As a teacher, I am concerned with what I perceive to be growing trend: parents communicating with teachers and schools as if they were interacting with a digital personal assistant, such as Siri or Alexa. I have come to call this Alexa parenting. At its most basic level it consists of a parent saying, “Teacher, do this for my child” or “School do that" as if schools and personnel were interchangeable with Alexa.
It isn’t usually phrased quite that simplistically of course, and it can be very polite and sincere. Requests range from, “Tell my daughter to remember her trumpet” to “My child is struggling in math, please help him,” to “That kid did something really mean on Snapchat” to "Have you considered making sure the kids know that vaping is dangerous?” to “What are you doing to help address anxiety?” to "The other parents need to do more parenting." One could insert any number of other serious academic, behavioral, social challenges, from anxiety to suicide to consent to racism to forms of privilege to screen time to environmental problems--on and on.
Sometimes, Alexa parents are simply helicopter or snowplow parents who are too busy to personally hover or plow. Instead, they send out their instructions to schools, as if ordering groceries or customizing playlists for each room in their house. But Alexa parenting is not always trivial or over-the-top. Alexa parents can be very sincere people, worried about a child’s academic or social challenges. They might also be thoughtful people genuinely concerned about serious, legitimate cultural or societal problems.
The mark of Alexa parenting is not the relative substance or seriousness of the request, nor is it the tone used to convey the request. Rather, it is the premise that the school--not the family--has either the responsibility, tools, and resources to attend to something. Thus Alexa parenting assumes that the school can and should be doing something about a problem.
Before I go any further, let me give a few disclaimers. I am not saying that any parental request or communication is somehow wrong or inappropriate. School-family partnerships are critical. Parents ought to be able to work closely with schools and teachers, and educators ought to be as responsive as possible. I’ll address this in a moment.
I also want to make it clear that I don’t mean to sound snarky or glib. I’m not trying to criticize or unload on parents. In coming up with a name, I realize there is a risk of sounding snide. That’s not my intent, however. I think there are real reasons for this phenomenon, mostly having to do with the complex challenge of raising a child in the 21st century. As a parent I have empathy for these challenges. Nevertheless, I do think Alexa parenting is a growing problem, and not because it is inconvenient for teachers and schools. The reason it is a problem actually has very little to do with the impact on educators. I believe it is a problem because of the impact it can have on kids, parents, and families.
In order to explain, let me give some more specific examples of Alexa parenting—then I’ll explain why I think Alexa parenting is a problem and suggest some ways to help parents diagnose and address it.
Examples of Alexa parenting
As I said, some Alexa parenting is simply an expression of entitlement and over-parenting done by people who are too busy to over-parent personally. So much has been written about over parenting, that I don’t think it merits any great discussion here. Many people have written about this. Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure is incredibly helpful (I've also written about this, here and here).
There is also the reality that parents, even those who don't over-parent, are simply busier today. Family schedules are extremely demanding. I think many parents are overwhelmed by all there is to do. To be sure, I think schools can be part of the solution here by being very thoughtful about what they ask of families. I've written about that here, by the way.
Another reason for Alexa parenting is lack of confidence in a teacher or school. Some parents feel the need to provide detailed guidance or persistent advocacy. Feeling that your child is not getting what they need from a school is a uniquely challenging situation and is beyond the scope of this post today. I’ve been here as a parent, and I have enormous sympathy for people trapped in poor school settings. Here and here are a few thoughts on this topic. Perhaps it will help provide some food for thought. One note: I would encourage anyone in this situation to be very careful to make sure that their lack of confidence is not simply a matter of having different preferences.
Sometimes, Alexa parents worry that other parents are not sufficiently modeling or teaching the right things to their child’s peers. They may feel that other parents are not adequately monitoring social media or giving sufficient oversight for things ranging from drinking and vaping to the content of movies, gaming, and other entertainment. They may be legitimately worried that some important parenting is not happening. In these cases, they want the schools to pick up the slack.
Still another cause of Alexa parenting is when parents do not feel confident in themselves. Whether their child is struggling with academic, behavioral, or social problems, they sometimes do not feel equal to the task. Unsure of what to do, they turn to the school, wanting the school to fix the problems.
A final manifestation of Alexa parenting comes from thoughtful people who are rightly worried about a serious social problem—anything from anxiety to vaping to sexual consent to environmental damage and on and on. They feel an urgent need to do something about these very real, very serious problems, and wonder why the school doesn’t do more about it.
It is interesting to me that many of these manifestations stem from a lack of confidence in something or someone, and even a degree of fear.
Why Alexa Parenting is problematic
I am deeply sympathetic to most of these situations. Parenting can be a scary, lonely thing. This is exacerbated by the high-stakes feeling that seems to attend so much of parenting in the 21st century. It seems easy for kids to fall into all sorts of problems that could seriously harm their futures. The world we live in certainly provides plenty of cause for worry, and a great deal of the really frightening things seem beyond our control.
We also live in a time when we hear often from experts. I think this has created a sense among many of us that every problem needs an expert, or at least, that an expert can solve every problem. As parents, we certainly know we aren't experts and when things get difficult, I think our instinct is to reach out for the expert, the one who knows what to do, the one who can prescribe a solution.
Nevertheless, the problem with Alexa parenting is that it places responsibility for solving the problems with schools, who likely do not have the best tools and resources to do this.
