If you’re in the Seattle area, please join me on January 18th at EastWest Bookshop for a three-hour workshop. Parents, mentors, caregivers of teens and tweens and young adults will walk away with ideas for creating and maintaining strong, trusting relationships that are intentional and rooted in mindfulness.
Follow this link to register. Books will be for sale that day as well. Hope to see you there!
Most of us would have a ready answer if asked about the stories that are told about us in our families. Many of us wouldn’t even question those stories, given that we grew up with them and heard them over and over again. Maybe we were anointed the “driven” one, or the jock or the one who makes Mom craziest. Often, these stories are told in jest, to other parents or teachers as a short-hand way to describe a child, and they often conjure up certain attributes that may be accurate in many ways. But it is also important to understand how limiting and potentially harmful they can be over time. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of this that I’d like to share.
Last weekend I was at a gathering where I knew almost nobody. The room was full of people my age with a similar interest, and while many of them knew each other, there were also many pockets of conversations going on where strangers were getting to know each other. It was a lively group and I was enjoying hearing about people’s lives and finding some common ground. In one instance, I was speaking with someone who has grown children and, as my oldest daughter moved far away from home for college, I inquired whether the children lived in our area or farther away. In describing each child, I learned about where they’d gone to college and what they were interested in, and then it happened:
“My oldest child – he’s the f*#k up of the family.” It was said with a laugh and a certain tone of affection, but it felt stunning to me nonetheless. The way the phrase so casually rolled off to a stranger led me to believe that this child is often described this way.
The second instance was a couple months ago when I had occasion to reconnect with a young person I deeply admire. I had a stack of my recently-published book One Teenager at a Time sitting on the kitchen table and I opened it to the acknowledgments page and showed this amazing young person that their name appeared as someone who I credit as being an integral part of my work and the birth of the book. They were stunned and excited and asked if they could take the book with them when they left…”so I can show my parents and prove to them that I’m not a loser!“
Again, this phrase was uttered with a laugh and a nonchalance that belied the sting of it. I have known this young person for a long time and I have heard them use that word in reference to themselves many times before. Each time I have gently let them know that I don’t believe it’s accurate in any way. Despite that, their overall belief is that their parents believe they are a loser.
It is so important to understand how quickly our words become our child’s inner critic. We can tell them we love them daily, and when they hear themselves characterized as a “loser” or an “idiot” or a “pain in the ass,” they can believe both that we love them and also that they are not living up to our hopes and dreams. They can develop a sense that they will never be good enough or that if they just worked hard enough to be something else (not do something else – because name-calling is about saying someone IS something, not that their behavior needs to change, but that THEY need to change), we might love them more. The damage that does to the self-image of our children is enormous, especially if those comments are made with derision, especially if they are made as a joke, as a given, as something that describes the entirety of this person’s being.
In my family, I was known as the “good child,” the compliant one, the one who my parents could count on to do the Right Thing. In many cases, that was a point of pride. Sometimes, it was something I weaponized and used against my siblings. But ultimately, it kept me small, kept me from trying new things, thinking outside the box, questioning rules that seemed unfair. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy because it was used from the time I was very young, and when I reached adolescence and was tasked with defining my own identity and exploring who I really wanted to be, it boxed me in to a certain set of characteristics that weren’t necessarily comfortable, but I had blindly accepted that my parents knew me best, so any time I questioned them, I felt somehow wrong.
It is natural for us as parents to find some sort of short-hand to describe our children. It becomes harmful when we use those terms with disdain or to shame our kids, or if we talk about them as if that is all they are when we describe them to other people. Giving our adolescents room to explore their own ideas of who they are is a key part of helping them develop a healthy self-image. Letting them know that we support them as they seek to grow rather than pretending we already know who they are and what their fate is can create room for a stronger, healthier relationship.
My hope for these two young people is that they hear other voices in their heads telling them that they are not “losers” or “f*#k ups.” That they know that they are beloved, allowed to think in different ways and try new things and make mistakes without fear of being known as the one person in their family who is less than. My hope for their parents is that they come to acknowledge the power of their words and seek to use new ones that let their children know that they are so much more than a derogatory term used in jest.
