Yesterday I spent an hour and a half at a running shoe store. I don’t run, and I don’t like shopping, but I’ve been at wits’ end with my dysfunctional feet and decided to see if I could get them some relief in a running shoe.

I mention this visit to the shoe store because the customer service experience was one of the best I’ve ever had in a retail store. Running shoe stores tend to be very detailed in their assessment of feet, so you’re likely in any such store to be tended to more carefully than in stores that sell other things, but what stood out for me about our salesperson on this occasion was that he seemed as though he really liked what he was doing. He wasn’t a running fanatic – that kind of enthusiasm can be a little hard to take if you just need some individual attention and information – he was just a guy who seemed to enjoy knowing about shoe structure and foot structure and facilitating a promising pairing of human and shoe.

I always love to encounter a person who seems to enjoy their work. I with it weren’t so rare. One of the best things about it is that when someone likes what they’re doing, they are often also committed to doing it as well as they can, which means their work offers something of value beyond the satisfaction they get from it.

I also love that when I come across a person enjoying their work, it’s not usually a glamorous occupation. Some people are well-suited to glamour, and probably thrive in it just as others thrive elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem to take glamour or prestige or (gasp) the highest of salaries to facilitate contentment and contribution.

“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers.  There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”

Ashley Montagu, Growing Young


One hundred percent of the parents I know want to be as sure as they can that their children have what they need to get by in the world. There’s a lot of variation in what each parent believes their children need, but that underlying commitment is the same.

Where it can get challenging is in the delivery.  To many parents, it seems as though children don’t want what they and other adults have to offer.  Young people argue with us about how things are, or they refuse to go along with what we suggest, or they seem to ignore our input.

I think about this a lot because these are fairly common complaints among the families I work with.  This week I heard it from one parent who wants her child to be more careful checking her school work.  “I’m trying to get her to care,” the mom told me.  Another parent tried to explain to her son that when the worker at the post office asked him a question and he didn’t answer, it may have been perceived as rude.  “He just argued with me,” she told me. “I know that social situations are not easy for him, so I want to let him know what’s expected.”

This morning I caught myself grappling with a similar situation but sort of in reverse (because I was trying to offer some input to my father, rather than receiving some from him). My dad will be selling his house soon, because he’s no longer able to live alone.  As the day grows nearer when we will get to work at cleaning out Dad’s house, he gets more concerned that we are going to throw away all of his stuff.  He’s been explaining to me that what he plans to do is put it all in boxes and label the boxes carefully, and that he doesn’t need to get rid of anything. I think he actually realizes that he will need very little of what’s there, but I think I understand why he’s talking about it this way. He’s uneasy about not having a house anymore, and uneasy about what his next living situation will be.  And probably also generally uneasy about the later stages of life. Certainly he is uneasy about being dependent on his children.

I also know, though, that he has told us for years that he doesn’t want so much stuff, and would like to live in a much smaller place when he leaves his house, and with much less stuff.  So it’s pretty clear to me that his general commitment (less stuff, more simplicity) is clashing with his nerves about what’s changing.  It happens that I’ve been reading about less stuff and more simplicity because my own house is more cluttered than I would like.  One of the books I’ve read, by the wildly popular tidying guru Marie Kondo, writes about  giving attention to the things you want to keep rather than the ones you are discarding.  This gave me the idea that for my dad, it might be worth thinking through which things he has really missed in past several weeks (when he’s been away from the house).  He has had the unusual opportunity to find out what he does and doesn’t notice the absence of.

As soon as I had the idea to propose this to him, I felt a pang of anxiety.  I imagined that he would probably not want to hear about it – would probably see my suggestion as a ploy to get him to throw things away.  He would probably tell me he’d already sorted through everything and there wasn’t anything left that he didn’t need or want.  I could imagine getting defensive myself and being tempted to try to exclaim things which, while possibly true, would likely just agitate him more.

When I find myself anxious about a conversation like this in which I am planning to have in which I try to offer something to someone else, I get tempted to decide not to have it after all.  It would be so much easier to not talk about the thing.  What I have been trying to remember to do is check with myself in order to find out if the source of my anxiety is that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get the response that I want.  If I need for the conversation to go a particular way, if I need for the person to respond a particular way, I’m setting myself up for resentment and disappointment.

