Friday, December 30, 2016

"We Shall Not Cease From Exploration"

Don't aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally. ~David Frost

I didn't send my child to school in order that she would one day be successful. I certainly enjoy it, as a father does, when she is successful: those times she comes to me and says, "I'm proud of what I did," the only success that's worth a damn. But that isn't why I drove her to school on that very first day or nor why she puts herself on the bus each morning these days. I've changed my mind about a lot of things during my 18 years as a parent -- in fact, I've changed my mind about most things I thought I knew about being a parent before becoming one -- but this is a feeling that has only grown.

The idea of schools and their lessons that must be learnt by this day or that, their desks and walls and textbooks and grades and lectures and homework, their perverse insistence upon giving the tests at the back end of lessons instead of how experience, the greatest teacher of all, does it, by giving the test first and the lesson after, this all caused my insides to clench up, although I didn't have the knowledge then to put it into words. All I knew is that I didn't at all like the idea of my child spending the first couple decades of her life jumping through hoops for judges who would then tell her whether or not she ought to be proud. It has always been enough for me that she wanted to keep going back.

Education, of course, needn't come from schools and I knew it even as a new parent. I thought a lot about homeschooling or unschooling or spending a few years as a family sailing around the world, all best laid plans for a theoretical daughter. As I got to know the real person who is our child, however, I began to see that she was like her mother in that she genuinely craved the other people, that a small social world wouldn't hold her contentedly for very long, that she would soon outgrow any and every clique I was able to manufacture for her, that her passion for connecting with them would always grow bigger than every social life I attempted to cobble together. She would want, I perceived, especially as she grew older, a larger universe of people in her life than I was constitutionally capable of sustaining. Schools were where most of the kids could be found and I knew by the time she was ready that school was the right place for her. We chose school over the other educational options for social reasons, because that was what she most loved.

For 18 years, I arrived at parent-teacher conferences with only one two-part question: Does she treat her classmates well and do they treat her well? Beyond that, I let her teachers tell me what they wanted to tell me about how they saw her strengths and weaknesses, interesting data points for a parent who still had to make a few decisions on her behalf and who no longer spent most of his days in her company. But more valuable were the subsequent discussions we had with her about those judgments, some of which she agreed with, some she rejected, and others she took under advisement. I've always been impressed by her ability to analyze her teachers' assessments, minimizing both praise and criticism when she feels they are undeserved or off target, talking of steps she has already taken or will take when what she hears strikes her as true. This is her passion, not the grades and tests, but the figuring out of people, learning from them, and building a life that is full of them.

There have been times over the years when we were tempted to use this passion as a kind of cudgel the way Tiger Mom types do; to ground her, to make her drop her after school Shakespeare group, to take away her guitar, until she could "better focus" on something for which she had no passion at all. But the few times we tried it were very short-lived because it made us feel as if we were cutting off her oxygen. Relationships, acting, music, these are the things that she loves: these are the things in which she excels because of that love. These are the reasons she wants to keep going back.

It has always been enough that she wanted to keep going back. The teachers who helped open our daughter's eyes to new passions -- to literature, to science, to math, to history, to sports, to language, to politics -- have been the ones who knew to do it through her foremost passions for creating relationships, acting, and music. They are the ones who have succeeded in helping her find new passions or to discover her bedrock passions in new and surprising places. 

She came to love volleyball in middle school because her coach understood that being a teammate was far more important than winning, losing, or even athletics themselves. She came to love the poetry of Robert Browning because her teacher was able to show her the music embedded in his verse.  She came to an appreciation for (I won't quite say love) for biology when her teacher stepped out the rigidity of subject matter to lay down some straight-forward older sister style truth about teenage life. She became passionate about politics when her teacher pulled their heads out of text books and got them up in front of the room, on a stage, to actually debate the issues. And, of course, her music and drama teachers just kept setting up challenges and next steps for this motivated girl, trusting that her passion would teach her what she needed to learn, building relationships with her, and fully understanding that their primary job was to keep her wanting to come back.

My girl is now thriving as a college student, spending her days immersed in the things she most loves. I didn't send my child to school in order that one day she'll be successful, because in the most real sense of all, she already is. She has found things she loves, she keeps finding them at school, and her teachers have discovered how to use her passion to open up more and more of the world to her. That's why she keeps going back.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

                                         ~ T.S. Eliot

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Calm Mind

When I first started teaching, I spent a lot of time worrying, not about anything in particular, or rather, about everything in particular. It's in the nature of inexperience to be nervous, so when I look back on the things over which I fretted I can be gentle with myself, but I can also see that my concerns reduced me as a teacher. For instance, I was infected with the common disease of catastrophic thinking, which lead me to spend far too much time and energy fixing phony hazards. But it wasn't just that, my brain was constantly abuzz with nonsense, like my young man's concerns about dancing about and singing silly songs in front of a room full of young women who were certain to think me a fool, or over what color shirt to wear for the first day of school, or if I'd prepared the right balance of large and fine motor activities. You name it, I stewed over it.

