Room to grow

One summer I worked with a 10 year-old who’d been attending a small private school where her mother worked and was headed for public middle school in the fall.  Her parents were concerned that she wasn’t prepared.

This 10 year-old has an older sister, so she had an idea of what would be expected of her in middle school.  The thing she was the most worried about was missing the bus.  She knew herself to be distractible in the mornings, and did not want to be late for school.  So we got to work on a system (involving markers, clipboards, and clocks) that would prevent that from happening.

Each time her dad picked her up from my office, he’d  mention that he thought it would be good for us to work on multiplication soon.  Each time, his daughter would roll her eyes.

Finally one week she said firmly “Dad.  I’m not worried about the multiplication.”

“I don’t think you understand,” he pleaded. “Your classmates are going to have their multiplication memorized.  You don’t know yours by heart yet, so if you get asked in class, I’m afraid you’ll be embarrassed.”

“But I don’t care if I can’t do them fast, Dad. I know how to do them.”

I was reminded of that exchange this morning when I passed a family en route to school in my neighborhood.  The approximately 7 year-old child was wearing shorts and long sleeves.  The adults were wearing jackets and hats and the like (as was I; it was 39 degrees).  I heard myself thinking “He must be freezing!”

Just because I would have been. This is a habit we often fall into when it comes to advising young people – assuming that their experience of something is as ours would be. We don’t want them to be uncomfortable, so we tell them what we think they should do to avoid discomfort.  But there’s empathy – being sensitive to what someone else might experience – and then there’s projection.

When we’re careful not to mix the two (or at least own up to and fix it when we do), we make it possible for kids to have their own experiences, and even to get stronger than we ever got.

My young middle school-bound friend was confident in a way that her dad knew he wouldn’t have been under matching circumstances.  She was socially comfortable enough to know that anyone who’d judge or tease her for taking a few seconds to find her way through 6 times 8 wasn’t someone she was going to want as her friend.  And that she would find the ones she did want.  Her dad had played a part in raising daughters with this kind of confidence, and once he realized that she was OK with her slow multiplication, he could let her boldly tread where he wouldn’t have dared.  He’d called her attention to the area of possible discomfort, so he knew she’d been fairly warned. From there she could choose how to manage it. As it turned out, she had a confidence and ease he hadn’t had at the age of 10.  Which of course was exactly what he always wanted.

Kids and their technology

We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  It’s about how technology makes use of human talent and generosity in ways that haven’t been possible in the past.  It’s a pretty significant departure from the technology-is-ruining-us, especially-the-kids rhetoric.  Here’s an interesting passage, which reminded me of the piece I linked to a few weeks ago about how kids are reading more than before, even while we agonize about the screen time:

“…young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption.  Even when they watch video online, seemingly pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world… Even when they are engaged in watching TV, in other words, many members of the networked population are engaged with one another, and this engagement correlates with behaviors other than passive consumption.”

And a few pages later:

“It’s also easy to assume that the world as it currently exists represents some sort of ideal expression of society, and that all deviations from this sacred tradition are both shocking and bad.”

It’s this assumption that has us tend to jump to conclusions about kids’ technology use.  We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”  Shirky’s suggesting that we look a little more closely.  This is not to say that just by virtue of being looked at more closely what kids are up to with their technology will seem more worthwhile.  It’s only to say that we don’t have the foggiest notion what kids do and don’t get out of what they’re doing.  It isn’t necessarily bad for them just because we didn’t have it when we were young.  And as Shirky suggests, it’s possible that it’s leading us to a place of even more social engagement, connection, and potential contribution than was possible when we were growing up.  Maybe more than has ever been possible.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, I highly recommend the book.  It’s unusual in that the thinking is dense, deep, innovative, but the writing makes it very accessible. You can also get a taste for the content from Shirky’s TED talk on the topic.

A good read on introversion

I’ve been reading Marti Olsen Laney’s Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, after coming across mention of it in this article from a few years ago.

In general it’s my opinion that diagnoses and other labels are best used with extreme care, caution, and awareness of their limitations and potential for undermining our best intentions.  I recommend this book with that caveat.  The book reminds us that humans are wired differently, and that different wiring and chemistry asks for different response and support.  I think it’s an especially good read for extraverted parents of introverted children and vice versa.  It’s not only about the introverts; there’s much to glean about the needs of extraverted children as well. (The book is named for the introverts only because most of the demands and expectations of culture as we know it tend to call for extraversion and thus can leave the introvert looking somehow deficient or lacking.)

Which reminds me.  One of the most unfortunate misconceptions perpetuated with regard to shy or introverted or anxious (or some of each) children and other people is that the antidote is immersion in crowds – more and larger groups of people.  But it doesn’t tend to work.  Subjecting an introvert to more situations in which she doesn’t get what she needs won’t make her an extravert.  It will likely make her anxious, or more anxious.  This is not to say that it’s not helpful for someone who prefers quieter social interactions, or those involving fewer people at a time, to be in other situations as well, to practice being in them.  It’s that throwing them into such situations and insisting on more of what doesn’t work is not the way to facilitate the navigation of a largely extraverted culture.  It tends to have the opposite of the intended effect.  To truly support an introvert is to help her build her own strategies for   regulating and managing her own interactions and exposure.

But I digress. This book is a good resource for understanding and supporting kids for who they actually already are, for being the adult one actually already is, and for figuring out the sometimes tricky business of coexistence.

PS: In case you’re not generally a comment reader, see below for mention of Susan Cain’s forthcoming Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

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.

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

From scratch

What if we were to forget everything we know (and by that I mean everything we think we know) about socializing, about what it takes to make and have friends and a social life?  What if we set it all aside and built our ideas about it (and thus our actions on its behalf) from scratch?

What would we do?  How would we decide what kids need?  How would we decide what we need, for that matter?