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?
Many years ago, when my wife and I had three small, active, and headstrong children, we turned to a parenting book for help (link here. I know the cover looks dated, but it had good stuff in it).
I don't remember everything I read in that book, but there was one point that the author made over and over and over. In fact, he ended every chapter with a quote to this effect: "It is far easier to reinforce good behavior than to change undesirable behavior."
I have come to believe that. Granted, there are times when a parent or teacher must correct bad behavior. You just have to. But I also believe that for many of us, this is our default. That is, we take good behavior for granted while disciplining for bad.
I'm not arguing that we should just ignore bad behavior. There are times when consequences are necessary if a child is going to grow in a healthy, happy functional adult.
Still, I maintain that we spend far more time focusing on the "dont's" than we do reinforcing the "do's."
This summer my family and I attended a sea lion show at the St. Louis zoo. It was really delightful. One thing I noticed is how often the trainers rewarded the sea lions. Every time the sea lions did something good, the trainers reinforced it with a handful of fish.
I understand that students are not sea lions. They have to learn to do the right thing for the right reasons. In life, we don't get rewarded every time we do the right things.
But, think for a minute about why you do the things you do. I would guess that much of what you do during the day is done because you want a reward. You go to work because you want a paycheck. You exercise because you feel good or want to lose weight. Etc. etc. Most adults, I believe, act more out of the hope for a desired reward than they do out of fear of punishment.
How many people do you know who speed? The potential punishment does not modify behavior. And yet, I think most of us expect kids to just be good because they should be. We act because we want rewards, but we expect adolescents to just do the right thing--or be punished.
This has changed the way I work with kids--my own and those I teach. Instead of setting rules and punishing them if they disobey, I now try to find ways to reward good behavior. I still do give out consequences, but I give them out far less than I used to, and the whole energy and dynamic of my classroom has changed. Allowing them to earn rewards draws on a number of powerful human tendencies and
In many places, it's the season of graduation and year-end celebrations, so I think it might be valuable to talk about the giving of awards. Specifically, what to do when your child doesn't get one.
Last week, our school had an awards assembly. During this awards assembly several awards were given. My Kindergarten son did not receive one, although several of his good buddies did.
As we drove home, we had an interesting conversation. At first he mentioned the awards ceremony (I didn't bring it up), assuring me that he hadn't really wanted an award. But as we talked, he opened up enough to admit that he was struggling with the fact that he didn't get an award and his friend did.
Here's the thing: he had a wonderful, wonderful year. I'm talking so wonderful that he cried on weekends and was discouraged over Christmas and spring breaks because he couldn't be in school.
He loved his year! But at this moment, all those happy memories and all the fun he had were quickly minimized because he didn't get an award. Hold that thought for a minute.
Back to the story: I assured him that his feelings were very natural and normal, and then we talked about the choice he had to make. He could focus on feeling unhappy for himself, or try to be happy for his friend. I explained that each of these feelings were sort of like living things. Whichever one he fed with his thoughts and feelings would get bigger. I asked him which one he thought was the better thought, which one he wanted to encourage.
Happily, he decided he wanted to try to focus on being happy for his friend.
It's funny because as soon as he made that conscious decision, it didn't seem to matter to him anymore, and his good memories of the year are back.
Awards are kind of a mixed blessing, aren't they? They are wonderful when you get one. When you don't? Not so much. People really struggle with this. I've found that myself. I have been in many situations where I was nominated for an award that I didn't end up winning. Let's be honest: it stings. It can even hurt. The human response is to be mad at the winner, or the givers of the award. Or both.
But this is the wrong response! It's wrong because it's unfair to the others involved. It's wrong because it's arrogant and narcissistic (why do we assume we deserved the award? Perhaps there were factors of which we aren't aware).
But mostly it's wrong because it will bring misery to the person who indulges in this kind of response.
Here's the point I think is important to consider: if your child is being nominated for an award, chances are it is something they like and are good at. Chances are they have fun or draw some satisfaction from this activity. Focus on that, not the award! Focus on the intrinsic value, focus on what they learned and did. Don't focus on the award--or the lack thereof. If you do, then you run the risk of tainting those happy memories. And that would be a huge shame. It is the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish if you think about it.
