Things Our Kids Say, Part 4: “We Didn’t Do Anything Today”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

Parent: How was your day? 
Child: Fine.

Parent: What did you do?  
Child: Nothing.

Parent: What did you learn? 
Child: Nothing.

Some of us get one-word answers. Others might get a litany of negative spewing that may be hard to believe (Can things really be that bad?).

What kids usually mean: Most of the one-word-answers are coming from kids who are trying to end the conversation–they’re not in the mood to talk.  Maybe they’re exhausted from the day and just need some down time.  Maybe they’re still processing everything that happened.  Maybe they’ve been holding it together all day and just need to fall apart a little.  Kids who spew or vent (kids who have a long list of negatives) are often processing as well; they just need to let it out and then it’s done and over in their minds.  We’re not that different as adults.  Many of us probably collapse on the couch after a long day and need 15 minutes before we can start on dinner or the evening activities.  Or we need to go off on one event that bugged us (we *might* exaggerate as we vent) to get it out of our system, before we can see that the rest of our day wasn’t bad.  Whether they process internally or spew, kids usually just need some time.  You probably shouldn’t take any of it very seriously… maybe even give them some time before you start a conversation.  If you just make time together, they will often come around and share their thoughts when they’re ready.

What can you say?  It’s important to give kids the appropriate and accurate words for what they really feel.  If they are giving you one-word answers, you can request that they just let you know that they don’t feel like talking right then.  At some point when you’re having a good conversation, you can ask them if they prefer you not question them at the end of the day when they get in the car (or whenever it happens).  Ask them when would be a good time to talk about their day.  Adolescents often want to talk later at night.  Some kids may want you alone without a sibling listening.  It’s appropriate to communicate that you need to talk with each other at some point, but let them have a say about when.

If your child is one who vents, it’s important not to buy into it (assuming you don’t think there is a true crisis) anymore than you believe that the one-word child really did “nothing” all day.  Resist the temptation to get pulled in and believe it all or to try to solve the problem.  Depending how often it happens, you may even limit the sharing to something positive–something he did for someone else, something she learned, or something good that happened.  Otherwise you could be rewarding a pattern of negativity with your attention.  There is all sorts of research demonstrating that we have to train ourselves to be positive–and that we’re happier when we do.  Again, at some point when you’re having a good conversation together, you can point out the pattern of negativity and reflect on that with them.  The more they are thinking through what they do and why, the more self-awareness they will develop over the years.  They’ll usually need your help with this, but it will pay off.

Kara Douglass
Head of School

 

Things Our Kids Say, Part 3: “I’m Bored”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

“I’m bored” is in a slightly different category than our first two phrases because kids generally mean it without any exaggeration or dramatization. But we hear it often enough when it shouldn’t be true, that I’m including it in this series. Whether it’s Christmas afternoon when they’ve played with every present for 15 minutes already, or standing in line at Disney World, we are often shocked to hear it.  It’s important to remember that boredom isn’t a bad thing for children, whether they are at the height of over-stimulation or enduring a monotonous few days sick at home. Pulling themselves out of their own boredom is really good for kids. They truly don’t get enough experience with this particular skill in our society.

What kids usually mean: If kids are bored in a stimulating situation, it often means they are overstimulated, like an emotional sugar crash. If kids are bored in a low-key situation like a lazy, summer afternoon, it is likely because they are in between activities and feeling aimless. Neither situation requires your intervention. They just have to work their way through the feeling. This builds up stamina for feeling the “blahs.” It builds creativity, curiosity, and resourcefulness in addition to links with improved executive functioning (planning) and responsibility. Sometimes we do need to intervene on boredom, but the signs will usually be misbehavior (making something more interesting in an inappropriate way) or disengagement (tuning out and shutting down).  In these cases we can teach the child skills for making something more interesting (creating a light-hearted game or connecting the duty to analyze poetry in class to something that matters to them) or remove them from the situation (let them quit that particular activity or limit the length of time visiting Grandma at the nursing home). They will not usually recognize the feeling and will call it boredom though.

What can you say? Simply not giving the child a whole lot of attention for this comment is often going to take care of the problem. If the whining continues, an offer of chores can do wonders. Explaining that boredom is good for them is an effective way to curb the whining as well. Offering up “fun” options — well, those usually get shot down, although solving the problem for them is not likely the best route since we want them to develop the ability to comfort themselves and push through. If the issue is constant, teaching them coping skills like making lists of options and duties, saying “complete three items on this list before you come tell me you’re bored,” or “draw one thing out of this jar and do that” can help them because you’re not solving the problem for them completely.  Kids who can work through quiet times without screens and other automatic entertainment will have an advantage in almost every area of life, the most important of which is being content in their own minds.

