Celebrating the Wisdom of Teens—Really!

I’m ridiculously amazed at how much my son has grown in the past few weeks while I’ve been conducting what I think of as my “compassionate observation experiment.” 

My intention during this time was to focus on replacing instruction from me about what he should do and be with compassionate observation of who he is already, where it seems he wants to go, and how it works best for him to get there.

It’s an experiment that builds on the belief that he is already good and wise at the core of his being (even as a teenager!) and therefore, that he knows more about what’s best for him than I do.  (For my college-aged readers, I want you to know especially that I believe this about you too.)

Side note: This is the idea that academic and life coaching is based on too and that’s why I love it so much.  It opens a whole realm of untapped wisdom that we often overlook.  

This belief in the inherent wisdom of individuals contrasts with dominant views about teenagers that emphasize their poor judgement, lack of knowledge and experience, and resulting need for lots of adult instruction and control over their lives.

There’s some truth to this more deficit-based perspective as well, of course.  Teens do, in fact, have undeveloped brains with some significant disconnections between the logical, rational part of the brain and the parts that determine their emotions and actions.  They often do need adults to “connect the dots.” 

Still, teens (mine included) tend to get PLENTY of instruction and control from parents and teachers and counselors etc.  In this experiment, I wanted to tip the scales a bit in the other direction. 

What Do You See? What Do You See?

As you know if you read my post last week, I’ve been observing my younger son closely—taking a break from giving him instructions about how he should live his life. (Yes, I still tell him to put his dishes in the dishwasher!)  I must say it’s been a really fun experiment! 

I don’t know how all the energy stuff works in the world, and though I think there’s some truth in it, I also think there are some serious gaps/errors in the whole Law of Attraction/The Secret idea—you know, the “what you think about is what you get” concept. 

But at the same time, I’ve certainly found that my own experiments with changing my focus and my stories about life, focusing on what’s good, using my imagination in positive ways to envision what I hope for, often have a hugely positive impact in my actual, physical life.

This is one of those times. 

During the past week, it’s as if I opened a door to growth for my son, just by backing off and observing him with a spirit of compassion and curiosity.

It may be coincidence (the only way to know will be to keep trying new experiments to see if a pattern appears), but without my prodding in the past week he’s moved out towards: 1) doing something he loves in the arts AND, 2) conquering the ever-illusive concepts of geometry in his own way.  These were goals his dad and I had for him, but our rules and plans about how he should reach them had thus far had little effect.

In addition, I’ve noticed that he’s responding to his dad and me in more mature ways in relation to the responsibilities and expectations we have for him, expressing his own desires and preferences in ways that leave room for us to work out a plan that feels good to all of us. 

For example, on Sunday I wanted him to go put his clothes in the dryer at a time when he didn’t want to do it.  I said I didn’t want to go to bed without feeling sure that it was going to happen.  Rather than getting defensive or yelling something to the effect of “I’m fifteen.  Why can’t you just trust me!  I’ll get it done!”  He said, “If I don’t do it, no screens for me tomorrow.”  I said, “Okay, that works.”  And when I woke up in the morning the clothes were done.  Win. Win.

I also learned that he doesn’t just like music, or rap, he likes “lyrical rap” specifically.  This is a new term for me.  And it’s given me a hint about how I might be able to help him move in a direction he’s interested in. 

It struck me that I’ve been practicing this kind of curious and compassionate observation, not only with him, but with myself—and with similar positive results.  (Maybe next I’ll try it with my husband!) 

A Really Common Belief that's Hurting You and Your Kids

I’m going to go a tiny bit “professor” on you today.  I hope you’ll forgive me!  I’ll try to make sure that the learning is fun – because making work playful is really kind of the point of this “lesson.”

Without getting too philosophical or delving too deeply into my historical research on the American Play Movement—which is what brought play into schools and simultaneously defined it as less important than the “real work” of academics— I want to encourage you to consider that the very common belief “play is the opposite of work” might be very, very bad for kids, and adults too, for that matter. 

Here’s what got me thinking about this today:  A student teacher told me yesterday that she was pleased with herself because she had “tricked” her students into “learning and doing work” by playing lots of games that “had good content.”  

“And they thought we were just playing!” she exclaimed.

My response was this: “They were playing.  Our culture has tricked you into believing that play and work are mutually exclusive.”  

