Sunday, July 24, 2016
Children WILL Listen
Even though my primary career over the last forty years has been working with young children and college students, my other passion (both vocational and avocational) is theatre. In between a Bachelor’s and a PhD focused on early childhood, I worked in a MA in theatre. I am one those nerds who will break into song from a musical with little provocation, much to the dismay and occasional embarrassment of my daughter. One of my favorite musical theatre composer/lyricists is Stephen Sondheim—my second favorite musical of his is Into the Woods, and my favorite song from that musical is “Children Will Listen.” Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:
Careful the things you say,
children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
children will see, and learn.
Children may not obey,
but children will listen.
Children will look to you
for which way to turn,
to learn what to be.
Careful before you say
“listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Never has this song seemed so profound to me as it has over the last few months, as the lyrics weave together for me a legacy of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general hatefulness toward those who are different than. This legacy characterized my own childhood, and it persists today in our children’s worlds in an enduringly painful way.
A friend of mine reported a deeply disturbing incident involving his adolescent son that occurred not long ago. My friend is white, and the three siblings adopted by him and his husband are African American. We live in a small college town in southwest Ohio, surrounded by gentle hills, verdant farms, wonderful and caring residents, and, unfortunately, no small amount of bigotry and psychological violence being openly expressed to an increasing degree by young people. At school one day, a white classmate, surrounded by friends, called his son the “N” word. His hurt and anger flared, and he responded by pushing the young girl. He was suspended. She wasn’t. His physical response was deemed more transgressive than her psychological attack.
I grew up in this area, in the mid-size city down the road from this little college town, and I was aware during my adolescence in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that there was an active KKK chapter in our city. Even though there were no lynchings or beatings in our little Midwestern city by the time I was born, I grew up in an atmosphere of openly hostile racism that was evident in many segments of the community and the surrounding areas (including the petition that some residents of our suburb circulated to keep a black family from moving in). I heard the regular use of the “N” word from my father’s lodge brothers, from some of our neighbors, and in popular media (where it was used occasionally in movies, but found new life on television by the ‘70s, used mostly by black actors in sitcoms like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons). I never heard my parents say it, other than the bizarre explanation that Brazil nuts had once been referred to by some people as “n….. toes,” which I now recognize as one of the most profound examples of culturally sanctioned racism that has ever existed. But I also never heard them correct or respond to others saying it. The first and only time I said it was in the fourth grade, when I came home singing a song I had learned that day from friends at school, which was a variation on the theme song of a popular TV show. The lyrics my friends taught me went like this (anyone over the age of forty five will probably know the tune):
“Daniel Boone was a man.
Yes, a big man.
But the bear was much bigger,
So he ran like a n….. up a tree.”
I’m sure you can fill in the blank. I was eager to sing it for my father, thinking he would find it funny, since it sounded like the kind of thing I heard his friends joke about on a regular basis. But he didn’t think it was funny at all. In fact, it was one of only three times in my life that I recall seeing him really, really angry. He spoke more strongly to me than he ever had, saying, “I don’t EVER want to hear you say that word again. EVER. Do you understand me?” I was devastated. And confused.
When he saw how upset and baffled I was, I think he realized that the example he thought he had set of never using hateful language couldn’t overshadow the damage done by the things I was hearing around me on a daily basis outside our home. He told me that, even though people we knew used that word, he didn’t want his children growing up to hate other people who were different than us, or using words that were meant to be hurtful. He gave me a brief history of racial terminology in the U.S., and personalized it by explaining that, when he was growing up, he was taught to use the word “colored,” but that now, the people it referred to wanted to be called “Afro American” or “black.” But the part that I most remember and took to heart from his explanation was that it didn’t matter whether we understood why people wanted to be called a certain thing—it only mattered that we respected everybody, and that meant respecting and accepting how people wanted to refer to themselves to make sure that you never hurt anyone’s feelings, either intentionally or by not knowing any better, and we should always know better.
