Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sometimes Mommy Has To Leave

Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Every Parent Must Make Their Own Decisions About Screen Time

I watched television as a kid. I started watching on a black and white Zenith. I remember when we bought our family's second set, a state-of-the-art color TV. There were four channels, five if you were lucky in adjusting the UHF knob, and children's programming was limited to Saturday mornings and a couple hours right after school. The only other sort of screens we knew about were at the movie theater.

I feel like we were more or less typical for our neighborhood, watching maybe an hour a day. It's not that we wouldn't have liked to watch more, but there just wasn't anything we found all that compelling. For a time, Batman was on in the afternoons, followed by the boring news, which was okay with us because after such an exciting half hour we were eager to don our capes (dad's dress shirt buttoned around the neck) and meet our friends outdoors to re-enact what we had just seen. Things have obviously changed. Today it's possible for kids to spend all day, every day in front of screens that deliver exactly what they want, when they want it.

Over the weekend, the program 60 Minutes reported on the early results from a new $300 million study financed by the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the study is to better understand the impact of all sorts of external influences on brain development; everything from drug and alcohol use to concussions, including the affect of screen time. It's an important thing for us to be seriously investigating. Screens have proliferated dramatically over the last couple decades, an explosion in technology with which research is only now just beginning to catch up, and given the necessity for longitudinal studies, we are still decades away from anything approaching definitive results. Up to now, the research that has been done on screen time, and particularly what people are calling "addiction," has presented a mixed bag of results, with some showing negative impacts and others showing none. Some have even indicated that there are benefits of screen time under certain circumstances. And, honestly, if these early results are any indication, this new study is no different . . . at least so far.

You can read the piece for yourself, but the bottom line is that there are reasons to worry and reasons to not worry. The truth, as it has been since I was a boy, is that we are all subjects in this grand human experiment with technology.

I suspect that if and when we ever get to the bottom of this, we'll discover that screen time impacts different people in different ways, that some, maybe even most, of us can engage with relative impunity, while others pay a price, even a steep one. One thing I do know, however, is that six hours a day (which is approximately the average for America's young children) is entirely too much. This is not a statement about technology or content, but rather that it is a physically sedentary activity, one that may engage the brain, one that may even support social and emotional learning, but also one in which children are largely indoors, slumped in a sofa while their muscles atrophy. Indeed, that's what mom would say as she chased us outdoors back in the 60's, "Get outside, get some fresh air, and move your bodies."

My own belief is that all this screen time is causing some level of brain damage, at least to some of us, and there is no doubt that it is changing our brains for better or worse (which is also true of everything we experience) but by the time we get to the bottom of it, screens will be as old time-y as black and white Zeniths. I'm not throwing up my hands, I'm just being realistic about the science keeping up with the pace of technology. In the meantime, I try to stay educated, then follow my instincts, values, and experience. One thing we do know for a fact is that humans need to move their bodies in order to be their best selves, they need regular, sustained exercise, and the younger we are the more we need: it's necessary for both the body and the brain, which are, in fact, one and the same.

Every parent must make their own decisions about screen time. I will not call you a "lazy parent" because you hand your kid the iPhone once in awhile. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If you feel like it's too much, it's too much. If you feel like your kid is getting enough exercise, then that's the important thing, the thing we know. Personally, I find life more fulfilling when I limit my time in front of screens, when I move my body and interact directly with the other humans. I think that's true for most of us, but all I have right now are my own anecdotes and a mixed bag of science . . . for now.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Full-Body Learning

On the first day of school he told me, "There's going to be a lot of fighting this year." It was an interesting comment, funny even, coming from this particular boy. I've known him since he was a two-year-old and he had never shown any inclination toward violence, real or imaginary. On the contrary, tough guy bluster, even of the comical variety, had in the past often seemed to intimidate and confuse him; he was regularly reduced to tears by dramatic play that struck him as threatening, often retreating under our classroom loft for "safety."

Jousting with swings standing in for steeds

His mother explained that he had over the summer become fascinated with knights, including their armor, shields, and other weaponry, items he had taught himself to create using paper, scissors, tape, and staples. And that is how his "fighting" first showed up in the classroom, with him not only arming himself, but also others. He has mastered the fierce pose and when he finds another kid inclined toward "fighting," he might threaten something like, "You better watch out, I'm going to fight you." The fighting itself has been quite tame by the standards of Woodland Park play fighting, most often involving "swords," but sometimes featuring "jousting." He is clearly thrilled when someone engages with him, although the moment actual contact is made, even when it's of the light and incidental variety, he usually calls it off, often crying loudly. But once the tears are over, he's back at it, once more trying to lure others into his game of fighting knights.

