Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.


I was on my bicycle the other morning and passed a row of parked cars in front of a restaurant.  One of these cars got my attention because, I eventually figured out, it had resting on its roof rack a small row boat with a pair of deflated pontoons slung over either side.  Fortunately, I figured this out before my puzzled gaze caused me to veer off course.  But for a few moments, I couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at.  Had a giant duffle bag full of wood dropped from the sky and landed on this vehicle?

In the course of any given day, we know what we’re seeing, most of the time.  Or at least we think we know.  Much of the time we see what we’ve already decided to see, or what we’re looking for.  The things that stand out are the ones we scan for.  I was in a workshop recently in which the leader asked us to say to ourselves “yellow, yellow, yellow” as we looked around the room and notice which objects stood out.  And then, “blue, blue, blue.”  If she’d have just told us that we “see what we’re looking for,” I’d have nodded in solemn agreement.  But to watch my mind pull the colors out away from everything else in view; this got my attention in a different way.

One thing we have grown very adept at looking for and seeing is disorder and disability in children.  We look at kids and see all sorts of problems – things that make them less easily compatible with existing expectations.  We name the problems and categorize them, create new interventions intended to eliminate them, build entire institutions around them.  For better or worse.

We’re less skilled at seeing the affinities and strengths that make kids unique and capable.  The problems are so shiny to us, so alluring with their fancy names and their carefully mapped-out recommended responses, that it’s difficult to see the other colors.  And to see what those other colors may lead to or turn into if we pay as much attention to them as we pay to the problems.

On my bike that day, approaching the odd-looking boat flopped over and configured in a way boats usually aren’t, I had to ask myself, with some impatience and force, “What am I looking at?  What the heck is that?  What am I not seeing that’s right in front of me?”  Since then, I’ve been trying to remember to ask similar questions of myself when I’m sitting across from a child.

Because there are the things I already know, the things that are easy to look for and notice, and then there’s everything else.  And the everything else – the things that don’t match up or seem to fit and insist we reach deeper into our ability to imagine and conceive of newness and alternative – is often where the richest, most promising parts of us live.

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.”


A friend of mine said once upon receiving a compliment on a particularly stunning photograph her husband had taken of her, “It helps when the person behind the camera loves you.”

Does it?  The skeptic in me sneers and says the camera’s a machine, and does its own thing.  That someone else in that same moment could have captured that same image without any love for the subject.

But then I’ve seen photographers capture astonishing beauty and ugliness that were only evident in the photograph.  And so I have to say that I think the way a person looks at something can alter it, can bring out that which might otherwise remain invisible, silent, unrealized.

If so, we’re wise to recognize that our eyes work just like cameras this way.  When we’re looking at children with doubt or worry about their progress, we’ll likely draw out more cause for it, or at the very least drive up the same fear in them.  When we’re looking for brilliance, for kernels of promise and inspiration, that’s what we’ll see, because it’s always always there somewhere. And in so doing we’ll show kids what’s possible beyond what already is.

How good they have it (part 3)

Continued from yesterday and the day before

Habit and perspective

The other thing to remember about the context of kids’ resistance is what has gone before.  When children are young, we do everything for them.  For a while we do everything for them because they can’t do it for themselves.  Then, even after they become capable of participating in some things, we tend to keep doing a lot of it because it’s easier and faster.  Laundry is a good example.  Most kids could participate in laundry from a young age without there being much effect on the quality of the outcome.  Cooking might be a different story.  But in either case, their participation would slow the process down considerably, so often we don’t invite them to participate as early as we might. Then, at some point, we decide that it’s time for kids to be doing things on their own.  There’s an age when it seems as though they should be able to do things for themselves, and be willing to do them for themselves.  We get frustrated when they resist. But often our expectations are undermined by the way we’ve behaved up to that point.  Our choices and behavior may well have been born of good intention, or efficiency, or other perfectly reasonable components, but it can still undermine our expectations. Continue reading

How good they have it (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday)


What if when kids resist, it’s less about whether or not they think they should be expected to perform a given task and more about the context in which they’re asked to perform it? Paying attention to the context of resistance not only acknowledges where kids are coming from, it reveals more of what may actually be so about the impact parents have made in their attempts to teach kids the importance of contribution.  It also makes more room for peace and productivity.  Letting go of the don’t-know-how-good-they-have-it interpretation is also more likely to yield the results parents want: things get done, and the relationship between parent and child is improved and deepened, rather than weakened by the power struggle and resentment. Continue reading

How good they have it (part 1)

(I’m including here for the first time a summary of the post so it’s possible to get a glimpse of the content before… opting in… to the full text.  Also this time I’m posting the text in parts, over a few days, due to its unusual length.)

