Wednesday, August 15, 2018

No Parent Has Ever Prevented Her Child From Doing Something She Really Wants To Do

Some years ago, we took a family summer vacation to a resort in Oregon. Mom and Dad went too, as did my siblings and their kids. Since our daughter Josephine, then only a few months from starting high school, was significantly older than the nieces and nephews, we let her choose a friend to come along with us. I'll call her Megan.

Before agreeing to allow Megan to travel with us, her father, who also had an older daughter, phoned me to learn the details and to not so subtly make sure I intended to keep the girls on a tight enough leash for his taste. "I was that age," he said, chuckling, "I remember what kinds of things kids that age want to do. Believe me, I got into just about everything." He warned me about booze, boys, and sneaking out after the adults had gone to sleep.

I assured him I'd keep her safe, but hung up with a slight sense of dread, not at all confident I could, or even wanted to, spend my week defending the girls against "those kinds of things." In fact, I'd sold the trip to Josephine based upon my own childhood memories of my brother and me freely riding our bikes around the resort, going to this swimming pool then that one, stopping here and there for a set of tennis, and hanging out at the "Teen Barn" shooting baskets, playing pinball, and monkeying around with the kids we found there. (Megan's dad had been particularly concerned about the Teen Barn.) The whole point of going on this vacation was that freedom of movement and association, at least it had been for me as a kid, and I wanted that for my own daughter.

As it turned out, there really wasn't any sort of nefarious teen scene on the resort premises and the girls spent their days sun bathing in bikinis that perhaps showed a little more than I would have liked, reading books, and drinking sodas by the main swimming pool. They mostly wanted to be with the family in the evenings as we got together for dinner and board games.

It was a trip full of good clean fun, but Megan's father had really got me thinking on more nefarious topics. It's not that I expected that my child would never drink or become sexual or do any of those other things he'd warned me about. No, what was on my mind was the idea that she might be sneaky about it. It conjured for me all the lies I'd told my own parents, not just as a teenager, but throughout my childhood, falsehoods behind which to hide as I did the things I really wanted to do, but which were forbidden by mom and dad. Lies that made those risky behaviors even more risky, and the consequences much worse when things didn't go the way I'd planned.

I had identified with Megan's father's self-description as a kid who had himself gotten into "those kinds of things," reflecting on the fact that my own parents' prohibitions had done very little by way of preventing me from doing the things I really wanted to do. No, what they had succeeded in doing was to push my desires underground, creating a cycle of secrecy that was only broken when things went wrong, followed by punishment, then more secrecy again, this time enhanced by the lessons I'd learned by being busted the first time.

This is when I began to recognize a great truth about parenting: No parent has ever prevented her child from doing something she really wants to do. Indeed, we can stop them today and tomorrow, but if they really want to do it, they will, be it balancing across the top of that wall, climbing up the slide the wrong direction, or losing their virginity. The more heavy-handed our vigilance, the more crafty their deceit. 

What we can do, however, is listen. What we can do is share our own experience, our concerns, our fears, honestly, without hyperbole. What we can do is be there to catch them when they fall, something that is impossible when secrecy is the norm because we will not there when they fall. Forbidden fruit will always be tasted. Always. I never expected my child to tell me everything, and I know she didn't, but I told her that my default position is to want to say "yes" to her and that the more lead time she gave me, the more time for reflection and discussion, the more likely it was that I would be able to get there. We had many uncomfortable conversations over the years on all kinds of topics. I listened and tried my best to be honest in my answers. I told her when I thought she has a bad idea and why, but when she persisted, I fought the urge to forbid and instead had a frank discussion about how to mitigate the risks I saw ahead of her. Often she went ahead with plans about which I had second thoughts, but sometimes she decided to wait until she was ready.

More often than not, my fears were not realized, and I like to think that is at least in part due to the fact that those conversations required for me to get to "yes" helped give her the tools to make more mature decisions. Of course, I know she also had regrets. We all do. Mistakes are part of how we learn about the nature of life among the people. But there is nothing worse than a secret regret, one that must be kept bottled up because it resulted from a taste of forbidden fruit.