To begin with, schools and teachers already struggle to complete a huge list of mandated tasks. The day is already packed, and most school staff and educators are already spread very thin. Most school staff, from teachers to nurses to counselors to administrators are professionals, but they might be likened to a pediatrician or general practitioner. They are generally equipped to handle a common range of problems and challenges, but some problems are big enough, deep enough, or uncommon enough that a specialist may be needed.
This is also important to remember when sending in requests for the school to address some topic, even if it's simply to spread awareness. Most teachers and administrators can probably give a huge list of suggestions they've had from parents. "Can you please talk to the kids about x?" Sometimes this is prompted by a news story about a particular problem. Other times it may come in response to what they have heard their child's peers are doing. Or possibly their child.
A few minutes here, a few minutes there quickly add up.
The problem is that when a parent requested that a school allot time and energy to a particular task or address a subject--even a worthy subject, it may seem simple. But such requests can quickly become a huge list. Schools simply can’t do all the good things that be desirable, even if the requests are important and deserving, such as addressing cyber safety, drugs, nutrition, or suicide prevention.
Beyond this, even if they had time, schools have very limited tools, which they are probably already deploying. This is an important point that I think Alexa parents often overlook. Even assuming they had the time and the bandwidth, schools are limited in what they can do because they are limited in their tools.
A trivial example makes an important point. Years ago, I directed a play with young, inexperienced actors. I had spent months trying to get them to speak loudly and clearly. I had told them dozens of times to be louder and tried everything I knew. A parent came to dress rehearsals and turned to me frequently to say, “I can’t hear. Tell them to be louder.” She correctly saw the problem, but didn’t realize I was already doing all I could. Sometimes there is not a quick fix for a problem, no special tools or silver bullet the school is hoarding.
It’s not new that schools and teachers are tasked with an enormous amount of non-teaching work. Using schools as a resource to provide social and other services has been going on for decades and more.
Alexa parenting is different because it comes from individuals, not agencies, legislatures, or society at large. Sometimes, it comes from individuals who have many other resources.
It is understandable that parents want help in addressing difficult challenges or all kinds, and it’s laudable to ask for help. I’ve written before about how teachers can be helpful mentors and guides for parents.
But, while teachers can be good allies, no teacher or school can ever really replace the efforts of a parent. This is true even when a parent is flawed and imperfect (meaning all of us).
Consider the example of online behavior and screen time. I'm using this example, but you could switch that to nearly anything else.
A school can suggest rules and teach about being careful online. They can ban phone use and filter school computers and networks. They can host speakers about internet safety, and develop policies about cyber-bullying. The can forward articles by thought leaders in school newsletters and post on social media (chances are they are already doing this with only mild success and impact).
Should an infraction occur, a school can discipline students who make bad choices. But essentially, a school’s tools are limited to warning in advance, creating rules, and addressing infractions, either by punishment or more restorative methods. Their jurisdiction is also very limited.
The power of a family
Families, on the other hand, can monitor texts and set parameters for when and how phones are used. They can have regular discussions to check in. They can discuss and reinforce a family’s values in a specific context. They can come up with unique plans and approaches to a child’s online life and help proactively strive for digital citizenship.
Should a problem occur, families can respond with something unique and tailored to a specific child and situation. They can impose corrective consequences immediately, without investigations. Parents don't have to have proof! They can create solutions that address problems as well as teaching better behavior. They can follow-up consistently over weeks, months, and years if needed.
Families may not have perfect, ready-made solutions. Some efforts may be clunky and not-ideal. Some may even be counter-productive. But families have flexibility, proximity, constancy, authority, and power. They can act based on instinct and intuition. They have maximum investment in the outcome and care about the child more than even a caring teacher or school.
From personal challenges to larger issues, families may be better suited to manage many of the things schools are often asked to address, and this is why I believe Alexa parenting is a problem for children: it overlooks the most promising solutions in favor of the least effective.
Am I an Alexa Parent?
None of this is to parents can or should do everything on their own. The point I want to make is that schools should be a resource--sometimes an important one. But they should be not the first call, and any request or suggestion needs to be carefully considered in light of what is realistically possible.
One give-away of Alexa parenting is if you ever catch yourself proposing the school do something outside of what they normally do. Even more if you then add, "I'm not sure how you would do that..." or words to that effect.
Not every request is wrong, and I don't mean to suggest that. There are times schools can and should act. But I think the pendulum is swinging away from what is reasonable and realistic. Having caught myself falling into Alexa parenting before, so I’ve developed a few questions I try to ask myself before I make a request.
1. Is this really a problem, or simply a momentary frustration?
2. Is this simply a matter of preferring a different outcome, approach, method, etc?
3. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s responsibility for their life, or my responsibility for my child?
4. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s chances to develop the independence and autonomy necessary for successful adulthood?
5. What kind of time and resources will my request realistically require from someone else?
6. Is what I am asking consistent with the mission of the school? Is it consistent with the resources of the school? Does the school have a special ability or unique tool that can address this problem?
7. Is what I am asking truly within the jurisdiction of the school?
8. Will my request require someone to exceed the requirements of their job? Am I being generous with someone else’s time and energy?
9. Is my reason for asking based on distrust, either of other parents or the school?
10. Have I already used all my own resources in addressing this—including networks of friends, family, community, other professionals, etc.?
11. Can the school or teacher realistically get the outcome I want?
12. Am I trying to get appropriate help from the school, seeking collaboration? Or am I simply telling them what I want them to do? Do I seek guidance, collaboration, and help, or do I make requests and issue directives?