As it turned out, I was indeed setting myself up for this in this case.  I was nervous because I wanted the conversation to go something like this:

Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad: Oh, OK.  That sounds much better than the way I’ve been thinking about it.  I’m going to make a list right now of things I think I really want and need to keep, and then we should just get rid of the rest.

I’m exaggerating for the sake of illustration.  That would have been my ideal outcome. I also wouldn’t have minded something like the following as an indication of success:

Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad: Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  I’ll think about it.

What I was worried about was that it might go more like this:

Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad (interrupting me somewhere in the course of it): I’m not going to just get rid of things because it’s more convenient for you.  I can fit most of what’s there at the house into… (and on like that with no acknowledgment of the content of what I’ve said)

If it went that way, it would feel like a failure, like I hadn’t done a good job proposing what I was proposing, or I’d chosen the wrong moment to bring it up, or he’d been a jerk about it, and it would have been a waste of time.  A failure.

But all of that is about my interpretation of his response.  If I were right that each of these outcomes meant whatever I thought it meant (success or failure), then indeed it would be a failure if I got the third outcome.  On the other hand, I could be wrong.  I have had enough conversations like this one – in which I suggest something and am met with a snarly response only to later discover that my suggestion was taken to heart in some way (likely not exactly the way I’d intended, but still taken) – to know that the way a person responds to something in the moment it’s offered is not a reliable predictor of how they will use the information or content of the conversation once it is over.  Especially if the person doing the offering (in this case me) is doing the predicting!  It’s easy to be attached to how a person responds to an offering and to let it prevent you from doing it at all, or make you wish you hadn’t bothered.  But if you can get good at checking to make sure that it’s the content of the offering that you really care about, and not whether or not you get a good grateful gracious response, then it gets less scary to approach people with sensitive suggestions or recommendations.

I talked about this with the mom who had tried to explain to her son how his silence at the post office may have been received.  She and I were able to find a few examples of situations in which she’d talked with her son about his interactions with others and responded really defensively and angrily, but then later showed in some way that he’d heard her and used what she’d suggested in navigating a subsequent situation. His response in the moment wasn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not he’d heard or appreciated or taken to heart what she’d said. If she could manage her own expectations going into the conversation, she could continue to offer him information and suggestion that he might want and be able to use.

We put together a two-pronged strategy for situations in which she wanted to offer advice or counsel to her son.  The first prong was that she would, before making a suggestion about something, remind herself that how he reacted in the moment would likely depend on many factors other than simply the content of what she said.  He may respond angrily or in a grouchy manner, giving the impression that he was rejecting the content of her suggestion when other factors might be driving the response entirely or in part.  (Maybe  the suggestion took him by surprise, or he was especially tired or still upset about something else that happened earlier in the day.)  If she felt that it would still be worth it, in case the suggestion planted itself for him in some way regardless of how he reacted, then she would proceed.

She also decided to set aside time with him for such suggestions and wait for the go-ahead from him to offer them, rather than bringing them up in a way that might feel sudden to him.  We talked about how sometimes it can feel blindsiding and invoke defensiveness to be confronted with something about your own behavior or choices when you don’t realize it’s about to happen, and it makes it much more difficult to take it in even if it’s information you’d really like to have.  So she planned to set aside time when things were relatively calm and peaceful between her and her son, and let him know that she had some feedback for him if he wanted it.  If he was up for receiving it then, they’d talk about it, and if he wasn’t, she’d offer again another time.

I decided on a similar plan for future conversations with my dad, (and other family members and adults!). With adults I think we’re more likely to ask for the go-ahead before offering advice or other input, so that part is likely easier adult-to-adult than adult-to-child, but the piece about releasing attachment to a particular response and recognizing the limits of our ability to know how something has been received by another person is no different between adults than between adult and child.

This inquiry reminded me of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s timeless book on talking with kids. Here’s a link.


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.


On Thursday last week, I spoke with the mom of a child who had asked her to find out if someone could help him control his behavior in school.  (I’ll call him Owen.) He has a tendency to interrupt his teacher, to speak up without being called on first, and to have difficulty staying in his seat long enough to finish assignments.  Owen’s nine.

In our first conversation, his mom and I talked about how it’s easy to confuse and confound the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and profound intellectual strength.  The two can look quite similar in the context of a classroom in which children are expected to perform repetitive, stationary, lower-level cognitive tasks.  Owen, his mother told me, has tons of physical energy, and is very curious and interested in learning. He can’t always stand to wait for other students to catch up with where his brain is. He was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder/executive function. I told her that what I’d be able to provide for him is support in building strategies for managing his school work and that this work would most likely be successful if combined with intellectual (in the form of logic puzzles, creative problem-solving activities, and other tasks that involve higher-order thinking) that would meet his craving for intellectual engagement.

