Dear New, Overwhelmed, Slightly Worried Middle School Parent,
When I spoke to you today, I saw the familiar signs in your face and heard them in your voice. Around your friends you are putting on a good front. It's not all an act; you are excited, and you trust your child. If you are fortunate, you feel good about the school and all of that. But you're still worried. Even if you've had an older child, you realize that every child is a whole new experience. Maybe this is your first middle schooler and you hear the jokes and murmurs of other parents. "Good luck surviving middle school...." that sort of thing.
I want to tell you something: It's going to be okay. It really is. I say that as a teacher with many years under my belt, and as the parent of one current adolescent and three recovering adolescents who show every sign of productive, happy adulthood.
Your child is going to grow this year. If you can accept growth rather than ease and comfort, you are all set.
Your child will have some wonderful triumphs; your child will also mess up royally. That's okay because, if you let it, this experience will teach her something. That really demanding teacher will take points off the project, but your child will learn! It might take a few times, but having learned it in middle school, she'll not need to learn it when it's a project for her college professors or boss.
Your child will likely connect to a teacher on a meaningful, life-changing level; chances are, there will be at least one teacher who your child will not like. This teacher will seem arbitrary and unfair and unreasonable and...the reality is that this teacher will probably end up blessing your child's life as much as the more likable one. Truly. I'm not saying it's fun or joyful, but learning to deal with someone who is difficult now will be immensely valuable to your child as he goes out into the world.*
I can almost guarantee you that your child will have some social issues this year. Friends will inexplicably change and do unpredictable things that will baffle and hurt your child. This brings us to one of the most challenging aspects of middle school: it's filled with middle school students, and these children are going to be every bit as insecure and unstable as your child will be at times, and will thus act, not like mature, kind adults, but like immature adolescents. Sadly, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Malala, and Abraham Lincoln are not on the friend menu. Your child, I fear, is stuck with other children, each of whom brings their own doubts and insecurities, not to mention an evolving mind, body, and set of social skills to the equation. But it will pass. The inevitable plate tectonics of social relationships will end up helping your child develop stronger, better, deeper friendships. It will help her develop herself as a person.
I'm not saying that everything about this year will be rainbows and unicorns. What I am saying is that it will be okay in the long run. Your sweet caterpillar has just spun a chrysalis. Your embryonic adult is inside an egg getting ready to hatch. In both of these examples, it is the struggle to emerge that gives the young creature the requisite strength to flourish. A butterfly flies because emerging is difficult. A chick thrives because breaking out of that shell is hard. I can't tell you there won't be tears. There will. But tears are to maturity like sweat is to hard work (I realized I'm using a lot of images and metaphors. Humor me. You think first days of school are hard on students and parents?)
Don't get me wrong. It's not going to be all struggle and difficulty. There are going to be exhilarating moments of new freedom and new friendships and new opportunities. There will be a lot of stuff that is just plain fun. You are going to get your share of eye rolls, head tosses, shoulder shrugs, and teenage tantrums. You are also going to have new chances to connect to your child in really cool ways. There will be other people watching out for your child, perhaps unexpected mentors and guides.
But what I want you to understand is that even when things seem not to be going well, when there seem to be problems, everything will be okay. Challenges are a feature, not a bug, of adolescence and they will help shape your wonderful child into the masterpiece that she or he is ready to become.
You will feel unequal to the task at times, but I'm telling you that you are absolutely equal to it. The secret is not overreacting. Truly, you don't have to do as much as you think you do. Love your child, but allow them to struggle. Give them empathy and ideas, but don't be the rescue crew, a helicopter or a snowplow.
Please realize that every adolescent is immature. And not just a little bit. I mean, 180-proof, weapons-grade, industrial strength, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding immaturity. That's normal. It's not you. And it's not them. Not really. It's a lack of a pre-fontal cortex and key chemicals in the brain. These will all come back eventually. You need to know that. Be as calm as you can and don't panic. The irresponsibility, forgetfulness, attitude, the overwrought emotions--all of that is normal. If you can mentally put a sign on your child's mind that says, "Pardon our mess while we renovate," you'll be in the right place.
