First of all, if you haven't yet, go down and see the pictures from The Little Mermaid. To me, it is pure middle school magic! Also, click here to find out how you can win an advance copy of Penumbras, the sequel to the Kindling.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to address an important and serious subject. Over the years, I have had students I feel very confident will succeed and students about whom I worry a great deal.
There are two or three things that really make me worry. One of the top worries I have is about over-protective parents--a setting which seems more and more to be the default. These parents seem to see themselves as portable shields, designed and required to run interference for, shelter, and protect their children from any disappointment, danger, harm, or even unpleasantness and mild inconvenience. I really believe this sets up the child for a lifetime of serious problems, and that's why I'm writing about it in very candid terms.
Many of these parents have considerable resources and are able to do a very good job of being shields. And that is the tragedy. They shield their children from these things, but in the end, they shield their children from growth, challenge, achievement, and the ability to solve problems.
Life is hard. It is a constant challenge. Most of us have to spend our lives figuring out how to make it work, how to get by, how to solve our problems. The older we get, the more challenging life becomes, and the larger and more complex those problems are.
I've seen this in my theatre program over the years, although I have heard similar stories from coaches and teachers of all disciplines.
I once had a parent call me to tell me their child, who was quite talented, could not come to rehearsal. It was an important rehearsal and I asked why the child would miss. Well, Child didn't feel well. Was there a fever? No, but the child was kind of snotty and the throat was a bit irritated, just didn't feel great. Turned out the child had allergies. I had to explain that the child would need to come to rehearsal. The parent seemed truly stunned.
Another time, a student hurt his/her finger before rehearsal. It was not broken, no medical attention was required. Nothing could be done but wait for it to get better. Unpleasant, even painful, but not materially or functionally not useable. We had a major rehearsal that day, but the parent insisted on taking the child home.
Guess who I can never trust with a major role? I say that not out of malice or pique, but rather because that child is now very weak, not having had chances to push through problems and grow stronger.
Sometimes I see very talented kids who are emotionally weak because their parents have coddled and cosseted them so much, always running interference. These kids, talented though they may be, will never get more than a very minor role because they can't handle the stress. Sometimes the most mild criticism, or even a small snafu like a costume problem will send them off into tears. There is no way that they could handle the stress of a leading role. It would be cruel to them--they would buckle and break under all that pressure.
Ideally, if you are lucky, you have parents who prepare you for this by letting you grow and develop your problem-solving skills. Ideally, parents let you fail and fall. They keep you from serious danger, but they allow you to trip and skin your knee. They don't intervene when a friend is unkind, or when you don't make the team. If you get in trouble at school, they ensure you are fairly treated but don't push teachers or administrators to make changes for you.
If you are lucky, your parents seem themselves as coaches who help you navigate problems, not as shields who will protect you from the problems. The exception, of course, is if a child has some kind of special need, for which persistent advocating may be needed. Even then, I do think that the more autonomous they can be, the happier they will become. I'm not talking about those situations, however.
The flaw with the shield approach is that no parent will be able to protect their child forever from everything. Eventually, problems will break through. And that child, no matter how old, will be ill-suited to deal with them.
Here's the problem, though. When I explain this to people, they nod and agree. What I'm saying seems obvious and makes sense to most parents--and it's easy to spot in other people. However, many of those people who do the nodding then turn around and coddle and shield their child in the most obvious ways.
Of course, as a parent, our instincts are to jump in and protect our child. And there are times we have to. That's our job. So, how do we know if we are being appropriately protective, or too much of a coddler?
I don't have all the answers, but I've been observing parents now for a long time, both as a teacher and as parent, myself. Here are a few thoughts I have, these are symptoms that you might be too much of a shield and not doing enough supporting and coaching. I use these questions to perform my own regular self-analysis. As I wrote these out, I saw a few areas where I need to pull back a bit.
1. Who has the most contact with your child's teachers/coaches/other adults? You, or them?
2. If your child has a problem getting homework done or preparing for a test, is your response to ask for an exception or to help your child see the bad grade as a lesson learned?