This experience was the seed for my personal, ongoing efforts to “unlearn” everything I had absorbed (and continued to encounter) regarding what we now think of as the pervasiveness of institutionalized (or systemic) racism. This work never stops, because, even though the overt expression of that pervasive racism was somewhat publically sublimated or hidden on a cultural level after the racial violence of the 1960s and ‘70s, and through legislation that not only condemned discrimination, but also criminalized hate speech, the reality is that it has never, ever gone away. It became more apparent after 9/11, though with new targets, which included not only Muslims, but the expansion of racist attitudes and actions towards Latino/a individuals beyond the American southwest. It intensified after we elected our first African-American president. And it is now reaching a fever pitch with the hate-filled rhetoric that is being given by public figures. And it isn’t just about race—demeaning language toward women, which peaked in the backlash to second wave feminism in the ‘80s, and which took an especially virulent turn in the ‘90s with Rush Limbaugh, is also coming back with a vengeance with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In addition, homophobic language has remained fairly constant throughout the last half century, but also seems to be experiencing an upsurge in response to marriage equality.
This resurgence of anger and hostility channeled into racist, sexist, and homophobic speech and action is being given permission to show itself in the ugliest of ways by public figures and through social media. And children are listening.
Anne Lamott, a well known author, recently posted on her Facebook page a photo of her grandson, with the following text: “This is my grandchild. He turns seven today. Last night, watching the RNC, he said that Trump will separate us, because Trump hates Mexicans, and Jax is Mexican. I said, ‘Oh, no, baby. Never. Not on our watch.’” A friend of mine who has family members who are Muslim explained that his nephew expressed an almost identical fear, that he will be sent away, or that other family members won’t be able to visit anymore because people want to send all the Muslims away. And the recent postings on the Twitter feed of actress Leslie Jones became so openly racist and violent in tone that Jones felt compelled to discontinue her account.
My friend whose son was suspended from school for responding to the hatefulness directed toward him said that his son reported that he has heard more and more of this kind of speech from his classmates over the last year. Whether or not those classmates are hearing that kind of speech from family members, or are picking it up from the world around them, the result is the same—they are feeling a greater sense of “permission” to speak those words out loud, and to express that hatred toward those who are different from them. This is the example that they are seeing from adults in public, in private, and on social media.
And that brings me back to the rest of the verse from that song I like so much:
Careful the wish you make,
wishes are children.
Careful the path they take,
wishes come true,
Careful the spell you cast,
not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
past what you can see,
and turn against you.
Careful the tale you tell,
that is the spell.
Children will listen.
So, how do you know what your children are hearing, even as you are trying to teach them acceptance and kindness? How do you know what types of speech and kinds of actions they are witnessing from friends and on social media? How can you tell how they are incorporating what they are seeing modeled around them? First of all, make sure that you are not only modeling kindness, but reinforcing it when you see your children express it, and naming it when you see others exemplify it; at the same time, don’t hesitate to address hatefulness when it appears at any point in a child’s environment. You don’t need to become a “helicopter parent,” constantly hovering and micromanaging every aspect of their lives, but you do need to stay informed, and pay attention. And that means, turn that lyric around:
Listen to children.
And if your child does transgress, either with intentional hostility or through innocent ignorance (such as my fourth grade song), then respond as my father did—including the angry part. Children need to know that hateful speech justifies a strong response, but that anger doesn’t justify violence. Follow through, as my father did, by calmly explaining why it was wrong, and what the responsibility is for each of us to know what we are saying before we say it. And in this current political climate, it is also important to point out that, just because a child sees something on television or reads something on social media, that doesn’t make it okay. Because adults don’t always get it right, and some people are so consumed by fear and hatred that they feel justified in lashing out toward those who are the objects of their fear.
Children will listen to everything in their world. We should be listening, too, to make sure our children are hearing the messages that we intend for them to hear. What they hear, and what we say, are all part of the “tale you tell.”
Friday, June 19, 2015
It Begins With the Children
I should be working on other things today. But, after another senseless shooting, this one blatantly motivated by the toxic combination of racism, misplaced masculinity, guns, and violence, I find that I cannot reconcile the dissonance in my soul, and I am compelled to return again and again to this simple question: what happened when this killer was a child?
The complexity of racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence cannot be diluted to a single cause, but I think we can examine critical points of development for young children that have clearly failed to foster what I believe to be, perhaps, the most crucial element in growing adults who turn away from that racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence that has been so deeply embedded in our culture for so long. That element is empathy.
