Friday, November 15, 2019

"We Protect People"




There were always kids in Woodland Park's 4-5's classes who spent large portions of their days together playing "super heroes." They might call it something different, like good guys, bad guys, Star Wars, or Ninjas, but the essentials of the game remained the same: they formed a team, negotiated their roles, discussed in detail just how powerful they were, then race about talking tough, making fierce faces, and striking assertive poses.

And just as predictably, there were always some children who came to fear the super heroes.

It's tempting for adults to simply impose restrictions on the super hero play in defense of the children who are afraid, but I think that misses an opportunity for the children to learn about what it means to be members of a community. And it begins with the all-hands-on-deck class meetings that we call circle time.

One year, several children had expressed their fears, both directly to me and through their parents, so when the children assembled for circle time, I wanted to steer the conversation that way. We started off talking about our classroom rules, the agreements the children have made with one another. I was prepared to broach the subject of super heroes myself, but was hoping that it would emerge from the kids. I knew that one girl, H, via her mother, had been attempting to summon up the courage to suggest an outright ban on the super hero play, and this was the day.

I said, "H has something to say," and she replied, "No super hero play."

There was a moment of dead silence as her words sank in. Then the super heroes, their expressions full of shock and outrage, raised a chorus of, "Nooooo," which was followed by a more scattered chorus of, "Yesssss." It was obvious that we were not going to reach consensus on this rule, but that wasn't the point: the point was to have the discussion. Once we'd settled down we took turns making our cases, starting with those who were feeling afraid. Several classmates joined H. As they spoke up I watched the superheroes who were paying attention the way one does when the topic is of utmost importance. As they listened to their classmates say that the super heroes frightened them, their expressions turned from outrage to what I can only describe as dismay.


When it was the super heroes' turn to talk, one of them said, emotion rising in his throat, "But we're good guys." Another said, "We protect people." They were simply astonished that they had been so misunderstood. They were genuinely shocked that anyone to be afraid of them.

The discussion that followed was long and rambling. We knew we couldn't all agree to H's suggested rule, but we talked about things we could do like being more aware of one another's feelings, being more direct with one another about how we were feeling, and figuring out better ways to share the space and resources. We learned in that discussion that most of the children were neutral about the super heroes, sometimes joining them, but not every day. They had concrete suggestions, but perhaps their most important contribution was to let their friends know that they weren't afraid, which I think helped some of the more fearful children see that there was an alternative to either-or. I didn't check the clock, but it was a long, productive discussion in which the kids learned something about one another: about who we were as a community.

This wouldn't be the last time we needed to talk about this, but it was a good starting point and the parents of the anti-super heroes reported that their children came away feeling much better, empowered even. As for the super heroes, they had been sincere in their desire to not frighten their classmates going forward, even if they sometimes forgot as they immerse themselves in their dramatic play. And we adults now had a concrete reference point for supporting the children as they worked this through.

A few days after our classroom discussion, one of super heroes was running full speed near the swings. A boy standing nearby flinched as he passed, which caught our caped crusader's eye. He slowed briefly and said, "I'm sorry I scared you," and his friend replied, "That's okay. I was only scared for a second." Like I said, we're going to be working on this for the rest of the school year, but man that was awesome.

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

How To Change The Games Children Play




In the days following the horrors of 9/11, several of the children at our daughter's preschool began to fly toy airplanes into block towers, over and over. They were clearly, through their play, processing the events. Every day, children are doing this as they play, preparing themselves in one way or another for the world they perceive awaits them. Hunter-gatherer children tended to play games of hunting and gathering. Contemporary children play games of housekeeping or driving cars or shopping.

Sometimes the "purpose" of their play is obvious to us, even if it isn't conscious on their part. The girl who plays hospital games in the weeks after her own visit to the emergency room obviously isn't telling herself that she needs to "process," but she is driven to it nevertheless, and it shows up in her freely chosen activities. Perhaps more often, however, the child's "purpose" isn't as evident, leaving thoughtful adults to ponder since the children themselves cannot tell us. If you ask a child who is, for instance, playing superhero, why he is drawn that particular game, he's likely to respond, "Because it's fun!" which is likely true even if it's not the whole story. Most of us would agree that there is something about being powerful or masculine or protecting others at the bottom of this type of play.