13. How often do I contact the school? What is the nature of my requests? Am I treating school staff as if they are simply part of my personal support staff? Am I taking a teacher’s limited prep time with requests that they help manage my child’s life and scheduled? Am I using school staff to fill in gaps in my child or family’s communication and organization? If every child in my child’s class contacted the teacher with the frequency I do, will the teacher be able to do his or her job?
Here is the big question for me: do I see the school or the family as the primary place to address challenges and problems?
What schools and teachers can do.
Schools and teachers have a unique and limited mission. Like any other person or organization, success requires them to focus on doing a few things well.
One of the things, besides teaching, that teachers can give parents is perspective. They are not infallible, but they have wide experience with seeing children of a particular age. They can help parents know if something seems normal and usual or if there might be grounds for concern about something. They can help suggest strategies to work on various challenges. They can give advice based on what they have seen in the past.
Sometimes, a teacher might have the sort of unique relationship with a student that will allow them to have a direct conversation. They might have some influence with the child and can provide unique motivation or guidance. Every teacher I know is very willing to help all they can. But be careful with such requests. Teachers don’t have any magic wands or silver bullets. All they can do is sit down and talk. Nothing more. I think our pop culture (think every sit-com about families) has led us to think that difficult problems are generally solved with a single conversation. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But this is really not the way it usually works. So even if they can open up a dialogue, they are probably not well positioned to follow-up and check in with a great degree of regularity.
How to stop being an Alexa Parent
Alexa parenting is, I think, an outgrowth of a lot of complicated social factors: parental anxiety, a high-stakes world, over-reliance on experts, fear of what others are doing/not doing, perceived lack of control, increased busy-ness, worry about difficult problems. These are knotty problems with no easy answers.
Still, if you think you are prone to Alexa parenting it is worth the effort to change. Not because it will make life easier for teachers or school officials (although it will). The real reason is that your child needs your imperfect efforts far more than anything else. Your efforts are the thing most likely to help them grow into happy, successful adults. Your kids need you.
Happily, Alexa parenting can be unlearned very quickly. Simply being aware of it is the first step. Re-establishing the family as the prime authority makes a huge difference.
Beyond that, I have five suggestions. These seem simple, almost simplistic. But they have been very useful to me as a parent, and I think they would make a big difference.
1. Trust Yourself.
I think the root of most Alexa parenting is a feeling of uncertainty, a lack of confidence in our ability to address various problems. We live in a very specialized world, and can get enormous amounts of information quickly—sometimes that can be paralyzing.
We often hear from experts in many areas of our lives. That has benefits, undoubtedly, but I worry it creates an expectation that every problem requires an expert, that every problem has a clearly defined answer that someone else knows. I think many times, Alexa parents assume that someone has the “right” answer for whatever they are struggling with.
While knowledge and expertise are valuable tools, I would suggest that most often successful parenting is a process, not a collection of specific inputs or actions leading to specific outcomes.
Parenting is a cumulative, iterative process that happens over time. It’s a constant stream of conversation, correction, and recalibration. Successful parenting is less about correctly executing specific strategies at precise moments than it is about engaging persistently with a child. It is more a matter of consistency and constancy.
Trust yourself. Try something. Maturity will kick in at some point and take care of a lot of the struggles your child has. At that time, they will have the values habits they have developed. Start with thinking about what values and habits you want to help them develop.
2. Engage. Try. Repeat.
Over years of teaching, I’ve seen successful parents with many different backgrounds, approaches, and styles. The common factor is that they engaged based on their experience, judgment and values. They were willing to parent against the grain of what everyone else was doing and they were willing to endure hard battles for the long run. They said “No” when needed. When they made mistakes, they regrouped and tried something else. Sometimes many times. Most of all, they keep going and see themselves as being primarily responsible to teach, guide, and inform their child’s values, behavior, and life experience.
Leadership expert Tim Elmore tells us to parent from wisdom, not from fear. This is an incredibly empowering stance.
Next time you are faced with a difficult problem--try something. If it doesn't work, then try something else. And something else. If needed, seek guidance from qualified professionals, but humans have been parenting now for tens of thousands of years. You've got this.
3. Seek Mentors
One other thing I believe may cause Alexa parenting is that growing isolation has led to fewer sources for parents to get help. A great deal has been written about families getting smaller and social networks and institutions fraying and fragmenting. Fewer people are involved in churches, synagogues, civic clubs, PTA, bowling leagues, and neighborhoods. In the past, these institutions provided a chance to connect with people in different walks of life. One benefit of that is the chance to be mentored by more experienced, seasoned parents.
My wife and I often took advantage of this at church or at work, counseling with seasoned veterans—not our peers. Doing this often helped us find out that some problem with our children wasn’t as serious as we feared. Or, if a problem was serious, we could get guidance and suggestions. Seek mentors. Teachers and schools can be useful partners and allies, and I always encourage families to develop these relationships. But ultimately, schools must teach. They must set rules and deal with infractions, but neither their missions nor their resources are unlimited.
One of the most important things a teacher does to teach is to try to connect. Until you have connected with students, there’s very little chance of teaching them anything. Parents have a lot to do. They are tasked with an enormous amount. It’s easy, in the press of all we have to do, to lose sight of the need to connect with our children. But finding time to simply connect with them can have a huge impact on the problems that worry us. As we connect, we can discuss the problems that worry us. I know this sounds simplistic, but it really makes an enormous difference in many, many ways.