For the last couple of months, I have been working on creating a new training topic for early childhood professionals: spirituality, morality, and ethics in the daily lives of young children. Developmental psychology and educational theory has, for a very long time, resisted or rejected the notion that very young children are capable of the thought processes often deemed necessary for purposeful and meaningful spiritual experiences, or for being able to think morally and act ethically. Fortunately, there are a growing number of educators, theorists, researchers, and parents who feel differently. As explained by psychologist and professor Tobin Hart in his book The Secret Spiritual World of Children (2003):
“These researchers have generally concluded that children do not and cannot have a spiritual life prior to the development of formal reasoning, usually sometime in adolescence […] When we look a little closer, we can find grand exceptions to Piaget’s model. Even young children have shown a capacity for thoughtful consideration of big questions (metaphysics), inquiring about proof and the source of knowledge (epistemology), reasoning through problems (logic), and reflecting on their own identity in the world.” (Hart, pgs.4 & 92)
As I have reflected on the individuals gunned down in Charleston, and the young man who enacted this terrorism, joining the growing ranks of young, most often white, and almost always male perpetrators of mass shootings, I keep returning to my original question, and that answer: empathy.
As young children develop as social-emotional beings, it is important that we recognize and foster their ability to connect with the feelings of others in active, prosocial ways. Again, young children regularly demonstrate this capacity, but adults often fail to recognize it as such:
“More recent research shows that toddlers between 18 and 22 months display empathy as measured by orienting themselves to the sound of distress, visually checking what is happening, showing emotional arousal (such as appropriate facial expression), and engaging in prosocial activities such as helping, soothing, or sharing” (Ann S. Epstein (2009). Me, You, Us: Social-Emotional Learning in Preschool. pg. 36).
Anyone who works with young children has seen these impulses acted out in myriad small interactions on a daily basis. But “seeing” them is not enough: we must acknowledge them, reinforce them, model them, and build upon the potential embedded within them.
We need to develop a better understanding of the capacity that all children have to experience wonder; to evaluate social interactions for moral and ethical value; to discover their relationship to self, others, and the world; to be empathic, caring individuals; and to grow as spiritual, moral, and ethical actors in their own lives. Young children are not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled—they are fully formed, yet constantly evolving members of a family, a classroom, a community, a nation, and a world. If, as a culture, we continue to fail our children in fostering empathy and connecting it with spirituality (which does not necessarily have to be rooted in a specific religious doctrine or practice) that informs moral beliefs and ethical actions, then we will continue to betray our better natures, and we will continue to mourn the lives taken by those whose hearts and souls are empty. It begins with the children.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
I Really Want to Like the Female Lego™ Scientists, But....
Before I go any further, let me just make one thing clear—I LOVE Legos! Even though they were available in this country by the time I was born (and no, you don’t need to know exactly when that was...), they hadn’t really “caught on” with wide distribution, so, in other words, I never had any as a kid. When I started teaching (WAY back in the dark ages...1978, that is...), Lego was one of the toys that fueled my second childhood. At that time, this was typical of the ads that were in circulation:
What a concept! A toy that was marketed EQUALLY to both boys and girls! A toy that was ASSUMED to appeal to both boys and girls!!! A toy that was, for all intents and purposes, the holy grail of toys sought after by enlightened parents and educators—the gender-neutral-everybody-can-love-it-creative-and-educational-toy!
My, my how times have changed....
As I have watched Legos change over the last 36 years, it has been simultaneously fascinating, disturbing, fun, and aggravating to see how the brand has changed their marketing, meaning both advertising and packaging. Tracking this progression provides an interesting insight into American (and western European) cultural attitudes. The overt representation in Lego of both race and gender, along with the more subtle cues regarding class and ability, has evolved, and not always for the better. And, with every iteration, I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the product, and about what it says about the messages we convey to children about imagination and identity.