It really is a wonderful time. You have a fantastic adventure ahead of you. It's like a hike--there will be ups and downs, peaks and valleys. And then, you'll get to the summit and you'll have this wonderful young man or woman. Maturity will kick in and you'll be amazed at this human masterpiece.
Then she'll head to college. But that's another post.
For now, it's going to be okay.
Note: I know it's not really Monday. Middle School Mondays is a series of blog posts I do dealing with raising and teaching adolescents. It used to happen on Monday, but now, every day is Middle School Monday if the inspiration strikes. You can read past posts here
One of the most difficult challenges students face during adolescence is a feeling of being excluded. Social media has made this even more potent, since they not only hear about events they missed, but they can now see proof in living color on Instagram.
Sometimes exclusion is intentional and malicious. That is a very real, very painful experience and requires a unique approach.
However, before accepting that conclusion, I would suggest something else first. When your child feels excluded, I would start by looking carefully at the activities in which he or she is involved, and see if there have been any changes lately.
Over the years, I've noticed something that has a profound impact on the social lives of middle school students, but is often minimized or completely ignored by adults. In my experience, this is to middle school social experience what Newton's laws are to physics, and is at the heart of many, if not most, social struggles.
The groups to which students are assigned, or the groups in which they voluntarily participate, have an enormous impact on their social activities. Current activities will almost always trump pre-existing friendships. Teens will generally form friendships with those to whom they have the most proximity. Let me explain and give a few examples.
A few years ago, one of my children lamented that she didn't have any classes with her friends. I somewhat naively told her that wasn't a big deal. She could see them at lunch, snack, between classes, and so on. It wasn't as if class time provided a lot of great opportunity for socializing anyway. Despite my clearly reasoned explanation, she remained devastated. And, she was right. That year, her social relationships and friendships definitely shifted--largely as a result of this structural change.
I've seen this happen over the years more times than I can say. Two children are best friends. One of them tries out for the school play, the lacrosse team or joins the robotics club. The other doesn't. Very quickly, the relationship starts fading. One of the children feels hurt and left out; her parents worry about exclusion.
Where I went wrong with my daughter--and where I think many other parents do the same thing--is in realizing how definitive these groups are for adolescents. My best friend the world is not a teacher. He does not live terribly close to me. In fact, we don't see each other much at all unless we make it happen. But that's the thing--we can make it happen. I can drive over to his house. We can meet for lunch. We can invite his family over for supper. External barriers of schedule, time, and place don't mean much to adults because we have the means to work around them.
A young adolescent who can't drive, have limited funds, and is dependent on an adult for everything does not have these options. So, the people with whom they spend their days are the people with whom they will develop bonds.
Beyond that, it's a normal human response to develop relationships based on shared experience and proximity. But it's especially potent for teens who have no other options.
There is another aspect that is important to understand, also not something I think most adults quite understand. I define myself in many ways. I'm a husband, father, teacher, director, author, singer, Mormon, son, brother, on and on. All of these are aspects of my identity.
Most adolescents I've known are far more concrete. They are far less able to acknowledge multiple dimensions in their identities. They are more likely to say, "I am an athlete," or "I am an actress," or "I am an artist."
Because so much of their lives revolve around trying to build and maintain an acceptable identity, they cling to these somewhat narrow visions of themselves with great force. Their identity makes them see themselves as only one thing, and those who are not part of that same thing may seem far enough outside of their experience that they no longer see that they have much in common.
This is either caused or magnified or both (not sure) by the tendency most young teens have of being rather exclusive in their friendships. I've noticed that many girls have a best friend relationship that almost echoes a dating relationship in later life in terms of the exclusivity of it. Boys do it as well, but in my experience, they seem to be more oriented to small groups than a specific best friend.