Some argue that a child playing superhero is just imitating something he's seen on TV and that if we took away his access to the boob tube he would stop playing the game. Maybe, but that doesn't explain why even the children I've taught who don't have television often play similar types of power games, even if they call themselves something else, like "bad guys" or "firefighters." No, the fact that this type of play comes up year-after-year, mostly among boys, tells me that they are not merely aping media messages, but are rather seeking to understand or practice something deeper that they don't just want, but need to understand, or for which they must practice. I would make the same assertion about girls, and it's mostly girls, who play princess games: we might personally reject the cult of feminine beauty, but the ubiquity of this sort of play across the years tells us that it is something that is "important" to process or practice or understand.

When we see "violent" games, when we see games based on superficial beauty, it's tempting for some of us to try to put a lid on it, or to steer children away from it, or to somehow create environments in which this sort of play doesn't emerge. As a young parent, I misguidedly and half unconsciously attempted to raise our daughter as a "tomboy," dressing her in overalls, buying her Hot Wheels, taking her to sporting events. I'll never forget the day as a two-year-old when she came across a heavily bejeweled princess crown at a friend's house, popped it on her head, looked me in the eye, and said, "You don't know what girls do," then proceeded to wear a crown, daily, for the next three years.

I see the same phenomenon happening these days with technology and smart phones in particular. Almost every school in America has instituted limitations on their use. The nation of France has recently outright banned children under 15 from using their phones at school "amid fears that students were becoming too dependent on and distracted by their smartphones." I have no doubt if given the choice, most school-aged children would chose their phones over the adult-directed curriculum from which they are being "distracted." What's happening on their phones is, from their perspective, much more important. And as to becoming dependent? Look around. The whole world is becoming dependent. The kids are just trying to process, understand or practice for the future, just as those kids flying toy airplanes into block towers were trying to make sense of the real world events that had come into their lives.

I'm not arguing that we should allow children access to new technology willy-nilly or that there is nothing we can do about violent games or beauty games. What I am saying is that children will always show us the future, as they perceive it, through their play. And children are incredibly adept at seeing through our envision-a-better-world smokescreens to zero in on what skills, habits, and knowledge they will need to live in the real world, and then to set out to understand or practice or process it, often to our chagrin. In one sense, when children play, they are holding up a mirror. If we don't like what we see, it's on us to make changes, both personally and societally. We will know if we've succeeded only when the children change the games they play.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Freedom To Grow Into Themselves




At the center of every healthy relationship, and many unhealthy relationships for that matter, is unconditional love. We love our children, our parents, our spouses, and our friends, but, of course, we don't love all of them in the same way: there is a kind of love we have for a lover that is distinct from the love we have our parents. In turn, the love we feel for our parents is essentially different than what we feel for our friends. Love stands at the center of the human experience. And contrary to the quid pro quo calculations of economists and behaviorists, it is love (or lack of love), not self-interest, not conditioning, that inspires almost everything we do. 

I love my wife and she loves me. We've been together for nearly 35 years, most of them happy. There have been ups and downs, of course. We have succeeded and failed, both together and separately. When we sit across from one another at the dinner table, we almost always mirror one another in posture, gesture, and expression, so yes indeed, we have shaped one another, but not consciously. Sure, she sometimes tells me that she wishes I'd do this or that differently, but by far the greatest impact she has had on me being the person I am today has to do with love. She has simply loved me enough to care for me, to be with me, to comfort me, and it's that, not some system of conscious instruction, that has been her contribution: her love has created the safe space in which I've had the freedom to grow into me.