Hear a phrase all the time at home? Send it to me and we’ll talk about it. If it’s a common one, I’ll add it to this blog series!

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Things Our Kids Say, Part 2: “Everyone Else Does!”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

“Everybody else does!” is another one of those phrases kids use a lot but is rarely true. Whether everyone in their class has phones, attends (or does not attend) an event, drinks soda, or has a Snapchat account, when a child uses this phrase, he/she is applying social pressure on you as his/her leverage. The implication is that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you are waaay off, or that you are responsible for loneliness, isolation, and/or deprivation.

What Kids Usually Mean
When the comment is emotionally sincere, kids mean that “everyone whose opinion they care about does this” (even if it’s only one or two people), or that “everyone who is judging me” does this.  At its worst, they just really want something and are grasping at any way to pressure you, so a small number can be exaggerated so that you feel like the odd man out. “Everyone is probably doing that… I think… maybe.” 

What Can You Say 
You have two options broadly speaking in this situation. The first is for when you feel strongly about the principle behind your decision. One of the biggest gifts you can give your kids is “We don’t need to do everything like everyone else.”  Sending them any sort of message that they have to fit in or that you feel that you have to fit in sets them up for all sorts of vulnerability when they eventually have to make unpopular decisions in their lives. The only way for them to build the strength to stand up for what they believe is by actually doing it… including surviving it when you require them to do it.

The second option (only for when there is no deeper principle involved) is to take their comment at face value and research it a little.  Maybe you want to call their bluff about the number of kids who are truly allowed to eat an all-dessert lunch or play Fortnite before their homework is done. When you call your child out on it and they can only honestly name two, you can help them reflect on the dependability and logic of their reporting and persuasion tactics. Or if you are truly curious about what other families do, ask for a list of “everyone” and reach out.  You can get some feedback from other parents, help your child feel that you are taking them seriously, and then re-evaluate your decision.

Hear a phrase all the time at home? Send it to me and we’ll talk about it. If it’s a common one, I’ll add it to this blog series!

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Things Our Kids Say, Part 1: “I Don’t Have Any Friends”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

“I have no friends” is one of those statements. Kids rarely have no friends. If they truly don’t have any friends, they will not usually state it dramatically. It will be a much more serious issue that has gone on for a while, and they will likely have internalized it. This is something serious that we (faculty and staff at TFS) watch for. We will all collaborate and likely a child will need group and individual counseling if this is truly the case. If you are worried about this, reach out to your child’s teacher or advisor, and we will work with you to figure out what’s going on.

What kids usually mean when they say “I have no friends” is that they feel lonely or unsure of their belonging.  Maybe they didn’t know who to sit with at lunch or who to play with at recess. Maybe they don’t feel like they’re being themselves at school or worried that if their friends knew their “real self,” they wouldn’t be accepted. Many times kids are prioritizing the attention of one or two people and when they don’t receive the attention or affection they want from those particular people, they feel that all is lost — even though they may have many other possibilities.

What can you say?  Usually you just need to listen and sympathize. They are venting, and you don’t need to fix the problem — in fact you cannot fix the problem. You can also focus on helping them be a good friend. Most kids struggle socially because they focus on themselves more than their friends —  a natural and understandable ego-centrism for their age. Peers will teach each other what’s acceptable and what’s not through the School of Hard Knocks, and you should help them get through it but not undercut those lessons. Or if you notice your child hyper-focused on one or two people, they may need coaching to cast their nets wider, reach out to kids who don’t have friends, or to relationships that may be healthier or more welcome.

At the end of the day, not everyone clicks naturally, friendships are messy, everyone is doing their best with what they have in the moment, and you probably only have a quarter of the story. Our teachers and I are happy to help provide context or mediate conversations if it seems constructive, but there’s no doubt that sometimes the kids will simply have to work on getting through a hard time or disappointment with grit and grace. Learning to rebound, forgive, let go, and hold your head up are all important skills (almost like muscles) to develop as they grow up.  It’s SO hard for us to sit by and watch, but with most kids, there’s little possibility of avoiding it or solving it.

Hear a phrase all the time at home? Send it to me and we’ll talk about it. If it’s a common one, I’ll add it to this blog series!

Small Schools Have a BIG Influence

 

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Humans are born needing connection. We cannot thrive without relationships and the encouragement and accountability they bring. Humans have family units and close circles of friendship. We seek community in order to learn, grow, share our joys, and be sustained in hard times. So why then do we send our young into huge institutions to sink or swim, fend for themselves, and figure things out?