3. If you do ask for an exception, who asks--the child or you?
4. How often do you find yourself asking for exceptions to policies (school, team, classroom, etc.)?
5. When an exception is warranted, who does the asking, you or the child?
6. If your child does not get enough playing time in their sport, or a good part in the play, or a desired grade, etc., is your reaction to focus on the teacher/coach/director and their choices, or to analyze what your child may or may not be doing?
7. If a discussion is warranted, will you have the discussion, or will you prep your child to have it?
8. Do you feel that your child deserves the best, regardless of his or her efforts?
9. When your child is upset, do you spend more time giving comfort or more time helping examine the extent to which their actions may have contributed to the problem and looking for ways to prevent similar problems in the future?
10. Do you spend a lot of time managing, directing, or intervening in your child's social life?
11. Do you take personally the amount of friends that your child has?
12. When your child has a social problem, do you assume it is the other child's fault, or do you have a sense of your child's weaknesses and how they might contribute?
13. Do you see your child as a wonderful, nearly perfect gift, or as a lovable but flawed human in need of frequent guidance and correction?
14. Do you feel that your child's success in elementary and middle school is very important and a high priority?
15. Is your job to protect your child from problems or to coach them through challenges?
16. Do you frequently let your child miss or go late to school or other commitments so they can sleep in because they seem a little tired (not talking about being sick)?
17. Do you frequently find yourself feeling that your child is just not valued by multiple people in their lives? Coaches, teachers, etc.?
18. Are people out to get your child?
19. Do teachers, coaches, and others frequently fail to see just how gifted your child is?
This isn't a scientific test, but these are some warning signs. Answering some of them may just mean you are a cautious parent. We all do some of these things at times. I think the persistence of behavior is important. If these things happen a lot, then it's possibly a problem and calls for careful self-reflection.
A key indicator to me is the amount of intervention you are doing and about what. If you have a folder full of emails to teachers asking for exceptions, explaining special circumstances, detailing why something's not fair--the chances are pretty high you are coddling (assuming your child does not have some kind of special need--that is a different story altogether). This is especially true if you are intervening repeatedly in things that don't really matter--or won't in a few weeks or months (eg, playing time in a game, grades on a test, role in a play, mild disciplinary issues, etc).
If you answered in a way that suggests you are spending a lot of time intervening in your child's life, or if you see them as usually being the innocent in every problem, you are probably shielding them too much. You might serve your child well by reflecting on this. Maybe even talk to someone you trust and asking their opinion (be ready for honesty, though).
I know it's hard to allow your child to struggle and hurt. I hate doing it! But they need the experience now if they are going to be happy and successful. Hard times during adolescence nourish the soul, allowing it to grow big and strong.
A butterfly cannot fly without the strength that comes from its long struggle to fight to emerge from the chrysalis. Without that opposition, it ends up weak and stunted, unable to do more than flutter on the ground a bit. Don't rob your child of the chance to fly!
Learn to say, "I'm so sorry. What do you think you could have done to make that situation better?" or "Why don't we talk about some ways you can fix this problem?" or "You need to talk to Coach So-and-so or Mrs. Such-and-Such. Why don't we think of some things you can say." "I know it's hard, and I'm sorry you are hurting. I love you very much. I know you can work this out. Do you have any ideas..." "This was a choice you made, and it brought a consequence. Do you see what the choice was? If you would like a different consequence, what different choice could you make?"
And so on.
Maybe next week we'll talk about when, why, and how to intervene.
I have a vivid memory of something that happened following the very successful opening performance of one of my plays. The performance had been quite good--one of our best at the time. There was a feeling of celebration in the air as people congratulated the cast, each other, and of course, me. I was talking to the parent of one of my students, but our conversation kept getting interrupted by kids running up to give me a hug or adults complimenting me as they walked past.
The parent to whom I was speaking looked at me with some apparent envy and said, "You have the best job in the world."
What he didn't know was that earlier, I'd taken my ten-year old car to the mechanic and was now looking at a $500 repair bill that was going on my credit card--joining a long, sad history of similar car repairs.
Why do I drive an old car that needs so many repairs? Because I'm a school teacher and it's what I can afford.