Certainly, the color coding has a lot to do with this. About twenty years ago, Lego saw their market share dropping, and realized that fewer girls were playing with them. So their response was to make pink and purple Legos. That didn’t work so well. Girls still were staying away from them. By focusing on the colors, the company seemed to overlook the fact that, perhaps, girls weren’t playing with them because almost all of their advertising only showed boys playing with them. In addition, their target demographic had shifted away from young children, and their marketing and product development was increasingly directed at adolescent boys, coinciding with a product strategy that leaned heavily on tie-ins with movies that were also directed at adolescent boys (and young men), such as Star Wars (few women), Pirates of the Caribbean (one woman), Indiana Jones (one woman), Lord of the Rings (two women), Harry Potter (few women), and comic books (a couple of women). If girls don’t see themselves in these character-specific sets, why would they be inclined to play with them?
And that’s the biggest change of all—the characters and personalities (aka “minifigs”). Until the late 1980s, most Lego minifigs had the basic, non-descript face:
With this minimalist face, any child could, potentially, project any character, of any gender, onto the figure (a little more about possible limitations on this in a bit). But once the movie tie-ins began to appear, they were accompanied by the “themed” sets (e.g., space, castle, pirates, city, ocean, polar, etc.), and together, the minifigs took on more specific “character” attributes:
The gender coding of these figures is pretty obvious. Male figures have facial hair and often snarling expressions, while females have eyelashes, eye shadow, and lipstick. And long hair. Because, apparently, this is how we teach our children to identify gender—solely based on stereotypical, limited representations. And there has always been far more “male” figures than “female” in these sets. And it is certainly possible to change the hair that attaches to the top of the heads, but children are pretty good at recognizing whether two attributes “match” (so putting Wyldstyle’s streaked high pony tail on a figure with a mustache doesn’t pass muster for many kids). This identification of gender based on these two single attributes (hair and facial elements) is so embedded in our culture that young children learn to default to it even when it doesn’t reflect the reality in their immediate environment—for example, if you ask a group of four year olds how you can tell if someone is a boy or girl, they will almost always respond that, “boys have short hair and girls have long hair,” even if they are looking right at a female teacher with short hair (I’ve even heard this response spoken by a boy who, himself, had long hair, looking right at me, with my very short hair). And if you give them a Lego head, unattached to a body and without hair, they will also tell you, without hesitation, that a face with eyelashes and red lips is a girl, while both faces with facial hair as well as faces with the non-descript features are almost always identified as boy.
And this is a critical point in this discussion: when figures are not visually coded as specifically female, children will almost unanimously assume them to be male. In other words, in our culture, there is, in a practical sense, no longer such a thing as a “generic” Lego figure, because maleness is the default. This was true of the culture years ago with the early Lego figures as well, but there was much more room for children to explore and ascribe other identities to the figures because girls were included in the equation to a much greater degree. By showing girls in the ads and the packaging on an equal footing with boys, their participation was assumed, and so their representation in the “generic” figures was an easier line to cross.
So, in response to concerns raised by girls (and parents and teachers) about lack of representation, and hoping to boost their market share and increase sales, Lego decided to include girls by making the figures more “girly.” They still didn’t include them much in advertising of the mainline Lego themed sets and movie tie-ins, though. When this strategy didn’t really work to increase sales to girls, they decided to create a line specifically aimed at girls, not just with pastel colored blocks, but with storylines and completely new figure styles. I’m referring, of course, to the “Friends” line:
Now, no one would ever suggest that traditional Lego figures are in any way proportional or anatomically representational, but that’s part of what gave them imaginative potential. But the design of these new figures is troubling in that they are attempting a more accurate physical form (shaped legs and feet; longer legs and neck; arms more proportional to the body; suggestion of a bust; and a shaped head with dimensional and detailed features), but are defining that form with proportional choices that reflect problematic body image types: long legs, thin torso and arms, and weirdly large head and eyes above a tiny button nose and thin-lipped mouth.
And the age range printed on the box (along with the breast bumps on the figures) speaks volumes about who the target audience is here: girls between 6 and 12 years old, who are at a particularly impressionable point in terms of body awareness and social expectations. And who, not coincidentally, have more disposable income in their own control than younger children.
The Friends figures are also accompanied by artistic renderings on the packaging that is very different from all the other Lego lines:
These images are not recreations of movie characters, but are extended interpretations of the minifigs. The minifigs are still limited in body position and “attitude,” but the packaging imbues these characters with plenty more. The jutting hip, the tilted head, the arm position—all reflect the current cultural emphasis on a specific type of heightened femininity that permeates a child’s world.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with being a “girly girl,” as long as that’s the person that you are. But I am suggesting that this is one more way that we are limiting the expectations and possibilities for girls to develop a sense of self that is dependent on their own agency and personality, not on the overwhelming pressure of cultural images.
