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
I've been directing plays for elementary and middle school kids for almost thirty years now (twenty-eight, to be precise). Because of that, I frequently get questions or hear complaints from friends as well as people who find this blog and contact me. Often, the comments boil down to two complaints: One is that the directors choose age-inappropriate material (that is a whole different blog post). The second is that their casting is unfair. I have received this second complaint over the years myself; I'm not sure any director hasn't. That's sort of the way it goes as any casting choice is going to yield one happy person and several unhappy ones.
I just finished casting a big show and thought I would take some time to talk about this process as it is fresh on my mind. Since this blog gets a large amount of traffic from parents and theatre teachers across the country, I hope it might be helpful. Though my world is middle school, I think this is applicable to almost any non-professional theatre program.
Casting a play is one of the most important and challenging things any director does. First year directing students are often told, "Pick the right play, pick the right cast, and the play will direct itself."
Casting is uniquely challenging because it is cognitive, artistic, and emotional. Because it is a long process, it is usually physically tiring and taxing as well.
In addition, most directors have had some performing experience. Consequently, directors know how disappointing it can be not to get a desired role. And in many educational programs, the directors know and have some degree of affection for and investment in their students--making it all the more difficult to disappoint them.
Of all the decisions a director makes, casting choices are probably the most frequently questioned or misunderstood. That seems to be universal, and exists everywhere I've worked. It's something you hear about a lot when theatre teachers get together. In light of this, I think it is useful to explain a few things that happen behind the curtain, so to speak.
In fairness to people with questions, casting is the least public aspect of a performance. The decisions are made either by the director or a small group of people, based on information that is not generally available to the public. Consequently, it is easy for people to question or second-guess those decisions, then doubt the process, the director, or both. And when you realize that the process tends to be emotionally charged for parents and students, it is even more understandable. Unfortunately, when people don't understand, they generally assume that their must be a malign motive: most often favoritism, a grudge, etc.
However, I don't think favoritism happens as much as people assume. Any director is highly-aware that people will accuse him or her of playing favorites, and they won't put themselves in that position lightly. Every director I know makes absolutely sure that any casting decision is the right thing for the production--especially when someone has had a lead before, or if they are casting a family member, friend of the family, etc., in a lead.
A director cannot indulge in casting based on personal feelings; however, at the same time, a director cannot refrain from casting choices based on other people's personal feelings.
No one cares more about the production's ultimate success than the director. It is totally against the director's interest to cast anyone who is not suited to the part. Miscasting does serious, sometimes fatal, damage to a production. This is a lesson every director learns very quickly--usually by making a painful mistake early on. Consequently, directors are generally very clear-eyed and level-headed. Personal feelings enter the picture far less than one might think.
I think it is important for parents to remember that they are subject to everything directors are sometimes accused of: favoritism, subjectivity, etc. However, the parents generally don't have the same information or professional experience that the director has to offset these human traits.
Of course, one can make a mistake and miscast someone. Sometimes the director was wrong, and sometimes the performer maybe didn't quite invest all he or she might have--this happens occasionally even in Hollywood or on Broadway--but generally speaking, directors give extreme due diligence and cast the people they genuinely feel are best-suited for the role. Note: I did not say most talented. I said, best-suited. I'll talk about what that means later.
The director's greatest responsibility is to the entire production. He or she is engaged by an organization and has a fiduciary responsibility to deliver the best production possible. If he or she does anything else, then no one ends up having much fun and no one is happy. The best way for the cast to have fun is to have a good show.
The director also has a responsibility to make sure the cast looks good in front of the audience, and to position the cast to do their best work. Finally, there is an obligation to the audience that the play will be as good as possible, a fair exchange for the ticket money and time invested.
A parent's most fundamental job is to watch over their child. So, most parents, understandably, view the production through their child's experience, and tend to see things by how a particular decisions impacts their child. That is understandable; it is their job. But the director does not have that luxury. What feels like a very personal decision to a child or family is generally a very professional, clinical one for the director.