This is what love is all about. Psychologists call it "attachment," I suppose because the word "love" is so full of everything, so a part of everything, that it's difficult to pin down in scholarly work, but when people talk about things like "attachment parenting," what I've come to hear is a kind of oxymoron. The "parenting" suggests an agenda beyond the love. As developmental researcher Alison Gopnik points out, the word parenting, a word that did not exist until the early 1960s, is the verb form of one of, if not the most, foundational relationships in the human experience. Up until recently, it seems it was enough to simply be a parent, to love one's child, and to create the safe space in which they had the freedom to grow into themselves. But being a parent today has increasingly taken on the trappings of a vocation in which it is the parent's job to lovingly manufacture their children into a certain kind of adult. If we talk to our children in a certain way, if we give them enough tough love, if we co-sleep with them, if we Tiger Mom them, we are doing the job of parenting with the longterm goal of creating what we call a "well adjusted adult."

There is scant empirical evidence that the minor variations between what parents do makes any difference in what kind of adults children become, yet there is overwhelming of evidence of the power of attachment, or as I prefer to call it love. Love is enough.

As I've read Alison Gopnik's book The Gardener and the Carpenter, I've been reflecting on this societal shift from being a parent as a relationship to parenting as a vocation and can see that this, more than iPads or social media or violent video games or any of the other boogymen we've identified, may be the real driver behind the spike in childhood mental illnesses like anxiety and depression that we are seeing today. Being a parent has always been difficult, just as it can be difficult to be a spouse or child or friend, but the added stress of turning it into the high stakes (and I would argue impossible) job of manufacturing well-adjusted adults is too much.

I've also been thinking about teachers in this context. The verb "teaching" has always been with us, of course, but I'm beginning to wonder about that as well. The longer I've been a teacher, the less actual teaching I've found myself doing, and the more I've discovered that attachment, that love, is enough. I'm at my best, and the children are at their best, when I step back from teaching and instead simply be a teacher with no agenda other than my relationships, which is to say, creating a safe space in which children have the freedom to grow into themselves.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Making Light From Darkness



During the better part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the scientific consensus was that we would one day figure it all out. The universe was but a clockwork and given enough time, humans would come to understand it. Today, however, we know enough to know that we will never know everything. We can only know what we can perceive, what our senses can take in, what our brains can interpret, but we are very limited in our abilities, adapted to a certain niche, one that causes us to, for instance, see time as something that flows from past to present, even as we now know that this "understanding" is merely an accident of our unique perspective and the limitations of our senses.

At it's core, life will always be a mystery. Art is the human response to the unknowable: it is how we teach ourselves to live with the mystery.


This explains why humans are driven to engage in art. Since the dawn of humankind, we have made music, danced, told stories, and created physical representations of life as we experience it, both externally and internally. Many of us still place "science" on a pedestal, pushing art aside as a kind of amusement. Increasingly, our schools have done this, replacing the arts with "instructional time," in order to focus almost exclusively on literacy and mathematics, the hammer and sickle of science, tools that are seen as necessary to engage in a clockwork world, a world that we now know doesn't exist. Those of us who work with young children have found ourselves in the sad position of having to defend our work, to defend childhood play, to defend our commitment to filling our charges' world with opportunities to dance, sing, pretend, and paint, to engage with the mystery that will always lie at the heart of life.

As I watch children play, I certainly see them engaged in the foundational scientific process of trial and error. What happens when I do this? I wonder if I can make that happen again. They are scientists for sure, but they are at least in equal measure artists, acknowledging from the start the limits of their own perceptions and learning to live with that by saying to one another, "Let's pretend . . ." When they aren't experimenting, they are making art with whatever comes to hand, arranging stones in a circle or leaves into patterns. Sometimes they paint what they see; sometimes they paint what they feel. They dance even when there isn't music, kicking up their legs, leaping, skipping, and twirling as they perform even the mundane act of moving from here to there. When they sing at the tops of their lungs, when they make rhythms by beating on buckets, they are teaching themselves how to live with the mystery.

Art stands at the center of the human experience: it is how we make light from darkness.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day





(I've been post a version of this piece on Veteran's Day for several years now. Some of the statistics may be a bit dusty, but regrettably, I'm certain that the gist of them remains the same.)


My daughter has grown up in a country at war. 

I grew up in a country at war. 

My parents grew up in a country at war. 

My grandparents grew up in a country at war.

