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.

Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.

…what you wish for

I got a delightfully practical and irreverent little book about landscaping and gardening for my birthday.  (Here’s a link in case you’re in need or want of such a book.) In the section about hardiness, and which plants will grow in which zones, I came across this note of caution and wisdom from the author:

“Zone envy is natural, but each of us has good things that no one else can have.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This could be said of many things, including us people, with our various proclivities and struggles.  Those children, for example, who frustrate their caretakers with what seems like excessive sensitivity often say and do astonishingly insightful, compassionate things that less sensitive children don’t.

If you could change that thing about your child (or yourself) that you wish were different, you might also have to give up something you couldn’t bear to live without.

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

Not just about the math

Paul Lockhart has a new book out.  The title (Measurement) will likely strike dread in the hearts of those who despise mathematics for one reason or another, but I mention the event not for the math but for the potential contagion of Lockhart’s delight in his work. He’s made a short video to accompany the release of Measurement. Even if you want nothing to do with the math, you may find that the way Lockhart is about it inspires and reinvigorates – that he reminds you of what you care most about and why you care about it.

Also, though, if you are looking for a gentle invitation into the world of numbers, shapes, patterns, and mathematical happening and inquiry (whether for your own sake or that of your young), you won’t likely find anyone more eager to hold the door open for you than Lockhart.  He knows we won’t all love math the way he does, but he sees room in it for everyone who comes inquiring after it.  No matter how many times they’ve been otherwise told they’re not welcome and don’t have what it takes.

How much room you get

A few months ago I read a short essay by a classical pianist about creating a recording of his performance of a piece of music.  At one point in the story he mentions that the positioning of the microphone relative to the piano is important.  It affects the roundness of the sound, he says, and “how much room you get versus how much piano.” I’d never thought about it quite that way before, that of course a recording includes the surroundings as well as the object of the recording.

I was reminded of this handful of words the other day when I heard someone mention a behavioral diagnosis frequently given to young children.  I have spent enough time with a wide enough range of children with various diagnoses to know that there are very real symptoms and challenges associated with particular combinations of neurological organization and chemistry, so I do not dismiss any such diagnoses out of hand.  But I think the musician’s query about how much piano and how much room can serve us in choosing how we’ll relate to and assess a child’s behavior.  We could ask ourselves “How much is the child and how much is the room?”

It seems to be easiest and most common to head right for all-child, no room.  That assessment, locating all of a child’s performance inside his or her skin, puts us in a comfortable helping position.  We can focus all of our efforts on fixing the child’s problem.  Another simple one is all-room, no child.  This one is clean in the opposite way, vilifying the environment and absolving the child.

In my experience it’s almost always much much more complicated and intricate than either of those two possible assessments.  Just as you can’t have the sound of an instrument without the space and conditions in which you play it, you can’t have behavior without the parameters of physical space in which it occurs, the demands made on and expectations of the person doing the behaving, the words spoken to him or her before and during, and myriad other conditions and contributing factors.

When I’ve made this point before, I’ve received frustrated and even outraged exclamations that I’m failing to recognize the plights of children, that my suggestion that we be careful to include the impact of a child’s surroundings implies that I think that kids aren’t actually struggling.

And I have seen many cases in which behavioral diagnoses are assigned because the diagnosed children are behaving inconveniently, not because the children are actually struggling.  But in fact I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to the children who are actually struggling that we consider every factor in our efforts to support them.  That we are careful to disentangle to the furthest extent possible the elements of difficulty that are inherent to a specific human organism from those that are introduced from outside the confines of the organism.

Only once we’ve asked ourselves how much of what we’re seeing is the child and how much of it is the room can we actually begin the work of tackling any truly inherent struggle.

Big difference

(I realize the blog has been heavy on the sorrowful early September school observations, so I’ll try to make this the last one, at least for a few days…)

This week’s  New Yorker cover is a drawing by artist Chris Ware which seems to be calling attention to some of the things I’ve been carrying on about lately.  It also reminds me of this thing I hear every fall at this time, at least a few times and usually several. Sometimes it’s a parent or neighbor to one child, others it’s national advertisers or public figures broadcasting it throughout the land:  a condescending chuckle with a tough-luck-for-you, too-bad-you-kids-don’t-like-it-that’s-just-the-way-it-is sort of a tone.

Interestingly, it’s a similar tone to the one we often take with one another, in shared woe on a Monday as the work week starts.  The difference is that wherever it is we’re implying we’d rather not be on a Monday is someplace we’ve agreed to be.  We may well feel that we had little choice in being there, because we have to work somewhere, but the reality is that no one said to us “This is what you’ll do for the next 13 years and this is where you’ll do it whether or not you feel safe, whether or not you feel productive, whether or not you feel like it’s a waste of your time… OK! Have a good day, see you later!”

We say we send kids to school for their own good, we say they’ll thank us later, we say it’s the best we can do.  And I think we do mean to send them for their own good, and we hope they’ll thank us later, and at least some of the time we believe it’s the best we can do.  Mostly, though, I think we just think we have no choice and there’s nothing to be done about it.  We certainly acknowledge left and right that schools are struggling and we must see that they’re taking kids down with them.

So we could just keep at it, laughing it off when they protest.  Or we could ask ourselves what the long faces and the dragged heels might be trying to tell us about the arrangements we’ve made for our young.  We could decide not to turn a deaf ear any longer; at the very least we could decide to stop making fun of them about it.