I had a friend once who assured me the director at her child's school showed gross favoritism because he never cast her daughter. But I heard the daughter sing; she had some serious pitch problems, and strained badly on her high notes. The mother didn't hear this; she just loved to hear her daughter sing. And the girl was a wonderful daughter and an incredible young lady in every way. But she couldn't sing well. And a director has to pay attention to things like that.
Some people do get lots of lead roles and this is true from Broadway down to your local elementary school (just as some people always start on sports teams, or win chess tournaments or art contests). Sometimes it is as simple as the fact that someone is talented, works hard, has a great attitude and is easy to teach and direct. Being a lead is not as simple as it may look, requiring a skill-set that goes well beyond the obvious dramatic talent. It requires a myriad of unseen and intangible skills: commitment, hard work, ability to hold up under extreme pressure, reliability, ability to take direction--on and on.
There is one other thing to consider. Human beings often develop very warm and close relationships with people they work with extensively and in a challenging setting. This is human nature. It's equally true in theatre. Sometimes people see the warm relationship between a director and a lead and assume that the director put his or her favorite person in that role because of the relationship. In reality, it is often reverse: the warm relationship came because the actor and director worked together closely.
The reality is that there are any number of dedicated, talented, hard-working, conscientious kids who don't get big parts. I was one of them. One of my children was one of them. There are any number of reasons for this, but ultimately, this apparent inequity is the nature of life; it is certainly the nature of theatre: outcomes are not, and cannot be made to be, equal.
However, the good news is that the size of a role does not diminish the opportunity for someone else to have a good experience. I know that from first-hand experience, and I've seen it confirmed over and over.
Still, the fact that people get repeated leads while others get none is difficult, especially for a school group, where the mission is clearly educational. Coaches face a similar dilemma. Do you play to win, or do you play to build experience and give everyone a chance? Ideally, you can do both. But in the real world, in the moment, sometimes you have to make judgment calls and try to balance competing imperatives. Human nature being what it is, it is always easier to second-guess these decisions in retrospect than it is to make them in the moment.
It's great to say that one should rotate lots of people through the leading roles. That's an idea few would disagree with. The problem, though, is that if you do this, and the quality of the plays goes down, then fewer people will want to be part of it. Ultimately, the experience is not as good for the entire cast, not to mention the student who has been set up for a public lack of success.
You also run into potential problems. What if one person gets two rotations, and another person only gets one? Or two and three?
Directors often hear things like, "But she's just so disappointed," or, "But he wanted it so badly," or, "I'm afraid she's going to give up hope." It is natural for a parent to be focused on that. But a director cannot take that into account. First of all, if someone is going to give up theatre because of disappointment, it is probably best that it happen quickly. Theatre is disappointing. No one ever gets all the parts they want. If that is too much for someone to handle, then theatre is a terrible hobby.
Secondly, if someone wants the director to consider this for their child, then it must be a consideration for everyone. Follow the logic of that thinking. What if there are five children who want the part equally badly? What if they will all be bitterly disappointed. How can a director possibly discern who will be most disappointed in a fair or accurate way? If you think the existing audition process is subjective, imagine trying to gauge the emotional state of a particular child and how badly they want something, or how disappointed they will be. It is unrealistic and unfair for a parent or a child to try to make the director responsible for their disappointment.
Another thing that I have heard over the years is something like, "If she just had a chance, I know she would shine." Or, "he's so funny at home--you should hear him imitate movies, or sing along in the car." These children are blessed to have parents who love their child's talents.
But directors can't cast on the potential a parent sees, nor can they can't cast on what a child does at home. A play, after all, does not happen in a living room or car: it takes place in front of a large audience, with many other actors, and there is a great deal of pressure on leads.
A lot of people see a lead or big part as a fun thing, some kind of validation, or a reward. And they can be rewarding. But, leading roles are hard. Hard, hard, hard work. They carry a tremendous deal of pressure, and also a great responsibility. The pressure can crush someone who is not ready.