My brain can still get overwhelmed with stupid crap, of course, but not so much once the kids have arrived at school. Indeed, I'm now a seasoned teacher, having done this for years, having spent time with all sorts of kids and their parents in all sorts of situations. I know I can handle it. I may fret in the moments before the school doors open, but my mind is generally quite calm once there are children on the premises. There are still ups and downs, challenges, and even emergencies, but I've found that I'm at my best when I'm simply in the moment, reacting, rather than worrying.

Last week, I mentioned that I'd been taking inspiration from conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The two men have written a book together which I assume I'll be reading in the near future, but in the meantime I'm musing on snippets.

Several times in the videos the Dalai Lama mentions the spiritual importance of maintaining a calm mind, a basic tenet of Buddhism. I know this is true from the long view of my experience as a teacher, but I'm only now striving to apply it to the rest of life, even when it's natural to be uncertain. As Mark Twain wrote, "Those of you inclined to worry have the largest selection in history." I reckon one could trace that sentiment back through Shakespeare, Plato, and Abraham. There is always something to worry about and it's in the nature of worry to consume every spare part of our consciousness. It's well and good to admonish a modern human to "have a calm mind," but quite another thing to do it.

For the past decade or so, I've taken part in the Feast of the Winter Solstice, an event hosted by our very own Fremont Arts Council. We are responsible for the infamous Summer Solstice Parade and a variety of other "pagan holiday" events throughout the year, but this is the one I've always enjoyed the most. Maybe it's the great metaphorical event I recently wrote about: we have survived the longest night and now celebrate the return of the sun. Maybe it's the familiarity of old friends. Maybe it's the art. Maybe its the food and drink. Whatever the case, I always find myself as fully aware as I've ever been. Conversation is easy, dancing just happens, every greeting is an embrace. Our worries are all behind us.

"Worry is a misuse of imagination," as my friend Lars said to me at the feast (a quote that comes originally from the author Dan Zadra), and it's true. It's the fabrication of dystopias, horrible fantasy worlds that come to replace the real world, which is now, which is, as every great philosopher agrees, the only certainty. When the first child crosses my threshold she brings with her the reality of this moment and I owe it to her, to you, and to myself, to be fully aware and awake. It's a space in which worry doesn't exist. And that, for me, is what it means to have a calm mind.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wisdom We Lose

We used to try to get away to someplace warm and sunny during this week, but it's enough that our daughter is home from college. So instead we're sleeping in, going to the movies, and generally just being together.

The winter break has fallen perfectly into the calendar this year, giving us more than two weeks off, with the big days right in the middle. I mentioned in a previous post that our family has been hand making most of our holiday gifts for the past 20 or so years, but that didn't mean there wasn't shopping to do. My idea this year was to hollow out wine corks and plant tiny succulents in them, then glue magnets on them for use on the fridge or wherever. There was a trip to the Indoor Sun Shop, a craft store, and an entirely necessary visit to my local hardware store where I bought nothing, but figured out how to hollow out those corks while chatting with the store owner -- that's right, locally-owned hardware stores still exist in the hearts of cities.

These were my holiday gifts, clumped together on our toaster

I got started on Thursday morning. Since we live downtown most of my shopping was on foot which meant I didn't have to deal with driving or parking, although I did take one quick trip on the number 40 to retrieve a fistful of corks from our school's supply. I knew that both Christmas Eve and the first day of Hanukah were on Saturday, but somehow I'd been operating all week as if it was a day earlier, so I awoke on Friday with absolutely nothing to do, a true holiday.

After cooking breakfast for my girl, I left the women together to focus on their joint craft project while I did one of the things I most love: wander the city. Downtown was thronged as it ought to be every day of the year, but especially two days before Christmas. There are those who prefer to be "far from the madding crowd," and I get it. If you have an agenda, the other people get in your way, but that's as true on suburban streets and malls as it is on downtown sidewalks, and honestly, I'd much rather be navigating on my own two feet than stuck behind the wheel of a car.

And when I don't have an agenda, or rather when the agenda is simply being amongst my fellow humans, it's glorious. I paced myself according to the bustling flow of humanity, not ducking and dodging, not hurrying, but being together with them all. There were expressions of holiday joy everywhere -- laughter, singing, and gay apparel -- but there were some, those with agendas I expect, who were crabby, sniping at their companions. I wanted to put an arm around them and say, "It's okay" or "Who cares?"