Over the years I've noticed something. The people who don't get awards are tempted to let the lack of the award make everything that came before suddenly have no value. In other words, someone might have years and years of happy memories from an activity--a sport or plays or something else. They might have had fun with their friends, learned and grown, and had all kinds of other benefits. The day before the award was given, these were good and happy memories, and their recollection of their time in this activity was positive.
But then they don't get the award and suddenly it all changes. Those happy memories fade and hurt and bitterness appear. And that leads to unhappiness. Don't let that happen!
It's not only that memories can be ruined. I've also seen relationships ruined over the lack of an award. Teacher-student relationships that were close and wonderful, or the relationships between two friends or colleagues that became strained. What a shame!
Honestly, short of a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize, most awards don't really tend to mean as much as life goes on. Seriously, how many adults are still all that excited about the awards they won in elementary or middle school--or even high school?
However, it is a sad mark of the times that parents and students are driven to quantify every activity by achievement. We can no longer simply enjoy doing something. We have to be the best--and prove it. I have seen students collect awards and accolades like some people collect stamps. But they get no joy from these awards. Only misery if they don't get one. It's the 21st century equivalent of being a miser; these are adolescent Silas Marners.
Which is my son going to treasure more in the long run? A really great Kindergarten year or getting that award? Chances are, had he received an award, he would have forgotten in a week or two. A year and it would be ancient history. But his good and happy memories of his year? Those can last a lifetime.
So--when your child doesn't get the award, stop a minute. Acknowledge the real sting, but then re-direct. Focus on what they got from the experience. And give them the gift of memories and growth that will last for the rest of their lives.
In my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of parenting and teaching is finding the balance between holding firm to limits and when to be a little flexible. As a new parent and teacher, I erred on the side of holding with adamantine firmness and no yielding. When that didn't work and had some undesirable results, I went through a phase where I was constantly negotiating and changing. That didn't work either.
I don't pretend to have found "the" answer on this one. It's tough, and I think it changes a bit with the personalities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of each child, student, or class.
But I have made some progress over the years and I feel like I have found a few principles that help guide me.
Let me frame this with a quick anecdote that illuminates the ideas I want to mention.
Last week I had a truly enjoyable class with my 8th graders. We worked on some challenging pieces, accomplished most of what I had hoped to musically, and we also had fun. I don't mean that anyone left saying, "Wow, chorus was just like a party today!" However, there were lots of smiles and laughter, and generally a good spirit in the room. Class ended leaving me feeling good and from their faces and the tones of their conversations as they left, I think they felt good too. In between working, they joked around, were silly, and made me--and themselves laugh. But we also got the work done. In my book, that's a perfect class period.
I've had this group of students now for three years. To be very frank, in 6th grade they drove me crazy. They were unfocused, undisciplined, and honestly, didn't sound all that great. In 7th grade, especially this time last year, they pushed me to the brink of madness and professional despair.
It's a large class--just under 40 of them. You can imagine with that many spirited, energetic middle school kids, it doesn't take much to create distractions and sustained, focused effort was difficult to come by.
There were times when I was so mad at them! Times I wanted to penalize them with demerits or harangues or grade deductions or Biblical plagues. Times I was furious. And I know there were times when I wasn't as patient as I should have been, or when I reacted more harshly than I would have wished.
Generally, though, I did not lose my temper or react in anger. My method was to set a few rules and then try to enforce them. If someone was out of line, he or she lost a point or two for each infraction. Often, I would have the student stay after class and we'd discuss what the misbehavior had been, what a better choice would have been, etc. This seemed the best way to me--even though it didn't yield immediate results.
Often times, I didn't feel I was doing enough and felt like a bad teacher. If I were a good teacher, I thought, I would be stricter. They would behave and there would never be any doubt who was in control. I never acted this way with my teachers when I was a kid...
At times, I felt ineffective, guilty, frustrated, and incompetent.
And then they became 8th graders. Greater maturity and self-control kicked in and both their willingness and ability to follow the rules and engage in class increased steadily--to the point that we can have fun and do good work.