I'm including a picture of a list created by the actress who played Mary in Mary Poppins. In addition to the on-stage demands of carrying a large show (singing, dancing, acting, etc.) she had so many props to keep track of that she had to draw up a list to help her remember scene-by-scene. This is in addition to remembering when her quick changes were, when to go get her flying harness on and off, when to go get hooked up to the flying lines, on and on. She even had to schedule time to drink water and use the restroom. For 2.5 hours every night, she had all kinds of pressure on her--after months and months of taxing, demanding work. Leading parts are like that: huge, huge amounts of work and pressure. Not everyone is ready for that--and that's okay.
A lead is also automatically a leader. His or her actions and attitude, good or bad, will shape the attitudes and work ethic of those around them.
There are a number of other factors to consider in casting. Generally, a director has information and knowledge about the cast that most people don't have. For example, it may be that a child is very talented, but does not work very hard. It may be that the child is very talented, but that there are family circumstances that would prohibit the child from being able to fulfill the commitment.
Years ago, I had a costumer beg me not to cast a particular child in a lead because the parent was so incredibly difficult to work with (I still did, incidentally, because the kid was by far the best person for the role. But I would never give this child another role. The parent just made life too difficult for too many people). More than one parent has totally sabotaged their child's chances by causing difficulty and stirring up drama. A play is stressful under the best of circumstances. No director will willingly inflict additional problems and drama on the production. This is true at every level of theatre, and anyone who wants to participate in plays ought to learn this early on.
Here are a few other situations:
Some time ago, I had a fairly talented student who got deeply offended when given even very mild correction, such as, "I need you to be louder." This attitude made it so she could not get another lead. It was simply impossible because she was unteachable.
Another time I had a very talented student who simply did not focus at rehearsal; a nice kid, but a total goof-off and very absent-minded, and not inclined to try very hard to counteract that tendency. There was no way this student could be counted on. One does not get a big role and then demonstrate reliability; one demonstrates reliability first. Another student was wonderful on-stage but could not remember when to come on-stage and missed entrances routinely.
Another talented student had serious anxiety. I did not know about the anxiety, and cast the student in a substantial role. Driven in part by the anxiety, the student struggled in rehearsals. Even the most routine direction was interpreted as personal criticism and served to get the student even more nervous. The child then made frequent mistakes. But trying to help the student correct the errors created even more stress. It was a vicious cycle, and one that I could simply not fix. After considerable thought, I decided I could not give the student another large role. Beyond the problems for the play, it seemed a cruel thing to do to that child. People thought I was being unkind or playing favorites. Of course, I could not say anything in any of these cases.
Another factor that people don't understand is difficult to explain, but has to do with "fit." Talent is neither interchangeable nor uniform. Someone can be very talented and still not fit a particular part. Not everyone who can sing well can sing the same things well. Not everyone with talent is good at everything.
The example I use with my students is Will Smith and Will Ferrell: two professionals who are very talented and successful. But you wouldn't consider them interchangeable and consider Will F. to play a part for Will S. Think about Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth in Wicked--both brilliantly talented women, but you'd not switch their roles. Talent is not interchangeable.
Once a mother was frustrated because her daughter was called-back for Cinderella, but did not get the part and was assigned to the ensemble. The mother thought that the daughter should have been given the role of step-mother or step-sister as a sort of consolation prize. I had to explain that the daughter was called back for Cinderella because of the way she projected a gentle, vulnerable heart. Those exact qualities made her totally unsuited for the over-the-top malice of the stepsisters.
People often think that any talented kid should be able to have a lead. I understand this, but it's much more complex than that. Vocal range, vocal quality, and personality are just three factors that differ vastly different from student to student and are not easily predictable.
Physical resemblance to the character, or the ability to meet certain physical demands are other important, often overlooked factors. The Scarecrow cannot move stiffly; Dorothy cannot be taller than the Wicked Witch. She just can't be. And there is only so much one can do with heels and creative staging. Imagine a production where Maria looks up at the Von Trapp children (or down at the Captain). It just doesn't work. Now, that being said, a director's job is to put on the best show he or she can. So, if an amazing actress tries out for the witch and an amazing actress tries out for Dorothy and they are close in height, there might be something to be done with the set, the way things are staged, and the costume. But still, you get the idea. There are limitations that the director can't change).
