I’m rereading George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and was floored by this passage regarding the role of an adult in the life of a young person:
“…elders of the community rather than heads of organizations…”
More on that here in an old post.
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.
“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.”
This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity. As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about. I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.
It is hard. I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot. Straight lines, for example. So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t). Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were. My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.
I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”
While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:
I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.
I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day. The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice. For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.
Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom. Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important. The writers.
I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once. The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting. It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me. I could do better.
Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell. I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind. I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.
We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not. The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters. But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us. The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.
But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.
Here’s the thing. The word is penmanship. As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word. Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that. We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen. What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing? What might it lead to? Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up? Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?
If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration. And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.
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 got in a fight with my refrigerator the other day. Right off the bat here I am being dramatic – it wasn’t at all the refrigerator’s fault, any more than any shortcoming in design is the fault of the object, or any incompatibility of a machine with a human organism is the machine’s fault.
I reached down to get a glass container of potatoes from the bottom shelf and a wildfire of pain flew up and down my right side and across my lower back. My first thought was “Uh, oh, what do I do now, and how do I do it in such a way that it doesn’t alarm the two year-old who’s eating carrots in the nearby highchair?” My second was “This is the beginning of the end of my mobility.” I have been expecting this kind of seizing, spasm, whatever it was, since I began to have trouble with my lower back when I was thirty-two. My joints are unstable – they don’t stay where they belong in relation to one another. Or rather, they don’t stay where I think they should in relation to one another. They don’t maintain the optimal placement for ease of movement by this organism I call me. Anne Lamott writes that “our bodies are proving to be a little disappointing.” Indeed.
When I was a teenager and a young adult I was disappointed in how my body looked. I’ve made some modicum of peace with that now, perhaps because the impact of dissatisfaction with appearance has been overshadowed by diminished functionality. These days, my disappointment waxes and wanes according to what functionality I lose and regain, or don’t. Last fall we went for a long bike ride on a trail built along the gas line through several towns’ worth of southern Maine. It was so much fun – I love riding a bicycle, but am ever so slightly skittish and don’t fare well on roads with cars. We live in a relatively densely populated area; we chose the neighborhood we did because there’s a place for me to ride my bike that requires minimal road time, a paved path around the edge of the city. This other longer path was heaven, stretched for many miles more than my local path.
We were a mile from the end of our route, after fourteen miles of riding, when my elbow started to hurt. A lot. It hadn’t hurt at all for fourteen miles, and suddenly hurt so much I couldn’t hold on to the handlebars anymore. The bits of gravel in the packed dirt had apparently been enough to slowly but thoroughly traumatize my elbow. It throbbed for days after that, and ever since, it cannot be subjected to much of anything in the way of jostling before it begins to snarl and swell.
So, yes, I have found my body a little disappointing. Why, though? Where did I get the idea that there wouldn’t be pain or reduction in function? In the Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Bishop writes “I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.” I never had the feeling of immortality that is said to be common in teenagers – I was always cautious, to a fault. But I thought I knew what Bishop knew, that if something went wrong, modern medicine would fix it. And if modern medicine couldn’t fix it, some other kind of medicine could. It could be fixed. Like a machine.
Turns out it’s not a machine. Some things can be fixed, or righted, but some things can’t. No matter how much you’re willing or able to spend. (Which is not to say that if you have more to spend, you don’t have a better chance of getting something fixed. But that’s another thing entirely.) The human body is astonishingly complex and sophisticated and capable, but it is not a machine and it is not knowable in its entirety and potentiality for variation. It is not just a platitude, that every one of us is different. It’s a truth that means we can do our best at noticing patterns and possibilities for healing and adjusting, but we can’t solve or resolve everything in every person.
For many years now I have strung myself out between resignation about this: this is just how it is and oh, well and determination: I will not give up until I figure out a way to fix my spine/ligaments/joints. Determination and resignation have worked for others in much worse circumstances, with much worse ailments and anomalies. Neither has worked for me. From time to time I can wrangle enough perspective out of the relative good fortune I have: my ailments are small, tiny, in fact, in comparison to those that others manage. But they still impede my ability to get things done – things that bear on my livelihood and ability to participate and contribute. So I’ve had to look for other angles.