Whatever we feel about ourselves, it's not difficult to understand why there are people around the world who view the US as a warlike nation. It's one of the things we do, sending our army to Europe or Asia or Africa or South America to fight against our "enemies" or support our "friends." War has become the wallpaper of our lives, something that most of us only think about when there is particularly ghastly or encouraging news, or on special days set aside to think about war, like today, Veteran's Day.

Some of us, of course, think about war every day: those whose children or loved ones are in harm's way. How could they not? Even now, or perhaps especially now, as our entanglements have been moved to the back pages, it's impossible, I'm sure, not to worry about the stray bullet. The stress on those families must be incredible and what anxious joy they must feel knowing that the two longest wars in our nation's history are finally winding down. I'm sure they think all kinds of things about the wisdom of those wars or the ways in which they have been conducted, but I'm equally sure they are united in their desire to actually touch and see and hear their sons and daughters; their mothers and fathers.

Whatever you think of war in general, or the specific wars in which our nation has engaged, whether you believe that those who enlisted are brave patriots, misguided souls, or victims of the economy, there are few among us who don't appreciate the risk and sacrifice of these young men and women, nor do we want to shirk the responsibilities we have to them as they seek to re-join the civilian world, a place where they can hopefully sometimes forget about war.

This is a place where 1 in 3 male veterans between 20-24 are jobless. It's a place where nearly a million veterans are unemployed, where the unemployment rate for veterans is over 12 percent, 3 points higher than for the rest of us. And unless we turn things around fast, it's only going to get worse as an estimated 1 million more veterans return from foreign wars to rejoin the civilian workforce over the next 5 years.

This is a place in which 1 in 5 suicide victims are veterans. It's an epidemic of despair and mental illness that claims an average of 18 lives per day. Suicide prevention hotlines set up to serve veterans receive 100,000 calls per year. 

This is a place where people will boo you and try to strip you of your rights as a veteran and a citizen if they learn you are somehow not the "right kind of American."

This is a place where big banks, like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase will brazenly defraud you because you are a veteran and they think you're a soft target, often taking your home and sending you into bankruptcy.

This is a place where 83 percent of veterans receive no pension at all and where even that pathetic number is under threat of the budget axe, along with veteran healthcare benefits, because we don't have the political will to raise taxes on the the super wealthy, such as those very bankers who are defrauding veterans. 

This is the world we've created for our post-9/11 veterans. This is not what they fought for.

I don't feel at all good about the legacy of war we are leaving to our children, just as our parents left to us. Violence always represents failure, and this is a torch of shame we pass along. But this is a failure of politics, a failure of self-governance, and has nothing to to with our veterans who have placed themselves in service to our nation. These are our children, our mothers, and our fathers. For better or worse, we've sent them to risk their lives for us and caused their families to sacrifice for us. We must do better by them.

We don't honor veterans by glorifying war. These Americans, of all Americans, know the truth that war is horrific. No, we honor them by creating a society in which diplomacy is the highest political good. We honor them with a functioning economy and a world-class health care system. We honor them when we have social and economic justice. We honor them when we work to end war. We the people need to do these things every day, and that, more than parades and ceremonies, is how to honor veterans.

But most of all we honor veterans when we stop what we're doing to really see the wallpaper that's been hanging on our walls for generations, contemplate it, and wonder if it's time for a change.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Friday, November 08, 2019

Baby Games




A child psychologist friend once told me that he kept a doll house in his office, explaining that he could often learn more about a child while playing "family" with her than in any number of hours of traditional talk therapy. I'm no therapist, but I can certainly see the potential there.

"I'm this baby."

"I'm the mommy bunny."

"I'm a baby too."

"But I'm the littler baby."

"I want to be the littlest baby."



Just in how they choose their roles, there's a whole world of aspiration and query. Over the years I've noted that more children want to play the "baby" role, the younger and more helpless the better. For a long time, I assumed that "mommy" was the power role, the one that went to the child with the strongest urge to be in control, but I know now, as every child knows who has ever lost her place in the family to a younger sibling, it's the baby who really wields the power. Their helplessness demands attention and that's what the babies do in these games.