Two students might be very talented, but one is great at comic timing; the other is better at dramatic roles. If the show has a smaller part that calls for wonderful comic timing, then the first student is going to get that part. Indeed, it would be a disservice to do otherwise. Sadly, the student may feel that he or she was overlooked. But more often than not, casting is positive, not negative--students don't "not" get a part. Rather, they are cast for the part best suited to their talents. I once had a student who was a very good dramatic actress. A key moment in the play called for her talents. The whole play had built to this point, and only she could pull it off. It was a smaller role, but critical to the play.
Chemistry between actors in other roles is also critical. Sometimes, a very talented person does a great job in an individual audition, then they read a scene with someone and fall a bit flat. Then a different person does the same scene and the air crackles. We've all seen movies where the acting was fine, but there was no chemistry between the actors. And those are professionals. It's hard to define or articulate, and you can't create it artificially, but it's very real.
The point of auditions and call-backs is to help align a student's unique talents with the particular demands of a play. Sometimes talents and plays will align multiple times. Or not at all. That is the reality of theatre and any attempt to change that will distort the experience into something other than theatre.
As this is quite long already, I'll divide this post in half and stop for now. In the next post, I'll consider other questions that sometimes come up: casting by committee as well as the trade-offs inherent in changing a program to achieve different outcomes, and a few other things.
Part 2 is 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 am a firm believer in the idea that kids need to work their own problems out. The world can be difficult and kids need grit to succeed. Recently, I heard about employer who had an employee's mother call him to demand that he change her son's work schedule. The son was a new employee and schedules were done according to seniority. One hears about this more and more often and it is worrisome--both for the long-term prospects of the child as well as our collective future.
To intervene is to cripple them and reduce their ability to function in the world. But then--bam! My child gets too much homework, or someone is mean, or--any number of other things. Suddenly, all my beliefs about non-intervening get tossed out and I'm ready to be a micro-managing helicopter parent.
I don't think it's just me. I believe most parents recognize that it can be unhealthy to intervene too much. They understand that on a theoretical level. But then, a child has difficulty, your parental instincts kick in, and suddenly you are devoting all your resources to solving a problem for your child.
This has happened to me very recently. There was a situation in which I intervened and later realized I shouldn't have. Then, there was another situation in which I did not intervene and now think I should have.
So, how do you know when to intervene and when not to?
I've been thinking a lot about this, and while I don't pretend to have all the answers, I have come with a few thoughts.
1. Is your child in serious physical danger? You should probably intervene. I say "probably" because I think the level matters. A skinned knee or bruises? No. A broken limb? Yes.
2. Is your child's long-term health and/or happiness at stake? A test, several assignments, a role in a play, playing time in a game, even a final grade in a class do not rise to this level, in my judgment. Be careful with this one. It can play tricks on you, and you can easily convince yourself that intervening is necessary.
3. Is there a power imbalance at play? Kids need to learn to work through problems. They need to learn to express concerns to their teachers and peers. Disagreements are a chance to learn how to work through these problems. Bullying is different. It involves a power imbalance, repetition, and intentionality. Someone who is being truly bullied may not be able to solve the problem using his or her own resources. Note that a lot of what people call bullying is not true bullying. It's mean, it's discouraging, it's difficult--but it's not bullying.
4. Ask yourself this: "If I don't intervene what is the worst thing that will happen?" The answer to this question is illuminating. It leads me to realize that usually the stakes are not terribly high. I might be frustrated, my child might be frustrated, and so on. There is rarely a serious, long-term consequence.
5. If you think it is serious, then add this question. "Even if it is serious, is this problem worse than inhibiting my child's problem-solving abilities?"
6. Do an ego check. I am confident that a lot of parental interventions stem more from wounded pride, bruised egos, latent insecurities, and other similar parental issues. Asking myself why I really care is often very illuminating for things like this. I really think that's true.