One of the frequent topics of conversation in my house is improvisation. My partner is a dancer with many years of training in various forms, with a special affinity for contact improvisation. I have always hated contact improvisation, which I attribute to a long-standing aversion to strangers and general lack of enjoyment of flying sweat, but I like it very much as a thought process and model for considering various other realms. Improvisation in the context of dance (and other art forms, come to think of it) traffics in the immediate and the unexpectable, which is to say, the world as it actually is in any given actual moment.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found it especially easy, all of that you hear about living in the moment, experiencing presence, leaving the past in the past and the future out there where it hasn’t happened yet. Any sort of physical dis-ease makes it harder still, at least for me. It’s one thing to conjure up a sense of connection with the present when the body’s working reasonably well and quietly. Another when it’s not. (I suppose I experience pain and physical discomfort as noise. The way it might be easier to walk peacefully down the sidewalk if a well-maintained car drove by than if you were passed by a clunker with muffler dragging along the pavement, belts screeching from under the hood.)
One of the things the contact improvisers do is work with a “score,” essentially a collection of constraints within which to move (with others, in the moment, for the moment). Again, you won’t find me out there mixed up in any of that as a dancer, but as a model for navigating life, now that I’ve accumulated a quorum of bodily constraints, I’m finding that the notion of an improvisational score is a useful one. And offers some relief from the tug-of-war between determination and resignation to which I otherwise tend to subject myself. When these shortcomings of the ligaments, vertabrae, and other tissues exist for me as problems resisting solution, they’re a constant source of frustration and, truly, despair. But when they are the constraints of a score, the rest of everything possible and available becomes the raw material for action and engagement: What can I do around them? What can I do in spite of them? What can I do with them?
It works for anything – any disappointment of physicality, ability, capacity. Sometimes. I have been known to resort to wallowing in disappointment and frustration but it’s a thinking tool worth keeping on hand for moments when the possible is more compelling than the impossible.
Once a week, we have an eighteen month-old friend at our house for the day. She is, as most her age are, quite excellent at calling our attention to sources of delight we might otherwise miss. For the past several weeks, she has been most enraptured by two things – cats and round objects. She communicates mostly in sign language at this point, and so the signs for cat and ball are well-used.
It’s not hard to understand what might be so enjoyable about a cat, or any other four-legged creature, but we’ve been speculating about what makes a ball so much fun. It doesn’t seem to be the throwing, in the case of this young person, at least not entirely. Plus, you can throw all sorts of other things too and they don’t get nearly as much attention as the ball gets.
Maybe it’s how the ball behaves. Nothing else moves like a ball does. If you set it down on a surface that isn’t entirely level, it’ll find its own momentum and start wandering all over the place if there’s enough variation in terrain. Nothing else will do this but a thing with at least a round edge to help it along. In our living room the floor is not even close to level, so if you set a ball down pretty much anywhere it’ll set off on an apparently drunken journey and end up, inevitably, in a corner. If you didn’t know better (“better”), it’d be easy to think that it was alive, or whatever classification you’d give to things that seem to have character and creativity before you knew the world alive.
Oliver Sacks used to carry a ball around with him in his briefcase: “My main neurological tool is the ball,” he says. “You can learn a lot from how the patients play – and may patients who will do nothing else will open up to a gently tossed ball.”
My sense is that he chose the ball because it’s such simple access to play – tossing a thing back and forth. But the more we’ve been thinking and talking about this love and fascination and we watch it unfold for such a young child, the more I wonder about it as a thing that links us up with the physical world, the physics of the world, and invites us to engage with it as no other object could.
In a recent New Yorker I read about how New York City is replacing all of its sodium-vapor streetlights with LEDs. Feelings are mixed about the move. The old lights glow hazy orange; the new ones blaze blue. I’ve read among other things that old encouraged crime, that the new are causing anxiety with their brightness.
It’s clear that the LEDs will literally cast the city in a new light; will alter its character. This is no small thing, in my opinion. The appearances of things are not static, and light has so much to do with it.
I’m always happy to have an excuse to remember one of my favorite poems of all time, Lisel Mueller’s Monet Refuses the Operation, in which the purpose of distinguishing the edges of things is brought into question:
…I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent…
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.