Perhaps agendas are a necessary condition of adulthood. It's why we recall our own childhoods so fondly, I think, and why we want to make the holidays magical for the kids, because they're actually capable of appreciating it. Children have agendas, of course, but the younger they are, the more readily they're able to set them aside and simply experience the joy.

We think of life as a process of gaining wisdom, but this is an example of the wisdom we lose unless we make an effort to retain it. And now I'm heading out into the world with no plan whatsoever.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Spoiling The Kids

Whenever I write or talk about treating children as if they are fully formed humans and not just incomplete adults, like I did here, there are some who ask me about (or even accuse me of) "spoiling" the kids. They then go on to tell me horror stories about how permissive parents have let their rotten kids take over their lives, bossing them around, dominating their households, terrorizing their peers, and frustrating their teachers.

It's hard, I think, for some people to understand the world without a hierarchical framework: someone has to be the boss -- if it's not the parent, it's the child. When I suggest paying attention to the words we use with children, avoiding the language of command, and instead choosing statements of fact which allow children to practice taking responsibility for their own actions, I understand how some people fear that it will become a slippery slope down which the whole carefully constructed family org chart will slide. I understand how it might seem that if you're not bossing your child, she will take advantage, gain the upper hand, and assume the scepter. To believe this takes a view of human nature that I've not found to be true, but I understand it.

So let me state right here: I'm all for fewer "spoiled" children in the world (although I'd like us to retire that label along with "bully," "aggressive," and "shy").  These children are characterized as self-centered and demanding, inconsiderate of others, see their needs as most important, and will resort to often extreme behavior to get their way. These are not happy children and they tend to grow into unhappy adults who struggle with relationships, have a hard time holding jobs, and are generally miserable to be around.

The common wisdom, it seems, is that these behaviors come from not enough "tough love;" from parents who are afraid of their children, and are too namby-pamby to put their foot down, an approach popularized by such pop-psychology sensations as Dr. Phil. Sadly, this is not what psychologists who actually do research have found. So-called "spoiled" behaviors," in fact, result from things like not enough proactive attention from parents, not expecting children to do things for themselves, and a lack of clear limits, not a dearth of bossy parents.

Not enough proactive attention
The best parenting advice I ever got was from my mother, who said, "All children want is attention. If you don't give it to them, they'll take it." And indeed children, from the moment they are born, are designed to get attention from the adults around them. From a biological point of view, this makes perfect sense: they are born utterly incapable of keeping themselves alive, except to the degree that they can get adult humans to feed, clothe, and protect them. This instinct doesn't go away as they get older. When they feel ignored, they correct that problem through tantrums, whining, clinging, and other "spoiled" behaviors. They don't really care if the attention they get is negative or positive, frankly, they are just biologically driven to get your attention. So for your own sanity (and to avoid "spoiling" your child), I'd suggest proactively giving them the kind of attention you choose, because otherwise they'll choose it for you and you're probably not going to like it.

Doing too much for your kids
Awhile back, I met a woman who works in the admissions department at the University of Washington here in Seattle. She told me that increasingly freshmen are showing up on campus without such basic life skills as using can openers, cooking on a stovetop, and operating a washing machine. She said the problem is so bad that many universities have had to institute remedial life skills classes. Instead of learning to do things for themselves, "spoiled" kids have turned to mastering the skills required to get things done for them, which will often look a lot like being self-centered, demanding, and even tyrannical. So for your own sanity (and to avoid "spoiling" your child), I'd suggest teaching him to do as much for himself as his age and abilities will allow.

Lack of clear limits
As Goethe wrote, "It is within limitations that he first shows himself the master." This is where we all agree, and we can all point to examples of parents, who in the sincere interest of teaching their children independence or giving them "freedom," err on the side of a household in which anything goes. This is not a good environment for children. It tends to make them feel nervous, uncertain, and to generally demonstrate "spoiled" behaviors.

Where we tend to disagree is in how we create those limitations and how we work with those limitations.  I suppose the traditional model is for parents to lay down the law and create a system of punishments for violations. It doesn't have to be that way. In our school, for instance, all of the rules are made by the children themselves, through a process of consensus. In a decade of doing it this way, the adults have never found the need to dictate rules beyond those the children create, indeed, if anything we find we need to moderate many of their more extreme legislative efforts. Our process is one that many of Woodland Park's families have adopted in their own homes, keeping a running list of family rules on the refrigerator door to refer to as needed.

