Portland Jewish Academy is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and is proud of our partnership with them in strengthening our local Jewish community as well as the global community.
Portland Jewish Academy and Schnitzer Family Campus partner Mittleman Jewish Community Center are proud partners with the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland to bring the Harold Grinspoon Foundation's PJ Library program to Jewish children in Portland.
PJA Director of General Studies and School Counselor, Betsy Bailey, is a tremendous resource for the school regarding children's education, interpersonal issues, and learning among other things.
Luckily, she is also a fantastic writer and agreed to share her thoughts with our community through her PJA blog.
When I turned on my computer this morning and opened my e-mail, I was greeted, as I am most days, with several mass mailings directed to school counselors advertising “anti-bullying” materials. Today’s offerings included the “Five Minute Bully Prevention” video and “New Save Time Anti-Bullying Worksheets.” The message behind these materials seems to suggest that while bullying is bad, it can be stopped by adding a very short video, worksheet or other quick activity to a school’s ”regular” curriculum.
At PJA, we don’t use the word bully very much, and we rarely turn to mass-produced “add on” curricular pieces. But we do spend a great deal of time helping students think about how to live by the middot – the values – that are at the core of our school culture. We know that students understand and assimilate into their lives important ideas and values when learning and applying them is an on-going part of their day in school. Thus lessons about considerate, responsible and caring behavior are integrated throughout the curriculum.
Each year, our first grade students learn about Ruby Bridges, who as a first grader became the first African American child to attend what had been an all-white Southern school. As part of a unit called Kindness and Justice, first grade teachers read Ruby’s autobiography to the class. Students see that at that time, adults in Ruby’s community engaged in the ugliest form of bullying towards her. In class discussions, our students confront the bullying and consider the source of Ruby’s courage. As they discuss what they learn from her experience, many students recognize the hurt caused by that those who did nothing to support Ruby. In the letters each student writes to the adult Ruby Bridges, many promise her that they will never be passive bystanders, but will instead stand up to discrimination and bullying.
As part of their United States history curriculum, eighth grade Humanities students are currently examining white privilege and considering the impact that “Indian” sports mascots have on the emotional development of their Native American peers. In class discussions and postings on their class website on My Big Campus, students have looked at rap lyrics and college admissions policies. They have articulated an understanding of the nuances and pervasiveness of white privilege and have engaged in meaningful conversation about their role in responding to it.
The kind of deep understanding of injustice and social responsibility that lessons like these cultivate lead to meaningful acts of kindness and thoughtful consideration about how to address wrongs, whether those wrongs occur in the past, in the greater community, or in our own playground. We are proud of the commitment to stand up to bullying that our first graders make in their letters to Ruby Bridges. We are equally proud of our eighth graders who re-examine their previously held ideas about popular culture and recognize that unintended insults are just as damaging as those deliberately inflicted. Our students know that the recognition of wrong comes with a commitment to stand up to it.
This doesn’t mean that PJA students are always kind and considerate to one another. We still see our share of jockeying for position in line when it’s time to go out to recess. Feelings are still hurt when a friend ignores another or talks behind her back. And at times, the adults in our community, parents and teachers alike, can have a knee-jerk reaction to those behaviors, leading us to call them “bullying.” But we also know it is much more effective to identify the behavior by what it is: simple thoughtlessness or instances of forgetting how another might perceive one’s behavior. As adults, our response is a conversation that may well be shorter than the five minute bully prevention video or take less time to complete than an anti-bullying worksheet, but is much more effective because it is specific to the instance and seamlessly connected to on-going classroom learning and discussion.
PJA students tell us in so many ways that they care about each other and see our school as a safe community, characterized by the values we expound. This perception was expressed loud and clear during a recent 7th grade Health class. Students were working in small groups on a decision making activity in which they were presented with “typical” middle school problems. One scenario described a "popular kid” defacing an "unpopular kid's” locker. One student expressed surprise by the incident. “That would never happen here,” he said. Another student concurred. “We don't have unpopular and popular kids,” she said. “We just like each other."
