Technology horn-locking

My father is anti-text message.  Like many well-meaning antagonists, he doesn’t let the fact that he’s never engaged in the practice stop him from delivering censure.  “Are you texting?” he’ll snarl if he catches me typing on my phone. “These kids and their texting.  They don’t know how to have a conversation anymore.”

The first few times I heard this from him I’d say things like “Yes, I am.  For me it’s a convenient and minimally disruptive way of communicating quick details that don’t require the trappings of a full conversation. And I’m not sure you actually know whether or not kids know how to have conversations anymore. Remember how there was a time when your parents probably would have said ‘Why use the phone when you can get on your bike and go ask her in person?'”

“What’s wrong with the phone?” he’d exclaim. We’d proceed along those lines until I changed the subject or he said “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion.”

I think there’s an extent to which we accept as tradition this locking of horns between generations, particularly with respect to the relative merits or lack thereof of technologies.  There will always be things that are new, and the newer people will take to them more readily than the older people, who may never take to them at all.  The new and the old will disagree, and that is that. Everyone will be entitled to his or her opinion (or at least everyone will have one).

The loss in this resignation is that it forces us apart in ways that it maybe doesn’t have to, and costs us the expansion available in understanding something even if we choose not to adopt it for ourselves. We believe we’re protecting something important (the way things have been) and protecting young people from something (the way things might be becoming) when we stick to what’s familiar and comfortable, insisting that kids also stick to what’s familiar and comfortable for us.  In so doing we show them that we don’t understand where they might be coming from, how things might look to them, and that we’re not really that willing to try.  In the end, we’ve undermined our own intentions. What we set out to do is make anything possible for kids, to be their mentors and guides, and instead we demonstrate that in a quickly shifting world, we’re not available for the reality of the task.

I’m obviously dealing with my father on this in the other direction, and for us the stakes aren’t very high.  We’re already found our way through the transition from child and adult to adult and adult, and it’s that transition during which the handling of this sort of impasse can set an important tone.

But it still couldn’t hurt to make my own attempt to bend our exchanges in a different direction.  Next time he gets after me about the messaging, maybe I’ll try something like this: “I know this is weird for you, Dad.  Wanna know why I find it useful?”

Or who knows, maybe one of these times his curiosity will take over and he’ll say “Now, explain to me why you’d say whatever you’re saying in a text message rather than making a call.”


I spoke with a friend this morning who was at something of an impasse with her 12 year-old son.  He’d told her that he wants to quit something she thinks he really likes and knows he excels at.

We talked about several aspects of the situation – about what it is that has him wanting to quit, about why she wants him to keep at it, about whether or not she should insist that he continue.

We realized in the midst of our conversation that everything we were discussing about her son’s position was based on a single exchange she’d had with him about it.

This particular child has a tremendous capacity for mature reflection and reasoning that wasn’t apparent in the conversation he’d had with his mom about quitting.  When she and I realized that – that she’d been trying to negotiate and navigate this aspect of his life with him when he didn’t have his clearest self about him – her exasperation with him and with the situation quickly faded.  The challenge was still there, but she realized that the conversation they’d had didn’t have to be the end of the story, and may not even have given her an accurate idea of where he stood on the whole matter.   She was also suddenly able to laugh in recognition of her own preference for having one conversation, on her own time, that addressed and resolved a given issue or disagreement.  “I guess that’s not so realistic, is it?” she mused.

There’s endless nuance and complexity to navigating a life, and doing it in true collaboration with a child tends to drive up more than other approaches might.  There are simple things, though, like leaving a contentious topic alone for a bit and revisiting it under different circumstances, that can entirely shift the dynamic of that collaboration.

Texting at the wheel

Yesterday I passed a young driver glancing back and forth, between the phone she held below her steering wheel and the intersection around her.

This terrifies me when I see it, for many reasons, not the least of which is that as often as I drive a car, I ride a bicycle.  And the damage a distracted driver can do to a bicycle and its rider is much quicker and greater than the damage she or he can do to another vehicle and its driver.