I spent three amazing, brain-busting days in Chicago at the CASEL SELXChange conference two weeks ago and I know that the lessons and conversations will continue to reverberate in my brain for a long time to come. It was an extraordinary gathering of folks who are interested in the well-being of children and how we can fix the broken education system to serve children better.
There are so many places to focus attention and shine a light, but the one I’ve chosen to dig further in to this week is the idea of cultural differences and what they mean and how they affect the experiences of students every day. The first thing I did was pick up Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain.”
As commonly happens in my world, things started to converge. When I read her explanation of “cultural archetypes,” in particular, the distinction between collectivism and individualism, I was reminded of a quote I’ve heard over and over again from Peter Drucker:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Of course, he was referring to the culture of a company, but it’s true in the case of schools, too. We can have the best educational strategies around, but if they don’t take in to account the cultural background of the kids we’re teaching, they will fall flat. Hammond talks about the fact that many kids will come to school from families whose beliefs and values center around collectivism, and if we have our classroom norms set up around individualism, those kids will struggle to find resonance.
Even if we put kids in to groups to do projects or explore concepts, our bedrock in most cases is individualism – we talk about leaders (singling out one student in each group) and emphasize grades and don’t take the time to explore what each student is bringing to the table as far as cultural viewpoints.
As my amazing, insightful friend Jen Lemen says, “the way we hold individuality and the idea of contribution to a group puts a lot of weight on our personal preferences and experiences and a lot of weight on the group being a certain way. If the groups aren’t a certain way and I don’t feel good myself, I have to hyper-individualize or hyper-conform or squash some part of myself. After doing that for a while, either you crack or the system cracks.”
Encouraging kids to do group work without really talking about what that means and exploring the responsibility of each member to themselves and the others is asking a lot. As I talked about in my last post, we can’t assume that everyone is coming to the work in the same way, and if our classrooms and systems are set up to reward individualism, then the kids who have been steeped in that culture will naturally thrive while the ones for whom individualism is alien and challenging will not. Simply calling something “group work” or “collective” is not enough. We have to really understand what that means to each student and acknowledge the barriers it throws up for some.
The kids who are coming to us with completely different world views are already working harder. If our systems trigger big questions of values and identity for them, the work they do to conform derails the work they’re doing to learn the material we present. And for some of those kids, behavior issues are a result of hyper-individualizing or cracking. When the system is bigger than you and supported by the dominant culture, it’s more likely that you’ll crack than the system. But as more and more children from diverse backgrounds enter our school system, what we are seeing is the system beginning to fall apart. Rather than panicking and trying to shore it up, I believe we need to see it as an opportunity to radically re-think how we serve kids.
We’ve centered the system for far too long. It’s time to start centering the students and their well-being. There are many ways to do that, and one incredibly powerful one is for folks to find Hammond’s book and hold it up against the practices and priorities we have in our educational systems right now to see where we can do better.
As parents and educators (or mentors or coaches), it’s imperative that we get in the habit of taking a step back from our habits and normal practices to ask whether they’re serving the kids we work and live with.
Unfortunately, I think that, too often, we forget that learning is a process and not like flipping a switch. In order for learning to take place, a lot of different things need to be happening – attention, emotional readiness, context, and previous understanding, among other things. And the question we need to ask ourselves about the way we teach kids and what we expect of them is this:
Do we want them to LEARN or do we want them to KNOW?
Often, I think we end up shaming or punishing kids for not KNOWING something we think is obvious, rather than taking the time and effort to teach them about it, what it is, why it’s important, how it can look and feel.
I once heard someone give an example that struck me as the perfect illustration of this*. She said she asks a class full of students to raise their hands if they’ve ever been told to “pay attention.” Predictably, nearly every single hand goes up (if not all of them). Then she asks them to keep their hands raised if anyone has ever taught them to pay attention. Most of the hands go down.
Think about the kinds of things we get annoyed with kids about, roll our eyes about, expect them to KNOW how to do. Now think about whether we’ve ever had foundational conversations with them about what we mean by that, what we think it looks like, how they could learn to do it. Even if we think we’re leading by example, how do we know that kids are watching us with the same thoughts and intentions we want them to have?