Happily, in those years when they were growing, I preserved my relationship with them. There is, I think, trust between us. I love them dearly and I'd like to think they like me okay too. I think that some of them even try harder because of the relationship, and are more open to doing the things I want them to do. Our final concert is Tuesday night and I'm really excited for it. I think it's going to be good--which is, of course, what the goal was all along.
I've come to believe that children and adolescents as not being able to meet many adult expectations. The job of parents and teachers is to help the child grow until s/he can function as an adult. But that takes time.
While they are growing, we have to set limits. I don't think that a child just emerges as a responsible adult with no input. I think they need guidance, limits, consequences, and discipline.
If they never have limits and consequences, they will most likely not make the right choices even when maturity gives them the ability to do so.
But I also think that there are times when the priority needs to be preserving your relationship so that you can come back and try another day, when time and maturity has helped them. In these cases, a tactical retreat may be your best friend.
If you fight too hard too early on you risk alienating them. I've done that. And once that relationship is damaged, it is very difficult to repair. I've had classes in which I came down too hard too often and I was never able to repair that. These classes never quite achieved all they might have, even when they were mature enough to be able to do so. I won a few battles, but lost the war.
I've learned that when I hold the line on something and refuse to yield, I often find, upon reflection, that it was a turf battle and not a real matter of important principle. That is, I have often found myself holding the line simply because I was going to show them who was boss. There are times when that's necessary. I'm not advocating just letting kids do whatever they want. And I think there need to be consequences when they make mistakes. But I've also learned to mis-trust my own judgement about what is important and what is not worth the fight.
Here are a few questions that help me navigate this tricky minefield:
1. What is my long-term, over-all objective here? Is it to have quiet in class, or is it to prepare for a concert? Is it to show them I'm boss, or to help them learn to respect legitimate authority and monitor their own behavior? I find that in the heat of the moment, I often confuse means and ends and end up going into battle for fairly trivial means and end up losing the war over the end.
2. Is there another way of achieving the long-term objective? Possibly more effective, and perhaps one we can identify together?
3. In the current situation, which is more likely to help achieve the long-term objective--holding my ground on the issue at hand no matter what, or preserving the relationship? I should note that there are times as a parent and teacher where I held my ground and felt it was more important than preserving the relationship.
4. Is there a way to make this win-win? I've noticed that I sometimes tempted to respond from a place where I'm preserving my authority, where I'm not going to let the little beasts get away with something, or because I'm angry--none of which are usually effective. The thing is that kids are the same. Just as adults/parents/teachers do that, I've noticed kids will dig in their heels and refuse to respond just to show you that you can't break them. These kind of confrontations are usually unwinnable. You might end up getting the short-term objective, but almost always damage the relationship and the long term goal.
5. Am I acting out of anger, hurt feelings, or disappointment? When I'm mad or disappointed, I nearly never make the right call. Ever. I have come to realize that when I'm agitated, I have terrible judgment.
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.
If you are the parent of a girl, there is much for you to celebrate. Because of the nature of the subjects I teach (music and theatre) the reality is that most of my students are girls (with some notable, wonderful exceptions) and working with them is a wonderful joy. They are organized and mature, and full of something I can only describe as life and light. When I think of my female students as parents and teachers (which I think of as the highest callings as they are what I do) and leaders of companies or governments, I rejoice. Their intelligence, competence, energy, and deep goodness will be assets to the future and I believe they will change the world in many good ways.
Talking about girls and boys in education is fraught with danger. You are almost sure to offend someone. Sadly, many of these discussions are politically charged and highly polarized. While I welcome civil debate and dialogue, I'm not in the mood for an argument. So, if you want to disagree, you are most welcome. But if you leave a charged, accusatory comment, just know I'll probably delete it. It's sad that we have to throw out so many qualifiers and caveats, but here we go. I want my students of both genders to live happy, fulfilling lives. I think that right now in our culture, boys and girls both face a lot of challenges that could keep them from this goal. Some challenges are general to their age group, while some seem specific to their gender. I think being a parent and a teacher means that you need to be aware of these challenges and act accordingly. I hate the idea that if you try to help your girls, you are anti-boy, or that if you are worried about boys, you are anti-girl. Hogwash. Good teachers and parents care about all of their students equally and are concerned about anything that might rob them of happy lives.