And this, my friends, is why I really want to love the “female scientists” that Lego recently released, but find myself, once again, ambivalent about the execution.
Look at that! She doesn’t have long hair! Well, it’s not exactly short, either, but okay. But she still has those lipstick lips and those mascara eyes. And, just to make sure we know she’s smart, being a scientist and all, she gets glasses, too. Or, if chemistry isn’t your thing, you might want to be an astronomer/astrophysicist:
Whew! I was worried there for a minute that female scientists couldn’t have long hair! At least she has it safely bunned up on top of her head. And, just in case you don’t catch the clues from the eyes and mouth, this one has a jaunty, fashionable, pink scarf.
I know, I know, many of you are shaking your head and suggesting that I am over thinking it (that happens to me a lot), and pointing out that these new science figures are selling like hotcakes (which they are, apparently, so much so that they’re getting hard to find), so just stop being critical and accept that girls like them because now they can imagine themselves as more than Friends or accessories. (And I haven’t even brought up the whole “race, class, and ability” thing, which would require another complete post. Maybe another time.)
I’d love to not have to think about it so much. But I can’t. Not completely. Of course there are benefits to this (did I mention my ambivalence?), but I still just can’t get past those faces, and I still am uneasy about the cultural imagery that is being perpetuated here. I just can’t help but think that girls are smart enough, and imaginative enough, to be able to see themselves in a toy by adding them to the marketing, and that every child’s gender development process could be enhanced by more open-ended choices. In other words, offer the amazing array of “outfits” and “hair” possibilities, but keep the faces neutral. No mascara, no lip stick, no beards or mustaches, no snarling expressions—just dots for eyes, the suggestion of eyebrows, and a simple smile. Kids will fill in the rest.
(copyright note: some of the images above are taken from internet sources; others are photographs taken by me of products on store shelves)
Friday, September 26, 2014
Scapegoating the Common Core
A Facebook friend of mine, who regularly (and, in my opinion, justifiably) expresses her frustration with the amount of homework her first grader has to confront, recently expressed another frustration: the math worksheet her daughter had for homework was not well-designed, and its intent was difficult to decipher. Specifically, there was a word problem that didn’t seem to be clear regarding whether the purpose was to construct a subtraction problem, an addition problem, or identify a place value relationship. Her Facebook post was asking for help figuring out what was expected.
It didn’t take many comments before someone growled about the “Common Core” and how it’s ruining education. Several others chimed in on this train of thought. I have witnessed this response many times in the last few years, as parents and educators cope with their dissatisfaction with mountains of homework, struggling teachers, disconnected administrators, and rigid standardized testing expectations. Inevitably, these concerns generally wind up focused on the Common Core as the enemy. The problem, however, is that the Common Core isn’t the problem.
These indictments of the Common Core (technically, they are officially called the “Common Core State Standards,” since they were developed by representatives from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)) are often misguided and misinformed, and are grounded in the belief that the federal government is, once again, interfering in our lives, telling us what to do, and supporting private (often “charter”) schools at the expense of public schools. This viewpoint is encouraged by journalists and pundits from both sides of the aisle who perpetuate the notion that the Common Core creates unrealistic and burdensome expectations on students, especially young students.
Here’s the thing, though—if you actually take the time to read any of the Common Core standards, you will notice four specific things that seem to get lost in this conversation:
- The Common Core is not a curriculum. There are some model curricula that have been developed to provide examples of ways to implement some of the standards, but these are models only. There is no requirement that any state, district, school, or individual teacher use the model.
- The Common Core does not specify HOW to teach any specific standard. See the first point above. The Core does not, can not, and will never dictate what type of philosophy or pedagogical approach districts or teachers have to use.
- The Common Core has nothing to do with how much homework your child is assigned. See the previous two points above. The development and implementation of curriculum, homework, testing, and even recess, is determined by the state, the district, the school administrators, and (increasingly rarely), individual teachers.