7. Do you intervene a lot? If everything looks like an emergency, then your view of emergencies might have become inflated. If you find yourself saying things like, "I would never want to be the kind of parent who xyz, but..." more than once or twice every few months, I would be very careful and do some reflection. Intervention is a habit, and it can be hard to see. But if your child is constantly needing intervention, I suggest that might a warning sign. You might ask a trusted outside observer.
8. Is everyone out to get your child? If you feel that lots of people--coaches, teachers, etc.--don't appreciate or understand your child, that would be a big red flag. I'm not saying that would never be true. But I think it's unlikely enough to give some serious pause.
9. Last of all, it is my experience that policies and procedures are not usually random or arbitrary. Generally there is a reason someone created a rule or policy. Chances are that there is a reason that coach didn't play your child, or that the teacher gives so much homework. Maybe not, but it would be good to try to explore that before you intervene.
10. When was the last time you coached your child through how to solve a problem?
11. When was the last time you saw your child solve a problem?
A final caution: make sure you understand the full context and details of the problem. Sometimes there are nuances and levels of meaning that might give additional insight. It can be embarrassing to intervene and then find out your understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.
What are some things that have worked for you in deciding when to intervene?
I have a new policy with my voice students. I am no longer going to tell them they are singing flat or sharp. I fear that the stigma associated with being out of tune might crush them and keep them from wanting to be singers. And that would be tragic.
I've decided also that when the boys in my classes sing loudly and off-key I will totally ignore it. Again, I'm afraid of crushing those delicate feelings--and you never know if correction of a flaw might be hurtful.
Yes, those above two paragraphs were satirical. I was being ridiculous on purpose because I wanted to point out the absurdity of letting a problem continue because corrective feedback is not given. That's the whole point of being a teacher.
Now, let me make one thing very clear: I do not believe that we should call children names, and one has to be careful in how corrective feedback is given. Have I been clear? Good. Because if anyone makes a comment that ignores that basic premise, I'm going to delete you.
Here's where I'm going with this. A new campaign of very influential women and organizations (Sheryl Sandberg, the Girl Scouts, Beyonce, and Lifetime TV) have started a campaign that aims to ban the word "bossy." The reason is that being called bossy hurts a girl's feelings and prevents them from becoming leaders.
I think this is a terrible idea, and I take issue with it for several reasons--but mostly, because I think it hurts the very girls it seeks to help. I'll get to that in a minute.
First of all, leadership is not being bossy. No one likes a bossy boss. We don't like bossy, overbearing men or women. We just don't.
To conflate being assertive and exercising authority with bossiness is a huge mistake. The two are not the same thing at all. We are not nurturing leaders by hiding negative traits and confusing leadership with bossiness.
In my theatre program, I actively mentor girls. Every year, I have two or three young women who are stage managers, choreographers, or production assistants, and in these positions, they have real authority and real responsibility. They manage other students, and run a huge production.
I've seen girls be leaders without being bossy. I have seen assertive authority and I have seen bossiness and the two are nothing alike. Moreover I really don't think most kids have a problem seeing the difference. That is, I've not usually seen anyone incorrectly label the authoritative actions of a girl in charge as being bossy.
And if they are bossy? Well, then we work on that. That's what parents and teachers do. All of us have things we have to work on. Those girls I work with every year? The ones who have so much authority? Well, some of them are shy and I have to help them be more assertive. Some are bossy and I have to help them learn to phrase things differently and be more sensitive to other people around them. Some are forgetful and I have to help them learn to write things down. And on and on. Each child who comes into my care is unique and my job is to help them meet their fullest potential by overcoming the weaknesses that will most likely inhibit their success. Including bossiness.
Girls are small humans. As humans, they have tremendous, almost infinite potential. They also have the whole range of flaws and weaknesses inherent to humanity. Being a girl does not somehow magically make one perfect. They have flaws and weaknesses which will hold them back. It is the job of parents and teachers to help small humans, boys or girls, see their potential and then help them develop that potential.