But being equally concerned does not mean that you are concerned about the same things. In large measure, my girl students face one set of challenges, my boy students another. If we are to help them, we have to be honest about this and understand that different cultural phenomena have disparate impacts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and anything I write about girls could we usefully applied to some boys. And vice versa. But at some point, you can get so tied up in knots that you end up not saying anything. And I think this is important.
There is an old cliche about the military--that they always want to fight the last war. I think that to some extent, teachers and parents do the same thing. During the 90s there was a lot of concern about various issues with girls. These issues were discussed and an on-going effort was made to address them. I'm not saying we're done. But at the same time, I think that we're still focused on fighting some of the battles from 20 years ago and are oblivious to some newer threats.
There is one threat that concerns me a great deal because I worry it will rob the girls I teach of the ability to live a happy, successful life. In fact, there are a few things that sometimes keep me up late at night worrying about my students. And this is probably the biggest fear I have for my female students. But I don't hear it spoken about much. I should also note that some boys struggle with this as well, but I don't see it with them nearly as often. I did 20 years ago, but now not so much. Instead, I see this with nearly all my girls.
Let me start by saying that I define success as living a happy life, engaging in productive activity of some kind, helping others, and fulfilling the goals you set for yourself. To me, success is dying someday thinking, "I had a good life."
Imagine a hypothetical middle-class girl coming of age in today's world. Statistics suggest that if she simply follows the cultural mainstream and there are no interventions of any kind, she is likely to do well in school, go on to college, probably advanced degrees, get a job, and will most likely achieve some degree professional success depending on her level of ambition.
The reality today is that a girl who simply floats in the cultural mainstream will most likely be taught in many ways that she should be ambitious, that her ambitions are good, and that she should focus on fulfilling her dreams and goals.
However, this is where things begin to get tricky. There seems to be a lot of attention paid to achieving goals and following dreams, but less so to prioritizing and deciding which of those goals and dreams are worth the effort. Assessing whether it's healthy to do everything. In other words, we are saying very loudly, "You go, girl!" But we are not providing very good roadmaps or direction on exactly where to go or what to do along the way.
I recently read an article about a new phenomenon being observed more frequently: young women in the corporate world, mostly-unmarried and childless, are burning out by the age of 35 or 40. These were women with bright career futures, women who were not generally dividing their efforts between home and work. Experts were at a loss to explain it (although many tried).
I don't pretend to know all the factors, and I'm sure there are many I don't understand. But I have an educated guess at one of the factors.
Many of my female students have difficulty participating in an activity and simply enjoying the intrinsic benefits. Instead, there is an almost frantic focus on achievement and success, as signified through external metrics. For example, every year, I encounter a growing number of students for whom being in the play is not simply an artistic and/or social experience. Rather, it is an important stepping stone. It is a box to check on the resume, and it is important to quantify it. Therefore, having a lead is important, or having an official title.
People have always wanted leads. That is not new. People wanted them for various reasons in the past: personal glory, the excitement of a challenge, personal growth, etc. But now, I feel that students want them because it is important to excel, to achieve and this is one way to denote that. I feel that this is especially true with young women.
In recent years, titles, awards, and other markers of success have been increasingly important. I perceive that students are participating in many activities, not because they are inherently rewarding, but because there is a drive for girls to achieve and excel and to have that measured and quantified in some way.
This is driven, I think by many things. I have noticed that there is a very steady and consistent pressure on young women as early as elementary school. Some of that is parental pressure and I think that comes from three sources. First, I see parents who are justly proud of their daughter's maturity and competence. In celebrating these traits, however, they unwittingly create a situation where their child to prove this over and over. A steady pressure builds, with each success not being celebrated as much as creating a ratcheting effect where the pressure mounts for the next big thing to be equally or more successful. Secondly, some parents are very focused on having their daughters have a resume filled out for college. Thirdly, some parents seem to feel driven that their daughter will compete with any possible boy in any possible endeavor--which means she must excel in every possible activity and endeavor.
Pressure is also exerted by a culture which increasingly tells women they can and should have it all. Many girls seem to have absorbed this cultural message, without ever receiving any guidance that might balance, channel, focus, or help them contextualize it.
