Finding what matters

The worry is widespread – parents are faced with making the kinds of decisions about their children’s schooling and their own work and livelihood which they’d normally make only after much contemplation and research, (assuming they had the freedom and resources to do so, which of course most don’t). I’ve been responding to a variety of related questions, and have found that one of the most frequently asked is about choosing a curriculum to purchase, when a family is considering opting out of whatever in-person or online schooling will be available to them in the fall. Each family’s circumstances are unique and specific, and very few generalizations are even possible, but here’s one thing I’ve been recommending which could help redirect the energy otherwise pointed toward panic, and set a tone for navigating these decisions from a place of alignment with what matters most to you and your child.

Curriculum of course seems like the bone structure of school – the thing that gives school its school-ness. So if it is school we would be replacing, we’d start there, with the skeleton, right? As it happens, though, packaged curriculum can in some cases be a helpful, supportive force but in others can cultivate unnecessary strife and undermine learning. Before you go curriculum shopping, you may first want to reflect a bit on your child’s specific experience of school, to think about exactly what kind of loss it constitutes for them to cease attending school.

We hear a lot from the media about the ones who miss their closed schools. And there are indeed plenty of good reasons to miss school: maybe it’s safer there than at home, or you get along better with your friends than you do with your family, or you have a great teacher who understands and inspires you, or you love math and were enjoying your geometry class, which is just not the same online. But there are also many reasons to be relieved at the closing of school: perhaps your teacher has been consistently unkind to you, or it is excruciating for you to sit still for hours, or your strengths aren’t valued there, or you’re bored and you wish you could work on more difficult assignments.

My 10 year-old niece has said that she likes remote learning because it makes it harder for kids to be mean to each other. She’s not usually bullied at school but is often the one to intervene when there are difficulties between classmates. I think she appreciates not only the actual reduction in meanness but also that she herself is freed up to focus on school work, without the distraction of the social strain present in the classroom. And I’m guessing she misses seeing friends at school and has had to make more effort to remain connected to them, but has apparently determined that it could be a worthwhile trade-off.

I also spoke recently with a parent who told me she was surprised to find that her young son, who had never taken an interest in learning to read at school, made great progress at home during the quarantine months, mostly on his own. He could also keep physically active throughout the day. Many of the issues the family had struggled with when he was going to school disappeared.

This sudden removal of school from children’s lives has revealed a lot about which components of school have been serving them – contributing to their growth and thriving – and which may have been undermining learning and health. This tumultuous and bewildering pandemic occasion can also be an opportunity (especially for those who are in a position to have their children at home with them) to take a closer look at what individual kids need and how we may be able to provide it, whether they miss school as it was and look forward to going back, or are relieved to be elsewhere.

Here are some questions to consider, if this line of inquiry appeals to you. (I’ll alternate pronouns and the accompanying adjectives.)

What does your child miss about school? What does she not miss?

What do you miss from when your child was in school? What are you relieved to be rid of?

Is there anything that has become possible that was not possible before?

Is there anything your child has been interested in that there has never been time to explore with them?

What is helpful for your child to have in his days? What is important to him?

How much physical activity does your child need?

How is your child different from you? What do you admire about them?

You can consider one or more of the questions yourself, and/or offer them to your child to ponder for themselves. If you offer them to your child to consider, you can then talk about your respective responses and how they might inform the choices you make for the coming year. There are lots of ways you can use one or all of the questions, but the idea is to give yourself a moment to organize yourself around what you and your child know about them.

What you’ll have done is reframe the venture as a matter of who your child is and what is likely to support health, learning, and thriving in that actual person. If you still feel like you need a curriculum to follow, you might now have more of an idea of what you want the curriculum to provide and thus can use your own judgment to choose powerfully rather than having to rely on information about what has worked for others with very different children in likely different circumstances. Or you may find that some carefully-chosen materials which support exploration of specific subject areas or topics will serve you better than one multi-subject curriculum. Or you may decide on something else entirely. But you’ll be starting from the needs and specificity of your young person rather from a generalized notion of what is needed for all people your person’s age. This starting point will dramatically improve the chances that whatever you endeavor to do can evolve into something effective and consistent with what matters to you. And your actual person.