Part of this connection ought to be with other parents. Schools field a lot of complaints and concerns about other parents. Getting to know the parents of our children’s peers ought to be a priority. Hosting a social gathering for other parents, being active in parent associations, community groups, etc. can all have big benefits--far more than trying to get the school to pick up the slack for things you perceive the other parents are not doing. Build a working relationship, or at least a reasonable acquaintance with other parents, ideally before you have concerns or problems.
If problems do emerge, try contacting parents before you contact the school. I have seen complex, apparently intractable problems solved very quickly when parents picked up the phone and talked with other parents. Yes, this is a risk--and it may not always be appropriate. It's hard to give a good rule here. But the potential rewards are also enormous. My sense from talking to people is that parent to parent communication has become the exception, not the norm. I think it would benefit us all to swing the pendulum back a bit.
5. Avoid Gossip
One of the root causes of Alexa parenting is fear, insecurity, lack of confidence. One of the best ways I know to develop and feed fear and insecurity is to gossip. Texting and social media have made this ancient human tendency easier than ever. But gossiping breeds mistrust, worry, dissatisfaction. It impedes connection and confidence. It may seem harmless, but I’m convinced that it causes an enormous amount of harm.
The good news is that Alexa parenting can be stopped. It's as easy--and hard--as simply being a parent. Taking responsibility, developing confidence, finding mentors, connecting, and engaging are all powerful. Even a flawed family has enormous, probably untapped, power. As I've watched my children grow into happy adulthood, I've been struck by how effective even very imperfect parenting can be.
Happy parenting--you've got this!
Note: As life goes on, I have been evolving away from blogging. Most of what I do is now done via newsletters I send out directly. So, if you are interested look over to the sidebar on the right and click "Newsletter" sign up.
A while back I stumbled on a very simple, but highly effective way to get my teens to engage in conversations with me. Perhaps your child is different, but mine have always been highly reluctant to talk about important things with my wife and me.
An important paradigm shift
First of all, I had to learn over time that if I wanted my teens to listen, I was the one who had to work at it. That was true at home and also my first difficult year or two of teaching. My inclination was that they, as the child, should accommodate me, the adult. Now I see that as being backward.
When I finally realized I could get more accomplished by learning to adjust to them, it made a huge difference. I know that probably sounds obvious, but I think it's an easy mistake to make in the heat of the moment.
A helpful tactic
Here's a tactic that has helped me work around this with my own kids. I've mentioned it before, but it's made a huge difference, so I want to bring it up again.
I frequently say to my kids, "I need to talk to you about something. You choose the time, but within the next xxx days, (whatever period I feel is needed), I need to talk. Okay?"
Or, "I need to teach you something. It's not a huge deal, but I have some guidance for you that will help you. Will come to me when you feel you're ready to hear it?"
If they don't come in the time period, then they forfeit the right to choose. Often, they say, "Just tell me now."
Two other things I say frequently:
"I want to have an adult-level conversation and give you a voice in this situation/decision. But, you have to act like an adult. You get as big a voice as you can be rational."
"You made a mistake/This isn't working (whatever it is). I'm not trying to beat you up, but I need to know you understand what happened and that you have a good plan to fix it. Once I know that, I won't worry about it."
All of these approaches have helped me because they allow the teen time to prepare so they don't feel ambushed, it gives them time prepare their mind and emotions, and it channels their keen desire to be seen as mature and competent, the experts on their own lives.
And shorten a tad?
Last of all, I tend to say way more than needed. I think adults often do that when talking to kids.
But I don't like it when people take my time with things I feel are repetitious, and so I can't really blame my kids for not loving it when I do the same, rambling on and on when they understand already. This is especially true when I'm talking about something my child needs to do better or differently. What adults like hearing about their failings in triplicate? In my experience, most adults tend to go into lecture mode when dealing with teens; we could often get by just as well (or better) with far less. One of my writer friends once responded to a long email I drafted with, "And shorten a tad?" I'm trying to remember that when I'm addressing the adolescents in my life.
Happy parenting--you've got this!
With the end of the school year coming, students are getting ready for everything from exams to pool parties. Meanwhile, parents and teachers are dragging ourselves along, hoping to reach the finish line.
Parents, I am sending waves of solidarity. I know how crazy and hectic this time of year is. Next week is our last week and my wife and I can barely move right now.
Still, there are a few things to do now, despite being tired. These are small things that will help your child in some important, if subtle, ways.
Schedule a time with your child to discuss this school year*. What went well? What could they work on?
Obviously this includes academics. But on the social-emotional front, it's a great time to think about their relationships and the way they treat people. Few children or adolescents always get things right socially. They are, by definition, immature. Chances are there have been a few mistakes or errors. So, is there anyone to whom they need to apologize? Any bridges to build or mend? Is there anyone with whom they could make things right before the year ends? Help them figure out a plan to address this before the end of school. I've noticed that social or relational issues often seem to calcify over the summer. It's best to try to address them before school is out.
On the positive side, are there new friendships they'd like to cultivate? Summer is a great time for this, offering many low-risk opportunities to branch out socially. Can you set up a plan to invite them to go see a movie, swimming, sleep-over, or whatever your child wants to do? Kids need to do the work of making friends, but parents can help a great deal with logistical support, especially when the child can't drive.
Another thought: if anyone at the school made a difference in your child's life, may I suggest sending a note? For the recipient, hearing that you succeeded in helping someone makes a huge difference--especially in a field where there are not so many material rewards.