Do children break the rules? Of course they do. The adults, however, don't need to then punish them to do the job of teaching about limitations. Instead our job as adults is to point to the list of rules and say, "You and your friends agreed . . ."

So what do you do if a child keeps breaking a rule?  Certainly there's a consequence, a punishment.  If we do that, if we resort to punishment we put the focus on the punishment and the punisher, rather than where we want it to be, on the behavior. Instead we do what makes sense, we just keep reminding them until they remember on their own. No one would think of punishing a child for not, say, remembering her A-B-C's; we would patiently keep working with her until she got it. Why should teaching about limits be any different?

In other words, children aren't "spoiled" because they haven't been sufficiently bossed around by adults.

Creating a world of facts, instead of a world of commands
A mistake many of us make (and one of the things that drives critics of this approach crazy) is to think that all of this means that everything is open to negotiation, that our child gets to decide such things as when to get dressed, whether or not they go to the doctor, or where the family will eat dinner. In our effort to be super parents, we forget that we adults are fully formed humans as well. Our opinions, needs, and emotions are not made lesser because we seek to honor those of the child, but are rather equal, and to the degree that they diverge from those of our child, must often take precedence.

There are also realities of which we are aware that our children are not: schedules, for instance, courtesy to others, safety. Sometimes we must insist that we know best, but that doesn't mean we need to use the language of command. Statements of fact are not commands, such as:

     "It's time to go."
     "What you said hurt her feelings."
     "If you do that you might die."

I statements that convey our opinions or feelings are also statements of fact, such as:

     "I don't want to be late."
     "I feel sad when she's crying."
     "I don't want you to die."

Factual statements about the child's behavior can also be very powerful, such as:

     "You seem upset that it's time to go."
     "You sounded angry when you said that to her."
     "If you keep doing that you might die and that will probably hurt."

And factual statements about your own responsibilities are also important, such as:

     "I can't stay because daddy is expecting us."
     "I can't let you say hurtful things to her."
     "I can't let you cross the street by yourself."

Creating a world of facts instead of a world of commands gives children the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about their behavior, to make their own decisions about right and wrong, or to at least understand why this is one of those times when they don't get what they want. These kinds of experiences lead to a sense of responsibility, empathy, and confidence, characteristics that are the opposite of those that characterize a "spoiled" child.

Everyone's goal is a child who understands her own emotions, treats others with respect, and knows how to assess her own risks. These are all vital skills to success in life. When we boss our kids into these behaviors, we're not giving them a chance to learn anything we want them to learn; we're just forcing them to do something because "I said so." It's effective in the moment, but it teaches nothing except, perhaps, obedience -- a very dangerous habit in adulthood. When we, on the other hand, help our children see the "facts" surrounding their behaviors and choices, we allow them to actually practice these skills. Of course, they will make mistakes, just the way a carpenter has to hit his thumb a few times before he learns to use a hammer, and it might be frustrating or embarrassing for you as the parent, but experience is the only way anyone ever learns anything.

I know it sounds like a lot of work. It is, indeed, much easier to boss people around. It's hard to overcome deeply rooted habits of thought. But it does get easier with practice. And the results are worth it.

That's how to treat your children with respect without spoiling them.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Then We Knew The Answer

We found treasure in the wood chips,
Not my treasure, nor your treasure.

We pinched each piece in our fingers
And put them in a coffee pot,

Then stepped back together
To see what we had done.

We found a carpet tube on the carpet,
Not my tube, nor your tube.

We sprawled on our bellies
Holding it under our chests and arms.

Then stayed there for awhile
Giggling over what we had done.

We built a cardboard airplane
Not my plane, nor your plane.

We drew on it with markers,
Telling stories about where we would go,

Then just kept making that plane
Until no one said it was done.

We found a rainbow in the fountain
Not my rainbow, nor your rainbow.

Shown to us by a winter sun
Banded colors made from mist,

Then we knew the answer:
This is why we're here.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Truly Last Minute Gift Ideas

I've been hearing "last minute gift ideas" advertisements since at least mid-November. Pfft. But now, finally, the last minute is truly upon us, so as a public service I offer Teacher Tom's last minute gift ideas for children, most of which won't even require a trip to a mall.

Mesh produce bags.

Things that rot.

A place to leave things to rot . . .

. . . and worms to live there.


An old typewriter.








Boxes and balls.

Nuts, bolts, wrenches and screwdrivers . . .

. . . rubber bands . . .

. . . and put them all together.

Glue guns.


Dolls . . .

. . . who need bandages.



Water, gutters, tubes and shovels.



Step ladders . . .

. . . and homemade ladders.

Tree parts.




Junk . . .

 . . . and jewels.

Merry Christmas!

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