Last week, on one of the last days of the glorious road trip my husband and I took home following my younger son’s wedding in Santa Monica, I was awaken by the sounds our cell phones simultaneously ringing and announcing the arrival of text and e-mail messages. Like all Jewish mothers, I knew it could only mean bad news. My husband Don grabbed his phone first, looked sadly at me and whispered, “it’s Big Nick.” I shook my head. We had known for some time this would be happening. No one had died or had been hurt. But it was an ending. A few months after reports of an exorbitant rent hike, Big Nick’s Pizza and Burger Joint had closed.
Big Nick’s, with the slogan “serving Westsiders since 1962,” had been a part of the fabric of my New York family’s life for the 51 years it was in business. It’s where I took my children for their first slices of pizza because it’s where I grew up eating pizza. It’s where my older son Matt proudly pulled off his overalls to show the waitress his new “big boy underpants,” and it’s where my younger son Josh lost his first tooth. Perhaps because another of Big Nick’s slogans was “Big Nick is My Friend,” both Big Nick the man and Big Nick’s the “joint” appeared in the boys’ earliest drawings and writings. Big Nick and his staff were frequent answers to the games of “Twenty Questions” we played on road trips. It’s where we always went directly from the bus when the boys returned from 3 weeks away at camp. And, because yet another one of Big Nick’s slogans was “open 23 hours a day,” and because “The Three Stooges” played in an endless loop on an ancient television above the cooler in the corner, it’s where Don suggested we go no matter how late our flight from Portland got in to New York.
This has been an extraordinary year for my family. My granddaughter Emily was born on the last day of Chanukah, and I had the indescribable joy of holding her just hours later, as my son Matt – the beaming, loving father - and my mother- the proud great grandmother - stood beside me. For the first time since I moved to Portland seven years ago, our extended family was together for Passover. And then, two and half weeks ago, my younger son Josh and his beautiful Gabi stood together under the chuppah, tears of love in their eyes.
The phone calls and texts that morning last week were from Josh, just home from his honeymoon, and Matt, who was walking with Emily to the same playground where he once played, right down the street from Big Nick’s. I heard also from old neighbors, moms of the boys’ childhood friends, and some former students. All had wonderful stories that began, “remember when we were at Nicks and….”
I have been so blessed, and not just this year, with an abundance of happy milestone events. I have also been so fortunate to have shared, again and again, conversation and a slice of pizza with people I love in a place that felt like home. Those moments – hugely significant and wonderfully ordinary -- are equally precious in my heart.
As summer winds down, I hope you and your family have been enjoying times – extraordinary and “regular” - that you will find yourself happily recalling in the years to come.
About twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in a summer institute led by Harvard professor of education Howard Gardner. Gardner had just published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and was leading us, a group of educators, to an examination of what has now become a widespread understanding in educational psychology, that intelligence is not a single general ability. At the time, Gardner sounded radical when he postulated that a child who immediately and concisely answers the question “how are an apple and orange alike?” is not – in general -- more intelligent than a child who fails to articulate that both are fruit . Today, as a result of Gardner’s pioneering work, psychologists and educators ask not “is the child intelligent?” but rather, “which intelligences best characterize the child?”
At the essence of the theory of multiple intelligences is an understanding that there are several different kinds of cognitive ability and that intelligence in one area is not necessarily associated with intelligence in any other. In Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence, Gardner identified and defined seven intelligences: linguistic (verbal ability and facility learning languages), logical-mathematical (facility with numbers and ability to develop a logical argument), bodily-kinesthetic (physical dexterity and strong memory for movement), spatial (the ability to visualize with the mind's eye and make meaning from images), musical (facility with sounds and rhythms and strong auditory attention and memory), naturalistic (deep understanding and awareness of other living beings and natural surroundings), interpersonal (skillful in interactions with others and sensitivity to their feelings and needs), and intrapersonal (strong ability to reflect).
When I visit PJA classrooms, I always note how well our teachers incorporate an understanding of the different intelligences and corresponding learning styles of their students. Information is never presented in just one way, directed to just one kind of intelligence or learner. Teachers understand that a student with strong musical intelligence is most likely an auditory learner who will remember the information she or he hears, and that a child who has strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence will learn by manipulating or constructing objects. Working together, those two students might create a song and dance to share what they have learned with others. Similarly, teachers recognize that a student with strong linguistic intelligence will dive right into reading a new book, while a classmate with strong spatial intelligence will more likely begin to make meaning from that book by examining the illustrations or diagrams. Given choices about how to summarize the information in that book, the first child might write a poem, while the second might create a comic strip.