Being bossy in a girl is a huge social liability. I see girls every year who alienate large sections of their peer group--mostly girls, incidentally--mainly because they are bossy. Kids do not like bossy kids (incidentally, I disagree emphatically that we somehow encourage boys to be bossy. Boys today are under enormous pressure in every realm of their lives to control their alpha maleness and be more collaborative. But that's another story). At times, bossiness can walk a very fine line with bullying.
If we want girls to be leaders, then we should help them learn how to be the kind of leader people want to follow.
In other words, banning "bossy" doesn't do any good. Let's say we end up banning that word. Imagine a bright, motivated girl who is also bossy. But no one ever says that because this campaign is successful in banning that word. So, she drives everyone crazy, but no one ever tells her. Anyway, she goes through school and graduates and wants to take on the world. But the problem is, no one can stand her. She gets passed over for promotions. She runs for Congress but no one will vote for her.
How exactly have we benefited this child? How have we helped her reach her vast, human potential.
Some boys are domineering or overconfident. Should be ban those words too? A ban on the word "cocky," perhaps? That can hurt a boy's feelings. After all, brashness or cockiness is often just the protective coating on deep insecurity. What if a boy needs to start wearing deodorant? Should we risk hurting his feelings by telling him? What if a girl mumbles and looks at the floor?
I believe it is far more productive to look at a young human and know them enough to understand what they can do to meet their fullest potential. And then love them enough to tell them, and invest the time to help them learn more effective ways.
Beyond that, there is the troubling trend to ban words. I can think of a few words that are so awful that they shouldn't be repeated. But every group is going to be offended or put out by something. As our society becomes more fragmented and segmented, this will only increase and I don't think it's a good thing. But more on that later.
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.
I recently had an experience that helped focus some thoughts I've had for a while now. Let me start by describing the experience.
Our big school musical was the week of Valentine's Day. During that time, I saw some wonderful things, both on and off-stage. But there is one particular that moment that sticks in my mind.
During our final dress rehearsal, one of the performers gave what I can only describe as a flawless performance. It was simply perfect, from the inflection in her lines to her choreography, to the energy and feeling with which she infused everything she did.
Watching her brought me such joy--partly because I was proud of her, but partly because she was in her element. She reminded me of an otter swimming or a bird flying. She was doing what she was born to do, and doing it with joy and verve. It was a wonderful thing to watch and it had a profound impact on me. The audience loved her, and she enjoyed great success--in addition to the internal satisfaction of a job well done.
As I watched her, I thought back about the journey that had brought here to that point.
She had come to a summer theatre camp as a rising 6th grader. She had a nice, sweet voice, and at the end of the week, I suggested to her mother that she start taking voice lessons, and she did.
For the next three years, this student and I worked almost every week. During our lessons, I corrected her breathing, the placement of her vowels, and posture. We worked and worked worked. She practiced, came and got critiqued, practiced some more, got critiqued again...and on and on.
This student worked on her vocal technique and she continued to come to theatre camps. In fact, she attended just about every camp she could. She worked and worked and worked. For years. And years.
This student put in hours that cannot be counted, and gave a consistent effort that cannot be calculated. Hard work and effort turned talent into skill, and skill into instinct.
Beyond her hard work, she showed a consistently good attitude. She was cheerful and focused, never causing any problems, or drama in any way (nor did her parents, and that's quite important as well). She was part of the team, never showing any kind of attitude or entitlement. She supported her peers and always gave 100% to whatever she part she was given. Large or small, she performed it as if it were the most important role in the play.
In fact, when we had try-outs for this part, she wanted a different role, and wanted it badly. I know she was disappointed when the casting was announced. But she had formed habits over those years--habits that now directed her actions.
And that is what I want to focus on. Her tremendous success was the result of years and years of hard work, and of hundreds of good choices made consistently. These choices and work created habits that made her success a natural outcome.
And so, part of my joy was seeing her succeed so beautifully. Part of my joy was that of a teacher seeing a student succeed. But part of my joy was seeing how years and years of effort and good choices had paid off.
To be clear, hard work and good choices are not always rewarded with such great public success. However, great public success does not ever seem to come without them.
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!
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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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