Vitalization projects

A few weeks ago I had cause to revisit Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  On the second-to-last page, she quotes a friend who likes to ask “How alive are you willing to be?”

It happened that the morning before, I was up against the edges of my own ease, a beginner among masters at something I’ve always wanted to learn. More than once I’d had to decide whether the possibility of success, which would offer me an experience of being alive and fulfilled that other things, more comfortable and convenient things, might not, was worth the discomfort and inconvenience afforded by my beginner status.

So the question struck me with some force, and after pondering it for myself, it occurred to me that it might prompt a powerful inquiry about our standards for children’s lives. We often find ourselves at odds with children, with the pastimes they are drawn to, the things they want to do with their time and energies and intellects.  We tell them and we tell ourselves that it’s for their own good that we seek to bend them this way, toward the pursuits that we think will take them where we hope they’ll go.

In the name of education and preparation, we enforce time spent on the things tradition has taught us to value, at the expense of the things that bring kids most readily to life – the things that bring out the brightness, the determination, the patience to keep at something even when it’s hard. We know our intentions are good, but is it getting us what we actually want for kids?

How alive are we willing to let them be?


The other day I wrote about waiting to offer help until it’s clear that help is needed and/or wanted.  Here’s a bit of follow-up to that:

When we skip the inquiry into the usefulness or necessity of a particular task or activity, we deny ourselves the opportunity to see what might be trying to make itself known in the space created by not pursuing that thing just then.  Any time we’re doing one thing, we have to be not doing another thing; everything we ever do requires the choice to not do something else. And it may in fact be that reading, for example, is not the most important thing for every child to be doing right away.  It may be that for some people the most important first thing to master is listening, that for others it’s building or sorting or observing or climbing or strategizing or swimming or questioning.

It’s possible that obstacles not only offer us, as Randy Pausch suggested, the chance to find out how driven and committed we are about something, but that they also give us an opportunity to find out if there’s something else that might be even better for us, at least right then.

What if, as a result of being inhibited in a particular way, we become able to find our way to the most productive, fulfilling, and otherwise beneficial pursuits available to each of us? The likes of which we might not have found if all of our attention was on that early reading, on getting that arm to move that one way? We don’t have to give up the difficult things to find this out.  They’ll be there waiting for us, inquiry or no.  We just might find a richness in the experience available on the other side of this inquiry that makes the difficult things easier to tackle; more fulfilling and useful against a backdrop of other tremendous purpose or reward because we’ve been willing to go looking beyond the confines of traditional mandate. We might also find that there are things we’ve struggled and struggled with, always held as essential, that turn out to be otherwise and that when we let our grip on them loosen, we get stronger, clearer, happier, healthier for what we become available to do instead.

Over the walls


There’s that great story about the patient who says to his doctor “My arm hurts when I do this,” hoping of course for a diagnosis or prescription related to his ailment. But the doctor only says “Then don’t do that.”

It’s a joke, sort of, about human behavior, pathology, and medicine in general.  It has some potentially interesting implications for learning, too, and what we do when kids don’t perform the way we want them to, or the way we think they should, when we think they should. I’ve been imagining an expanded version of this doctor/patient joke.  Of course in a real situation we would hope that the doctor would have more than simple functionality in mind, but here’s my alternate idea of how it might go:

Patient: “My arm hurts when I do this.”

Doctor: “Interesting.  What were you doing when you discovered that?”

Patient: “I was ______ [some activity or task].”

Doctor: “I see. Is that something you will need or want to do again? Would it be a problem if you couldn’t do it?

From here, the conversation proceeds differently depending on how the patient responds.  If this thing that he can’t do with his arm is something he doesn’t have much use for, then the advice from the original story might be sufficiently sound:

Patient: “Actually, no. It won’t really get in the way if I can’t do it.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then stop doing that with your arm.”

If, on the other hand (pun partially intended), the task in question is something the patient does need or want to be able to do, then more of a problem-solving approach would be called for:

Patient: “Yes. I need to be able to ______.  If I can’t then it’ll mean _____.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then let’s see if we can figure out a way for you to do it.”

The doctor is of course ready to offer her expertise, to do the diagnostic work it will take to get to the bottom of the arm’s limitation.  She’s ready to intervene to restore or create the functionality the patient is looking for. But she waits to find out whether or not the patient actually wants and needs that intervention before she embarks upon it.


We often skip over this kind of inquiry with kids. When we see that a child is not meeting a mark we’ve set, we turn quickly to the work of getting the child to meet that mark.  We make it a problem, whether or not kids ask for help with it.

