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!

Our Mission – Part 2: Where Are Our Kids Headed?

TFS MissionThe first half of our mission is challenge with support. I wrote about that last week. The second half of our mission is really about where our students are headed. What knowledge and skills do they really need to live fulfilling and successful lives? We believe they have the best chance of a fulfilling and successful life if they are aware of the context that we live in (globally minded) and if they are excited about life (passion for life and learning).

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that children needed to begin understanding the world closest to them (their caretakers) and that the circle should expand as they get older (their families, their homes, their classroom, their school, their neighborhood, their city, their country, the world). This is more than geography, but it is not political. It is simply context.

What is going on around us?
How does it affect us?
How do we affect our world?

As children develop, they will naturally develop interest in the world around them, but it’s also a cycle: the more they know about the world, the more intriguing it gets and the more they want to know. Vision/life goals, compassion, a sense of purpose, respect, humility, perspective, civic duty, and intellectual stimulation are just a few of the characteristics that develop out of an interest in the world around us. From our perspective, the more they know and the more interested they are, the richer their foundation is for everything else they do with their lives.

We also want to equip them to approach life with zest. We want them to be confident enough to tackle life with excitement. We want them to have the skills and drive to continue to learn without grades or schedules or due dates. The primary way to do this is to introduce them to the intrinsic rewards (rewards that emerge from inside of us rather than rewards that are bestowed on us by others) of learning. Giving them choice in projects, encouraging tangents when we see something spark in them, Upper School interims, hands-on projects, sitting back and watching the students discover connections (instead of pointing them all out for the students), field trips and overnight trips, building multi-generational relationships, challenging them, and then celebrating with them when they overcome a challenge. These are all tactics to experience joy in learning, and joy in life. We live this mission ourselves, and then we pass this on to our students.

Rethinking Your Commute

My family is fortunate to live less than 5 miles from school. But I spend most weekday evenings driving my kids around town between sports, piano practice, jobs, and youth group. For us, nothing is less than a 30-minute drive one-way. On one hand, this much car time could be a huge hassle. On the other hand, I have one or more kids stuck with me in the car for an hour-plus every day. If we were home, they would be in their rooms or outside, but in the car they talk to me. When my oldest daughter started driving, I missed those conversations!  Luckily when the newness of her driving independence wore off, she often asked me to go with her again… so we could talk.

I know many of you have a long commute to school or you have friends who resist coming here because of the commute, but I challenge you to see the commute as a gift. Ask them to put away their devices and take out their headphones. Set the expectation that car time is “together time.”

Car time like this is called parallel talk and is a much more effective context for older kids to share than direct questioning. Stories will pour out as they process their days, their relationships, friendships, and events. You can:

Listen to the news and discuss it.

Sing together (or learn about the music they love).

Plan your dinner menus and grocery lists.

Or you can just be quiet together.

It’s in your power to reframe the commute that our location and the modern lifestyle create as a benefit of The Fulton School, rather than a liability. It’s a non-negotiable chunk of time for sharing and reflection. It is built-in quality relationship time — and that is rare in modern American life.

Introversion and Extroversion in the Classroom

unnamedThe faculty and I spend a lot of time discussing the needs of students, from both a broad, developmental perspective and from a personal and individual perspective.  One topic that comes up perennially is the role of introversion and extroversion in the classroom.  Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a NY Times bestseller since 2012, defines these two groups a little differently than you might have heard before, and I think it’s the best definition I’ve ever heard.

She says, an introvert is “a person who feels at their best and at their most alive when they’re in quieter, more mellow environments. And it stems from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Literally, different nervous systems. Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening.”

Defined in terms of the external stimulation students seek, introversion and extroversion have a huge impact on what the ideal classroom environment looks like. In this interview with Mindshift at PBS, Cain discusses the impact on the classroom.  There is a lot to consider–not all introverts are shy and lots of extroverts are surprisingly shy. Some skills that introverts might prefer to avoid (class discussions or group projects) might be important skills for them to develop for a successful college and professional life, but we want to challenge them while respecting their natural inclinations.

