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.

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

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.

NY Resolutions vs. Reflection

resolutionsI’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions.  I’m too skeptical of the cycle they often instigate: inspiration, distraction, failure, and then maybe guilt for the conscientious people. Change is much harder for most of us than a few goals at the beginning of the year, and most of us are too busy with everything from last year to sustain focus on what we want to change.

That said, I do believe change is possible, and I’m going to take advantage of the cultural traditions to promote year-long reflection.  Here are two inspiring parenting blogs that took two approaches to New Year’s resolutions:

  • The first (first printed a while ago, but going viral with the new year) summarizes top 10 parenting problems in today’s culture.  None of us are guilty of all of them, but we are all guilty of some of them.  As our children get older, they stare us down more intensely, and they are worth reflection, because as she says in the blog, “Early intervention is key because it can change the trajectory for the child’s life.”
  • The second blog tackles our self-criticism.  Many of you are going through difficult times and you need to devote some time to taking care of yourselves so that you are not utterly destroyed.  This blog is aimed at moms, but the principles are universal.

Whether you want to confront new challenges or simply find a corner of peace, I hope that 2015 can be a year full of reflection, because I believe reflection is the beginning of true change for all of us.

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.

How To Be a Great Parent (in 10 Easy Steps)

Being a decent parent involves three basics — love, physical needs and discipline. But what does it take to be a great parent?

1.  Your unconditional love should be an absolute given. The effectiveness of every parenting choice is predicated onthis fact.  Remind them of it often.  “You can’t do anything to make me love you more. You can’t do anything to make me love you less.  I love you for you.”  Then try to really love them for who they are — even if they’re very different from you or a little too much like you!

2. Let them face disappointments.  It is really tempting and we can often feel pressured to “fix” things for our kids, but clearing away their disappointments teaches them that we don’t believe in them; that we don’t think they can handle life’s difficulties.  When children face their disappointments (even unfair ones), they develop perseverance, courage and the confidence to know they can get through hard times.

3. Be sure your child has chores to do every day.  Chores should increase in responsibility as they get older, paced so they are truly ready to live on their own by the end of the teen years.  A 3-year-old can help wash dishes, an 11-year-old can do their own laundry, and a 14-year-old can fix dinner for the whole family.  These are necessary even if you are a stay-at-home mom; they won’t have your services forever and your house is a community where everyone should pitch in!  Meaningful routine chores teach responsibility, ownership, practical life skills, confidence (they can do more than they thought), and chase away entitlement.

4. Discipline with logical, proportionate consequences. Talk less, act more. Try to avoid yelling and shaming, and let the consequences do the work for you. Arguing in the car?  Put them in a “talking time out.” Throwing a fit about doing their chores?  Give them another chore.  Slam the door to his room? Take the door off the hinges. Be creative! Good consequences will be inconvenient for you at times, but the results will be well worth it.

5. Remind yourself and your children the difference between a right and a privilege in your home.  They have the right to safety, shelter, food and school.  Video games, cell phones, TV, playtime, and name brand clothesare privileges, and you should know how and when you think they should have them and how they can lose them.  What guidelines do you want to teach them about handling those privileges with integrity?

6. Some decisions are yours, some should be theirs, and some should be made together.  Decide which are which and discuss it with them.

7.  Your kids need your hugs and your support even when they tell you they don’t.  As children get older, go through various dramas and try on different identities, as is inevitable, rise above the hurt of their apparent rejection. Continue to show affection, go to their games and performances, and tell them you love them.  When they lash out at you over frustrations in their life, it means they feel safe in your love.  They’ll work through it.

8.  Meet them on their ground and make their interests yours.  Read the books they love (find out why teens loved “The Hunger Games” so much).  Play the videos games they like with them (how does Minecraft work, anyway?).  We do this pretty naturally when they’re young, but it takes a more conscious effort as they approach adolescence and beyond.