We could confront the fact that we operate as though we deserve the dignity of considered feelings, opinions, and preferences when it comes to how we spend our days, but children don’t.


The five year-olds in my neighborhood are headed off to school for the first time today.  They stand awkwardly in oversized backpacks while their parents snap photos of their first first day.  I’m reminded of a story I once heard of a child who on what would be her second day of kindergarten is surprised when her mom says it’s time to get ready to go.

“Where are we going?” she asks without looking up from her drawing.

Her mom is surprised too. The answer is obvious, to her.  “To school, of course.”

Her daughter looks up and says patiently “Mom, don’t you remember?  I already went to school, yesterday.”

This child still lived in a world in which it was inconceivable that you’d keep doing a thing like a school day over and over and over the way her mom had already been assuming for years that she would.

We hold the assumption of school as we know it deeply, deeply, deeply.  It makes for a funny story here, but it also often keeps us from making choices that could make all the difference in the health and thriving of a young person. I’m always wondering what will it take for us to free ourselves enough from the grip of our schooling paradigm that we might take from it what if anything we can actually need and let fall away what we don’t.

A few weeks ago I sat with the parents of a child who is brilliant but isn’t taking well to seated school instruction in reading, writing, and the like.  I asked if they had considered not sending him to school, such that they could devise a plan for him that would support the development of his existing capacities and make room for the reading and the rest to emerge in a way that suited him better.

This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it must be like, for parents who have never considered it, to hear me ask it.  For anyone who has considered it, who knows children who have not gone to school for various reasons and come out the other side OK, or better than OK, it can seem like no big deal.  But for most people, it’s one of the biggest possible deals. It’s not like other questions parents hear, like “Have you had him tested?” or “Have you thought about switching schools?”  These questions may be upsetting, but they don’t require rearrangement of paradigm.  They don’t challenge our ideologies of participation in culture the way the notion of opting out of school does.  “Have you considered not sending him to school?” prompts a whole cascade of other questions like How could he possibly make it in the world if he doesn’t go when everyone else is going? and How could I ever explain it to my mother-in-law? and How could we do that when we chose our house for the school district?

So I’ve been trying to imagine, so that I can be of more use and support to parents when a child is not thriving in school and not likely to thrive there, what kind of a question someone might ask me that I’d experience in a similar way.  What could I be asked that would not just require me to think about a new possibility but to entirely rearrange my understanding of what’s reasonable and viable?  The best I’ve come up with so far is this: “What if instead of living inside your house, you tried living outside of it?”

In some ways it’s too obvious an analogy with its inside/outside component.  And of course it lacks the weight of any question that bears on the responsibility for another human being.  But it gets part of the job done because it’s close to inconceivable to me that I’d pay for and maintain and furnish a building designing for habitation and then set up camp in the driveway. Could there actually be circumstances that would merit such a choiceWhy on earth would I do thatWhat would everyone thinkHow would I survive the winter? These questions are sufficiently confounding that I have to set aside not just the choices I know I’m making but the ones that are so obvious I barely even perceive them as choices, which is what parents have to do in considering the possibility of opting their children out of school.

The parents I mentioned above said later “I never understood why anyone would take a child out of school until we got to know this child.  Now I am starting to understand.”

In the end, of course, it will be that that makes the difference, not anything any other adult says or asks.  It will be a child who makes it clear that she is not being served by our traditions and assumptions, that she cannot or will not tolerate an environment that fails to support her in realizing what she can offer and contribute.

The most (and least) we can do is be willing to do the tricky paradigm-questioning work of making ourselves available to receive the communication.


I’ve posted a version of this piece at least once before, so if it sounds familiar, that’s why; it always feels worth saying again this time of year…

I still forget at this time of year that I don’t have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents’ thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, coaching, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, with crowds of others, and with new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can’t go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves over to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn’t worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June. And for others the dread sets in days or weeks before the first bell rings. Continue reading


“One of Tetzlaff’s most striking technical gifts is an ability to project extremely soft sounds in a large hall; it’s like whispering in a way so that two thousand people can still hear you.” (from Jeremy Eichler’s profile of violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff)

I spent part of yesterday afternoon with a pair of siblings who reminded me how different the likes of vitality and engagement can look on two people.  These siblings are close in age, and spend much of their daily lives together, immersed in the things that mean and matter the most to them. Their days are full of physical and intellectual activity, of participation in the upkeep of their home and the feeding of their family and neighbors. It’s clear that they’re fully and eagerly engaged, but they wear it two entirely different ways. The one is often exclaiming and grinning, the pleasure or victory of a task written plainly and unmistakably on her face.  The other’s contentment lights him up more subtly, though he seems no less delighted and peaceful in his work.

I’ve always found vitality difficult to describe, but fairly easy to recognize.  What I realized yesterday is that if I’m too attached to my know-it-when-I-see-it notions of what it looks like, I might miss it.  The same is true of the absence of vitality – where resignation and lethargy live.  All are worth watching for, and worth being careful to hone our understanding of.  Even if children aren’t making a fuss, aren’t actively resisting or locking horns with us about the content of their lives, there may well be more available to them in the way of fulfillment and engagement.

I guess there’s more than one way to be pretty much any particular thing.  Being around these two children reminded me of that, and of how much inspiration is available in vitality however it comes – in big audible grins or in bright, whispering, eyes.