No one has ever prevented her child from doing something she really wants to do, a truth that Megan's father and I shared over the phone that day even though neither of us knew it at the time. This isn't to say that we must allow them to do whatever they want whenever they want, but rather to acknowledge that our job is not to forbid them their desires, but rather to help prepare them for the day, and it will come sooner than we want, to explore life on their own terms.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer Will End Soon Enough

Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well. ~George R.R. Martin

When I remember my own childhood it is always summer: barefoot, usually with neighborhood kids, and nobody telling us what to do except on Sundays when we still had to get dressed up for church. We swung in the rope hammock that dad had hung between two trees or we would be down in a roadside ditch racing leaves in streams of stormwater or crowding into a hideout scaring one another by repeating stories that older children had told us. We would leave our houses in the morning, fill them with adventures, with nothing at all, sleep, then do it all again in an endless parade of days.

School was a long ago thing, a distant future thing, a non-existent thing. What was real were these days, one after another, one blurring into another, days of running through lawn sprinklers, racing bicycles, daring ourselves, un-boring ourselves. If you ran across someone's lawn at full speed, you barely felt the pain of the thorny blackberries that invaded the grass, but if you sauntered, you felt it. The same went for going barefoot on the hot pavement. As we got older and older we roamed farther and farther. The days were long, the summer was long, and we did what we wanted outside in the sun.

If there is a natural habitat for children, it's summertime. We are not made for being always busy, with necessary things to do according to a clocks, things we have imposed upon us, time as a commodity that must be measured and used, never wasted. Looking back, I now see what a precious thing a childhood summer is. We only get a dozen or so real summers, if we're lucky, if we don't have adults who are convinced that we must "improve" ourselves or be productive or keep in practice. They're gone soon enough, those days that exist throughout the rest of our lives as mere memories of blessed idleness and freedom. They are gone too soon to allow misguided adults to rob us of them with schedules and goals. We are made for contemplating motes, playing stories, frightening ourselves, digging in the dirt, and living in forts.

Indeed summer is the natural habitat for all humans, whatever our age, not just children, and we spend our lives trying to return to it. Live it while it's here. Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Proving Yet Again That Success Is Mostly Meaningless

They had a plan, these two girls, to build a castle just for themselves.

In quiet conversation, alternating between heads together and shoulder-to-shoulder, they worked out their details, laying out a foundation that they measured not once, but twice, then three times, like all good builders do; measuring it with their bodies, standing in there together to make sure they both had room to do the royal things they would be doing.

Our collection of cardboard blocks is really an amalgamation of three different sets, each made on slightly different scales. In other words, if all four walls are going to be of an equal height, you must identify, then build with only the blocks that go together. The girls did not know this when they started, but they did by the time they were finished, negotiating trades with other builders to get enough "big reds" for their purposes.

They were quite proud when they thought to add a door to their castle, stopping in their play to say, "Look at our door, Teacher Tom," proud of their foresight.

All along, this was going to be a castle with a roof, but when they got to that point, they found the "big reds" inadequate for their purposes. "We need longies."

There are only eight of the longest blocks and they are typically quite popular among our builders. Patiently then, the girls collected, talked, waited, and pounced. The first four blocks fit nicely between the opposite walls, but when it came to roofing the area above the door, they were momentarily stumped as there was no place to rest the ends of the remaining four "longies" if they were to be placed parallel to the others.

"Maybe this part doesn't need a roof."

"We could pretend there's a roof."

"We could make the roof out of paper."

Then there was an explosive "I know!" the cry of Eureka! that every teacher lives to hear.

And now they were done. "Teacher Tom, look at the castle we made."

It had been a focused 30 minutes of teamwork, of calculation, of opportunism, of cooperation, of manipulation, of hard logic, and creativity. They had planned together and corrected their plans. They had done all the things that humans do together and here before them was their castle.

It was only then, however, that they discovered it wasn't quite large enough for two, at least not with walls so easily knocked over. They tried, of course, to carefully, carefully, carefully fit their two bodies inside this place they had measured while standing, and at one point did, while remaining very still, both more or less fit inside.

Just as carefully they crawled back out and stood looking, both proud and disappointed, at their too-small castle. 

"Let's do something else."


And together they kicked it down, proving yet again that success is mostly meaningless: it is the process, the failures, the challenges, the teamwork, and the effort, that give meaning to what humans do.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Time In Which To Get Into "Fights"

I moderated a debate between a pair of three year olds that went more or less like this:

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

"I'm not going to move."