The good news is that these categories are not terribly durable. They are keenly and fiercely felt, but not always deeply rooted--they tend to change as circumstances change. I've seen kids who became new best friends because they were both leads in the fall play. They were fully in the drama tribe, that was their identity and their social marker, they were sworn to eternal BFF-ness, had turned their backs on their former friends--and then the next play came. The casting meant that they didn't have parts that put them together. One started swimming and re-connected with all her old friends, the other started getting involved in writer's group or something.
The other good news is that, over time, these experiences and new friendships tend to mellow the personality a bit, providing a more balanced perspective: an openness to new experiences and people.
The bad news is that while this process is happening, it is very easy for a child to experience exclusion. If, for example, your child is the one who is doing hockey and everyone else is swimming, or you are in travel soccer and your child's peers are all in the play, then your child can quickly become excluded.
Everything becomes focused on the activity shared in common by the majority of the group: inside jokes, lunch conversation, Instagram pictures, on and on.
Often, this exclusion is not malicious or intentional. But that doesn't make it any less painful.
Still, if you understand the cause, it can be addressed. Arranging activities with friends your child wants to connect with is helpful. One-off things are great, but if you can find a way to have them do something together on a regular basis, that is probably going to be more effective. This might not always be the case, but it is the place I would start. Sort of the equivalent of taking some ibuprofen for a headache before you get an MRI.
None of this is perfectly predictable. When you deal with adolescents you take every possible human quirk and variation and blow it up by several orders of magnitude. You add hormones and insecurity and lack of clear, rational thinking--things get crazy quickly.
One other thought: sometimes changing social situations can be beneficial. It's very painful to have your friends go a different way. It happened with one of our children. A friend of many years suddenly just went off a different direction. There was no malice in it, but our child was still hurt. Honestly, though, that friendship was a bit one-sided. The fact that it changed gave this child a chance to find a new friend, one who was just as invested in the friendship and seemed to care just as much. In fact, this friend seemed to be actively looking for new friends as well after experiencing some tectonic social change as well.
As always, empathy and love will help. Patience is a must. Your child has no life-experience to draw on, nothing to reassure him that this will ultimately be okay. So, that is an important--even critical--thing for you to bring.
For a period of about seven or years, I consistently had middle school students in my home. My oldest three were born in close enough succession that it was a chain of unbroken adolescence.
The youngest of those three is now a high school senior. Two of them are well into young adulthood as happy, well-adjusted people who show every indication of becoming productive members of society.
Now, after this interim, I have another middle schooler this year! Once more, our home rings with the dulcet tones of an adolescent who is navigating middle school and all that comes with it.
Having been through this before, and having the advantage of seeing 150ish students a year, I've done a lot of reflection on what worked well before, and what didn't. I've thought about what I learned and things I want to do differently. In case it's useful to anyone else, I thought I'd pass on some of things I'll do differently.
Melding my experience as a parent with my experience as a teacher, I've decided the biggest thing I'd do differently is this: I'm going to devote the best of my energy and the bulk of my time to coaching him through long-term issues, and spend less time worrying about short term ones. Another way to put this is to address problems, not the episodes that bring them to my attention; to focus on causes, not on symptoms.
In other words, I'm going to try to be strategic with my parenting, and less tactical.
I think I probably did this in reverse last time around. In retrospect, my wife and I were so busy putting out various fires that we didn't do as much long-term coaching. The kids still learned what they needed to, and I don't have serious regrets, but instead of doing 70% fighting fires and 30% coaching, I am going to try to reverse that.
I'm especially going to try to build emotional habits like grit, resilience, and problem-solving skills. I've noticed that immature behaviors tend to go away with time. But immature emotional habits can persist.
When your child has a teacher that is difficult for him, if she has friend struggles, a hard class, if he or she doesn't get chosen for the team, or get the part in the play it is very difficult. It feels like a BIG deal. But it's very temporary. And yet, I feel like this sort of thing is where we often invest parenting energies.