I imagined two different kinds of things I might say to her (as her parent or as anyone else in her life) about texting behind the wheel.

#1: No texting while you’re driving.  That is so dangerous and in some places it’s against the law.  If I find out you’ve been using your phone while you’re driving, I’ll take it away.

#2: I saw someone typing on her phone while driving today.  Wow, that really frightens me.  I know that kids and teenagers are better with devices than I am, and I know people use their phones behind the wheel all the time and often there’s no problem, but when I think about how easy it would be to get distracted, even for just a second, and swerve, just slightly, into the bike lane…

I’m wondering if you’d be willing to consider pulling over before you answer a call, or send or read a text.  I know it might slow you down, but if I knew that was your plan, I’d be able to worry a whole lot less when you’re driving.

The first is a decree, from authority to subject.  And sometimes decrees work.  Other times they inspire resistance, resentment, rebellion, or all three. Undermining the intention of the communication (to keep the child and others safe).

The second is a request, from person to person.  Specific person to specific person (including in this case the specific concern about the bike lane). In the context of person to person, there tend to be fewer resistance triggers and more opportunities for the recognition of genuine concern and connection. These factors can increase the chances that the content of a communication will get through.

No guarantees, either way, but the two approaches are fundamentally different.  And it’s worth remembering that we get to choose how we talk to each other.  We get to decide which kinds of communications are in keeping with how we want to be and what we think might actually inspire connection and collaboration with the people we care about the very most.

Uniqueness is messy.

This American Life’s recent episode on middle school mentions Maria Montessori’s belief that the appropriate environment for a child of middle school age is a farm school.

What I’ve read about this idea and many other Montessori ideas sounds wonderful: young people at work and play alongside respectful adults who can teach them to do things as well as to know things, to apply their knowledge, to be physically active in the course of it… the list of desirables goes on.

But this and every other idea that seem delicious in the abstract start to feel a little less solid when mapped onto actual specific children.  Whether or not they could benefit from the activities proposed, whether or not the values instilled would be useful to them, all people are not equally available for all endeavors and pursuits.  And the timing of one person’s availability for something, their ability to receive and absorb it, is not likely to be the same as everyone else’s.  But that’s what we expect.  We want children to be unique, but at the same time, we’re wary of specialization.  It’s as though we want them to be unique sometimes, or later.  Not when it gets in the way.  If they get too interested in something too early, we tell them they’re not well-rounded.  We want a checklist that will be the same for all of them, of things they should all do first.  When that’s done, we expect them to be ready to be unique and to distinguish themselves. Of course, it often doesn’t happen that way.  Uniqueness and individuality is a tough thing to temporarily shelve.  Kids’ actual uniqueness, which is a messy, unpredictable, impossible to control thing, confounds us. Come to think of it, so is our own.

I think this is why it’s so hard to see the potential that kids already have, the capacities that are already in development when they’re 3, 7, 11 years old.  We might have trouble, for example, seeing that all of the time they spend with their Legos is building skill they might need for engineering, because we’re think that first they need to sit still and add columns of numbers; engineering is for later.  We might have trouble seeing that they’re learning how to think deeply and analytically because we think that first they need to be practicing their spelling; philosophical inquiry is for later.

We know that what we’re doing is not working, not making the most of kids’ potential, but we’re so fixed in this belief that we have to put the many through the one thing (even though it so often doesn’t come out right and is a struggle the whole way) that we can’t see all the things we’re shutting down that could launch individual kids on paths that are well-suited to them and their specific capacities. If the outcomes of educational efforts are to shift in any meaningful way, it’ll be because we confront our biases about what has to happen when, and our attachment to giving everyone the same thing at the same time.

