson of a lifetime, the lesson that these children will learn, and the reason I think that some momentary hurt feelings are not the end of the world.
The play teaches them a few very basic lessons. It teaches that they cannot have everything they want. It teaches them that life will hand them disappointment. That is inevitable. I'm always intrigued as I watch the students deal with disappointment. Some of them have been shielded and padded and insulated from every possible disappointment. For them, not getting a desired role is devastating, and they take it personally. Others, who have been allowed to experience disappointment are generally sad for a bit--and then they move on.
How fortunate is the child who has experienced disappointment, who has not been shielded and insulated and protected from every unpleasant experience.
But this is not the lesson I'm pondering. The lesson they can learn, if they will, is that life gives us disappointments, yes. However, those disappointments, those apparent wrong turns can end up being blessings in disguise.
The truth is that every student in a play can have fun. The role does not define or limit how good the experience can be. Disappointment need not be permanent or constant. Humans are wonderful at adapting and joy can be found in many situations that at first looked dismal.
This is the lesson they can learn: disappointment cannot really hurt you, not in the long run at least. It stings, but if you push past it, you will often find wonderful and unexpected surprises. Disappointment can be the first step on the road to joy.
There is another lesson that some of the students will learn. Those who got large parts will realize that a great deal of work is required. The "fun" will pass very quickly, replaced by the pressures of memorizing, of learning choreography and music, of setting a good example, and then performing while everyone watches you. This can be rewarding for sure, but it's not "fun".
And that is the other part of the lesson. Neither disappointment nor momentary excitement are permanent. Both will fade over time, and both of them are gateway moments to great happiness. The road that leads from both of these states to permanent happiness is the same, and it is what I believe makes a happy and successful life: hard work and consistent effort.
Hard work will transform disappointment into joy and elevate excitement and momentary happiness into satisfaction. And these results--joy and satisfaction are far more durable than disappointment and excitement. They will linger and live on in the memory long after the other two have faded away.
It's kind of a fun time in the theatre program. This week, over the course of several days, we had auditions. The next step in the process is call-backs. The audition is what gets them into the play. Call-backs is where I ask the kids to come back and read and/or sing material for a specific character, so this is how they are assigned a specific part.
Because I work in a middle school, I feel like a big part of my job is to teach the kids about the process of theatre. So, I tend to call many students back--more than I would if I taught in college or high school. Basically, I try to find a reason to call everyone back for at least one role. I figure that even if it doesn't work this time, then if they are familiar with the process and have learned some of the skills, then when they do have a more credible chance, they will do better since they have already done it a few times.
Plus, while disappointment is inevitable, I personally would rather know that I had a shot and that I was given every opportunity to earn something. Then, if it doesn't work out, I at least feel like I had a chance. I think the kids are the same.
At any rate, excitement is pretty high right now. I see it in their eyes, in their smiles, and in the overheard conversations. It's the excitement of possibility, the anticipation of potential opportunity--as of yet unfettered by the harsh realities of the future.
In that sense, this moment in the process is much like adolescence. They are just becoming aware of their potential and all that they can be. Their view of the future is informed largely by their hopes and dreams, a vision fueled by optimism and possibility. Currently, they are full of energy and dreams and aspirations--as of yet unfettered by the harsh realities of the future.
This is a sweet time. Of course, this can't last forever. The cast list will be posted tomorrow and the that unbridled optimism and sense of infinite possibilities will be moderated by reality. For most of the kids, simply because of numbers, that will involve some disappointment.
However, after that disappointment fades, they'll learn an even better lesson, one that can free and empower them for the rest of their lives in nearly any circumstance. But I'll talk about that later. For now, I want to relish the excitement and joy in their faces.
We just finished our fall production. As always, I am amazed at what adolescents can do. When I watch these plays every year, and watch the students perform, watch students manage complex scene changes, run light and sound boards, I'm blown away.
However, when I look at the final product and compare it to the dress rehearsals that came immediately before I am even more blown away.