I might get frustrated with my kids for not loading the dishwasher the way I want them to, but if I haven’t spent time teaching them why and how I like it that way, is it fair to expect them to know all of that? The fact is, if we aren’t taking the time and care to TEACH, we have no business expecting kids to know how to do things. And if we set out to teach them something because they don’t already know how to do it, mocking them for not knowing won’t engender trust and facilitate the learning process.
As educators, we can’t know what a kid’s previous experiences were like, so while it may be time and labor-intensive, it’s important to check in with them and make sure that they’re comfortable with the procedures and expectations we have. If we want papers to be turned in electronically, we have to ensure that they’ve been taught to do that. If we want them to speak up in class or work with their peers in a productive way, we need to ask whether they’ve been asked to do that before and if they understand what it means to be on a team. Some of our classroom norms might be completely new and it’s our job to spend a little time laying the groundwork for every student in the class. If you’ve got a student who has been home-schooled, make sure they know how to work with others, get their needs met in a full classroom, find their rhythm and pace in this setting.
Helping kids feel successful means being on the lookout for times when we are expecting things of them that they may not know how to deliver, and supporting their learning process. If we truly want kids to LEARN, then we have to not make assumptions about what they KNOW.
*I’d totally cite the source here if I could. I’m pretty sure it was a mindfulness teacher talking to Oren Jay Sofer for a Mindful Schools webinar, but I have lost the link. It was definitely a woman and she’s written books on the subject, so if anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll give her the credit she deserves.
Part 1 is here. This post will explore qualities of effective leaders, expectations of leaders, barriers to functional groups, and what a “good” group looks like.
Qualities of Effective Leaders: First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that there is always always a power differential. As hard as we may work to make kids feel safe, we have to remember that it will take time to earn trust and build relationships, and the more we exert our authority or use it as a tool to manage the conversation and get our way, the harder it will be to build rapport. Trust is an outcome of honest conversation, not a prerequisite for it.
Second, we have to be willing and able to examine our own biases/habits/behaviors. Without judging or shaming or blaming, simply acknowledging our tendency to wield power or assume ill intent or use body language to express our disapproval or disagreement will help us as leaders and parents to think about how those things affect the atmosphere we are trying to create. The more we can do this, the more we are able to choose mindful responses and actions when we’re in tricky situations with adolescents, especially if we are uncomfortable.
Next, it’s vital that we remain accountable to the larger group or relationship. Getting defensive is not a path to relationship-building. Staying humble and curious and treating everyone as though their perspective is important and deserves air-time (even if we vehemently disagree) is key. When someone lets us know that they feel shut-down or disrespected or triggered, it is our responsibility as leaders to set aside our knee-jerk responses and dig in to really understand. Dismissing another person’s emotional response is a quick way to stifle connection.
Expectations for Leaders: Stay present. Letting past challenges or future worries invade the conversation, or dissociating because the topic isn’t compelling to you or it’s a difficult one to sit with derails the conversation.
Lead with curiosity. We have to be willing to give kids this age air-time, if only to give them practice speaking up about challenging issues. The more they feel listened to, the more they’re willing to engage.
Lead by example. Be honest about your own difficulties, show compassion for everyone in the room, listen carefully. (The one caveat I have here is that it is possible to share too much. Remember that this is about the kids, so while it is helpful for them to see us being human and vulnerable, oversharing can make it feel like a lecture or as if we are comparing our experiences to theirs. The goal is to help them understand that it’s ok to talk about hard things and that there are a range of perspectives that are all valid and important.)
Support and encourage everyone. Acknowledge how hard this work is and praise individuals for sitting with discomfort, for learning to be with it and not run away.
Barriers to Good Groups: Huge power differentials – there can’t be one or two people always driving the conversation or making the decisions.
Norms are habitual and largely unexamined. It’s important to really spend time looking at the expectations for any group through the lens of each participant.
Focusing on consensus or agreement. The goal of SEL is to learn to appreciate difference, see diverse opinions and perspectives as strengths, and encourage everyone to speak up. The tendency of adolescents is to ‘fit in’ and in many cases that means people-pleasing. It may be difficult, but it is vital to remind kids that the goal is not for everyone to conform.
Attributes of Good Groups: Effective groups have a balance of engagement of all voices. They are also self-aware and able to change when necessary – if there are behaviors that are preventing honest conversation such as bias or stereotypes, good groups are willing to stop and address those underlying issues. Groups that are doing the hard work are able to look at systems/policies/norms that are unproductive and center folks whose needs aren’t being served.