If your child can do this, so much the better. This kind of gratitude blesses the recipient, but it's also a happy way to live and getting in this habit can benefit a child as well.
*The idea of asking for an appointment is something I've talked about a lot before. It's just a small tactical thing that makes a big difference. You simply say, "I need to talk with you about something. You pick the time--it can be anytime in the next [whatever time period you feel is important]. If you promise to listen and engage, it only needs to take [however long you feel is needed]. This makes a huge difference in getting my kids to engage with me. Something about letting them pick the time and knowing in advance what the time limits are really helps my kids.
Now, for teachers, I'd really encourage giving careful thought to end-of-the-year projects. These can be great, but they can also be really, really stressful. Last night a friend was on social media, incredibly frustrated because her son's English teacher assigned the students to make a movie. The assumption was that any teen today knows how to do stuff like that--from filming to using editing software. A lot of teens do. This one didn't, and the stress was enormous.
I'd also encourage trying to be thoughtful about what other teachers in other classes might be assigning. If everyone is assigning elaborate projects, that can get pretty hard on a family pretty quick. And that's not even considering things like end of the year parties.
Just as we enjoy getting notes that we made a difference, I think it's a wonderful time for us to reach out to a child we've seen grow, or a parent who was wonderful, or a child who didn't grow, but in whom we see potential. I wrote a long note once to a child I hope will one day care. It may or may not help that child. As of now, it doesn't seem to have registered. But it made me feel like I had tried to do something.
One of the things I love about Christmas, of course, is the music. I love it all—the fun, seasonal stuff and also the beautiful carols that celebrate the birth of an infant king. Because these songs are repeated each year, I find that they grow in meaning. Each year adds another layer of significance as my own lived experience creates new dimensions and impact for me.
I was teaching a voice lesson recently, listening to the pure, beautiful voice of a beloved student sing, O Holy Night.
That’s always been one of my favorite songs, and it’s figured several times in important spiritual awakenings I’ve had. But whenever I hear it, there’s one experience I always relive, one I hope I’ll not ever forget.
I grew up with a large extended family. We lived near both sets of grandparents, and I had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We got together frequently and I have very happy memories of those gatherings. One of the big events each year was the Christmas party, something that was often rotated from home to home given the size and demands of entertaining.
My maternal grandmother loved music. My aunts were the same, and they frequently sang together. Because of that, we always had lots of singing at these gatherings, everything from quartets to solos, and the evening almost always featured a talent show.
One year, when I was probably sixteen or seventeen, it was my family's turn to host the party. We had dinner and then gathered near the piano for the music. I sang that night. I don’t remember what it was, but I had been taking voice lessons for some time, and I do remember that it was somewhat demanding and difficult. I remember being quite pleased with my technique and performance and sat down, feeling that I was quite the rising star, a pro among well-meaning, talented amateurs.
For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, my grandma’s neighbor/best friend and her husband always came to our family gatherings. This year, was no different in that the gentleman came. If memory serves, I think he had recently lost his wife, so it must have been a very tender and painful time for him.
That year, I think for the first time, he decided to join in the talent show. I don’t remember him doing that previously, but perhaps I am wrong. Regardless, this year he decided to sing, “O Holy Night.”
This isn’t an easy song. It’s quite long, and was written for a trained voice. It requires tremendous breath control and a serious range.
This gentleman was not a trained, or even experienced, singer. He started the song, singing in a weak, quivering voice. I remember a slightly uncomfortable feeling settling over the crowd. It seemed clear that this was going to be a struggle for him. I think my cousins, my sister, and I exchanged some wide-eyed “this-is-awkward” glances that teens specialize in.
Being a teen, and therefore being gifted with supreme overconfidence, I smiled benignly, but was fairly condescending in my inner assessment. I wasn’t cruel, but I was certainly aware of how far he fell below my own lofty standards.
Partway during the song, he stopped singing--just froze. I think his voice cracked and then he got nervous, then got lost. The song is quite long and a bit repetitious, so it’s easy to do.
The poor man stood frozen in front of this large group of people with panic in his eyes. I do remember that very clearly. Now that I’m older I also realize that he had something else in his eyes: shame. He felt foolish but didn’t know what to do or how to proceed.
No one else knew what to do either. It felt tense and awkward. I remember looking down at the ground, feet scuffling, people fidgeting, etc. A few people fixed encouraging smiles on their faces.
The awkward silence grew to an unbearable level. Then my dad jumped up. He ran over, put his arm around this man and joined in the chorus: “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices….”
Dad has a nice voice but he's not a trained singer or anything. He didn’t generally perform solos in public, so it wasn’t like this was in his comfort zone. But he started singing and the man joined him. They finished the song together and there was thunderous applause.
All my smug, self-aggrandizing thoughts were gone. I was a knuckle-headed, clueless teen in many ways. And my dad often drove me crazy at that age. But even I knew something special had happened.
By the end of the song, that man’s face had changed. He smiled and practically glowed. I’m sure it wasn’t because he felt he had done an amazing job. I’m sure he was aware of just how far he’d fallen short. I believe that he smiled because he felt loved. Because someone else had reached out to help him, and was invested and caring enough to stand there and finish the song with him, word for word, note for note.
My dad gave that man more than a hand. He gave him an arm around his shoulder. He gave him his dignity, far more effectively than any well-meant words could have.
Angel voices, indeed.