This knight has been unseated

I hope this description doesn't make him seem like a problem child in any way, because he is not. No one who knows him is worried that he'll grow up to be actually violent. This is clearly an intellectual pursuit, one full of questions to which he is seeking answers. Even now, months into our school year, there is still obvious uncertainty as he approaches others with his knight game, as he tests the others to see how they will respond. He's been delighted by his successes: his face flushes with excitement when it's going as he expected, combatants committed to both ferocity and a kind of chivalry that includes not really hurting one another. He's been overwhelmed when others have surpassed him in intensity or more extreme physicality. He's been often disappointed by those who are neither impressed, nor attracted by this knight who is threaten-asking them to fight with him. He has made his knight studies at home as a self-selected "academic" pursuit and is now attempting to apply what he has learned in real life.

One of his classmates does a similar thing with his own animal studies. Earlier in the year, he could be found prowling the playground as a dinosaur, usually as a T-rex, his favorite, roaring and stalking about with his arms draw up to mimic the short forearms associated with the species. Lately, his interests have turned to invertebrates, like his pet snails, but also slugs, worms, and insects. The other day, he put shoes on his hands so that he could practice moving like an insect, developing a fuller understanding of how they crawl by studying it with his whole body, in the same way that my knight-loving friend seeks to embody a knight in order to more fully understand.

Neither of these boys would be described as particularly physical, at least not in comparison to many of their classmates who spend their days racing around the place. In fact, I'm quite certain that if their parents send them to traditional public kindergartens next year, they will adapt to desk work better than most. They won't show up as "problem children" because they possess the sort of self-control and temperaments that will allow them to adapt more easily than will those "active" kids whose teachers will chase them around the classroom, scolding, punishing, and otherwise correcting them for moving their bodies at the wrong time and in the wrong way, perhaps even going so far as to recommend drugs.

It's a pity because it's clear that all children, even not obviously active ones, learn most naturally when allowed to engage their full selves, including their bodies, not in adult-proscribed ways and at adult-proscribed times, but as their own questioning and exploration dictates. Traditional schools are notoriously bad at allowing this because so much of what happens in them is about crowd control rather than learning. We can't have knights and insects anywhere but in the form of words, read or listened to, then regurgitated in their approved form, with bodies in their proper places, doing their proper things. It's a pity because all children learn best when allowed to explore with their full-selves, teaching themselves. And they must use their full bodies to do it.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

An Anti-Gaslighting Curriculum

The following is a sample of Teacher Tom's patent-free anti-gaslighting curriculum (formerly known as his anti-BS curriculum):

"Oh look, we have three kinds of candy for snack."

"It's not candy, Teacher Tom."

"Yes, it is candy."

"No, it's not."

"It is candy . . . Look, there's peppermint candy, jelly candy, and this other kind of candy."

"No, this is celery. This is apples. And this is bell peppers."

"No, that's not right. That's all healthy food. This is kid food. Kids only eat candy."

"We do not! We eat healthy food!"

That's when I shake my head condescendingly, chuckling, "Oh dear, that's not right. Grown-ups eat healthy food and kids eat candy."

"It's not candy!"

"Listen, you're just kids. I'm the grown-up, so I know everything: kids eat candy. This is food for kids, therefor it's candy. Grown-ups don't even like candy."

"Taste it, Teacher Tom! Taste it and you'll know it's healthy food."

"I don't like candy. It will be too yucky for me."

"Taste it!"

"I already know it's candy. I don't need to taste it."

"Taste it!"

"Okay, I'll taste it, but I know I won't like it." I bring it slowly to my lips reluctantly, making an expression of anticipatory revulsion. After several seconds of hesitation, I finally touch it with my tongue. "Hey! This isn't candy at all. It's celery. I like celery." Then I look at them with as much know-it-all superiority as I can muster, "See? I told you this was all healthy food."

There is always a pause then as my most blatant lie sinks in. This is how BS artists and gaslighters do it: they lower their voices, chuckle knowingly, then claim that up is down, that black is white, that the sun sets in the east. They then count on the illusion of their authority to shut people up as they entertain their self-doubt. And there is always a brief moment when I fear it's going to work on the children I teach, but it never does. Someone will always break the silence to say, "No, we told you!"

Far too much of what happens in our schools is about obedience, learning to blindly follow, rather than question authority. This is fundamentally anti-democratic and it prepares children to be too easily gaslighted and BS'ed. It is not just the right of citizens to speak the truth as we see it, but our responsibility, especially when it means standing up to those in power, like teachers and elected representatives. I want the children I teach to listen to me and when I say something that doesn't fit with what they already know, I want them to know it's their job to call me on it, to question me, to make me either prove it or shut up. Those are the kinds of citizens I want alongside me in this grand project of self-governance.