The smaller environment at TFS definitely creates a comfort level for our introverts to grow in that would not be possible in a large school, but it also means that they cannot hide in the back of the classroom or blend into a group.  We are always working to meet your children where they are, while pushing them to move beyond their comfort zones.  It’s an art rather than a science, but it’s a high priority for us at TFS.

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.

How Do You Teach Character?

How do you teach character?  My answer is always through practice, practice, practice.  “By the time children are 4 years old, they often know certain values–that stealing is wrong, for example. Because kids tend to know values, they often feel patronized by lectures about values or just learn to parrot back what adults want to hear.” (Richard Weissbourd). We practice character education through our behavior, our expectations, and our discussions.

Every adult at the school aims to behave with the characteristics we are trying to impart to the children.  We talk to the students about our behavior transparently, we allow the kids to hold us accountable, and we take responsibility when we fail.  Kids have a keen eye for sincerity, so the character of the faculty and staff cannot be faked–it has to come from our hearts.  When it is genuine, it will color and shape the entire organization, and I believe we all feel the positive effects of the collective character within the organization.

We also expect the students to behave with character.  Holding our expectations high — whether that is through asking a 3 year old to put away his work or asking a high schooler to help a parent carry boxes into the school — creates a status quo of kindness and respect.  The stronger the parent partnership, the more continuity the students will see between the standards at home and the standards at school, and the stronger the students’ clarity will be about how to be a person of character.

Lastly, discussions are essential because morality and ethics are rarely black and white. There are trade-offs, ambiguities, and conundrums.  The more we work through these with our students, the more mature their moral logic becomes.  The more time we give to discussions and practice, the more we solidify our identity as people of character.

This article is a short summary of a great book, The Parents We Mean to Be by Richard Weissbourd, and addresses the type of character education I’m describing if you’re interested in reading more.

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: Week 4

Adolescence, Part 1

For the last three weeks I have been writing about the phases of childhood.  Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the Planes of Development) from birth until 24 years of age. Dr. Montessori said that children are creating their person the first six years, elaborating on the mind and personality from years six to 12, then creating their social identity from 12 to 18 years, and elaborating on that from 18 to 24.  She uses the language of creation verses elaboration to distinguish between the upheaval of the first six years and the relative calm of the next six; the upheaval of the adolescent phase, and the relative calm of the last phase.

3ccc65d3-f493-4b84-ba03-a182bfa75645Adolescence is a phase that perplexes us.  We don’t always feel that we know our child; sometimes they act like they don’t remember us (their family, their roots). There’s drama, withdrawal, mood swings, and frustration from a child who was likely calm and enjoyable a year or two before.  Dr. Montessori (and many other developmentalists) argue that it’s not a whole lot different than the turmoil of the first six years.  The child is growing and changing tremendously, so there are lots of hormones (the chemicals that produce change in the body).  She is creating herself in some way, which requires a separation/distancing of sorts from you.  Her highs are very high, and her lows are very low (you will never be as upset as you were at two or 13 again, but you may also never feel quite the same thrills as you did at those ages either).  Her tantrums can be similar, but she is much more articulate, and she knows you well enough by now to lash out with sophistication–right where it hurts.

But they are still kids and they need you after the drama as badly as your three-year-old did.  They are trying on various identities, figuring out who they are, but they need you to remind them who they are.  They are pushing the boundaries to test their strengths, but they still need those boundaries.  The tricky part is that the six-year-old emerged ready to dress himself and make his lunch, but the adolescent will emerge ready to have a job, live on his own, manage relationships and school, etc., which often scares us. The stronger his core sense of identity is going into adulthood, the better set he will be for the stresses and demands of relationships–both intimate and professional.

So the tumult is all worth it, if it creates the adult that he will become. YOU have to be the calm in the storm, where he finds rest and remembers who he is.

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.