A group of our four and five year olds had been playing "baby" games for most of the year, typically assuming the roles of baby tigers or baby polar bears or other types of baby animals. There were no mommies in these games, but rather owners who were forever wrestling those naughty babies back into their beds or cages or caves or homes in order to "keep them safe." I'm sure my child psychologist friend would have a field day with these games filled with misbehavior and compulsion, these games where the baby, no matter how it behaved, continued to be cared for and loved. But as a teacher, I don't need to know what it means: I simply need to understand that the children are engaged in experiments they have designed to answer their unique social-emotional questions.


There have been times when I would drop to my knees in the midst of these games and assume the role of "middle" or "oldest" child, the roles that appeared to me to have the least power, then attempt to role model how one can assume power (or satisfaction or control or whatever) from this role. Or maybe I would take on another role, hoping to somehow "teach" a lesson through my behavior within the game. They were misguided efforts at best: I had taken over their game to answer questions they weren't asking, skewing their data, scuttling their journey, making it about my adult attempts a social-emotional engineering rather than their own purposeful and meaningful exploration of the real world as they experienced it.

Today, as children play house, I simply listen, even when they say things that make me cringe, even when the mommies boss the babies or the babies behave like mini-tyrants, even when I notice that no one wants to be the middle or oldest child. It's not my job to know what it means, that's for them (and perhaps a future therapist) to know. Mine is to create the space, to step back, and to wonder.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Thursday, November 07, 2019

If That Is The Present, Then The Future Will Take Care Of Itself



"Parenting" is the verb form of a fundamental relationship that has no parallel in our other important relationships. We don't do "wifing" or "childing" or "friending." We are, rather, wives, children or friends. We are parents, but it often seems to me that the whole notion of "parenting" is a failed experiment, one that has resulted in a rise in anxiety, fear, and depression, both among parents and children, over the past 70 or so years, without producing much in the way of positive results. 

The concept of parenting as a job is a modern idea, one that began to gain prominence during the 1950's as extended families found themselves scattered and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins began to play a diminished role in the care of children. From this emerged the idea of parenting as a mostly solo job that fell primarily to mothers, who, without traditional support systems, were forced to turn to "experts" to help them manufacture the child: one who was well-behaved, intelligent, charming, creative, motivated, and who otherwise met the specifications. To be a parent was no longer a relationship based on love, or at least not solely on love, but also on work, and the quality of that work was determined by how the child turned out, like one would judge the work of a shoemaker by the quality of their shoes. Of course, unlike shoes, one can't judge parenting success for two or even three decades, which is a long game that makes things all the more stressful, not to mention the fact that we are talking about human beings here, not widgets.

Parenting as a job versus being a parent as a relationship are two very different things: one is about achieving some sort of goal, to actively shape a young human into something pre-determined, while the other is to simply love, to give children what they need to thrive, right now, so that they can shape themselves. On top of that, there is scant evidence that parenting, meaning the variations on how we attempt to shape our children, have much impact at all on how children "turn out." If there was evidence, we would be on the way to having figured the whole thing out. There would be no need for "flavor of the month" parenting books or podcasts or blogs, each of them offering the latest set of parenting blueprints. But instead, the selection of recipes for baking up the perfect child pie proliferate, agreeing on some points, and conflicting on others, and generally proving that we are no closer to knowing how parenting as a job works than we were 70 years ago. 

In 1946, Dr. Spock, the original parenting guru told new parents "you know more than you think you do." I think this is still true today when it comes to parents. I'm not so sure when it comes to parenting.

Alison Gopnik, one of the world's most prominent childhood development researchers writes:


So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children's minds; it's to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it's to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can't make children learn, but we can let them learn.

Being a parent is hard work, but it is not a job: it is a relationship. The idea of "parenting" is an unfortunate imposition that places the stress and anxiety of vocational performance on what is arguably the most important relationship in anyone's life. Providing a protected space of love, safety, and stability is enough and you already know more than you think you do. If that is the present, then the future will take care of itself.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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