The other day, one of the teenagers I know was talking about one of her teachers and how on certain days he plays music from one of his favorite albums during part of class. She said “He plays it in every class he hosts that day.”

When she’d finished telling the story I asked her about her choice of verb, because of course “host” isn’t what you’d expect in this context, but it hadn’t seemed like an accident. She said “Yeah, I’m not sure why I said it that way, but it seemed like what I meant.”

We had other things to talk about so I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to know if she’d chosen the word more or less on purpose. From the sound of it, in that particular teacher’s class, this student feels more like a guest than a… subject… the way many do in many classes.

A small thing, except not at all.

phantom loads

For awhile several years ago I was really interested in solar-powered electricity, and one of the things you hear a lot about in that realm is phantom load. A phantom load is anything that’s quietly drawing electricity even when it’s not really doing anything noticeable like shedding light or heating something up. Stovetop clocks, power strip lights, and wireless routers are all culprits. These little loads don’t use much power, but when you can only draw power from the small solar panel array on your roof (as opposed to from the electrical grid), you keep more careful track of what you’re using.

I don’t have solar power at my house (yet?!) but from time to time I still think about phantom loads. The other night I was walking through the dark upstairs hall and the little light on a hard-wired smoke detector caught my eye. “Phantom load,” I said out loud to the detector, and into my memory popped a line I once heard about being kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. (The original language, from the Scottish preacher Ian Maclaren, seems to have been “be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”) That in turn reminded me of that adage about how you shouldn’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. We don’t know what goes on for other people, nor they for us.

All such wisdom seems especially apt now that we all have such ready access to curated feeds of others’ lives (in other words, their outsides). Meanwhile, everyone’s carrying their own phantom loads – burdens that are invisible to the naked or careless eye, sapping energy all the live long day. And there’s a way in which the smaller ones can take a greater overall toll thanks to their invisibility. When I think of my time as a classroom teacher, I know that when I’d hear that a student had lost a family member or was dealing with a severe illness, I’d take particular care with the child. But if one of my students was struggling with something less worthy of mention, like a chronically contentious relationship with a sibling, or stomach pain from an undiagnosed food allergy, a proclivity for nightmares (or all three), I usually wouldn’t hear about it and the child’s internal battle would carry on without acknowledgment or support.

It’s hard to imagine we could get much done if we tried to suss out every load carried by every person in every circumstance, never mind try to address them all. But if there were some way we could even just acknowledge that the loads are there, especially for young children who often feel as though they are the only ones struggling in their particular way (and thus get the idea that something must be wrong with or defective about them), I think that could go a long way.

You can do it

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

a few things about smallness

The other day I thought maybe it might be time for me to try calculus again.  I didn’t take it in high school the way I might’ve if I’d been born a bit more recently, because there wasn’t a year left for it after 9th grade algebra, 10th grade geometry, etc.  And then I didn’t take it in college because, I think, I was tired.  Or didn’t get along well with the teacher?  I can’t really remember.

But there it is, out there, this un-learned mass with the fancy name. One of the young people I know, with whom I have been doing math for several years because she likes it and doesn’t “need” a tutor but likes having one, is nearing the end of pre-cal.  She and I are really more like math buddies than tutor and tutee.  I help her when she needs help, but a lot of the time we find interesting problems to try to solve together. Now, there she is, about to start calculus, and not only will I not be able to help anymore, she’ll likely be too busy with her calculus to do math with me much anymore.

So I’ve been brushing up on my pre-cal, looking for gaps and rusty spots, and considering  calculus texts.  I’m a Martin Gardner fan, and my library had a copy of Calculus Made Easy, the Silvanus Thompson text with revisions by Gardner, so I tracked it down in the 515s and opened to the table of contents. Thompson’s first chapter is called “To Deliver You from the Preliminary Terrors.” I immediately texted the words to my mom, who is still terrified by most math and went to all sorts of lengths to avoid passing her fear on to her female child.