I hope everyone had a wonderful break this summer. I disconnected from just about everything and it was wonderful! Now that school is back I hope to resume writing this newsletter a few times a month.
I want to give a special welcome my new subscribers. The folks at the Washington Post were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote recently about the difference between unkindness and bullying and why it matters. It appears to have resonated and has had more shares, re-tweets, and likes than anything else I've ever written, so I've had a lot of new people sign up for this newsletter. I'm glad to have you here and I hope it will be useful for you.
Many years ago, I was having some trouble with the management of my classes. I confided in an older teacher whose classes were perfectly behaved. She smiled and said, "It's very simple. When I started teaching, they told me, 'Be a witch from the time school starts until Thanksgiving.' After that, they'll do what you say and you can lighten up a bit." This was pretty standard advice back when she started teaching in the late 60s/early 70s. Looking back, I can certainly see how my own teachers practiced this.
For the record, I don't believe in being harsh or mean at any time. But beneath that, there is a kernel of very helpful wisdom for parents.
However they articulate it, veteran teachers know that the first few weeks of school are critical. School is new, there is some excitement, and everyone is ready to for a new start, so minds and hearts are flexible.
This time can be used to establish routines and get students in good habits. It can be tempting to want to ramp up slowly, but jumping in and getting everyone acclimated is probably going to be a better choice. It is so much easier to start from the beginning and then moderate things if needed than it is to try to change habits and patterns that are set.
As my more experienced colleague new, it is always easier to relax things than to tighten them up.
So if there are things you think your child needs to work on--more chores at home, earlier bedtime, better study habits, picking things up, being more respectful, sharing, new limits on screen time--this is probably a great time to do that. I realize it might seem overwhelming. But chances are that your child is in the mode of new beginnings and might have more emotional and mental elasticity. Once routines and patterns become habits, it's much more difficult to make changes.
So, if you haven't done so, you might give some thought to things you want to help your child address. Start right from the beginning. It truly is a very good place to start. The biggest caution I have is this: don't try to do too much. Better to do a few things well than many things halfway.
The other thing that is very new, and worth some effort, is your relationship to your child's teacher. I've written a lot about this subject before (for example, here) and I don't want to rehash too much. I do think it's worth reiterating a few key points.
1. Good teachers work well beyond (sometimes very far beyond) their contractual obligations. It's true they are paid for their work but they don't get overtime or bonus pay, and they are paid for very little. So almost any time they get in the zone where they are changing lives, you can be almost positive they are not being paid. In fact, the more they do, the less they make to some extent. This is one reason teachers burn out so quickly and easily.
2. Teachers don't go into teaching to make money. Chances are your child's teacher went into education because s/he wanted to make a difference, loved a particular subject, and/or loves kids. Most of what really motivates them is emotional in nature.
3. If a teacher feels that s/he is accomplishing those objectives--touching lives, instilling love for a subject, helping someone--that teacher will feel energized, and motivated.
4. Thus, anything you can do to help motivate and energize your child's teacher will likely yield dividends for your child.
There's more to explain here, some complicated dynamics that you can use to your child's benefit if you understand them--but I'll save that for later. Suffice it to say, the sooner you reach out, the better. Start creating emotional capital with your child's teacher now.
Happily, it does not take a lot of time or ingenuity to do this. Send a short note when your child's teacher does something thoughtful or that shows dedication. Handwritten is lovely, but email is fine. This truly can be the work of a few minutes! If you can honestly do so, tell your child's teacher you are so happy your child got assigned to their class (even better--if you can, add why you are happy). Is the teacher famous for having a great sense of humor? Good rapport with students? A love of literature? A knack for bringing writing skills out? Dedication? Years of service? Lovely penmanship? Try to find something. It just needs to be enough to start the relationship on a good foot.
I know you are busy. But if you can, please try to show up to parent's night events. This will help show that you are serious about education and that you don't see yourself as being above the rules. There is very little that will set a teacher's teeth on edge faster than someone who signals, I'm above all this.
We're all busy. Teachers understand. So if you can't make it, send a quick email, apologize, explain why (make sure it's a good reason) and say that you invite any guidance or suggestions the teacher has. The main thing is to avoid not showing up, never communicating, and then suddenly swooping in when you have a complaint.
IMPORTANT: With both teachers and administration, one of the most important ways to have influence is to never let your first communication be a complaint or concern.
Try to realize that your child's teacher has a huge wealth of experience that can be enormously beneficial. I was talking to a friend the other day. She's an experienced teacher, but is still younger than many of the parents of the students she teaches. Moreover she does not have her own children. She was telling me that she doesn't feel the parents of her students always take her very seriously.
Those parents are missing an opportunity. After only a few years of teaching, a teacher will have seen hundreds of students in that age bracket. After five kids, I might have more experience as a parent, but even a very young teacher will know far more than I do about the age group they teach.
They will have a very good idea of developmental milestones and challenges in that age group. They can tell you if something is a simple matter of letting time and maturity work their magic. They know what sort of things might require more intervention--parental or professional. If the former, they can give a good sense of what solutions have helped other families. If the latter, they might know good professionals to refer. They can always give reassurance, guidance, and be wonderful allies.
Letting a teacher know you are committed, that you are excited, that you are reasonable and that you are open to advice and candor will pay off. As I said, more detail on this later. For now, all it takes to start is a short note (or email) and attending parent's night.
Note: I'm in NYC this week, attending plays and soaking up the ambience of old Broadway, supported by a very generous grant. I'm posting my thoughts for anyone who might be interested.