You get the idea, they went back-and-forth for probably two dozen rounds as I knelt there, occasionally reminding them whose turn it was to talk. It might have sounded to an onlooker that they weren't making progress in this debate over a square foot of carpet space, but looks can be deceiving. They started by arguing their cases fiercely, but with each round the energy dissipated a bit, until, by the end, they were merely mouthing the words as they gradually went back to playing with the toys they held in their hands.

We both want to drive our trains in the same place at the same time.

This is a pair of strong willed kids. Both of whom have had major "success" in their short lives with the tactic of being fierce and immovable. In most cases, especially with adults or older children, they've figured out that being fierce and immovable is a good way to get the other side to relent, at least a little, to concede something, but in this conflict, with pushing and hitting off the table, it was evident that they were both working their way through to the realization that they had each met his match. After a few minutes, they were back to playing side-by-side as if nothing had happened, neither of them having budged an inch.

For me, this is why we come to school: to learn to live in a community with other people, and a huge part of that is getting practice in dealing with conflict. I'm still reeling from having learned that administrators who were opposed to the 2015 Seattle teacher's strike demand to guarantee elementary-aged children a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day, objected in part with the rationale, When they have longer recesses, they get into fights. How crazy is that? If there's one thing I know about making this world a better place it's that we humans need way more practice in settling disputes without resorting to violence and less recess for young children is not one of the ways to get there.

Then we figure out a way to make it work for both of us.

Woodland Park is a robustly enrolled school located in a small facility. When we're all together it can be crowded and noisy, just like the city in which we live. There is no way to avoid bumping up against the other people, there is no way to avoid conflict, there is no way to avoid negotiation, and there is no way to avoid learning about our own feelings and the feelings of others, which is the first step in becoming empathetic humans

It isn't always pretty because at Woodland Park we strive to ensure that there is plenty of time in which to get into "fights." That's because we know that this is the only way to practice such vital skills as standing up for ourselves and listening to others. It's how we begin to develop the foresight and self-knowledge that allows us to pick our battles and avoid unnecessary conflict in the first place. And it's how we begin to create the agreements and courtesies that underpin every thriving community.

This may not be the way the way the real world works, but it's how the world should work. I'm proud that we send children off into that world with this expectation.

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Thursday, August 09, 2018


For the past couple weeks the kids enrolled in our summer program have been requesting almost daily "dance parties." It's an easy enough thing to do. We have an old shower speaker, a music service account, and other people. I take requests and the kids engage in their own free-form booty shaking.

Dancing is a uniquely human activity, an art form that goes back to the dawn of our species. No other animal dances. Oh sure, there are a few varieties of parrot that will bob along to a regular beat, but they get lost the moment the one changes things up, whereas humans transition easily, naturally, from fast to slow, from regular to irregular, moving our bodies not just to the beat, but also to melodies and moods, telling stories, expressing emotions. Every culture that has ever existed, stretching back to our hunter-gatherer roots, has danced. Human babies, even before they can walk, respond to music with their whole bodies.

Certainly, dance is an aspect of how the human species has evolved and survived. When I watch the children dance, I feel that I'm witness to something important about humans. Most of them start off dancing alone, but within seconds they come together, making eye contact, smiling into one another's faces, mirroring one another, one-upping one another, taking hold of one another, expressing their love for one another.

And I think that's what I see, love, as they dance. Sometimes it's obvious, like yesterday, when they simply began to fall into one another's arms, wrapping one another up in swaying hugs, joyfully laughing. Other times, like on Tuesday, it might not look like love, but I think it still is. Instead of hugging, they began taking swings at one another, like punches; not hard, but not gentle either. It started with just a couple boys, but within seconds there were eight kids, boys and girls, standing in a circle, hitting each other, swinging their arms to the music, landing their punches not where it might hurt, but on backs and hips and bottoms, intuitively avoiding stomachs and faces. It looked wild and their faces reflected that: mouths wide open, laughing, even shrieking. It wasn't violence, but it was violence-like, as if they were engaged in ritualized fighting, as if telling a kind of story about this aspect of their humanity, one in which the goal is not to subdue or hurt, but rather to connect.

No one loves, nor dances, like four and five year olds. It's not just that they want to move their bodies together, to look into one another's eyes in joy and agreement, to spontaneously create together, to lay their hands on one another in ways both gentle and not so gentle, but rather that they need to. Indeed, I'm beginning to believe that dance is so central to our humanity that we all need to. Dancing together is perhaps the highest, most human form of play.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A Game Of Give-And-Take

When they're babies we play give-and-take games with them. I remember doing it with with our daughter: I would hold an object, she would reach out and take it from my hand, then she would give it back to me, and we would then repeat it until her interests took her elsewhere. By the time children get to our preschool, however, these games tend to produce different results. Not always, but increasingly, when one takes an interesting item from the hand of a peer, it results in tears and conflict.