Small schools are very counter-cultural in today’s society — a society where bigger is better! And bigger can be better when economy of scale matters. However, when it comes to relationships, connection, people, and emotions, bigger can be overwhelming, cold, imprecise, and ineffective.

smallschool1To be loved and not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be loved and known is what we all want more than anything. [Tim Keller]  What small schools lack in options, they make up for through connection and that connection allows big things to happen. In a small, healthy environment, a student can be both loved and known — an incredible environment for them to safely face the inevitable challenges, joys, and struggles of growing up.

smallschool10Imagine a school where children (even teenagers!) see all their teachers as allies.

Imagine a school where children have the same teachers for consecutive years so they truly get to know one another.

Imagine a school where the teachers know each child’s writing style so well they can spot it as soon as they read it.

Imagine a school where assignments are tailored to the personalities and passions of the group so that necessary skills can be developed in a context where the students *like* the work (even teenagers!).

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Imagine a school where the students follow the vast majority of rules because the rules make sense to them because they’ve had a say in creating them.

All of this is possible in a small school.

When students like their teachers and feel liked by them…

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When faculty aren’t so overwhelmed that their calling becomes their burden…

When daily work isn’t dictated by politicians in offices far away…

When everyone has to get through problems and frustrations together…

When the whole community knows each other and shares similar values…

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When children (yes, even teenagers) feel known AND loved…

That’s when magic happens.
That’s when learning happens.
That’s when growth happens.

Small schools have a big influence.

I encourage you to explore small schools in your city, county, state — wherever you might live. And if you live in the St. Louis, St. Charles, or Franklin county areas in Missouri, I personally invite you to come explore The Fulton School, a school small by intention.

Child Development: Week 5

Adolescence, Part 2

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Montessori observed that one goal of adolescence is social independence (physical and mental independence come during the first two years).  Jean Piaget wrote about the process of growing out of egocentrism (the childhood cognitive state of not seeing multiple perspectives). The awakening from egocentrism happens in several stages, but the 12 to 18 year old is discovering and learning to live with self consciousness–being conscious of his existence.

If you imagine a child dancing around happily in a field without much worry or pressure as a metaphor for the first 12 years of childhood (the eight year old rarely questions the significance of their piano or soccer skills in the universe, or the way mom/dad dresses as a representation of their identity), self consciousness is something that washes over a young adolescent as if a curtain has dropped and he realizes he is not alone in that field… and never was.  Instead, he was on a stage.  At first, adolescents are mortified and embarrassed that people were noticing them and judging them without their knowledge.  They have to do an inventory about every possible shame to decide how to file it all away and to gauge how embarrassed they should be.  Every detail matters.  As they process their new situation, they have two choices: to hide or to perform.  Both choices have the same disadvantages; they grow exhausted and lonely.  We were not made for a life on a social stage.

As kids head into the latter half of adolescence, they need to transition from the “stage” into a community.  They will gradually find a balance between feeling like everyone is looking at them and knowing they are in a group who is largely going through the same thing.  They need to strip off the costume and the performance, and let people accept them–or not–for who they are.  Again, this is a process and everyone is on their own developmental time schedule, but this transition will largely occur by 18 years of age. As adults, we will still struggle with this now and again for sure!  Some psychologists argue that this stage is currently elongated in the USA, and many of our adolescents are not reaching the final stages as quickly as previous time periods, and other cultures.  The more we help them disable and invalidate the “stage,” the better our childrenwill accomplish the tasks of adolescence and be prepared for the tasks of young adulthood.  As they head into the last official phase of childhood, we want them to have made peace with the idea of community, understand how a variety of relationships work, and their identity within those relationships.  We want them to be as confident in their roles with others as they were tying their shoes at six or practicing their trombone at 11.

Child Development

The Montessori Method challenges educators to shape the curriculum and pedagogy around the developmental needs of each age group.  There is no universally accepted or articulated framework for psycho-social development the way there is for biological development, and frankly, I don’t know many educators or doctors who give much thought to it beyond the superficial stereotypes.

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Dr. Maria Montessori

But Dr. Montessori was deeply intrigued by it, as were several of her contemporaries (Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Anna Freud to name three), and they created a solid foundation in developmental psychology, although their theories never seemed to affect mainstream practices significantly.  We know a lot about teenage behavior from neurological research (they’re developing their frontal lobes) and biochemistry (for example, the chemicals of adolescence create mood swings), but why do they feel so lonely?  Why will they engage in something that we think they will mock and then mock something we think they will like?  What is the difference between an 8-year-old who wants to learn and an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to learn?