In that moment, it did appear that I had a wonderful job. And I do. But he was seeing something that happens literally twice a year, and he wasn't seeing the other parts of the job. He didn't see the students talking when I wanted their attention. He didn't see the sleepless nights as I worried the play wouldn't come together. He didn't see the hours and hours of rehearsals, the hundreds of emails managing the most mundane details and logistics. He didn't see the conversations with disappointed students or with angry parents when the cast list came out. He didn't see the fact that teaching, while rewarding, does not include large compensation. Please understand, I'm not complaining. Teaching brings many rewards and my school treats me generously. But everyone knows that you will not make a great deal of money as a teacher. It's a fact of life.
I am amazed at the number of people who do not realize that choices have consequences. Some are good and some are bad. I chose to become a teacher. It has brought a lot of wonderful things into my life. It has also brought some difficult, stressful, and even heart-breaking things as well. I imagine that if I'd been a surgeon or a lawyer, I would say the same thing.
I know this seems glaringly obvious. However, as obvious as it may seem, I'd say the majority of people in my experience do not act, or live, as if it is obvious (I'll admit that I include myself in that group sometimes). To the contrary. So I think we can all use a reminder.
You can't choose to be a teacher and then complain about driving an old car. You can't choose to be a heart surgeon or CEO and then complain that you don't have time with your family. You can't choose to spend time with your family and then complain that you don't have a high-powered career.
During my high school years and early twenties, I dreamed of performing. If not on Broadway, at least in regional theatres and summer stock. I was pretty good. Objectively speaking, I think I could have probably made it. Perhaps not big, but I think I could have done well enough to make a living.
But I wanted a family. I wanted a wife and children. I didn't think I could do both. And when I got married, my wife and I decided we wanted children right away, and that she would stay home with the children and be a full-time mom. That meant I need to work regular hours to support the family. Which meant I couldn't pursue my dream of doing musical theatre on Broadway. (Incidentally, I am glad I made that choice. For me, it was the right one).
The reality is that life is full of trade-offs. Contra popular wisdom, you really can't have it all. Every choice will bring consequences that we'll love, and some we won't. When we encounter the consequences we don't like, we tend to start thinking we should have made a different decision.
There are some decisions that are clear-cut choices between good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, right and wrong. But many, I think most, choices are not so clear-cut. They will have advantages and disadvantages. Wisdom teaches us to think about this and make an informed decision, understanding that we will need to accept the consequences we don't like along with those we do.
Middle school students really struggle with understanding this. So much of what we teach them is phrased in right/wrong terms. And that's appropriate when we are talking about whether to experiment with some behaviors and substances. But it's important, I think, to help them learn to be a little more nuanced in their thinking.
Every year I'm surprised by people who are surprised that participation in a school play means that there are some late nights when homework doesn't get done. Or that learning lines requires giving up some other activities in the evening. And so on.
I've found some success in this regard by asking lots of questions: "If you choose x, what are the the positive outcomes likely to be?" "What are the negative outcomes likely to be?" "What sacrifices might you have to make?" "Will those sacrifices be worth it?" And so on.
Middle school students are coming up on some major decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. Learning now to understand trade-offs and consequences is an important skill that we can't teach too soon, in my opinion.
We can go this pro-actively by walking kids through a series of questions before a decision is made. We can also do it retroactively by discussing consequences with them. "Why did you get a B-?" "Because the teacher hates me." "What did you do to earn a B-?" "Well, I talk a lot in class." "Was it fun to talk with your friends?" "Yeah." "Is it fun to get a B-?" "No." You're going to have to figure out which you want. You can't have fun in class and still get an A+." And so on. In my opinion, teaching retroactively is extremely important, and a step many parents fail to do because they are often working actively on helping the student avoid the consequences of their actions.
First of all, thanks to everyone who participated in the iTunes giftcard giveaway and the .99 Kindling promotion. I am so appreciative of the kind support you all give me!
Two weeks ago, I wrote some very quick lessons I'd learned from being on a school retreat with our 8th graders. As I wrote them, I felt that each of those points had the potential to make a significant impact on my teaching and parenting. Blogging about these principles is a way to help my own work, a way to be reflective and take notes, so I wanted to spend time unpacking these principles.