Today I witnessed magic. Yes the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage. Yes, Jafar melted and the Genie did any number of other magic tricks. But that wasn’t the magic I’m talking about.
I sat in the gorgeous interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre, restored to its Zeigfeldian glory. Not everyone loves Disney but they did a tremendous service in restoring that place. It housed legendary performers—Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller. I had to chuckle when I realized that most of the time, the chorus in family-friendly Aladdin wore costumes that would not have been terribly out of place in the Follies). And, more recently, it saw the premiere of The Lion King, which has become a theatrical force of nature.
A ten-year old boy sat next to me, singing show tunes as we waited for the show to start. He’s attending a performing arts camp in NJ. His mom seemed a bit wary of me until I told her I taught theatre and directed plays. I was okay after that. Tourists who spoke a rainbow of languages filled in around a woman who has lived in NYC all her life (from her accent, I think Queens, maybe the top of Brooklyn). She was taking her grandson to the show
There I am, a middle-aged theatre teacher from Tennessee. I don’t know any of these people and will never see them again. But for 2.5 hours we shared a powerful experience. We laughed. We clapped. Many of us couldn’t help but hum along. I will admit I teared up at the end a bit, to my surprise. We all willed the Genie to take an encore after “Friend Like Me.” We ooh-ed and applauded when the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage, hitting our cues like we were part of the show. That’s because we were. That’s the beauty of theatre. It happens in the moment, a collaboration where the audience informs and helps it. And in that process, theatre brings people together, weaving disparate, diverse people with divergent lives and experiences into a single tapestry. Together we experience human emotion—laughter. Tears. Delight. Awe.
Many faiths have a holy rite known as Communion. My own faith has this, and I participate fervently each week in an attempt to touch God. But in the theatre, I experience another form of communion where I touch humanity. In a world where we seem to multiply ways to find divisions, where we seem to delight in minimizing the feelings of others, where we find ways to invalidate and isolate, to label and de-humanize, there is something refreshing—almost sacred--about sharing emotions together. A potluck of the soul, perhaps, where we all contribute and then consume. It's something I think we could have more of, a beneficial tonic.
I will never see the grandma from Queens again, or the little boy from the theatre camp. I’ll never see the tourists from other countries. But I’m more human and richer for having spent some time communing with them. And I can't help but feel elevated for the experience.
Another form of magic I saw was the Genie. He’s making his Broadway debut, out-sparkling and outshining every sequin, rhinestone, and gem on that stage. It’s truly remarkable to watch him, both because it’s a phenomenal, high octane performance and because there is a special joy in the fact that it’s his dream come true, as his bio notes.
I have no idea what his path was, what obstacles he faced and conquered, but I have to imagine there were many. I don’t know him, but he’s my hero now. He’s the one I shall think of when I go back to school, sit in the auditorium and try to coax and coach my beloved young students into using their upstage hand, singing with their head voice, projecting to the back row, cheating out, being quiet backstage, etc. Dreams do come true, and magic does happen. However, one of the things I loved about the show was that you could see the characters sweating. I know that sounds weird. But there’s a realness, a gritty human truth about that. It’s hard work, performing like that. It’s hot under the lights. You’re doing a serious cardio work out for 2.5 hours, and there’s the need to project your emotions and soul out to an audience of 1700 people!
I like the sweat because it reminds me that magic happens, but only with hard, hard work. And kudos and congratulations to Major Attaway for making the magic happen. The glitter you wore in your makeup and the lights that followed you onstage were not half as brilliant as your work. Bravo, sir! Bravo and many, many encores.
Learning the healer's art: Why I will give awkward hugs, say too much of the wrong thing, dance when I am lame and sing when I am tone deaf.
I went to a funeral a while back. It was difficult: the kind of funeral that came far too soon and left far too many people behind. It really hit me hard, reminding me how fleeting and fragile life is, and how important relationships are.
Because it was a colleague at my school, the people who attended were almost all people I knew, people from past and present. After the funeral I went around and hugged nearly everyone I saw. I felt awkward about it. I'm sure I seemed awkward, but it felt important to me to connect in some way. Having just had a reminder of the extreme fragility of life and the speed with which it ends, I felt the need to physically, tangibly connect with those I knew and cared about. It felt urgent for them to know I cared about them. Connection seemed more important than the awkwardness.
I grew up with a terrible fear of being awkward, of not being smooth and easy. I feared that my personality was off-putting and intense, my voice too full of energy and emotion, my laugh too frequent and loud. I wanted to be smooth and polished, but feared I was probably not. I wanted to be Cary Grant, but realized I was probably closer to Ethel Merman or Jimmy Durante. I likely would have been a huge success as a Vaudeville performer.
However the Vaudeville era is over. So I started trying to learn to be quiet and pull back a bit. This is not necessarily bad. Having a sense of time and place, trying to listen to others, working to not hijack conversations, or monologue like a super-villain at the end of the the movie--these are good things. I believe in trying to improve and grow; I've always felt that it is self-indulgent to do otherwise. It is something I still struggle with, something I work on constantly. I often leave conversations realizing that I over-shared or over-laughed or over-many-other-things and am usually trying to calibrate appropriately.
I learned to accept this and work with it. Big personalities can be work well in some venues. I focused on trying to find those and on cultivating the friendships that seemed to withstand that larger-than-life lack of smoothness. I shrugged everything else off. This was okay until a few years ago.