9. Don’t forget to pass on your values, opinions, and wisdom through life’s everyday situations.  Use events on the news (a controversial political vote, a zoning issue that affects your family), circumstances that friends and family experience (a divorce, addictions, a death), and situations that come up on TV shows or in movies (the glamorization of sex, violence, or sassy kids) to discuss topics that may be awkward or difficult, but that your children need to process.  If you pass up these opportunities, you are handing the honor of influence off to your child’s peers, Hollywood, or the culture at large.

10. Remember that there is no way to be the perfect parent, but a million ways to be a great one.

The Pressure of Perfect Parenting

Shown here: Me with Fulton School founder (my mom) Dr. Barb Fulton
Shown here: Me with Fulton School founder (my mom) Dr. Barb Fulton

Are you feeling pressured to be the perfect parent who offers an amazing childhood for our offspring?

Here’s an interesting take on that pressure, challenging us to step back a bit, to simplify, and ultimately (although she doesn’t word it this way), to let go of our children a little.

My own mom‘s 69th birthday was yesterday and she’s been on my mind a lot lately. My childhood was very similar to the author’s (including a Disney trip that I only vaguely remember).  I would nominate my mother for any Best Mother Ever award, but it was her wisdom (which I received like it or not), and time spent with her (which was usually helping her prepare or clean up dinner, or a late night talk when she was exhausted), her hugs (she hated her chubbiness, but she really gave the best hugs physically possible) which were often accompanied by advice, criticism, and challenges, and even our discussions and arguments (no topic was taboo).

Her refusal to try to make my life magical and her challenges for me to go search for my own discoveries (outside, in the kitchen, in my room, just OUT of her office!) have often given me permission as a mom to do exactly what this author suggests.  But little did either of us know that my mom’s love and struggles and honesty and desire to work on her weaknesses was magic in and of itself.

Combating Summer Brain Drain – Part II

Botanical GardenSo how do you keep your child’s brain stimulated during the summer “drought”?

You can do a few, big, obviously educational outings here and there, like the Science Center, Botanical Garden, Zoo (stop and read the facts about the animals or watch a show where they teach), any museum, The Magic House, Museum of Transport, etc.  They’re easy to go to, but you do have to engage while you’re there or they become all about the snacks and the gift shop. Before you known it, your child will be whining that they’re hot and bored.

In between these special “field trips,” you can do smaller learning around the house.  Try a new recipe together from a new country, read a book together, try to build a potato launcher, whatever you are interested in.

The more “hooks” they have from their first-hand experiences, the more they will retain the thousands of little tidbits that come up in school.  They’ll know what tumeric is when they’re studying ancient Egypt or what “projectile” means from your summer fun.

readingJoin a summer reading program (at the local library, Barnes and Noble, the fire station).   I’m not a big fan of extrinsic rewards(tangible rewards that don’t come from inside us) but these book clubs are cultural traditions and as long as it doesn’t morph into a bribery addiction between your child and you (any time s/he needs to do something, you have to figure out a reward), these clubs won’t hurt.

Next, does your child like screen time?  Let them play math operation games, read on your Kindle, try Type to Learn, or whatever rote skill practice you can find to their hearts’ desire.  These games will build skills and they’re just not as addictive as real video games.

Lastly, let them get good and bored.  The creativity within them will only emerge in the absence of flashing lights and beeping games.  Their boredom is the fertile ground that grows story writing, skits with siblings, videos with neighbors, musical instrument practice, and made-up games – in short,  brilliance.

These are all proactive, positive actions you can take to limit May’s erosion.  A few defensive tactics will help their intelligent retention too:

1)      Severely limit their screen time. (Hint: Some days should have no video games, movies, or TV).

2)      Resist the temptation to be their entertainment director. They need to learn to entertain themselves.

3)      Severely limit their screen time, Wait, did I say that already? Screen time is your child’s biggest enemy.  More on that another day.  

Your child needs experiences and time to process more than they need tutoring or schedules or quizzing.  Summer drought can turn into the summer rain forest, and your child might actually return to school excited to learn.