I didn’t have terrors, per se, but I can’t resist this sort of language.  In this chapter Thompson delivers us from our preliminary terrors by explaining that to learn the two principle symbols d, meaning a little bit of, and ∫, meaning the sum of all the little bits. (He mentions the fancy language as well, but uses the plain to explain.) The second chapter is called On Relative Degrees of Smallness. I will admit that I was so enamored of this title that I had to stop reading for awhile. But then I resumed.  Here’s how the chapter begins:

We shall find that in our processes of calculation we have to deal with small quantities of various degrees of smallness. We shall also have to learn under what circumstances we may consider quantities to be so minute that we may omit them from consideration. Everything depends on relative minuteness.

Here I had to stop reading again and stare out the window.  Who knew this was going to be a philosophy book?

I recently had occasion to look up the word pico.  I have always been partial to words that mean lots of different things and pico is, among other things, the Spanish word for peak (or beak), an island in the Portuguese Azores, an acronym for a method of  locating relevant clinical literature, and a prefix denoting one trillionth. 10−12.  0.000000000001. Very, very little.

The other night I heard about Erika Christakis’ new book The Importance of Being Little.  This book is about very young children, and the way the world view of such people could inform the way we older bigger people interact with them.

This is an awful lot about smallness in one week, I’ve been thinking.  A little hard to ignore.  Also, my father, who is recovering from a massive stroke, cannot remember things I have just told him.  To find the patience and presence to dial back a lifetime of conversational habit in order to sustain an exchange with someone who can cast backward and forward only a few moments is at once an enormous thing and a very very small thing.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get with the calculus, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a terrific thing every time we consider smallness in great depth.


I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So I hope we’ve learnt something from the most barbaric century in history – the 20th.  I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family.  That would be real globalization…” – Arthur C. Clarke

I hadn’t realized until I heard this quotation about optimism as a guiding principles how self-conscious I am about my belief in the potential for our civilization to live in such a way that we make the most of what we have here on earth with regard to potential and creativity while enjoying and preserving the extent of wonder and amazingness that’s here.

If there were a guiding principle that I wish I had the courage to live by and say I live by (as distinct from the ones I actually admit) it’d be that there is enough diversity of intellect and preference among us that we could all lives lives full of vitality and connection with our surroundings and capacities, while still getting done what needs to get done for survival.  The tradition that scoffs at optimism as a guiding principle is the same one that tells us childhood should be a time of protected innocence but should also prepare us for an adult life of sacrificing what we find engaging and beguiling for the drudgery of survival.

I’m often met with a “must be nice” sentiment when I speak of such things, and as defensive as I feel when I hear it, I think it’s exactly right and true, but maybe not in the way intended.  For many people, most people, getting from one day to the next is a trial, and to suggest we aspire to something beyond that can land as an insult or a dishonoring of struggle and reality. There is privilege, of all kinds, in the freedom to imagine that we could experience the world another way. But could there be any better use for privilege than to imagine and attempt to usher in a reality and possibility of existence, for everyone, that would give wider access to what the privileged enjoy in the way of freedom to imagine and live for something other than drudgery?

opportunity to communicate a need

I went to a concert yesterday in a church sanctuary. The concert was unrelated to the business of the church, but the materials (bibles, hymnals, etc.) remain in place no matter what is happening in the space (services or otherwise).  A stack of cards in a box on the back of each pew read “Welcome.  This card may help you communicate a need or provide information.”

I had this thought: What if we gave cards like these to children in school? What if young people had an ongoing opportunity to communicate, on paper? When I read the card, I got the impression that my experience mattered, that I was being invited to participate.

I thought about the young people I know and wondered what each of them might write on such a card.  The first person who came to mind is in sixth grade. He might write “Most of the time I’m confused when we’re doing math.”  Another would likely say something like “I’m really interested in invasive species; can we learn more about that?”  Two high school students I know might say “Is there any way you could punch holes in our handouts before you give them to us, or keep a hole punch in the room so we could punch them ourselves? That would help me keep my binder from getting so messy.”  Another might say “I’m really not trying to be a brat, but I’m bored, and it’s so frustrating when we spend so much time going over the homework that is exactly what we just did in class the day before.”  Given the chance, I think they’d tell us all sorts of things that would be helpful to know.  Things that would help us understand their behavior, things that would help us provide the best possible support for them, things that would help us know them better.