The first one was this: You have to be specific with adolescents. Adults talk about concepts like "kindness" and "leadership" and "responsibility" and kids nod and we think we've connected. A very few kids will hear that and translate those concepts into specifics. Most, however, won't. I've learned, and am re-learning, how important it is to give concrete details and examples. "Kindness means more than just not being actively unkind. It means when you see someone sitting alone, you invite them to join you. It means that when you see someone who needs help you help them. If someone is sad, you ask them what's wrong and offer to help." Etc. Generalities that make sense to adults often don't really translate well to kids. I am convinced that this is a huge source of adult/adolescent misunderstanding.
I have been thinking about this and am more convinced than ever that there is some major truth here. I've been noticing my interactions with my students since writing this. Without fail, the more specific I am, the more success I have with them.
For example, I used to tell my cast that they had to memorize their lines. That didn't work so well. Some did. Many didn't. Then I imposed a deadline. That helped a little more. Now, I tell them that there will be a test on a specific day and that if they are not memorized, there will be consequences that range from a glare to demerits to being asked to leave the cast.
Another example: I always tell them at the end of rehearsal, "Pick up your stuff!" And they often don't. Now I say, "Get your binders, athletic bags, water bottles and laptops." It's amazing to me what a difference this makes.
I'm not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, so I don't know what the brain-based explanation for this phenomenon is. I suspect it has something to do with the adolescent brain's immaturity and that they don't generally have a lot of ability to break down generalities into specifics. To be fair, I know a lot of adults who don't do that very well.
But regardless the reason, I'm finding increased success by giving detailed, specific, directions to them and trying not to speak in generalities. Some of this may simply be due to the fact that when I use a term like "kindness" it means something to me and may mean something different to them.
At our retreat, we talked a lot about lofty, somewhat abstract concepts like leadership, kindness, friendship and so on. Students were asked to give talks on these subjects and then all the students broke out in small groups and discussed this. In the past, this was a bit tedious and I never felt like the students really engaged. This year, I tried asking ,"Tell me what this concept means and give me examples of how you would do this on a day-to-day basis." Our discussions were much more productive and, I think, transformative.
At any rate, I'm seeing the power of specificity and highly recommend it!
There are very few times quite as meaningful and even sacred to me as the beginning of a new school year. Something about the possibility of new starts, potential achievement, and the chance for a human soul to learn and grow is incredibly profound to me.
I'm going to be an advisor this year to a small group of about 10 kids (last year I didn't have this assignment) and I'm tasked with being the school's point man for the well-being of these kids. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to facilitate a good year for them, what I can do to help them reach their fullest potential. As I've thought about this, I realized that there are things I want for them to experience this year--and these are the same things I want for all my students, as well as my children, to experience.
So, for what it's worth, here's what I hope every middle school student experiences this year.
1. I hope you struggle at something this year. I hope something is hard for you. In fact, I hope you fail at something! Not permanently, and not at everything--just at one thing. I hope there's a test you bomb, a part in the play you don't get, a spot on the team you don't make. I hope a project doesn't come together. I hope you have to get down and wrestle with struggle and failure--because I know it will make you stronger. I know it will turn you into a better, deeper person. It will prepare you well for life to struggle, and even fail--and then fight past it. I'm not going to manufacture failure, not going to set you up, but I really hope you have to face it.
2. I hope your parents and teachers will let you fail. In my mind, one of the greatest flaws of our current modes of parenting and educating is that we bend over backwards to protect kids from the consequences of their decisions and actions. We have shielded and padded them to such an extent that many of them don't experience real struggle until they are in college--or even beyond. I don't think that is healthy for them. Life is hard. Life is full of failures and disappointments. Success comes from overcoming, not avoiding them. Students who learn that now will be poised to be much stronger later on.
3. I hope someone holds you accountable. I hope that you are called to account for something you say and do. I hope you have parents and teachers who love you enough to not accept excuses. I hope you have parents and teachers who love you enough to insist that you are honest with not only others, but with yourself. Learning to be responsible and to live your life as an actor and not a reactor is one of this life's great joys.