In our second conversation, after she had spoken with Owen’s teacher, his mom told me that there didn’t seem to be any evidence of the executive function difficulty in the classroom, and what the teacher was more concerned about was impulsivity – the interrupting, the speaking up without being called on, the scooting around the classroom when he was supposed to be in his seat.

This mom originally called me at the recommendation of the neuropsychologist who evaluated her son.  This evaluator has referred several children to me and I have worked with some of them.  I think it’s expected that I will be able to help children with their executive function difficulties.  It’s true that I have been able to help some children (as well as some adults) with executive function difficulty.  But as often as I help with that (which is only when the person him or herself experiences the executive function difficulty as an impairment), I end up helping with something else that makes a different kind of difference.

Helping children with executive function is usually a matter of helping them comply with environmental demands in which they don’t have much intrinsic investment.  It’s not that they don’t notice or feel the effects of not being able to comply with the demands; it’s that if given the choice, they would rather not be required to.  If you offered them the chance to exist in an environment that didn’t make those demands, and they could exist there without being ostracized for it, they would choose that.

If this is the case with a child, helping with the executive function tends to be a losing battle.  Kids who fit this description tend to undermine their own efforts to improve their ability to stay on task in school, get their homework done, and generally keep track of their assignments.

So executive function is for most children a matter of adaptation.  They’ve been assigned an environment, and in order to succeed there, to be deemed successful according to the measures of the environment, they must alter their tendencies and habits.

Owen’s teacher doesn’t think that he needed help with executive function, but the concerns she does have are also about his adaptive performance.  A typical classroom is not a natural fit for a person with a lot of physical energy, who needs motion and activity in order to keep calm, to think clearly, to feel at ease.

In my second conversation with Owen’s mom, she asked if I might be able to help with the impulsivity. Now that the executive function concern was out of the way, the focus would be staying seated and not interrupting or speaking without being called on by the teacher.

It’s at this point that my job becomes a little weird.  Weird is probably not the right word.  Agonizing is a better word, if you want one that describes my experience of it.  Here’s why: I could do what this mom is asking.  I could help her son get himself to stay in his seat.  I could help him build and use strategies for keeping quiet when he was expected to in the classroom.   And if I did, some things would be better for him than they are now.  He would feel less self-conscious.  He would be embarrassed by his behavior less often.  He might finish more of his work. His parents and teachers would stop worrying about his behavior and about his future.

Is there a cost, though, to staying in your seat when you have the impulse to move?  Or to completing a page of problems you already know how to do rather than thinking about something that intrigues or otherwise engages you?  Or to slowing your own thinking to meet that of a group of age-peers simply because they’re the same age as you are, and thus the only classmates you are entitled to?

In some ways, I wish there weren’t.  I wish I could sit down with a child and coach him or her to adapt to the environment that is the current reality for most children and believe that it would only help.  The push for adaptation, and quick, is tremendous.  I hear so many times a week that children need to be prepared for the way the world is.  They need to learn to do things they don’t want to do, to learn to be told what to do, to find out that life is hard, to get used to not getting their way. I do know that some adaptation is crucial to survival, and not just in the wilderness.  There are ways that the world is, and to be able to navigate them helps.  But to only adapt is not necessarily, in my opinion, to optimize the potential of the human organism.  And sometimes, to become accustomed to adapting without advocating for one’s needs and strengths is to shortchange the species, to deny it the potential for growth and progress.

A few years ago I was working with a fourth grader whose mom was concerned about his math skills.  One week he came into my office and sighed a great, heavy sigh as he settled into a chair across from me.