When I look back at the things that consumed my last child's time in middle school--the things that she and I worried about--I realize that most of it just doesn't matter anymore. It's gone. I've learned is that the specific, day-to-day stuff, the skirmishes of adolescence, really aren't all that important, although they feel like it at the time.
Being tactical, and trying to win specific battles is always going to be a part of parenting, I suppose. But it's so easy to get caught up in the moment that you lose the big picture.
So, I'm going to worry less about specific assignments and much more about helping him develop study skills.
I'm not going to worry if he has some failures. In fact, while I won't set him up to fail, I hope he does have some failures. I'm not going to bail him out. These struggles are so important for growth--and he needs to learn to cope and adjust now while the stakes are low. I don't want his first failure to be when he's got his first job.
I'm going to worry less about him getting playing time/positive attention from a coach or teacher and focus more helping on developing a good attitude and giving his best efforts regardless.
I'm going to worry less about social ups-and-downs (they are inevitable), and more on helping him be the kind of kid people want to be around.
The single biggest thing I'm going to focus on with him are these related principles:
The only thing you ultimately can control is yourself. People will disappoint you. Life will be hard. In middle school, in high school, and beyond. That won't change. The sooner you learn to take focus on your choices, and I'm going to try to help him be less focused on what others do, and far more focused on taking responsibility for what he did. Middle school students are incredibly focused on what other people do to them. It's hard for them to look at their own responsibilities in problematic situations.
But this focus on blaming others can easily become a habit. Maturity takes care of a lot of things, but people who don't learn to accept responsibility seem to struggle with that for the rest of their lives.
The related principle is this: every choice has consequences--some are good, some are bad, and some are not really either--they are trade-offs. You are free to choose--but you are not free to opt out of the consequences of your choice.
There are no perfect options. Trade-offs exist. Humans simply can't have it all, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, is selling you something, or is trying to get your vote. A happy life is learning to make the best choices you can and then accept the trade-offs and consequences that come.
I have written at some length before about how much more powerful I have found it to reward adolescents for good choices than it is to punish them for bad. I've talked about how most adults act because they expect a positive outcome, and because they earn an incentive. But we often expect students to do difficult things for very little in the way of a reward, and mostly, our educational system punishes bad behavior rather than rewarding good.
I just heard about a new study that validates this belief with adults. I am happy to note that one of the ways I reward students is by giving them Hershey's kisses (or Starbursts for those with allergies) when they do something good.
Anyway, this was very interesting. Read it here.
This is going to be short because the big musical is this week. Dress rehearsals followed by performances, so that's occupying most of the bandwidth here at bradenbell.com.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a "Love and Logic" seminar by Dr. Charles Fay. This was really good. Most conferences/seminars I've gone to were lame to "meh." This was exceptional. It has already changed my teaching and parenting.
One of the concepts Dr. Fay discussed really resonated with me. He talked about considering whether our word was "garbage" or "gold." Garbage means that your words are empty threats. "You kids stop that right now or you're going to be sorry!" as opposed to "If you are unable to sit in the backseat without fighting we will turn around and go home, instead of the going out to eat."
Specificity, clarity, detail all help with making sure that kids know your word is gold. And then, of course, follow through. This is the one that is hard for me. But I tried an experiment and did a few things in my classroom where I set forth an expectation and the consequence. I realized as I did, that I had been inconsistent with the application of consequences. I just really love my students and don't like coming down on them.
Here's the thing. I already know this principle. It's a very basic principle. I know it, but I had slipped and become sloppy. It's easy for that to happen.
But as I thought about it, I realized that my word was garbage. At least it was pretty muddy. So, I've made a few efforts.
1. I don't say anything unless I really mean it.
2. All my consequences are specific and clear.
3. Whatever I say, I do. And no amount of tears, puppy dog eyes, or promises of future reformation sway me.
In the last two weeks that I've been doing this at both home and school, I've noticed an enormous difference.