Summary: When kids resist chores, learning, and other commonly mandated tasks, it’s easy to interpret their resistance as a perception of entitlement, as laziness, or as a lack of gratitude for how good they have it.  Resistance in kids is not only more complicated than that, its roots are very often less unbecoming. If you make it your mission to really get to the bottom of kids’ resistance, setting aside the temptation to jump to conclusions about where they’re coming from, not only can you improve your relationship with them, you’re more likely to move them to get things done. Continue reading


I found the following sentence at the beginning of a recent New Yorker article.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since and thought I’d pass it on as food for thought:

“Cities, like children, bear such a heavy load of projection that their real character can be hard to see.”

The piece is actually about cities, so the author, Nicholas Lemann, goes on from there about, well, cities, but the piece about the children got my attention.  I’m curious what inspired him to lead this way, so I’m going to see if I can find out and I’ll let you know if I do.  In the meantime, there it is.

Insistence and resistance

When we can’t get kids to do something we want them to do, we often resort to repetitive insisting:  “It’s important to do your best.”  (Three days pass.)  “It doesn’t seem like you’re doing your best.  It’s really important to do your best.” (Three more days.) “I know you can do better!  Do the best you can!”  Sometimes we’re cheerful and upbeat about it, sometimes we’re snarly.  We do it in the abstract (“do the best you can”) and we do it in the concrete (you have to take the trash out” or “you have to stop spending the whole afternoon on Facebook”).  If you can think of a time when you’ve run yourself ragged insisting about something – to little or no avail – you know what I mean.

This tendency of adults to default to insisting is one of the reasons kids start tuning us out.  We’re often not saying anything they haven’t already heard.  Chronic insisting comes from a genuinely concerned and committed place.  It’s inspiring, actually, to realize that we care about kids enough to keep banging our heads against this wall. But it’s also a largely ineffective practice and an inefficient use of energy we really don’t have to spare.  And it doesn’t get anybody what they want. (Unless all a kid wants is for you to stop insisting, or just to please you no matter what.  Both are short term pay-offs that don’t ultimately serve anyone.) Continue reading

Thinking like

I came across this quotation from Douglas Wheeler, a lawyer and advocate for the preservation and protection of natural resources:

“To halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.”

The quotation reminded me of a conversation I once had with a mom about her 12 year-old son.  The two were seeing eye-to-eye on fewer and fewer issues and situations as he got older, engaged in more and more frustrating power struggles. At one point I asked what her son thought about something, and she said, “It’s nice that you’re such an advocate for the child’s point of view, but I have to be concerned about whether or not he’s getting what he needs to make it in the world.”

There’s no doubt that I failed in that conversation to offer what I intended to offer – the possibility that including her son’s view and experience could in fact improve the situation for both of them.  I meant to convey that considering a child’s point of view can not only give the child voice but serve the interests of the parent who wants the best for that child.  It’s not either/or.

The beliefs we have about what children do and don’t need – how they should and shouldn’t behave – have a tendency to set us opposite them, rather than beside them and behind them (because so often they don’t just cheerfully go along with us about those dos and don’ts).  This mom who found herself frustrated by the suggestion that she consider where her child was coming from was stuck in a realm of adult vs. child. There was no room for her actual son in the fulfillment of the goals she’d set for him and the desires she had for his behavior.  He didn’t get to participate, and thus had no particular interest in how it turned out.  His mom’s best shot at getting him where she wanted him to be (capable and confident and accomplished), was to explore, as deeply as she possibly could, the world as it was from his perspective.  As long as she was committed to the position that he just needed to come around, without consideration of where he was coming from, they were both stuck.  And it wasn’t getting either of them what they were after. That’s the real tragedy.  If the age-old approach were working, it’d be one thing.  But if it’s not, how can it be worth the cost?

Too many kids, like too many ecosystems, are on the decline, and we often refuse to think like they do in our efforts to help turn things around.  We keep thinking like adults trying to force outcomes rather than thinking like the people who are inside of what’s actually going on.  If we did, we could choose our actions from a place of understanding rather than sheer will and insistence.  When we put ourselves in kids’ shoes and watch the world even for a few minutes from there, we get a whole lot more to work with.