I believe that the better educators understand these tasks, the more effective our education will be.  We cannot help our students become the best version of themselves, if we don’t truly know them — and know which phases will pass.  We need to work *with* their natural drive rather than against it whenever possible.  In this day and age, with so much data and science and information, it’s shocking how dependent our entire child-rearing system is on gut and intuition.

There’s a lot of information missing still, but most schools are not addressing the information we do have.  I want to spend the next few weeks (here on this blog) discussing what the developmental stages are and how TFS addresses each of these stages in our own way.  The more we all understand our children, the better we can love and grow them.

Week 1: The First Six Years of Life

Montessori2Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. In the first phase from birth to six years old (infancy/early childhood), children focus on physical independence and the core task is to create their personality.  They are developing independence from mom biologically, and from all adults in terms of fine and gross motor skills.  They want to do concrete tasks by themselves, take care of themselves, and work on skills that interest them.  The foundation of their character, a positive sense of self, will come from their achievements in physical independence.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  An eight year old does not find the same joy in zipping his own zipper as a four year old.  No one is quite as moody and contrary as the two year old who is setting her boundaries (except maybe the adolescent–we’ll address that later).  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of Birth to 6 Years.

Teasing: Control vs. Connection

Teasing is a perennial issue for children of all ages, but probably peaks in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade, at least in terms of intensity of reactions.  It can be a hard thing for a parent to hear about after school each day.

We read “Mom, They’re Teasing Me” by Michael Thompson in our parent book club last week and although I’ve read it many times, I was struck by a core truth in the book this time around.  We are all trying to balance two core needs — control and connection — in our relationships, and most interactions between kids come down to that tension.

This is not a negative “I want to rule the world” control, but rather a “I need to have some power and autonomy in my life.”  That need for empowerment does not usually encourage meaningful connection with others, and so the two are often at odds and kids have to make many decisions each day about what control to give up in order to foster connection, and what connection to give up to gain some control.

Of course, it gets very complicated because children are not born knowing how to proactively and appropriately build connection and negative connection (often articulated as attention) is better than no connection at all.  Teasing is a safe negative connection in the sense that if it doesn’t work, you can hide behind the negativity.

For the most part, kids have to figure it out on their own, but we can help them understand their motives tremendously by processing the conversations with them, asking them for others’ perspectives on the teasing, helping them own their own role in interactions, and sending them the message that you know they can do hard things, thus building up their confidence.

Of course, if you or your child ever feel overwhelmed by any negative emotions, never hesitate to enlist my help, or your child’s teachers.  Navigating social relationships will be one of the most important skills we can develop and it is well worth all of our time to nurture those skills.

Go on… Play.

I want to share with you a couple of articles about the importance of play. The first article (found here) speaks to our younger learners and how important it is for them to learn through playing.

The second article (found here) is a look at this philosophy from the other end of childhood. The article, written by two Harvard professors, talks about how most Harvard undergrads know how to work hard, but some have never learned how to play… and it shows.

 

What is Montessori? Part III

Parents often talk about Montessori children having a sparkle in their eye or a spring in their step that most students don’t have.  At our school, parents wonder at how their children love school at Fulton, compared to their friends at other schools or to their old school. There are many reasons for this, but two keys are the relevancy of curriculum and the autonomy of the student.

As part of a Montessorian’s call to follow the child (see Part II), we need to tailor the material to speak to them.  This does not mean that third grade boys should only study Legos and four-year-old girls must study princesses.  A true educator knows that you can get kids excited about almost any subject if you approach it appropriately.

We do need to be ready to help children understand why they’re learning.  When we teach a preschooler to zip, she is immensely rewarded by helping all the younger kids who cannot yet zip get zipped up for recess.  She is even more excited to go learn the next thing.  This can get more difficult as the material gets more abstract, but it must remain a priority. However, if we are following the child and the material is developmentally appropriate, the relevancy will be much easier to convey.

Secondly, kids love to learn when there is a little bit of choice.  Can they do their grammar before their reading comprehension?  Is there some give in the schedule when the group gets particularly excited about Egypt?  Can they move on after page 65 or do they have to wait on the rest of the group?  Can they choose a timeline OR a skit?

99% of us would be completely deflated if our professional lives were devoid of any relevancy or autonomy, so how dare we treat our children with less respect?  We can and do, and most children comply, or at least try, but they will not have the sparkle or the bounce that they could have.  They will be surviving instead of thriving.