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Friday, December 07, 2018

Those Lazy Millennials

Recently, I found myself in a dinner party conversation with a trio of professional women, all about my age, childless, and apparently with an axe to grind regarding the youth of today. The gist of their collective complaint, one I figure they've regularly shared amongst friendly ears, was that "millennials" were "lazy," "entitled," "selfish," and easily distracted by superficial things. It was the age old whinge of the fuddy duddy, one that goes back at least as far as the dawn of the first Agricultural Revolution when our Neolithic ancestors made the tragic mistake of leaving our hunter-gatherer life behind. These women aren't the first, nor will they be the last, to shake their boney fists at the generation behind them in unfair and ill-informed castigation, so in the spirit of keeping the peace I tried to hold mine, not nodding or even smiling, but striving to quietly endure until the conversation turned to other topics.

As the parent of one of these young people, I've found that nothing could be more unsupported than these peevish gripes of the aged. Most of the "millennials" I know are bright and thoughtful, open-minded and caring, interested in both a good life and doing good. In fact, just last weekend my wife and I were in New York City to visit our daughter where we spent three full days engaged in conversations with her friends about art, culture, politics, and economics. In direct contrast to the assertions of my crotchety dinner party round-table, these kids are motivated, engaged, compassionate, and eager to not just tackle the world, but change it for the better. Yes, there was talk of parties and dating and general silliness, but nature dictates that those will always be disproportionately included among the interests of youth, all the more to pity us old timers.

Perhaps, too, it is in the nature of age to stand in judgement, to take the attitude of superiority. I see it too often from my perch as a preschool teacher, where even well-intended adults are prone to view kids as humans of a lesser sort. They condescend and scold, correct and mold. They complain that they are messy and rude, too easily distracted, unmotivated, and lazy. They force them into programs of "improvement," foisting violin lessons upon them, devising tricks to get them to clean their rooms, and otherwise betraying their ageist bigotry.

I tried to simply wait for these women to turn to other topics, but soon realized that they were just warming up. So I said, "I disagree with you." They turned to me as one, their eyebrows raised in arch cocksureness. One of them said, "I've hired lots of millennials and they're all the same. They act like they're bored. They don't understand the first thing about hard work."

This was the trigger. "What you mean is that they're not motivated to do your mind-numbing, grunt work. What you mean is that they don't want to be treated like inferior humans. What you mean is that they hate their job and their boss and they would rather be doing something meaningful with their lives. To me that's not a sign of low intelligence or lack of motivation. It's a sign that they have their priorities straight." I then went on to tell them about the young people I know, how they are light-years ahead of where I was at their age, how they are, as young people should, looking for a better deal out of life than the nose-to-the-grindstone crap they have been force fed by grown-ups. I told them how selfish baby boomers have left them with an economy that will, for the first time in American history, leave them less well off financially than previous generations and an environment on the verge of collapse. I shared my support for a generation that is growing up to be far more politically progressive than any generation that has come before it; that I hope they come to power before the ignorant crew who is currently in charge destroys it all; that the young people I know work harder than I ever did; that I'm proud of them for trying to shrug off the burdens others want to place on their backs; and that I'm sick of no nothing fuddy duddies ignorantly running down an entire class of people.

I finished by telling them that all my hopes for the future lie with millennials and that theirs should too. After all, the future belongs to the young and from where I sit, it is in far better hands than is the present.

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

"I'm A Doctor"

As the two-year-old boy tried to walk up a short, sand-dusted concrete slope, his feet slipped from beneath him. He fell forward onto the concrete. I saw it happen. He took a moment, still prone, to look around as if deciding if he was going to cry. When he saw me looking his way, his face wrinkled into a look of anguish and he let it out.

I walked to him. I usually walk in circumstances like this for the same reason I strive to maintain a calm expression: running conveys panic and the last thing I want to do is compound his pain with fear. Taking a seat on the ground beside him, I said, "You fell." Putting a hand on his back, I said, "I came to be with you."

When he cried louder, I asked, "Did you hurt your hands?"

He shook his head. I left some silence for him to fill with the details he wanted to share, but instead he filled it with crying.

"Did you hurt your tummy?"

He shook his head.

"Did you hurt your chin?"

This time he nodded, still crying.

I saw no mark on his chin, "It's not bleeding, but I can get you a bandaid."

He shook his head.