My problem isn’t with this student teacher (who is an amazing play advocate herself,) but with the idea that when someone is “just playing” they are “not working,” and the connected implication that work is way more IMPORTANT than play.  

I’m convinced that these two beliefs—1) that play is not work and, 2) that work is more important than play—are doing a lot of damage to kids and to the adults to care for them.  Namely – you.  

There’s plenty of research (and more coming all the time) to show that play is very often the best way to learn, the best method for increasing productivity, creativity and problem-solving and a very effective stress-reliever for kids and adults alike (which is hugely important factor in overall health and happiness.) But still we talk and act as if play is not important, not essential.

Because I know you care about kids AND you also care about finding ways to love life yourself, I want to invite you to join me in an effort to change how we talk about work and play.  

Why change our words first?  Shouldn’t we go build a playground or something?  


Welcoming the Mess of Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving, so I imagine that very few of my readers will be tied to the computer anxiously awaiting my Thriving Thursday thoughts.  For the few of you who are in such need of distraction that you’ve decided to show up, I hope you will find room here for exactly whatever it is that you are experiencing today.

Holidays are complicated.  And part of the complication is that we think that they “should” be simple, uncomplicated and happy—like in the movies.  The pressure for perfection is often especially heavy for moms who feel that they must orchestrate everyone else's holiday happiness.  And that idea brings pressure for kids too—who are supposed to be happy (or at least act happy)—as a result of all the work that goes into creating this perfection.  

So today, more than anything I just want to give you room to have your holiday be whatever it is—which is most likely a big complicated mess of happy and sad, perfect and imperfect, horrible and beautiful. 

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Last year, when I was working as a college professor in a teacher education department, I told my students (some of you were there!) about some little-known pioneers in the field that I had uncovered through my historical research.  As usual, I could barely keep from crying when I said out loud the names of the four African American women­—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young—who were Philadelphia’s first Black kindergarten teachers (and as far as current scholarship tells us, also the first Black kindergarten teachers in the United States.)

What’s in a name?  Why did it feel absolutely essential to me that my students hear these names out loud?  That I speak them out loud?  Why did doing so bring up such powerful emotions?

I’m still figuring this out, but something in me knows that there are ways that names matter. 

There are ways that speaking a name—and speaking it correctly—matters. 

As I ponder this question of the importance of names, I think of a movie I saw—I’m not even sure what it was—in which a character shouted, “Say my name!”  I think of the cover of a book on my shelf that I haven’t even read yet;  it’s about the experiences of Black men and the title is “Speak my name!”  I think of a video I watched on Facebook recently in which multiple people shared the story of having their names consistently mispronounced—or worse, changed to “something easier” because they were viewed as being difficult to pronounce. 

I think about the fact that all my students know the name “George Washington,” but none know the names of the people I study who are mostly either women or African Americans, or both, and children.

One reason that my students know George Washington and not those I study is because he was famous and held a position that only a few have held over many decades. There is, after all, just one president at a time and thousands of teachers—but that not the only reason they know George Washington’s name and not the names of these four women. 

It’s about respect.  It’s about who is deemed important enough to make knowing their name important, and of course that is not disconnected from who has access to positions of power and influence.

As women and African Americans, these four women I mentioned had no shot at being president when Washington was elected.

Among a number of other roles, I am a historian and often I have felt ashamed of my tendency to spend time doing historical research.  It seems so impractical, so insignificant.  Compared to changing the world by reforming laws and societies in practical ways, what do I have to offer?  

Well, one thing I can do is uncover some names—and the stories of the lives they represent.

Historians of the past few decades have done a lot of work uncovering hidden stories, stories of those deemed unimportant…

·      stories of brown-skinned people in a culture that valued “whiteness,”

·      stories of women in a culture that has viewed the female sex as incapable of significant thought or leadership,

·      stories of children, whose activities and perspectives are consistently deemed trivial and insignificant in comparison to the activities of adults. 

This is work that I am proud to continue.

Because of my work I can say these names out loud—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young, America's first Black kindergarten teachers.  I am so proud of these women, these pioneers of early education.

I can honor the lives and work of four women who, because of their race and their gender and perhaps also because of their vocation working with young children, were deemed “not worth remembering.” 

I can’t quite explain it fully yet, but somehow it matters. 

I encourage you to say their names— Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young.

Then say your own name and claim your story as you do.

Here’s to thriving for equity,