When I first started directing, I got very nervous because dress rehearsals were awful. But somehow the performances always worked.
It took me a few years but I finally realized that I didn't need to panic if the dress rehearsals were bad. Actually not "if"--rather, "when" the rehearsals were bad.
What do I learn from this?
A few things.
First of all, when things seem bleak with your adolescent child--and they will--keep going! Keep hope. Things may yet work out.
But there's another lesson. The question I've come to ask is why it always works out. Is it magic? Lots of prayer? Just luck?
I would not rule any of those out (especially the prayer--something I tend to do a lot of the week of a play!). But I think the answer is more mundane and less exotic. It's the process.
After years of experience and education and most of all--trial and error, my colleagues and I came up with a process that works. It takes a cast of students who have never done a particular play before and moves them from point to point until they are ready to perform. They learn the choreography to one song at a time. They learn the lyrics line-by-line. They memorize their dialogue. We teach them where to stand and when to move. We layer in props, scenery, lights, microphones, music--and boom! The play happens, as if by magic. But it's not really magic. It's the end result of a carefully planned process, honed over years of experience.
It's also not something I dreamed up myself. It's the way plays have been rehearsed, basically forever. I made some adaptations to fit my students and our particular situation. Our process isn't the same as on Broadway. But it's not vastly different, either, and they are differences in degree, not in kind.
Here's where I'm going with this. Humans have raised adolescents for a long, long time now. There is a basic process. It varies from culture to culture and time to time, but there are general patterns to this process. Don't throw it out. Don't reinvent the wheel. Make some adjustments if needed--but don't start from scratch.
Most parents that I see really struggle with raising their children tend to have bought into two philosophies that I think are damaging. The first is that they feel that it's the 21st century and everything is new, so why worry about the traditions of the past? They seem to feel that they can, by dint of their greater enlightenment, figure out how to raise their kids without all the silly old ideas, strictures, and patterns of the past. In my experience, this doesn't work. The collective wisdom of the past is a great asset. There is a reason that we evolved social and cultural norms. Maybe some of them are outdated--but not all of them. And I think we can benefit from considering them carefully.
The worst play I ever directed was when I threw out the tried and true rehearsal format and came up with all manner of clever new ideas. They were brilliant--and they should have worked. But they didn't, and the play was terrible. Happily I no longer live in that state. It was a painful experience, but I learned my lesson. Don't tamper with what works.
The second mistake I see is the opposite of the first--it's making no adaptations at all. It's clinging completely to the past without any regard to unique situations and people. It woud be analogous to me using the same rehearsal schedule they use on Broadway with my middle school kids.
So, I suggest not raising your kids like it's 1956 or even 1983. But I also strongly suggest not buying into all the social changes and conventional wisdom around. I very strongly suggest not getting caught up in trends and following along in contemporary currents.
Create a process. Look at people you admire. Look at people who have children you admire. Look at people with children you don't admire (but do this kindly, not in a judgmental way. You never know how kids will turn out). Look at the way you were raised, look at how cultures have raised kids for thousands of years.
Create a process and then stick to it. Don't panic when, in dress rehearsals, things fall apart. Tweak and adjust as necessary. Do what it takes.
One more thought.
One of the reasons the dress rehearsals always seem to go so badly is because it is the first time the kids have every aspect of the play all at the same time--they are trying to use props while worrying about costume and set changes, handle their microphones and lighting cues and on and on.
There's an old saying in the theatre: Bad dress rehearsal, good performance. It's not always true. But there's a reason it became a cliche--there is a lot of truth in it.
It is often the falling apart in dress rehearsals that provides the impetus and the experience necessary for them to succeed in the performance.
I think adolescence is like that dress rehearsal. There is a lot going on. Lots of layers, many different complex tasks. So it makes sense that there will be some failures. It may be that it is the failures and challenges of adolescence that will provide the impetus and experience for success as and adult.
So, if the dress rehearsal isn't going too well, don't panic. Don't despair. Your child is probably pretty normal--and you have to trust the process.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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