I imagine this is confusing. I mean, at home, mom and dad, maybe even older siblings, habitually continue to play the game, allowing the "baby" to take things from their hands, but at school it more often than not devolves into a game that is far less fun. Most kids figure it out fairly quickly, but there are some for whom the impulse to snatch lingers, even for years.

Yesterday, we were playing with an old motorcycle rearview mirror, one of a collection that was donated years ago by a family cleaning out a garage (garages, cellars, and attics providing a sizable portion of our curriculum supplies). When it was my turn, I called it my "flashlight" and used it to reflect the sun, creating an oval of brightness that I directed to tummies, feet, and the tops of trees. Two boys, young three-year-olds, took special interest in it. At one point one of them attempted to snatch it from my hands. I pulled it back, saying, "I'm using this, but if you ask me for it, I'll probably give it to you."

I've been saying this to these particular boys since last fall. I think of it as a way to both "teach" a less conflict-prone method for affecting the transferance of a desirable object from the hands of one kid to another as well as to role-model a firm-but-courteous way to respond when someone tries to snatch a desirable object from you. In this case, the boy to whom I made this statement continued to try to simply take it from me, so I pulled it back, repeating a bit more forcefully, "I'm using this, but if you ask, me for it, I'll probably give it to you." When he once more reached for it, the second boy, the boy who had been watching, asked, "Please? I want to have it."

I answered, "When I'm finished with it." I goofed with it for a second longer, then handed it to him.

Meanwhile, the first boy's attentions shifted from my hands to the hands of his classmate who was now joyfully shining the bright oval onto the ground, on walls, on other people. His hands began to reach for the mirror with the clear intent of taking it. The boy in possession of the mirror turned his body away, moving the mirror out of reach, saying, "I'm using it!" then went back to having fun. There was another attempt to snatch the mirror, which was again thwarted both physically and verbally. After a few more rounds of this, I could see tensions rising, so I said, "If you want the mirror, maybe you should try asking for it. Maybe he'll give it to you."

He stepped assertively toward his rival until their bellies were nearly touching, grabbed hold of the mirror, and said, "Please!" not like a request, but rather in the spirit of command.

Naturally, the boy with the mirror stepped away, protecting his prized object, firmly asserting, "No!"

Not wanting things to ramp up any further, I said, "He's using it now. You can use it when he's finished with it." Then to the boy holding the mirror, "When you're done with the mirror, your friend wants it."

This seemed to settle things. The boy with the mirror began to experiment again, laughing as he did. Meanwhile, the other boy looked on covetously, standing back, one hand still poised as if for a grab while he tucked the other into his waistband as if using it as a form of self-control. After about 30 seconds, however, his attention waned. He turned his back on the mirror and walked away toward the playhouse where he attempted to remove one of the removable panels. The now solo mirror game continued for another 30 seconds, but then appeared to lose its savor, as if the boy somehow needed his rival for the game to make sense. He started to drop the mirror on the ground, but then stopped himself, choosing instead to run over to the playhouse and, to his friend's delight, shove the mirror into his hands.

It was the give-and-take game again, the one they had played as babies. We spend our lives playing this game, and not always very well I might add, taking and giving and taking again. Indeed, it is part of what forms the foundation of most human interaction -- social, economic, political -- becoming ever more complex, yet remaining at bottom the game we played as babies, a game we never seem to fully master.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Relax And Get Out Of Their Way

I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

We are a cooperative preschool, which means that I work more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things we do is to also teach their parents, which is done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who are, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds are out of diapers. When they tell me they need to go to the potty, I point to the bathroom and say, "The toilet is in there." If you ask their parents, many will insist their child still needs their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it's really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands.

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed a thousand times: "I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps."

A pastor friend of mine once said that our main mission in life is to say to the other people, "Don't be afraid," and that is what I'm saying to parents. Your children already know how to be successful. What they need from you is to love them, to trust them, and to keep them safe. Otherwise, relax and get out of their way. It's through freedom that their own unique success will be found.

I've just 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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