“What happened?” I asked him.
“I need you to show me the second way of subtracting,” he said.
I asked him to tell me more.
“Well, last week my teacher showed us how to subtract, where you cross out the one number and then add the one to the number next to it…” he looked up at me to confirm that I knew what he was talking about. I nodded, and he continued.  “So then today at math time she wrote another problem like the ones we were doing last week up on the board and started talking.  I thought she was just showing us that same way of subtracting again so… I… stopped… listening.”  He said this quietly.
“It’s OK,” I said.
He sighed. I waited for a moment to see if there was more.
“Is that the end of the story?
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s all.  I mean, I found out later that we were supposed to be learning a second way of subtracting that we have to do for homework and now I don’t know how to do it because I wasn’t listening.”
“OK.  I have a question.”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“OK if I ask it?”
“You don’t have to answer me unless you want to, but I’m wondering what you were doing with your mind instead of listening to the teacher about the second way of subtracting.”
He took a deep breath.  “Well, my brother and I got a Lego Millenium Falcon for Christmas, and after we built it with the instructions, we took it apart and started building another one with our own design, but we’ve been having trouble getting it to support its own weight.  I had an idea about adding these struts in the back like this (he demonstrated the angle he had in mind) and I was trying to imagine how they could attach.”

I’ve asked kids this question, about what they were thinking about when the classroom environment demanded they be thinking about something else, attending to something chosen by the adult in charge, and it’s not always a complicated engineering problem as it was this time for this child, but it’s rarely frivolous. I suppose that frivolity is a matter of opinion, so I should add that it’s rarely frivolous in my opinion.  A wise friend of mine told me once that his primary reason for considering the possibility of not sending his children to school as soon as they turned five was that it was important to him that they have access to their own thoughts – that they have a chance to figure out what they were interested in, what mattered to them, and he thought that if they were hurried off to school, where they would much of the time be told what to think about and when, that they might not have the chance to get acquainted with the contents of their own minds and imaginations.

This fourth grader, once he thought he was all set with subtraction, turned his attention to a fairly complicated problem of engineering.

From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to.

From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to. There’s an extent to which we sometimes undermine and interrupt that process in the name of adaptation and presumed survival.  We imagine that if we just force a kid like this one to comply with our curricular plans for him, that later, once he’s been taught (and re-taught) everything we consider basic, he can turn his attention to contribution and participation.

There are a few problems with this model.  One is that the curiosities of a young person don’t necessarily hang in there in the face of being ignored, suppressed, or otherwise dishonored.  A child who is fascinated by technical problems as a five and six and seven year-old but is not free to explore such problems and is told that the most important thing is to do well in his schoolwork, his spelling and his multiplication, will often not remain loyal to his earlier curiosities.  (In fact, a child who does remain loyal is often considered a behavior problem, or difficult, or resistant, at risk for failure as a student.)

Also, we know that the brain is most elastic when it’s young. The flexibility and openness to new ways of thinking is not confined to language learning. If we spend all that elasticity on predetermined and prescribed content, we leave little room for the thoughts and unique creative potentials of the individual.  (And I don’t mean creative in an artistic sense, though I include the artistic – I mean creative in its basic sense, making things up, thinking of things that haven’t been thought of or haven’t been thought of in a particular way.)

This is all to say, I suppose, in many many paragraphs, that I think there’s a balance to be struck, to be sought, between adaptation and actualization.  Between supporting an individual in finding his or her way among the obstacles erected around him over time and supporting him or her in exploring and realizing the fullest possible extent of her capacities and curiosities. A balance which, if struck or even aspired to, could save a lot of frustration for a lot of students (and teachers) and offer all of us better access to the extent of potential contained in our human selves.

the sorter is broken

I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college.  She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.

You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is.  I think it’s a sorting problem.  Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions.  And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.

This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science.  She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science.  Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.

What would we have to do to make it otherwise?  First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data.  Must one?  I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything.  Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought?  Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me.  To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise.  Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.

what matters

I was on the phone with a mom today who told me this story about her son, who thinks of himself as a lousy student who can’t do math and isn’t much better at other things.

“I was filling out the form [for school] and I asked him what he thought his new teacher should know about him.  If there were one thing he’d want her to know, what would it be.  He sat there for a minute, looking out the window, and then as he went back to what he was doing he said ‘Tell them I’m kind.'”

This child knows that kindness is not the currency of schooling.  He knows that it isn’t what anyone will be measuring when he gets there. And maybe he thinks that kindness is all he has to offer, in spite of its relatively low value in the eyes of the institution (as indicated by the fact that it doesn’t appear on any report card he’s ever seen or heard of).

Or maybe he thinks it’s important, and thinks that while his past performance on timed math tests suggests he doesn’t have what school is looking for, but does have something that matters, or should.

Jan Steward in Learning by Heart (Corita Kent and Jan Steward)

“I began to see that the kids were happiest when they worked for a real reason. I saw they liked being part of the whole world – not just put in the center and made to feel ‘special.'”