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.
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.
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.
Note: Each year in our closing assembly, a few teachers are asked to share favorite holiday memories. It was my turn this year and I shared the following. I post it here because I think it gives an insight into middle school kids not frequently seen.
To teach is to open your heart and your soul. You teach because you hope to give a gift to your students. That means being open to great joy and fulfillment. It can also mean being vulnerable to disappointment and even hurt. Some years are good and some years bring struggles. In a school the focus is on the students. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about the teachers. But it might surprise you to know just how human teachers are (of course, it’s the same for parents). If I could, I’d like to speak for a moment as a human and not a teacher.
I had a difficult year once. It left me feeling sad, and more than a little down. I started the next year feeling a bit bruised, but life goes on.
Some people might question whether it is a wise career choice to enter a field where professional success is determined by your ability to coax adolescents into singing. With their changing voices, self-consciousness, and all the various social dilemmas they face, singing can be a challenge.
Every year, I try to pick songs that will be fun, educational, and also reasonably d0-able, considering the vocal and social complexities endured by my middle school possums. And every year after concerts, I hear people say, ‘That was fun.” Or, “I can tell you worked really hard.”
I understand what they’re saying, and I appreciate the kindness. We strive for a high level but often fall short. I do believe there’s value in the effort, the striving, and the work. So, in the end, we do the best we can.
Each year, twice a year, we sing, and at the end, I put on a smile, turn around and face the audience, acknowledging their applause but wishing the performance could have been higher-quality. That's life as a middle school choir director.
Deep down, though, I really want to sound good. Each year I sneak a wish that at least one song that will be beautiful on it’s own merits, not on a sliding scale, not with all things considered and so on. I want a song that sounds good so that when I turn around to acknowledge the audience’s applause, I can smile back and think, “Yeah, this one was really good.”
Now, going back to my story: coming after a rough previous year, I really wanted a good song more than ever. As a human, perhaps I needed it.
I chose one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. The song I think is the perfect holiday song: “White Christmas.” Written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia, the song became popular during WWII as soliders longed for their families. The song is beautiful on so many levels and for years I’ve wanted one of my classes to sing it and do a really good job. I found a lovely arrangement and have tried it over the years several times. Each time it was pretty good—but never quite all I had hoped.
But the year I'm speaking of, my students worked so hard. They practiced and practiced, spending entire class periods trying to master a single phrase or chord.
A few weeks before the concert, I explained how much it meant to me and told them that the thing I most wanted for Christmas was to have my one song—that really good song that would allow me to turn around and face their parents with a real smile on my face.
The concert came and I was nervous. We sang our first song. And it went pretty well. And our second song was even better. And then it was time for our last song: “White Christmas.”
As we started I could tell they were trying. They were really trying. It occurred to me that many of them were sincerely trying to give me this gift. I don't think they understood all it meant, but they understood it was important to me. That really touched me and the notes on my music got a bit blurry.
The song started beautifully. They did a lovely job. It got better and better as it went on. They followed the cues for the dynamics. The balance seemed good. We hit the high point, “May your days be merry and bright,” pausing at a fermata after a lovely crescendo, and I heard a distinct chord! Three parts being sung in balance and tune! I heard the descending notes from the boys, the resolving chords from the altos, and the beautiful, pure simplicity of the sopranos on the melody.
It ended. I turned around to face the audience with the smile. “Yeah,” I thought. “You should clap. That was really good.”
That was the year I got my song. I got my Christmas present, and a favorite Christmas memory. And I want to thank the Class of 2013 for making it happen last night at our concert.
Update: That is what I read in assembly this morning, and that was followed by my students singing again. Having heard this account, they seemed to have an idea of what it meant to me and if anything, their performance was even better. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but that’s not too far off.
I will relive this memory many times in my mind. Probably when I'm old and decrepit, I will still be remembering the sounds and how it felt.
And then after they made me choke up, with their performance, as well as their kindness, several of them ran up and surprised me with hugs. I don’t normally do hugs with students, but in this context, it really touched me.
I won’t be trying “White Christmas” with future groups. I’m retiring the number, so to speak, because I’ve now heard the definitive version in my mind.
I wanted to teach because I hoped to give my students gifts. But last night, I was the one who received.
Middle School Mondays: A Seasonal Story About Discipline, Consequences, and the Mind of a 7th Grader
When I was in 7th grade, I had an experience that may seem mild as you read it, but to me, it was traumatic to the point I still remember it.