4. I hope you have fun. I hope you do fun things with your friends and family. I hope you make some new friends and deepen your bonds with old friends.
5. I hope you learn to do good work. So much of life is work. If you can learn to do work well, to take pride in it, regardless of whether you like it, your life will be richer and more rewarding. Even things that seem like drudgery can be rewarding when approached with the right attitude.
6. I hope you laugh a lot.
7. I hope you cry. I hope you have moments where your heart feels like it's being torn into pieces. I hope this teaches you empathy and compassion for other people. I hope it helps you be careful about things you say and do to others.
8. I hope you have something really wonderful happen to you. A dream that is fulfilled this year. Better if this is something you make, or at least help, happen by virtue of effort and work.
9. I hope you live up to your potential--and then push beyond it just a little bit. Whatever your gifts are--athletic, academic, artistic--I hope you develop them. I hope your coach/teacher/director pushes you a bit in your gifts.
10. I hope you make someone happy. I hope you learn to be consistently kind--even to those you may not like or be friends with.
11. I hope you stand up for someone who's being bullied or who is on the margins of your social group.
12. I hope you can realize that everyone around you is at least as insecure as you. Possibly more so. I hope you don't do anything to make these insecurities worse. That kind of thing can haunt you for a lifetime.
13. I hope you realize that when everything else is gone, your family will still be there. They are your closest allies, your greatest friends, and your most constant source of support.
14. I hope you realize most teachers became teachers because they want to help kids learn and grow. I hope you realize that, while they are human and fallible, there are probably reasons for the way they run their classes and programs.
15. I hope your teachers can be as influential in positive ways as mine were.
16. I hope your parents tell you "No." Often.
17. I hope you can have a fun interaction with a boy or girl you really like--an exciting moment at a school dance. Something age-appropriate that makes your heart flutter. Not a texting session--an honest to goodness interaction. I also hope you don't rush into anything. I hope you realize that relationships in middle school are fundamentally unstable. Have fun, get to know people. Don't rush to pair off and "date."
18. I hope you do something real, something that is not virtual this year.
19. I hope you do something athletic, something artistic, and something academic. If you can accomplish something in each of these areas (whether or not you are the best is irrelevant), you will give yourself a great gift.
20. I hope you learn to like, or at least appreciate, a new subject this year.
21. I hope you read at least one really amazing book that you never forget (hopefully, many. But at least one.
22. I hope you end this year more confident, more knowledgeable, more compassionate, more self-controlled, more self-aware, and more poised to live a happy, productive, life.
Why do I like teaching middle school? And, is there a difference between boys and girls? Let me answer both of those questions. We're rehearsing for "Into the Woods." It's hard music and the kids have been focusing a long time, so I give them a break.
The volleyball team practices before us, so the net and a bin of volleyballs are out. At the beginning of the break, a student says, "Can we play volleyball on the break?" "Sure," I reply. They start playing and I leave to get a drink and wash my hands from a nasty Dr. Pepper/Coke accident.
I come in, maybe two minutes later. There is a blitzkrieg of volleyballs. The 5 boys are pelting each other. They are all over the gym, everywhere and nowhere, firing volleyballs at each other like some kind of possessed pitching machine. Every time one of them gets hit, there is a loud and long death scene. And then it begins again. How 5 boys can simultaneously fire 85 volleyballs is beyond me. But they're middle school boys. They can do anything.
3 girls are standing in a circle bumping a ball back and forth to each other as you would in a volleyball practice. They are focused and on task. 2 more girls are out in the hall exchanging secrets and talking about VERY IMPORTANT THINGS that require whispers, giggles, and frequent exclamations.
How can I not love my job? From Sondheim to madness in two minutes. And in another two minutes, they'll be back to trying to figure out 9/8 time and getting their mouths around tricky lyrics.
And the boys and girls? They are so different. So unique. They each have such strengths, so much they can contribute. I can't imagine my life or the world without middle school boys. I can't imagine my life or the world without middle school girls.
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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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