And as we’re retraining ourselves to look at what’s actually there and what kids might do with it – the evidence of potential that may not fall into the traditional, recognizable categories – we’ll also need to stop laughing amongst ourselves at kids’ resistance.  As long as we’re behaving toward children as though the discomfort that drives their resistance is funny or cute, they’ll keep it up.  Because that resistance is not the personal attack on parents and other adults that we treat it as. Young peoples’ defiance is a plea – a plea with us to realize how profoundly we’re not seeing them – not letting them get as full and as strong as they can because we’re too busy trying to make them like they aren’t.  It’s not only disrespectful, this way we laugh them off and roll our eyes at them (“we always get tears when it comes to spelling!” and “boy, she always fights me on the boring parts of math!”).  It undermines our relationships with kids.  It lets them know in no uncertain terms that we are not available for communication; we are only interested in conveying our curriculum, whatever it may be and whether or not they take it in, whether or not they can use it. Any objections children may express that push us to reach beyond the scope of what we think they should know and do, we tend to dismiss as immature prattling.  We more or less laugh it off.

We don’t do it maliciously.  It was done to many of us, and so it comes naturally.  It feels natural and usual.  But that doesn’t mean it’s what we want for kids, and if it’s not, it’ll be well worth the effort it takes to leave it behind, to build  new, empowering, edifying traditions in its place.

Where the kids are

At some point when I was in college I decided to take all the classes I’d need to earn a teaching certificate, so I could work in a school.  I realized the other day that I didn’t make the decision because I wanted to be a teacher.  I made it because I wanted to work with kids, and school is where (most of) the kids were.

I realized this in the midst of a familiar conversation about the social life of a child considering abstaining from school.  When a young person who hasn’t been attending school expresses frustration (or is perceived to be frustrated) about his or her social life, the default recommended antidote is school. When a young person who has been in school and considers leaving, the absence of school’s built-in social component tends to top the concern list.

I’d like to think that the reason that school is our first thought, when it comes to questions of social development, is the same one that had me choose teaching.  School is just where most of the kids are.  I’d really really really like to think that that’s it: if everyone’s in school then in order to have friends you have to go there.  Of course it’s not the only access to a social life, but maybe it just seems that way, just as it seemed logical that I should teach if I wanted to work with young people.

If it’s not that, then maybe it’s because we remember our own school social lives so fondly that we forget to check to be sure that kind of social scene still exists, and if it does, whether or not that scene would actually fill the needs of the actual children in question.  But I haven’t come across very many people who have good memories of their school social lives.  Quite the contrary, in fact, so I’m afraid we can’t blame that interpretation either, at least not on any large scale.

Unfortunately, I think the reality is that we don’t stop to think about what social life is.  We don’t think about what kind of experience we want for kids.  We don’t think about what it means to be social.  We don’t think about what it takes to have a healthy fulfilling social life.  If we did, it’s hard to imagine that our first thought would be to send young people into an environment in which talking is mostly prohibited, bullying is commonplace, and competition is paramount.

There’s a real irony to this school-as-social-panacea.  In every other realm, we micromanage learning.  We tool and retool the way we make children learn to read and write and acquire every other academic skill we’re committed to.  We’re constantly changing our minds about what exactly we need to teach (within the bounds of traditional subject categories).  We start early and we pour everything we can get our hands on into the teaching.  In many cases it undermines the process, but we keep doing it.  We expect to be very involved in the process and we go to great lengths to stay involved and continue to reform the process.  When it comes to social experience and skills, our only recourse is proximity and exposure.  As long as they’re around other people their age, our actions and choices suggest, they’ll Get Socialized.  We try to intervene when there’s bullying, and we send the ones who aren’t making friends to social skills groups, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t insist that kids are around other socially healthy beings, necessarily.  Not socially healthy role models.  Just other people of the same age.