Two days before Christmas break (what we called it back then), my history class had a substitute. In the way that kids do, we sensed weakness and the whole class went crazy. Like, literally. Talking, shouting, throwing things, and so forth. It was a complete and total rebellion. My heart breaks for this woman now. But at the time, it was a lot of fun. Especially for a kid like me--a rather tame, shy, rule-follower. I was not one of the ring-leaders and my contribution was fairly mild by comparison--I believe I sang "Jingle Bells" at the top of my lungs. Pretty heady stuff indeed.
The next day, the teacher got back. And the ring-leader was found out. He was sent to see Mr. Reese, the Vice-Principal. As he was marched off, a dread silence fell over the rest of the classroom. Especially when the intercom beeped and the ring-leader's sidekick was requested. The period progressed like this--every few minutes the intercom beeped and another wrong- doer was invited to go see Mr. Reese.
Those of us who were on the bottom rungs of the insurrection started to see where this was heading. The big dogs got taken first. Then, using some terrible and nefarious methods, Mr. Reese was getting them to name names. They folded like camp chairs and sang like canaries
Mr. Reese worked with brutal efficiency and before long, I had been summoned down to his office. I'd never been there before. The dread was I made my way back there almost choked me. This was where really bad kids went. And there I was! I felt like Luke Skywalker going to face the Emperor (except for the matter that I was the bad person in this scenario. But anyway...)
Panic rushed through me and I had what I recognize now as an anxiety attack. I can still remember the pattern of the wood panelling behind his desk. He looked at me and said something like, "Brady, I'm surprised at you." I looked at the floor and muttered something. I couldn't think, let alone talk.
My punishment? Oh, that man was ghoulish, I tell you. Cruel! I was to go home and tell my parents what I had done. They were to sign a note indicating that I had discussed the incident with them. And I was to return it to Mr. Reese.
Oh, the horrors!!!!!! My anxiety blossomed to full-blown panic. This was not going to go over well. My parents were not okay with misbehavior in school and I knew it. I was going to be in BIG trouble (a brief divgression here. Remember the days when kids were terrified of parental reaction to their misbehavior in school? In our current moment, the parents not only don't generally punish misbehavior, they get mad at the teacher. Reverse this, and you would reverse many problems in education today).
I left to start my Christmas break with a growing pit in my stomach. I knew I was going to be in trouble. Big trouble. I thought about the note I needed to get signed. Should I do it that night? No. No sense in starting the break off with a major punishment. I kept procrastinating. Over and over. Not tonight. Wait until after Christmas. And on and on. I had a truly miserable two weeks, torturing myself over and over with what my parents were going to do.
One especially miserable night we went to visit my aunt and uncle, whom I adored. But they had a section of wood panelling in their living room that looked exactly like the panelling in Mr. Reese's office. I just sat on the couch all night wanting to be swallowed up and disappear forever.
This was such a powerful experience that I can still feel the dread and fear, the terrible anxiety. In fact, a certain pattern of wood panelling will send me into a cold sweat.
I'm not sure exactly why I was so scared. But I was terrified and that was a very miserable Christmas break. I don't remember much about beyond that it was really unpleasant.
The night before school started again, I forced myself to talk to my dad. If I didn't have the note for Mr. Reese, then Mr. Reese would call him and then I'd be beyond dead.
I made my way to my dad's study. I think my sister went with me for moral support and also so dad wouldn't kill me since I had a witness. They'd never laid a hand on us before, but this time I'd done something REALLY bad so you never knew.
The story poured out of my trembling lips. Dad said something like, "I think you've punished yourself more than I could ever punish you and I don't think you'll ever do this again." And that was it. He signed the note. Done. I took it to Mr. Reese who said something like, "Thank you Brady." He might have added something else along the lines of, "You know I was surprised when they mentioned your name. I sure hope you don't do that again. Say, how's the French Horn coming...." (Yes, I played the French horn. Want to make something of it? Yes, I was a nerd. But Mr. Reese had been a band director and had played the French horn so he often asked me about).
I've thought many times about this experience as I've been in the role of the parent or school official who must hand down discipline. There are two lessons I see in this experience:
1. There are times when students need to be disciplined, period. There need to be consequences for misbehavior. There must be consequences, but there must also be judgment and discretion. I've rarely regretted showing a degree of mercy in discipline. I've learned that the gentlest possible correction is often the best way to start. One can always re-visit and add more stringent consequences if the behavior is repeated. Justice and mercy mix well and compliment each other when dealing with adolescents.
2. No one could have possibly known how traumatic this experience was for me. No one knew all that was going on in my mind. And I'm not sure I could have told them had they asked. Understand that the inner lives of adolescents are highly charged, very emotionally complex places. Your child's emotions are like an iceberg in that you will probably only see a very small part of what is going on. The rest is below the surface. So, be patient. Understand that, regardless of what you see, there is probably an awful lot they are dealing with. It may be illogical, it may not make sense. It might be largely blown out of proportion. But that doesn't change the reality of how they feel and experience it.