Good groups also lead with curiosity and prioritize learning and understanding. They know that their purpose is to get messy and really open up, not necessarily to come to some larger “conclusion.”
All of these things are a work in progress. There is no group/classroom/family that will start out with all of these qualities and hit the ground running. As I wrote in Part One, the important thing is that you begin, and that you are willing to stay curious and make adjustments as you go, thanks to feedback from anyone in the group.
You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.
PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.
We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.
It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.
Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Following a(nother) spate of mass shootings across the United States, I am feeling frustrated, impotent, and incredibly sad. I don’t want us to collectively stay trapped in this loop of grief, anger, and paralysis, and I believe we are beginning to have the kinds of conversations we need to have, but I also feel an urgency about spurring those conversations on in a way that feels proactive and hopeful. I admit to weaving back and forth between signing petitions and donating to organizations fighting gun violence and amplifying tweets from people in power whose words I think are important to sitting quietly in despair and sadness.
I have long understood that anger is rooted in fear, and when I look around, I see so many people who are swimming in those waters. We are perpetuating generational fear in so many ways and it will take a deliberate, determined effort to break that cycle. We need to start having some difficult conversations with our kids and really listening to them. We need to change the way we relate to them and focus on making sure they feel loved and safe in relationship so that when they go out in to the world they aren’t hurting people.
I was a kid who swam in the waters of fear. My parents were both fearful people and they made a lot of their biggest decisions out of fear. I learned that the world was a scary place, that unconditional love was a fairy tale, and that nothing would get done unless I did it for myself. It’s a toxic way to live and it took a lot of therapy and a few really special, loving people to show me that it’s possible to make your way through the world with a belief that people are good and loving, that I am part of something bigger.
The rhetoric that dominates our public sphere is one of fear and scarcity. It tells us that there isn’t enough for all of us, there are threats out there so we must always be on guard, the world is a dangerous place. When people begin to believe that, they buy guns to carry on their bodies at all times “just in case.” They have a physical reaction to those who look different or speak a different language than they do. And often, they attack pre-emptively. Much of this attacking takes place online, since that is a safe place to begin – writing hateful things about other people, sending threats that they won’t likely follow through on, building a coalition of like-minded individuals to help defend them.
But more and more often, it spills out in to the public sphere and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The violent anger of white supremacy is rooted in fear – fear that people of color are ‘taking over,’ fear that they will strike at some point, fear that there isn’t enough. And in some cases, like Eliot Rogers and others who kill women and transgendered people, it is the fear that they themselves aren’t enough – that they aren’t loved, that they won’t be cherished and cared for.
This culture of fear is toxic, and combating it starts at home and has to happen in our schools, as well. More than reading and writing and number-crunching, we need to teach our kids that they are loved, that they are safe, that there is enough. We do that by listening to them, by paying attention to the things that they are most afraid of and addressing those things. It is a significant shift to make, and one that requires effort and, often, a “fake it til you feel it” approach – especially if we were raised with fear, ourselves. But it is absolutely necessary if we are to interrupt the cycle of hatred and violence.
We must curb our strongest emotional responses so as not to lash out in anger.
We must let our kids see our full range of emotional responses, talk to them about when we feel fear, and help them understand that the things we are most afraid of will almost never come to pass. We have to give them context and let them talk to us about their fears without judging or teasing them.
The three young white men who are responsible for killing scores of innocent people in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton in the last week were, I am certain, driven by fear. Fear that they learned a long time ago, that was perpetuated and encouraged by our political rhetoric. We teach young white men that it is acceptable to express their fear as anger in a variety of ways, and unless we want to keep stoking our own fears of dating, going out in public, and speaking our truth, we have to change the way we raise our kids.
And until we do significantly change the way we raise our kids, and interrupt this culture of fear, we have no business selling guns. They are the single deadliest weapon in our country, able to take the lives of innocent people more quickly and efficiently than any other weapon available to the public, and we can’t afford to have them in the hands of people whose fear has metastasized to anger, especially those who have been taught that their anger is righteous and justified and socially acceptable.
Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”
Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’
Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.
To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.
It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us.