The reality is that we have no idea how to facilitate true friend-making, how to teach kids to make the social choices that satisfy their social needs (particularly if their needs happen to be different from ours).  We resign ourselves to helping them survive a socially hostile and unsupported environment. We complain about it, and wish the schools would do better, but fair blame is pretty difficult to locate.  How many adults do you know who have full, satisfying social lives?  Our expectations for social experience are set pretty low, and kids are paying a pretty high price for it.

A first move to consider, when it seems like something’s missing from a child’s social experience (or any other, for the matter), is the discernment of what actually is missing.  Is the child yearning for more people?  Or does she just want different people?  Or maybe even fewer people?  Is it the quantity of interaction that’s off, or the quality?

If we get a sense for the nature of the problem before acting to solve it, the actions we take are much more likely to be effective.  There are, indeed, many many many young people in school.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good place to learn how to be with people.

Beyond suffering

A few weeks ago I wrote about how kids are oriented toward fun, and how adults tend to be wary of this orientation.  It’s one thing to enjoy one’s self, we think, but too much attention on fun seems like it might suggest that a child isn’t motivated to do the hard stuff in life that prepares a person for adulthood.  It seems like a commitment to fun might eventually lead to, say, a 29 year-old child living in the guest room.

It helps to trade out the word fun for a word that’s a little less culturally charged.  Fun seems too much like the antithesis of work and productivity.  And we’re clear that the American Dream, whether we think of it as yachts and country club memberships, home ownership and health insurance, or a diet of organic food and a solar-powered car, is accessible via hard work.  Suffering, actually.  Kids can recite some variation of this ethic in their sleep: “You have to learn that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.”  This is what we say when we’re worried that they’re getting too focused on fun – when they’d rather be running around outside with their friends than bent over a math book, when they’d rather build and rebuild a pirate ship out of Legos than read, when they decide to study art instead of economics. Fun freaks us out.

So instead of fun, let’s call it vitality.  Let’s imagine that when they make or attempt to make these choices (outside, Legos, art), they’re actually demonstrating a commitment to vitality.  They’ve noticed that when they’re doing these things, they feel alive.  They have energy, they feel light, they’re participating.  If you look at a child, or any person for that matter, and you see them going after something that brings them to life this way, it’s hard not to imagine that they’re on the right track.  And the really good news is that it doesn’t mean that they won’t ever choose to do something they don’t necessarily “want” to do.  If kids know and are allowed to pursue the experience of feeling alive and being committed to keeping that experience at the forefront of their lives, they’ll have reason – motivation – to endure what they have to do in service of that experience.  Even if it’s not always fun.  If you’re studying art, for example, because you find it invigorating in some way, you’re more likely to be patient with the parts of your studies that may in their own right be less than invigorating – practicing a particular technique over and over and over, or reading up on the financial ins and outs of selling your work, or even working extra hours at your day job because it means you can keep up your studies in the evening.  If someone tried to get you to do any one of those things and it wasn’t connected to something that gave you an experience of vitality, they’d just feel like Things You Have To Do.  If you feel alive and energized by building things out of Legos and you need a new $60 bulk set in order to build what you’ve got in your imagination, the extra chores you have to do for your neighbors in order to earn the money aren’t necessarily things you Want to Do, but you’ll do them without having to be told that it’s important to do things you don’t want to do.

We can teach kids to search for the realms in which they can experience profound commitment, or we can try, in a vacuum, to get them to do stuff we think they should do.  When they’re actually committed, they’ll still be able to use our guidance, but we won’t have to force them to do things just to teach them the lesson of doing things you don’t want to do.  In fact, the whole notion of Don’t Want to Do tends to fade and even disappear in the face of actual self-driven commitment.  Don’t Want To is a relic of a worldview we could let go of if we weren’t such creatures of habit.  We say we want kids to have better lives than we had, but we cling to our beliefs about how hard life has to be.  Every day kids are trying to show us how to be committed to vitality, to be guided and informed by it, and every day, we try to steer them toward suffering.