Things are crazy here at bradenbell.com which is why we haven't been around much. Our big winter musical opens a week from Thursday, so there is a lot going on. Sets are being built and painted, costumes are being sewn, props are being finished, programs are being printed and so on.
I always send out a letter to the parents of the cast at this point, based on over 25 years of directing this age group. At any rate, this is specifically addressed to parents of students in this play. But I think it is equally applicable to other activities in life, so I thought I'd pass it along for whatever it may be worth.
As we go into these last two weeks, let me thank you for the hard work so many of you have already, or will be devoting to making the play wonderful for the kids. These next two weeks are always magical as all the elements come together.
They are also stressful--at least historically speaking. So, I'd like to just toss a few thoughts out.
As the play gets closer, it will apparently fall apart. It always does--and then it comes back together. Please don't make a fuss about this as it will stress your child out even more.
You will likely see tired, and stressed children, especially in middle school. They will wonder how they'll get their assignments done and there might be tears and angst--and then it will all be over and everything will be just fine.
As a parent, I went through this with my daughter for three years and six plays. There were some times that she didn't do well on quizzes or assigments the week of the play. But she still got into high school.
Now that it's over, some fatigue and a lower score on a few assignments really don't matter. In fact, the lessons she learned about resilience and about toughing it out continue to bless her life.
Even more, the memories she has of those plays are wonderful treasures for her and they keep giving. As a parent, I think the growth that came from these experiences was worth a few minor sacrifices--although that doesn't mean it's easy at the time.
One of the biggest differences between adults and adolescents is that adolescents have virtually no emotional depth perception. That is, they generally don't have the experience to be able to discern if something is a big deal or if it's just a momentary snag.
Consequently, one of the greatest services adults can do for them is to provide them with perspective: "Yes sweetheart, I know you are tired. I know you are stressed. And yes, you might get a B on this quiz. And life will go on and everything will be just fine."
By opening night, the adrenaline generally kicks in and everything ends on a high note. Before that, they will get tired and discouraged and grumpy. You can do them a great service by helping them not blow small struggles into major crises. You can also do them a great service by not trying to make their life easy. Developmentally appropriate difficulties help develop strength, resilience and confidence.
On that note, I'll remind you about what we talked about in the parent meeting: please do not ask teachers to make accommodations to homework, academics, and attendance expectations because of the play. Being in the play presumes that the student agrees to keep up with their academic work and we need to be very careful not to put the cart before the horse.
I'm excited to see the kids bring this all together and emerge triumphant, stronger, and wiser very soon!
If you have an adolescent, chances are that they see nearly everything as an opportunity for a negotiation.
"Can I go to the movie?"
"But, I promise to....everyone else...." and on and on. What seems like a simple, declarative sentence to you seems like an invitation to an extended debate with an adolescent. It can be exhausting.
Over the years, I have come up with various ways of addressing this at home or school. One of my favorite lines came from my boss. He simply said, "You're mistaking this for a discussion. The answer is 'no'."
I always liked that, but I found one lately that works beautifully. I've tried it at home with younger kids and at school with my adolescents. I got it from Lynn Lott and it is so easy. When the child comes back at you, you say, "Did you ask that already?"
"And did I answer it?"
"Okay then, asked and answered."
You have to do this one time. After that, anytime they try the same behavior, you say, "Asked and answered."
I read about this on a blog post somewhere and was skeptical that it would work with some of the world-class debaters I have at home and school. But I tried it, and it was really quite amazing. I've been trying it now for a few weeks and it continues to work.
So, I'm very happy to pass this on. Good luck!
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 really 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 his feelings were very natural and normal, and then we talked about the choice he had 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. Or both.
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 suddenly have no value. 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 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!
Honestly, 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 real 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.
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.
Last week I wrote a post 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.
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