We do this with the noblest of intentions, and we have our reasons.  The big one is that we’ve decided that certain things will get in the way if kids don’t learn how to do them on schedule.  I don’t happen to think we’re right about this, much of the time, because so far we haven’t updated our list of learning necessities as the demands of job markets, economies, and work have changed with time.  (Also, specific skills and bodies of knowledge don’t serve all people the same way.) We keep trusting that the things we’ve always insisted upon to equip and prepare young people for their lives are still and always the ones they need, and need first.  

There’s so much to gain in granting children the dignity of an exploratory type of conversation like this one between the doctor and patient.  By asking ourselves and asking kids whether an inability to do something, or a challenge that arises in the course of learning something, is actually getting in the way or might actually get in the way at some point in the future, we make it possible to see what is truly so and what more there is to see.  When we jump over this step, it removes kids from the process of navigating their lives.  We dole out “help” they haven’t identified a need for and haven’t asked for. And in making that choice we give them an experience of powerlessness and render the help itself difficult to receive and absorb.

Brick Walls

It’s of course true that getting that arm to move that way, or getting a young person to read early in life, or getting any other outcome we want may indeed be just the thing for the person in question.  I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s point from his Last Lecture about the obstacles one encounters in pursuit of a childhood dream: “The brick walls are not there to keep us out.  The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” For some, the fussy arm or the difficulty reading turns out to be a brick wall.  It lets the person find out that this thing is worth all it takes to accomplish. For others, though, it might actually be a distraction from other more meaningful or beneficial pursuits.  At least right then, maybe always.

And then what about if there’s really something wrong with the arm or with the reading, something that isn’t about choice or will or commitment?

To me, this possibility is actually the most compelling reason to be sure that a person gets the benefit of starting from a place of his or her own clarity and commitment.  Anyone who has ever had the experience of a brick wall offered up by neurological wiring or other physiology (as with any brick wall) knows that it takes the power of personal, specific motivation to do whatever it takes to get up and over that wall.  Overcoming an obstacle just because someone else thinks you should – because someone else threatens or otherwise insists – is a much, much taller order.


Enough already.  When will we stop the senseless measuring of young children’s intellect by whether or not they can perform (quickly) mundane tasks that require minimal intellectual effort and capacity?  I sit with children every day who can make elaborate and airtight arguments, design architecturally sound and aesthetically interesting structures, negotiate solutions to complicated social disturbances but can’t remember 7×7.  At 8, 9, 10 years old they learn that this shortcoming is an indication of their intelligence, and thus of the degree to which they can be successful; their future potential as a student and then as a wage-earner.

We think it’s a secret because we don’t say it to them in so many words, but they figure it out.  They know that in the eyes of the adults in charge, there are smart kids and not smart kids.  And they know that it’s the smart kids who go to the good colleges, or college at all, and the smart kids who become doctors and lawyers and all the other professionals we hold in high esteem.  They know that we don’t think it’s smart, or at least not the important kind of smart, to be able to fix something, draw something, see something we didn’t see.  They know that the smart that counts in our minds is the kind that lives in reading and writing and math and science and social studies (and only barely the latter two). So they measure themselves that way, form their opinions and their plans around it, shrink the size of what’s possible and probable for them down to the size of our assessment.

It’s a sickening and tragic waste of life and capacity.  I think we should consider stopping.


The other day I followed an online link to a list of “surprisingly lucrative” careers.  Fashion design was on the list.  I wasn’t actually all that surprised that a career in fashion could be lucrative, but its presence on the list called to mind a chronic problem which, I believe, really holds us back as a civilization.

We get very mixed up in the course of thinking about which careers to encourage and which ones not to.  We know we want our kids to be happy, and we know we want them to become financially secure adults (whatever that means to each of us), but beyond that we tend to get confused.  Or, I guess I should say, our actions show that we are confused (though we may not be experiencing confusion).  We don’t seem to be paying attention to what it actually takes to be happy and financially secure.  What we say we want for kids doesn’t line up with what we encourage them to do and not do. Continue reading

Big college questions

Three provocative pieces about the value of college have come to my attention in the past 24 hours, so I thought I’d pass them along en masse.

First, a very short one from Seth Godin.

Second, a longer one from Sarah Lacy on TechCrunch.

Third, an older one on NPR.

All three are asking the question that many are scared to ask: “Is college worth what it’s costing?”  There are lots of ways to answer the question, and lots of different kinds of value involved.  This series of questions might help individual families assess:

“What can it do for [a particular young person]?”

