Goodnight, chair

I saw an article the other day about a study whose results suggest that getting frequent exercise isn’t enough – how much total time we spend in chairs matters too. In the past, many such studies have concerned themselves only with recreational seat time. The updated message seems to be much bigger than “Too much TV is bad for your health!”*

This is where things get tricky, particularly when it comes to what we say to kids about it.

We’re used to expecting most kids to spend somewhere between 7 and 9 hours a day in a chair.  There are about 6 in a standard school day, if you subtract the few minutes here and there spent moving about the building, and then add back the several on each end for travel to and from.  And then for many children there’s an hour, two, or more for homework.

Have we decided that that’s how much is good for kids?  And then in addition that this number of hours should be spent on academic work, such that we’re free to insist on it and then vilify the seated component of the games they want to play?

This is one of those places where we lose credibility with young people.  In one breath, we tell them exercise is important, that they should be physically active.  In the next, we tell them to sit down and do their homework.  When we do it without acknowledging the apparent contradiction, without dealing with the nuance (assuming we perceive complexity in it, which I think we do), it’s confusing, and it debases our words in general. Part of the reason we try to get away with not dealing with it is that we haven’t reconciled it for ourselves.  We’re just following suit.

It’s a huge can of worms, this one.  If sitting for long periods of time is not a good idea, we’ve got a lot to deal with as a culture.  We’ve spent many generations aspiring to lifestyles dependent on seat time.  We’ll have to rethink more than what we say to kids about their schoolwork if we’re going to take this one on.

But it’s time.  Children have been squirming in their desk chairs for a very, very long time, trying to tell us that something is not right.


* Sarah Bennett and Nancy Kalish call attention to the recreational/desk time issue in The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in what research has shown in this realm.

Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

Falling down on the credibility job

Yesterday I was considering buying a product online so I read some reviews.  One caught my attention because it matched especially well the frustrating experience that had led me to consider buying the product.  The reviewer’s comments were very positive. One of the options I had after reading it was to read her other reviews which I immediately did.

Why?  To check her credibility.  If her reviews were always positive, I’d have been a little suspicious.  Some were, and some weren’t, so at the very least I knew she didn’t only have good things to say.  (It’s of course more common to find that a person’s reviews are consistently negative, which is also helpful to know.) I just wanted to know whether she was someone who sometimes likes/approves of things, and says it, or whether she was just posting a bunch of positive reviews to improve her own morale, or plug the company, or whatever else might possess a person to do such a thing.

Kids give us opportunities to show credibility all the time.  They say things like “This homework is stupid.  Why do I have to do it?” and we very often pass up the opportunity, even though if you asked us we’d say we want to be seen by kids as trustworthy. We just don’t recognize it as an opportunity to gain credibility.

So we don’t tend to look over their shoulders and say things like “Huh.  I see why you feel that way.  I wonder why the teacher assigned that.  Do you think it’s because…” Instead, we’ll say things like “You don’t have to like it you just have to do it,” or “Can you just get your homework done so we can eat?” or “Your education is important, your education is your job, you’ll be glad later that you learned that.”

And every time we do that – every time we turn down the opportunity to weigh in honestly about something, to give kids a chance to see us  grappling with the complexity of things – we forfeit a little bit more credibility.  We’re like the reviewer who only says good or bad things.  We’ve merely chosen a position, and declined to engage in any kind of inquiry, analysis, or critique of it.  It’s an odd choice, when you think about it, because we want kids to become discerning about what they choose to opt into and out of (when it comes to what they’re asked or pressured to do by friends, partners, insurance salespeople, etc.)

It’s not as though we have to engage in a lengthy discussion every single time a child challenges something; it’s just that if we never do, it sends a message that’s inconsistent with how we say we want kids to turn out.  If from time to time we say things like “Huh.  I’ve never really thought about why kids have to do that.  Maybe it’s _____, or maybe it’s ______, or maybe the reason was once good but it’s time we rethink it,” then kids see that we’re willing to actually consider what’s in front of us.  So that when later we say “I’m concerned about your staying over at _____’s house because ______,” they’re less tempted to dismiss our concern out of hand as just another in a long series of thoughtless adult responses we’re delivering on auto-pilot.

More on credibility

When kids are little, they trust the words of their adults completely, whether or not those adults have demonstrated credibility.  As kids get older, and they’ve had a chance to start gathering information and experience of their own, they have higher expectations of what adults tell them and what we ask them to go along with.  Our credibility is no longer automatic; we have to start demonstrating that we have grounds for what we’re saying.  (Well, we don’t have to.  It just becomes a requirement for credibility where once it wasn’t.)  Adults often opt instead for just insisting that kids take what they say as truth.  If you want credibility with kids as they get older, you have to demonstrate that what you say will hold up under scrutiny.

It’s not as dramatic as it sounds.  It just takes admitting that as adults we have experiences and suggestions to offer, but we don’t know everything and our opinions and ideas aren’t necessarily all there is.  It helps to seem willing to learn and change our minds, to acknowledge that everything hasn’t been decided or determined yet. Kids really don’t need us to know everything, they just want to know that they can count on us to tell them what we do know and operate as though it’s possible that it’s not the whole story.


It’s tempting, when kids are struggling, to assume the role of cheerleader.  How could it not help to provide a steady stream of encouragement and enthusiasm at every turn?

Here’s how: it can damage your credibility, and the older they get, the more you’re going to need it.  Kids know the difference between plain cheerleading and authentic, valid feedback.  They know when you’re just cheering them on and when you’re offering feedback that can be substantiated.  For example, if every time kids stumble their way through a short book you say “Good job!  Really good job!  You’re getting so much better!” it can sound empty.  If instead you are careful to say things that are true and specific like “it seems as though the bigger words aren’t giving you as much trouble as before,” or “I liked the way you read the dog’s voice that time,” they’ll know that you’re actually paying attention and responding to what’s happening.  You’re not just waiting until the end of the book to exclaim with delight no matter how they’ve done.  This kind of language gives you credibility.  It may sound like a dull way to speak, as though it won’t buoy them up, but when you say things whose validity they can check against their own experience of how things are going, they know they can trust you.  They’ll know that when you do let out a spontaneous cheer, the day they sail fluently through a tough section of text, it’ll be real.