- The Common Core is not required to be adopted by individual states unless the state is seeking to supersede (or circumvent) the requirements of No Child Left Behind. The Core Standards were originally conceived of, and developed by, individual states wishing to either raise the standards above what was set by NCLB, or to be granted a waiver from NCLB.
Again, the Common Core isn’t the bogey man—it is a set of research-based standards that simply attempts to organize basic skills and content into a practical sequence that is intended to align and clarify the patchwork of quality standards that has historically varied widely from state to state (follow this link for a brief, reasoned explanation of the process, or this link to go to read about “myths versus facts”). There is certainly a compelling discussion to be had regarding the politics, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core by individual states, and the affect that this process has had on teachers, students, and families, but unless we make ourselves familiar with the actual content of the Common Core documents, it is difficult to elevate such a discussion beyond rancorous politics and inflammatory rhetoric.
So, who should we direct our anger at when a seven-year old child routinely comes home with 2 hours’ worth of poorly designed worksheets? First of all, yelling at the teacher won’t help. Many teachers are as frustrated as parents with current trends in classroom practice and curriculum development, which often dictates rigidly scheduled instruction and intense pressure to standardize teaching along with content/skill standards for children. It is also pointless to rail at the federal government—the Common Core is not mandated or administered by the federal government, though its implementation is, in some cases, tied to federal guidelines.
I think our anger needs to be directed at what lies at the heart of the disempowerment of teachers, the pressure on districts and administrators to prove their efficacy based on test results, the disregard for family interactions, and the objectification of children as raw material—and that is the corporatization (and monopolization) of education. To point to the most compelling and far-reaching example of this trend: It is no coincidence that the dominant corporation that is working toward a near monopoly throughout the pre-K through college schooling experience, Pearson Education, has convinced states to adopt their assessment tools; has lobbied districts and private schools to purchase their scripted curriculum packages to teach to those tests; has acquired several publishing divisions to develop and sell those packages (such as Scott Foresman, Penguin, Puffin Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, and Silver Burdett); has reached into all facets of teacher education and preparation to produce teachers who will be proficient at using only their materials; and has sponsored and conducted much of the (little bit of) research that has been done on the effectiveness of those materials.
It is also important to understand that Pearson was not historically even interested in education until the 1980s, suggesting that their current iteration did not grow from a rich history of education experience and passion, but simply from a desire to maximize profit by exploiting a segment of a market that was limited until education became a viable business proposition in the late 1990s. Even their own description of their beginnings from their website notes their late entry into education:
“Pearson’s roots are grounded in global innovation that transforms the landscape and stands the test of time. Our London-based company started in 1844 as a construction company building such noteworthy projects as the Sennar Dam in Egypt and the Manhattan tunnels in NY. We turned to media in the UK in 1921 and diversified into global book publishing in 1971 and education in the 1980s, dabbling in numerous industries along the way.
Then, in 1997, everything changed. In a bold and somewhat controversial move, Marjorie Scardino was hired as one of the first female CEOs of a major FTSE company. The decision ushered in an even bolder aspiration: to transform education globally in order to improve people’s lives through learning.” (http://www.pearsonk12.com/meetus.html)
A company that “dabbles” until it finds a profitable direction is not a company that is passionate about education. They are passionate about profit, and “transform[ing] education globally” is not “in order to improve people’s lives through learning,” but to improve the bottom line for Pearson’s board and stockholders.
The only real indictment of the Common Core in this picture is that it has enabled Pearson to streamline their products by giving them a single set of standards to use as their alignment tools, rather than producing multiple products that respond to different standards in different states, which has facilitated this corporate approach to education.
So, what to do the next time your kid brings home that mountain of homework that doesn’t make sense to you? After you take a deep breath, ask the teacher what curriculum package her/his school is using, and whether he/she has much input into its implementation. There’s a good chance that your child’s teacher is as frustrated and disempowered as you, and an equally good chance that Pearson is somewhere in the picture. Then ask the school administration why they chose that curriculum, and ask for the research that supports their approach. If the school doesn’t use a scripted curriculum, then ask the teacher the reasoning behind the assigning of a heavy homework load, and be prepared to challenge that reasoning by familiarizing yourself with the work of Alfie Kohn here, or the position taken on Great Schools.org here, which notes that, “In fact, for elementary school-age children, there is no measureable academic advantage to homework.” (You can also point out that a Canadian couple successfully sued to have their children exempted from all homework, arguing that there is no compelling evidence that homework helps learning, as explained in this article.)