Another two-year-old boy had also seen it happen. He joined us, looking from me to his classmate throughout the exchange. When I left more silence, this boy decided to fill it, almost as if showing me the proper formula, bending down and asking, "Are you okay?" This is what adults say to a fallen child, a phrase I've struck from my own lexicon figuring that an injured child will let me know soon enough if he's hurt without my planting of the idea with that question. In this moment, however, from a two-year-old's lips, I heard it as a courtesy, like saying "Please," "Thank you," and "How are you?"

He still cried, but not with the intensity of before, notching it down to a breathy moaning, head up, his fingers tracing paths in the dusting of sand that had been his undoing.

Yet another two-year-old boy joined us. He had not seen what had happened, and asked me, "Why is he crying?"

I replied, "He fell and hurt his chin."

"I'm a doctor."

I asked the boy who had fallen, "Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. There were three of us now in a circle around our friend who was winding down his cry, finishing it.

The boy who had asked "Are you okay?" took what the older kids sometimes call "the easy way" up the short slope, a path in the dirt that circumvents the concrete part, intending, I thought, to go about his play. Perhaps that had been the plan, but he stopped and turned to check on his friend, saying once more, "Are you okay?"

This time his friend nodded. His cry had become a soft whimper. I said, "You're not crying now." He didn't respond. His fingers fiddled with the sand until they found a twig which he bent and twisted. I had been sitting beside him. I said, "I'm going to get up now," which I did. I had a vague idea that I was role modeling a possible next step for him, but he didn't immediately follow my lead. Instead, my place was taken by the doctor who sat, as I had done, silently beside him. We're always role modeling, but we can't pick what they will chose to imitate -- or even who will do the imitating.

I kept an eye on the situation from a few feet away. There was some conversation between the boys, but I couldn't hear it. The boy who had taken the easy way up, then climbed to the top of the concrete slide and slid down before circling back to the scene of the fall.

By now, the boy who had fallen had completely finished his cry and was on his feet. There was more discussion amongst the three boys that I didn't hear, but judging from the body language, I'm guessing it was either about the fall or about how to best navigate the short, sand-dusted slope. Then, the two boys who had come to their friend's aid, ascended via the easy way. The boy who had fallen, however, tackled the concrete slope. His boot slipped a bit, but this time he made it without injury. He then ran back down and tried it again, then again, four times in all before he moved on.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

This Difficult, Miserable Thing

Yesterday, some of the four and five-year-old girls were planning a sleep over. I found out about it when a couple of the boys complained that they weren't invited because they were boys. Later, predictably, one of the girls was in tears over this imaginary sleep over, her face contorted with the sort of anguish that can only result from a broken heart. Friendship can be a difficult, miserable thing.

My wife and I have just returned from a long weekend in New York City where our daughter Josephine is a senior at NYU. We've been back to visit her several times over the past four years and each time we've set aside at least one evening for entertaining her friends with a meal and a few drinks in a decent restaurant. This time there were eleven of us, some of whom I'd met before, while some I only knew by reputation.

The group has evolved since she was a freshman, but many of her closest friends have remained the same over the years, becoming the sorts of friendships that one hopes will last a lifetime. My wife and I love these evenings, this chance to get a glimpse into our child's life outside the nest, to hear these smart, talented young people tell us stories and share their feelings about our girl. I've not always liked her friends over the years, but I'm quite fond of these kids, and, more importantly to this father, they seem to be quite fond of our girl.

In the aftermath of these evenings it's impossible to not reflect on Josephine as a preschooler, where I, as a parent in a cooperative school, was there from the start of this lifelong quest to connect with other people through friendship. It has been a long, not always joyful road, one of tears, anger, and disappointment. The heartbreak is no one's fault, of course, it's built into the process. The project of becoming intimate with these other people requires opening one's self up to them and it's often a vulnerable place to be. As I watched this girl on our playground yesterday being comforted, I recalled the many times that I had tried to comfort young Josephine under almost identical circumstances.

It's a necessarily painful process, I think. I recall my own heartbreaks, those moments when I felt that my love had been cruelly betrayed or rebuffed. We all have our long, tormented histories, rife with times when we could do nothing but cry. Many of us are scarred, hardened. Some are truly damaged. This is why when we see it happening with our children, our hearts break along with theirs. We all have vast experience with this and none of us ever become experts.

Yet, most of us persevere, as did the girl on our playground who found herself on the outside of a sleep over that will never happen. We let our feelings flourish, we find that time does indeed heal, at least partially. Some of us learn something from this or that heartbreak, but others of us will make the same mistake over and over again, as we strive to figure out this difficult, miserable thing. It's sometimes a wonder that we keep trying, but we do, driven by nature, filled with renewed hope, because this is why we are here: to connect with the other people through the love that we call friendship. We do it because in the end it's through and alongside the other people that we create a life worth living.

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