What looks like lazy… (part two)

Continued from yesterday

If you’ve determined that your child does in fact have the capacity to commit herself to things, but that she just isn’t choosing to do her best when you’d like her to, you can go looking for the common ground between what you value and what she does.  It isn’t always immediately apparent where this overlap lies.   When kids are resisting the wisdom we offer (and those tasks that seem relatively small and harmless from our perspective!), it can seem as though they’re only interested in their own immediate gain; it can seem like they’re lazy.  But kids really do want to participate in what’s going on around them.  They just want to participate as themselves rather than as agents of the adults in charge. They want the opportunity to opt in.  So how you ask makes a difference.

Here are a couple of ways you can start the kind of conversation that will reveal this (based on the common examples of room-cleaning, thank-you note writing, and math doing). Continue reading

What looks like lazy… (part one)

Here’s another round of question and response; this one is an abridged collection of several versions (from different parents) of this concern.  I’m posting my response in two parts over two days, as it’s lengthy (even in two parts!)… If this struggle sounds familiar, I hope you’ll find my response helpful.

My daughter never seems to follow through on things. I always encourage her to do her best, but she doesn’t even know what she’s capable of because she doesn’t really try and always just does as little as she can get away with.  Like if I ask her to clean her room, she does it well enough that there’s nothing I can complain about exactly, but it’s not really ever done well.  Or if I ask her to write a thank-you note to her grandmother, I know she can do a neater job and come up with more interesting things to say than she does.  When she does her math assignments, they’re never done as carefully as I know she could do them.  I feel like she’s just being lazy.  I’ve tried to teach her to value good work and commitment but it seems like I haven’t succeeded. How can I get her to apply herself and do the best she can? Continue reading

Not on a school night

Some of our most well-intentioned utterances fail because we’re on auto-respond when we utter them.  There are things we say to kids because we’ve heard them over and over, or said them over and over, though they aren’t what we really mean – they don’t actually serve the goals we have for kids or the values that drive those goals.

I had a student once whose father earned part of his income plowing during the winter months. When it snowed, he’d be out most of the night clearing driveways.  My student loved going out with his dad to plow, so he’d hope for weekend snowstorms.  One week it began to snow late on Sunday afternoon, so the plowing to be done was late into the night on Sunday and the first hours of Monday morning.

You can imagine the auto-response his parents were tempted to deliver, when he begged to go along on this plow run.  It’s the one you’d expect to hear from teachers and other school officials, a descendant of the protests that gave us compulsory education in the first place, intended to banish exploitative child labor and give every child a chance at an academic education: Not on a school night.  Not if it might interrupt his studies.  Not if he’s going to be too tired to concentrate. School comes first. Continue reading


When I was a kid my grandmother often sent me newspaper clippings about topics related to what she’d heard me talk about in our most recent visit.  She didn’t always get the content exactly right, but it was clear that she was listening.  She was interested, and she was paying attention to who I was deciding I wanted to be.

The other day I was reading an article about a young professional chess player and thought maybe I’d make a copy of it for a 12 year-old I know who’s recently taken up chess.  There were parts of the piece I thought she’d be interested in.  But she doesn’t usually read much non-fiction, and the article is long. Maybe she’ll just be annoyed, I thought to myself.  I know it’s really annoying when someone assumes you want to read about something just because you like to do it.

But I also remembered the feeling I’d get when one of those envelopes of clippings would come from my grandmother.  I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but each time she sent something it was as though she was saying “I’m interested in you and what you’re interested in.”  I sometimes read the articles, and I sometimes didn’t, but I always got that message.

So I’ll make the copy of the chess article, but I won’t say “You should read this.  It’s about chess.”  I’ll say something like this: “I found this article about chess that reminded me of you. It’s about a guy who got really really good at chess because he loves playing it.”

I don’t actually care whether or not she reads it; I don’t think it will have been a waste of paper or time if she doesn’t.  She’ll hear that there are people in the world who take chess seriously and she’ll know that I recognize her commitment to the game as an important part of who she is.