But bashing the Common Core? That’s not going to help. And it only serves to divert attention away from the profit-monster that is driving corporate U.S. education policy. And no, I’m not a raging-socialist-anti-capitalist-commie who is suggesting that companies shouldn’t make a profit. I’m just an experienced, informed, concerned educator (and parent) who believes that they shouldn’t do it by turning children into manufactured products of an educational machine. Call me crazy....
Monday, September 15, 2014
Starting Over—Taking My Own Advice
Two of my earlier blog posts focus on helping children with separation anxiety and with the transition from preschool to kindergarten (“Lift and Separate: Separation Anxiety in Young Children”; and “Movin’ On Up: Transitioning to Kindergarten, with Tips for Easing Anxiety,” both from May 19). It has been a while since I have managed any new blog posts, and the reason for that is also the reason that I realized I needed to revisit those earlier posts and heed my own words.
After a career spanning 36 years as a preschool teacher and administrator, I recently closed the preschool program that I founded 28 years ago. This was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one. As I sent off my final group of kids to the adventure of kindergarten, I immersed myself in the process of sorting, organizing, storing, liquidating, and disposing of the wealth of materials, supplies, and furnishings that we had accumulated over those years. This was a huge, daunting task, and one that pretty much consumed most of my time for over a month, culminating in a public auction that was both gratifying and difficult. After deciding what to take home (items both sentimental and practical), what to keep in storage (business records and picture books), or what I would need to have to continue providing professional development (teaching materials and, again, picture books), I watched as a sizable group spent 3 ½ hours on a steamy summer evening scrutinizing, considering, and bidding on the rest.
When the dust had settled, 90% of what we had put up was in the hands of others. Many of the bidders that evening were teachers or program owners/administrators, several were parents or grandparents, and the rest were mostly people who make a living selling good quality used toys and materials at flea markets. I was especially pleased to see so many of our educational materials find their way into the other preschool and care programs, including the hundreds of picture books that were still on the shelves.
As I sit here now, I can imagine the fun and learning that children are experiencing with the same items that our kids used for so long, and the separation is a little easier. There have been many times in the last several weeks when I have stopped to remember the advice I have given to countless parents when their child is facing a major transition, whether it’s going to kindergarten, moving to a new house, welcoming a new sibling, or saying good bye to someone who has passed on. The primary point of that advice has always been that change in difficult, but it is important to convey to your child that you believe he/she is strong enough manage that change, and to help them through it by providing love, support, and, most importantly, as much consistency as possible.
I am certainly no stranger to change, but this particular change was one of the more challenging I have confronted. Just as a child entering kindergarten experiences excitement and uncertainty, sadness and joy, and fear and hope, I, too, was experiencing many of the same feelings. I am fortunate to have many wonderful family members and friends to provide the love and support, but I realized that it would be up to me to provide the consistency. Since I am not stepping immediately into a full time job at another location, for me, consistency referred to a few key points: developing a routine and sticking with it; creating a space at home dedicated to the work I will be doing (i.e., writing, research, and the creation of professional development workshops); and being sure to remain mindful of and attentive to my emotional space.
Now that the school has been closed, the remaining stuff has been disposed of, given away, or stored, and the keys have been turned in, I am ready to begin kindergarten again with my eyes and heart open.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Children are NOT “Collateral Damage”
This post will be a relatively short one, and a decidedly opinionated one. The events in Gaza trigger passionate responses on all sides. I’ve tried very hard to understand and have compassion for the arguments from both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments and citizens, in both a contemporary as well as an historical sense. I do not support suicide bombers whose targets are indiscriminate, even if they are fighting for their homeland, any more than I support firing rockets at targets that are “supposed” military locations without 100% confirmation. I support everyone’s right to defend themselves from military and sectarian violence.
But here’s the bottom line: There is no excusing the actions of any government or their military that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including dozens of children. I do not support any military action that considers children to be acceptable “collateral damage.” When you decide that children are expendable, then I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what your religious beliefs are, I don’t care what has been done to you in the past, I don’t care about any claims about media bias...I care about the children. And until you stop killing them, you will have no compassion from me.