“What will it cost (in funds and other ways)?”

“Given that benefit and that cost, does it seem worth it?”

There isn’t one answer, of course, and there’s nothing new about this way of considering a decision.  But something about the question of college has moved us away from this kind of analysis, even those of us who weigh options this way in other areas of life.  If you’re to find an answer that fits a particular young person and situation, you have to let go of the assumption that college will be worth what it costs.  Many assume it will because everyone has been saying it is for so long, or because it was when they went, or because they didn’t get to go and that was costly.  A lot of what you’ll read in these three pieces suggests that we’re trusting college to be things it once was but may no longer be, and we’d be wise to be sure we know what we’re investing in and what it can actually provide before we lay everything on the line for it.

Raising participants

One of the arguments I hear for keeping kids in traditional school programs, even when those programs are not working, is that if you “let” kids focus on what they’re interested in and already good at, they’ll become too self-centered and involved in their own thing.  They won’t learn to be of service.  They won’t learn to think of others. They won’t be good citizens.  Also, I hear adults say, kids are already too self-involved thanks to social media; supporting their interests will only make it worse.

What’s missing from this argument is the acknowledgment that we’ve put kids in the position of having to defend their interests, to protect what matters to them from what we’d have them do instead.  By demanding that they spend most of their time on what we choose, we intensify their self-involvement. Continue reading

Top billing

Parents of kids who struggle with or resist traditional academic subjects (math, reading, writing, etc.) are usually encouraged to concentrate all their energy and resources on helping kids with those areas.  It makes sense, but it also doesn’t usually work.  It often has the opposite effect of what we intend.  With a few exceptions, kids who are struggling with these subjects are not especially driven to excel in them.  They may express frustration and upset about their struggle, but that’s usually the result of social pressure to excel in those areas.  These are the areas we value and kids know it.

So here we are, helping them like crazy with things that make them feel lousy about themselves and measure their success only in the areas they struggle with.  Meanwhile, they have strengths and capacities in other areas that get short-changed or neglected entirely while the academic subjects get top billing.  We do this out of good intention.  We do it because we’ve been taught that the job of adults is to train kids to do school stuff.  But when we do it to the exclusion of areas that kids have a chance of thriving in, we cheat them out of the chance to really succeed and we sabotage our own efforts to get them academically proficient. Our academic bias and obsession actually costs kids motivation and excellence both in the areas that make great use of their existing capacities and the areas we’ve chosen to zoom in on as a culture. Continue reading

On great new ideas for schools

I don’t get as excited as I used to about great ideas for new schools.  I may seem  like a bit of a Grinch about the whole thing so I thought I’d clarify.  It’s not that I don’t think the ideas are great.

Great people have great ideas for schools and how to make them better.  What makes these ideas great is that they are based on something that really matters and means a lot to the people who come up with them.  This is how all great things are born – out of inspiration and connection.  One person might be committed to ecology and environmental stewardship, so the school’s curriculum will be interdisciplinary and will incorporate math, reading, writing, and science into outdoor projects.  Another person might be passionate about the arts, so the school will have an arts focus.  Someone else is devoted to social activism and outreach so their school will have a strong component of community service.  There’s no end to the great, inspired ideas.

But every time another one comes along, one thing remains fundamental: a handful of adults will teach a large group of children or teens a series of things those adults have decided are important (based on a cocktail of historical priority, current regulations, and personal commitment).   Continue reading

Teen 2.0

One of my particularly alert readers here in Maine has been after me to read Robert Epstein’s Teen 2.0.  I have yet to entirely cast off memory of my high school experience with the Norton anthologies and thus was a little put off by this book’s length. Now that I’ve finally got my hands on a copy, I wish hadn’t waited so long, and have made a renewed commitment to put my auto-resistance to lengthy reads behind me.

I’m only on chapter two, but I decided to post the recommendation now. I think the first two chapters themselves are worth the cost of the book.  Also, it could be awhile before I finish and in the meantime, the book could be making a big difference for parents and young people at various impasses.

Teen 2.0 is long for a reason.  Epstein is summarizing and discussing the history and nature of adolescence as a concept. He’s calling attention to the cost of that concept to those who qualify for the designation (13-17 year-olds) as well as the cost to the rest of us.  While I can’t promise that I’ll agree with everything he says, I highly recommend these first two chapters.  If you ever find yourself making a case for treating young people differently from the way we currently do (or if you just find yourself baffled by the struggles that have ensued as your child gets older), the information and references in these first pages will make it worth the read.