So, I see bright, wonderful girls achieving, achieving, achieving at younger ages. At first glance, it's exciting to watch. It's gratifying for parents and teachers and I'm not arguing that we should impose artificial restraints or discourage achievement.
But I do think we need to teach wisdom and balance, provide guidance and context.
Eventually, life teaches us that you can't always be the best. You can't do more and more and still give everything 110%. You can't be valedictorian and the lead in the play and feed the homeless every night and be a champion kick-boxer. At some point, you will wear out and burn out. Energy is a renewable resource only when used carefully. Time, while renewable, is finite and limited.
It used to be that we recognized that some children were good at math. Some were good at art. Some were great at reading. And so on. Now, we seem to want every child (especially girls) to be academic superstars, stand-outs in every subject. While playing travel soccer, doing Tae Kwon Do and saving sea turtles. That sounds exhausting to me.
Not every goal is going to be of value to every life path. I am constantly amazed and delighted by how much young women can do. They have tremendous capacity. But that needs to be carefully watched. Stewardship and judgment are called for. They have long lives ahead. Their childhoods and adolescence should be times of preparation and growth, developing the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources for a long and happy life. Middle and high school should not be the culmination.
Achievement in the early years, should be, I think, a by-product of pursuing joyful activities, and not so much an end in and of itself.
It sounds exhausting to me to begin at a young age and start worrying about achieving and defining success almost solely by external measures. Instead of having a childhood, many female students seem to be having an intense, extended internship. So, yes, if you start being a super-achiever at 10, or younger, then I can see why you would start to burn out at 40. That seems very predictable to me.
I'm all for kids achieving amazing things. I directed my first full-length musical (91 kids) at the age of 15. It set me on my current path and continues to be a point of satisfaction. But I didn't do much else, including homework. And I did it because I wanted to. It grew organically out of my interests. It wasn't about creating a resume (although that was a happy side benefit).
I think that we should help them any child learn to ask some basic questions. 1) Do I really want this? 2) Is this worth the inevitable sacrifices and trade-offs? 3) What are those trade-offs and sacrifices (in my experience, neither girls nor boys at this age have much concept of what these are likely to be). 3) Is this something that is going to bring me joy or am I simply doing it because I to achieve something? 4) Does this move me towards the goal of living a balanced, happy, life? 5) Do I want to do this, or am I trying to please someone else, or prove something? 6) Are my reasons for doing this fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic? Again, all of this is true for boys as well--I just don't see such a push for them to always be stand-outs in everything.
I think one of the best things that a parent can do to help a daughter prepare for long-term success (and by that, I mean the ability to live happily in the life she chooses) is to help her relax a bit. Parents might want to relax a bit, too. Life is more than a college application. Remind yourself that your daughter is a child. She doesn't have to be CEO yet. Yes, she may have tremendous capacity. But as an adolescent, she is, by definition, young and immature. She needs to develop perspective, balance, and emotional maturity. I wish more people understood that being mature in one domain (being organized, for example, or responsible) does not mean that the child is equally mature in all other domains and facets. Some very organized students might not have a lot of emotional resilience, for example.
That fact that she gets good grades and is mature in many ways for her age does not mean that she's done growing and ready for the adult world yet. The fact that a red wagon can carry some loads successfully does not mean it is ready to be used as a moving van. If you keep heaping more weight on it, it will collapse one day. I think children (both boys and girls) need longer, more protected childhoods, and that childhood is the best preparation for happy, productive, adulthood.
Help her realize that not every test and assignment is make-or-break. Help her realize that there are, and always will be, trade-offs. Help her learn to pursue activities for their inherent value, not because one must always be "successful" as defined by very external, narrow markers. One does not need a formal title to enjoy an activity or to feed one's soul. Being goal-oriented can be a good thing, but not everything can or should be measured in goals. At a minimum, goals should be carefully chosen to focus on personal growth as opposed to fairly limited notions of achievement.
It seems to me that this approach is far healthier, and far more likely to lead to a satisfying and joyful life lived on one's own terms, instead of a a joyless life of box-checking, resume building, and eventual burn-out.
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.
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.
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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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