Parents, if your child is old enough to understand these news reports and is asking questions about it, be careful how you explain this to them. Their questions are likely rooted in fear of losing you, or of a growing understanding of their own potential mortality. Find the delicate line between recognizing the realities of the situation and reassuring children that they (and you) are safe: explaining war to children who have never lived amidst such violence is challenging, and it is even more challenging to try to explain it to them without burdening them with the fear and hatred that leads to such violence. Unfortunately, this is not limited to far away wars in far away countries—sadly, the children of Chicago are asking these same questions. Wherever you are, name the violence, understand the violence, and condemn the violence. And hold your children a little closer.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
“I’m Leaving Without You”: The Four Worst Words an Otherwise Loving Parent Can Use
During a recent vacation, I was at a bucolic tourist destination that experiences heavy family attendance during the summer. Throughout the day, I heard numerous examples of the usual parental commands and pleas that are a natural part of family travel, such as “We’re leaving NOW!”; “Put that down and come here!”; “No, we’re not staying a few more minutes”; “I know I said you could play on that before we leave, but someone else is there and we’re not waiting....”; etc. I also heard more than a couple of times the four most devastating and potentially damaging words a parent (or grandparent) can use: “If you don’t come right now, I’m leaving without you!”
As a parent, I have traveled with a young child, and I know how challenging it can be when the day is long, the environment is stimulating, and the temperature is punishing. And I know the feeling of impatience and frustration even in a non-vacation daily routine when I recognized that we had to be somewhere, and needed to leave now to get there on time, but my daughter didn’t share my imperative to get a move on. And I’ve experienced the aggravation of wanting to pick up my child at the end of a long, tiring day (for both of us) and get home, while she was not quite ready to separate from her friends.
No matter how irritated, stressed, or annoyed I became, I never ever ever once threatened to leave her behind. And our program staff know, if they hear a parent make such a statement at pickup time, that they are to immediately intervene, assuring the child that her/his parent is NOT going to leave them behind. Even if doing so makes a parent angry, it is important that the children in our care feel safe, loved, respected, and wanted—four things that parents should be doing in their interactions as well.
There are two main reasons that making this threat is not just poor parenting, but has potentially serious long term consequences as well:
1. By the time a child is 4 or 5 years old, he/she will have figured out that you are lying. Once that happens, you have, perhaps irrevocably, shattered their trust in you. You have given them every reason to question everything you tell them. And if they can’t trust you to be honest, they will have trouble trusting you to look out for them. They will also have learned that lying is a perfectly acceptable tactic to get what you want.
2. And most importantly of all: Even more than betraying their trust, threatening to leave manipulates one of the most primal fears a child can have—the fear of abandonment. And that’s why parents do it—because it works. If children didn’t harbor a fundamental fear of losing their parents and family, they wouldn’t care. The reason it works is exactly the reason you should never do it. Ever.
So what do you do when you need/want to leave and your child doesn’t? First of all, establish a pattern early on of never making a promise OR propose a consequence unless you can and WILL follow through. If you create a firm foundation of reasonable expectations and mutual trust, then you won’t need to manipulate fears with lies and threats to get a child to behave. Once you have established this pattern, understand that young children simply don’t experience time with the same sense of purpose that adults do, but there are things you can do to help with the process:
- Make sure you have explained clearly to your child why it is important to leave at a particular time;
- Whenever possible, tell your child at least 5 or 10 minutes before it is time to leave that they will need to stop what they are doing, and how long they have left;
- Remind your child what the expected behavior will be when it is time to go (e.g., “when it’s time to go, you need to stop what you’re doing and come along without an argument”);
- Validate your child’s feelings about leaving while reinforcing the actions that you will take (“I know you are having fun and are disappointed/angry/sad that we have to leave, but that doesn’t change the fact that we will be leaving in five minutes”);
- And when it is time to leave, leave, even if it means struggling to stay calm while you pick up your screaming child and carrying her/him out the door. Even if you are in a public place, if you allow your child’s tantrums to delay your departure (in other words, if you give in and stay longer because you are afraid of being embarrassed by her/his behavior), then he/she will learn that tantrums work.
Be firm. Be fair. Be calm. Be loving. Be honest.