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.
One of the drawbacks of my profession is that my professional success essentially rests in the hands of 12-14 year olds. Yeah. Think about that for a minute. If they do their work well, then I'm the most amazing director ever. If not, then I'm losing my touch.
Because of the nature of theatre, there are ups and downs in every production. Moments when you are sure it will be the greatest thing ever, followed periods of certainty in which you are quite sure that you'll be lucky if you can get a job as a bagger in a grocery store.
These ups and downs are even more pronounced in middle school theatre, I think, simply because adolescents are, by nature, up and down. So, a production filled with them will naturally reflect those ups and downs.
So, until the performance, one just never quite knows how it will be. I've heard coaches talk about how they don't know if they'll win a game or not--it depends, they say, on which team shows up. I feel like that sometime. I see how the play can be good--or not. Depending on which cast shows up that night--the focused, energetic one, or the giddy, goofy one. The funny thing is that theses casts are made of the same kids.
All this to say, I'm delighted to report that opening night of My Fair Lady was good. Actually, very, very good. One of our best, I'm told by people who would know and whom I trust. I'll post pictures when I get them. I'm excited to see them, actually, because I always knew it would be a visually beautiful show. But I'm happy to say the students lived up to the quality of the sets, costumes, and props. Magnificently.
This is not an easy show and I was apprehensive about choosing it. But it fit the talent profile of the students I have more perfectly than anything else I could find. So, I took a deep breath, jumped, and we did it. So proud of them.
This shot below is of Prof. Higgins' study. It's part of a turntable that revolves to reveal different sets at different times, and this picture is taken from the wings off stage left. The study is ready to be turned into place.
I know I'm strange, but one of my favorite things in the world is looking at empty sets--ready to be used but not in use at the moment. There is something about the latency and potential of it all that really intrigues me. The other picture is an opening night gift. I post it because I also really like cookies.
It has been a crazy few weeks here at bradenbell.com, Mockingbird Cottage, and all other associated environs. So, I haven't posted anything for MSM. This week is our fall production, My Fair Lady, and so it's crazy again. Or still. But I had a quick thing I've been thinking about that I thought might be good to pass on.
I've been thinking about a concept I call "Emotional Depth Perception." In my experience, this is a quality that most adolescents, even the very mature ones, simply don't have. What I mean by "Emotional Depth Perception" is this: adolescents tend to feel things very strongly. Their emotions are powerful. But they tend to respond to all feelings equally, acting on their feelings as if feeling something means it is true, or wise.
Adolescents generally can't discern where a powerful emotion lies in relation to other facts, and the larger context of their lives. It is immediate, powerful, and often is what drives them to act.
Adults do this too sometimes, but I really think this happens almost universally in adolescents. Part of this is because they don't have a lot of life experience to provide perspective and balance.
Most adolescents are unable to look at something and say, "I'm really stressed right now, but this is actually fairly minor in terms of the real-world consequences." To them, very small things that don't matter all that much are often equal to huge, life-shaking developments because both kinds of stressors generate emotion and adolescents are not very good at deciding which are serious and real, and which are passing.
Synonyms for emotional depth perception would be: balance, perspective, experience, prudence. All the qualities that allow someone to be in a situation that is highly emotional and rationally get to the point that mitigating factors are considered.
Some examples would be as follows:
A student is participating in the play and possibly playing a sport. He or she is tired and stressed. When a teacher assigns something that causes the student to stay up late, he or she falls apart.
Emotional depth perception tells the student, "It's not the end of the world. You feel like it is, but it's not. You might even get a B, but next year, probably next week, this will no longer matter."
A student is treated unkindly or ignored by people he or she thought were friends. They are sure that no one likes them and that they will never again have friends. Emotional depth perception allows the student to say, "That was really hard. But tomorrow things will likely be different again."
It works for more positive emotions as well. Someone gets the lead in the play or a spot on the varsity team and the boy/girl they like returns their affections. They are sure life is perfect now, going to proceed in an untainted, unalloyed, rose-strewn path. Emotional depth perception allows them to say, "This is great. But I need to realize things won't always be perfect."
As I type this, I realize that adults struggle with this as well. In my mind, the difference is that adults *can* do this while most adolescents are simply not capable of looking beyond what they feel at the moment.
It goes without saying, I think, that an adult's job is therefore to help them develop this emotional depth perception. It's to help them learn to not act immediately on the basis of something they feel strongly, to not believe in the wisdom of every feeling, and to help talk them through things. It is not to prevent them from struggling or encountering trouble, it's to help them learn to assess it and balance it properly, understanding it so that they can then work through it.
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!
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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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