My guess is that there are some teachers and schools who have something like this in place, some way for students to communicate with teachers and administrators that does not require trying to get an adult’s attention verbally, or reveal his or her need or information to all those within earshot.   But in general, I think we expect that young people will speak up if there’s something they need to say, and I think mostly they don’t.

Some might abuse an “opportunity to communicate a need or provide information” in an anonymous fashion, as one quick look at the internet will tell us.  It might be worth the sifting and sorting it would take to manage that, though, if it would make it possible for us to hear more from  young people who are sitting quietly not communicating with us, and, too, many of the ones who aren’t sitting quietly but aren’t going to say theirs out loud either.

Even if none of them wrote anything down, I think they’d get that message that I got when I read the card sitting there in the pew of a church I don’t even attend – that if I was there, I was invited to communicate and thus to participate.


When I was in first grade I spent an afternoon in the school office, just chatting with the secretary.  I wasn’t there for a rule infraction.  I was there because it was the day my class was learning about the dangers of talking to strangers, and my mom knew that she didn’t need to worry about me talking to strangers.  What she needed to worry about was me getting so scared by stories of what could happen at the hand of a stranger that I’d have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares. So she sent me to school with a note requesting that I be excused from the classroom talk.

I thought of this the other day when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood.  One of the rental houses on the next street over is usually occupied by short-term visitors, and usually it’s a couple.  The house is tiny, has just one bedroom.  So I was surprised to see a young child out on a scooter in the driveway.  “Hi,” I was about to say when I saw her.  I made a note to mention to my young neighbors (who also have scooters) that she was there. If I’d spoken to her I might have mentioned it to her too.

But you aren’t really supposed to talk to kids you don’t know.  It’s not a rule for adults the way Don’t talk to strangers is a rule for kids, but it’s sort of understood.  Because you know that kids are taught not to talk to strangers, it’s sort of a courtesy to not put them in a position to have to do the not talking to.  It’s weird, and seems unfriendly, but in the context of the talking to strangers rule, it’s kinder to not talk to kids if you are, to them, a stranger.

For me this is such a bummer.  I like talking to kids.  I find them more open and aware and awake than many adults (including me).  But I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or worry them, or worry their parents if their parents are nearby.  I could have said hi to the kid with the scooter in the driveway, because that’s about as much as it’s OK to say to a kid you don’t know, but I didn’t.  I was too busy regretting that it has to be this way.  And wondering about the impact it has on a person’s experience of the world.

The intent of the Don’t talk to strangers bit is obvious and good.  We put it in place in hopes of preventing strangers with ill intentions from bonding with children such that they can then more easily victimize them in some way.  The problem is that as a result, many children get the message that strangers are dangerous, which mostly, we aren’t.  Some strangers are dangerous.  Some are in fact extremely dangerous.  Most strangers, though, are not dangerous at all.  Don’t talk to strangers makes no allowance for this, and kids are left thinking that it’s the strangerness that’s dangerous.  It’s not the strangerness that’s dangerous.  It’s just that some people are dangerous.  And of course we know that it doesn’t take being a stranger to be dangerous.

It seems so much harder to try to communicate with kids about the nuances of things than to just make a decision for them and then try not to worry about the side effects.  It’s much harder to say something like “There are some people who could hurt you, and so we need to talk about how to decide whether or not it’s OK to talk with someone you don’t know or to do something that an adult tells you is OK even if you do know them” than to say “Don’t talk to strangers.” Like many things we do with and ostensibly for kids, I think it’s born mostly of tiredness and overextension.  We don’t have time or energy to get into all that nuance and the questions that kids will have.

When I was a child, I was very good about giving the silent treatment to anyone I didn’t know.  Now I’m an adult, and I pretty much still don’t talk to people I don’t know.  I know intellectually that most of the people I pass on the street are not harboring ill intentions toward me or anyone, young or old, nearby.  But I still relate to them, as a group, as though they probably are.  Not everyone grows up feeling this way, and I don’t lay the blame for this condition in myself solely on the admonition that I not speak with strangers.  But I know it had an impact. I know it set a tone for the way I experience the people who are new to me.  If that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for others too.  And if it is, if many of us are scooting around shaping our worlds around even the remnants of a belief that mostly people are dangerous, I think it might be worth rethinking the stranger rhetoric.