I had a beloved colleague, now retired. She is one of the most amazing people I've ever known, the most empathetic, loving, encouraging, supportive person I've met, and many others would say the same thing. For decades, she was sort of the Mother Confessor of students, parents, and teachers alike. Her tireless ear heard countless troubles and she always knew the right thing to say. Her gentle voice encouraged countless people to keep going. She was the quiet in the storm for many, many, many people. I was among those who benefitted from her warmth and care. As she neared retirement age I looked around and realized that there was no heir-apparent. I didn't know who would fill her role--a role I saw as being critical to a middle school.
I decided someone needed to follow her. So I decided to try. This was not because I felt qualified. Far from it. But it seemed to me that the students deserved someone trying to do this. At least I could make an effort in this regard. If someone better came along, wonderful. Until then, I'd do the best I could. It was like the cafeteria stopped serving prime rib. All I could offer was ground beef, but it was better than nothing, I reasoned.
I started trying to listen. I started trying to look for those who were struggling. I started trying to encourage and give hope. I started trying to respond with empathy, warmth, and compassion to everyone I met.
I italicize trying because this was not natural to me. I don't pretend to be good at it. But the effort changed my heart. It honestly changed my aspirations, transforming what I want to do and who I want to be. I want to be a healer, an encourager, a confidante. I want to be actively empathetic, compassionate, and kind. That became my truest, deepest, and most consistent desire and I started trying to reach out beyond my little corner of the world.
There was only one snag: my awkwardness. Deep down, as I tried to reach out and do these things, I feared that my efforts were clumsy and clunky. I felt I was doing the equivalent of trying to dance an emotional ballet in hiking boots. Still I persisted, hoping I wasn't quite as inept as I feared, trusting that good intentions might smooth over awkward execution.
My fears were confirmed a few years back when a Facebook friend made a comment to the effect that I had a big heart but came off in awkward ways. The person intended no harm, indeed, was actually trying to help me. And, in all honesty, the statement is true. The person had no way of knowing just how much I feared this exact thing, or for how long I'd struggled with it. Still, even with no malice, having someone I respected publicly articulate my worst fear covered me with icy shame. I froze.
It was ironic to come to the point where I no longer cared about the stuff we usually worry about, the normal markers of success. I didn't care about money or influence or being a famous author or anything. I just wanted to be kind and warm. But my personality, with it's lack of limits, it's constant state of being too-much-something, now created a barrier to what I wanted to accomplish. I think beyond that, we don't often conceptualize men as healers or nurturers, and so that likely contributed to this general clunkiness.
For a while, I just stopped trying, paralyzed by that shame, by the knowledge that I was, indeed, awkward and probably ridiculous.
But my shame and lack of deftness did not make people stop hurting. The fact that I was unskilled did not provide comfort to those around me. Certainly my inaction helped no one.
There were still people who needed help. I didn't have much, I wasn't all that they needed or deserved, but it felt selfish to not try to reach out, even if I knew I was lacking.
So, I continued my efforts in real life, with students and parents, with people at church, sometimes online, but I did so with a sense of shame and embarrassment. Each effort to reach out made me feel foolish, like a child who was dressed up in some strange mix of his parents' clothes that didn't fit and didn't match.
The reality is that I don't have many skills. I'm not handy in a way that allows me to fix people's cars or help with home repair projects. I'm not wealthy, so I can't write checks to good causes. Some people always know what to say, seem to know intuitively how to listen, or see what needs to be done to help. I am not one of them. Emotionally, I want to sing, but know I'm often tone deaf.
This leaves me with a choice. I can allow myself to be defined by what I am not; I can surrender to the shame and constant sense of being ridiculous. That would simply involve being quiet, something that is safe, comfortable, and natural for an introvert.
But the world is a difficult place. There are so many rifts and wounds and battles. Our times cry out for people who want to heal, who want to bind and repair, who want to make peace. I know and admire some people who do this well, but they have so much to do. So I guess I need to step up, even if I can't do it smoothly or with perfect-pitch. I can't be Cary Grant. So my choice, I suppose, is to try to be encouraging and empathetic. Even if I'm Ethel Merman I can try to encourage, try to reach out, try to listen, and help.
I can only do what I can do, but our world seems to grow harsher, less civil, more unforgiving and unkind. We need healers and soothers, speakers of peace and softness to individuals and groups. Connection seems more important than fearing awkwardness. I've come to the point where I fear not trying more than I fear being ridiculous. The hope that I can be helpful or encouraging to another human is greater than my shame at what I lack.
Forgive me if I overshare, over-praise, over-do. Forgive me if I don't listen well, if I say too much, too loudly, too often. Forgive me when I give awkward hugs at funerals (note: given the fact that I'm a big guy I have started asking before I give a hug. That feels awkward sometimes but I am trying to reach out while still respecting people's space and autonomy.) I will risk saying too much, or the wrong thing, when I try to encourage people. I will go visit people in the hospital even though I don't know what to say. I'll try to find little ways to reach out to struggling people even if it doesn't really help.
Our world needs kindness, compassion, gentle hearts, listening ears, and encouraging words. Our world, and the individuals therein, need healers. Soothers. Builders. Unfortunately, neither saints nor angels seem to be available for the job.
Today was a very long day. I love my job, I really do. But, as with any job, there are some days or weeks that are long. This week was one of them. And this day was even moreso. There’s a great deal going on right now in just about every area of my job description, including a rapidly advancing winter concert.
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