I was struck when reading the recent set of report cards how well PJA teachers know each child and acknowledge his/her particular intelligences. A teacher, writing about a lower school child, noted her linguistic and interpersonal intelligence, “Articulate and possessing an advanced vocabulary, her good communication skills allow her opportunities to mediate between classmates when conflict arises.” A kindergarten teacher described a student who is logically-mathematically gifted. “He seems always to be thinking about numbers and can manipulate them mentally. He brings his great insight to our group work developing problem solving strategies.” Another teacher noted about a student with deep naturalistic intelligence, “She was in her element during our outdoor field school studies. Her keen observations and enthusiasm helped others notice and appreciate even the smallest forms of life.”
Despite over 20 years of research about multiple intelligences, the notion that there is one kind of intelligence persists. This misunderstanding often leads students who are stymied by a particularly challenging academic situation to conclude, “I’m just not smart enough.” In talking with those students and their parents, I often refer to Howard Gardner. I describe the different kinds of intelligences in terms the student can understand and ask which ways they think they have “super intelligence.” Allowing a student to acknowledge his or her areas of strength, and using the word “intelligence” to name those strengths, often helps place the challenge in perspective and can be an important step in finding success.
It’s my absolutely favorite picture. Josh has just turned five and is propped up against a couple of cushions on the old blue sofa. He’s wearing a Dodgers pajama top and green pajama shorts. His face is shining and his hair is still wet from the bath he just took. His older brother Matt is standing beside the sofa, all clean and shiny and pajama-clad too. One hand is on a cushion, right beside Josh. Both boys’ eyes are focused on the book in Josh’s hands.
It was part of our evening routine that after their baths, the boys would pick out bedtime books while I finished the dishes. Usually I heard them chatting – sometimes arguing – while I wiped down the kitchen counter and put the pots and pans away. But for the past few evenings, it had been only Josh’s voice I heard. It sounded like he was reading to Matt.
As far as I knew, Josh did not know how to read. He loved books and pointing out some words he recognized, like “up” and “down” in our apartment building elevator. He enjoyed guessing a rhyming word to finish a sentence in the books I read him. But he hadn’t yet started kindergarten, and the preschool he went to did not “teach” reading.
Yet, from the kitchen, over the sound of running water, I thought I heard him reading. The first night, I turned off the water. Then, certain that it was the middle of The Cat in the Hat, in Josh’s voice, I came out of the kitchen. The reading stopped. I went back in the kitchen, resumed my duties, and the sounds of reading began again. I came back out. It stopped.
As the three of us cuddled up for the bedtime books, as casually as I could, I mentioned that while I was in the kitchen, it sounded like Josh was reading. “Oh no!” they both exclaimed in the exaggerated voices they used when trying to get away with something, “We were just looking at books.”
The next morning, Matt took me aside. “Josh can read,” he reported. “But he only reads to me. And,” he continued, with a distinct tone of a warning, “you can’t tell him I told you.”
For several nights it continued. Always a different book; always the small but confident voice. And always the abrupt stop when I came out of the kitchen. So, on the fifth night, I was ready. I brought the camera into the kitchen earlier in the day. I turned on the water, waited a moment, and just as I heard Josh’s voice begin, I positioned myself in the corner where they couldn’t see me, and I took a quick shot.
In those days, before digital cameras, it was several weeks before I finished the role of film and developed the picture which beautifully captures a moment in time and a bond between two brothers who love books. In the interim, I had uncovered the reason for all their subterfuge.
The boys had believed that if I knew they both could read, I would stop reading to them. I was stunned. Not so much by the fact that Josh had hidden a skill he had no doubt spent a long time developing. Rather, I couldn’t believe that they thought I would or could stop reading to them.
I don’t remember the last time the three of us snuggled up in Josh’s lower bunk bed to read to a picture book, but it was many years later. Reading to children, sharing a book that has a great story and beautiful pictures is not something to give up when they are able to read themselves. It’s not about helping them develop “pre-reading” or other academic skills (although, of course, we do know that children who are read to from an early age are better prepared for school). It is a way of sharing the world and opening up new ones, something we are never too old to do. Picture books remind us that anything is possible. An elephant can go shopping in a French department store, and a Little Bear and a little girl named Sal can go blueberry picking together. Answers are found to seemingly unanswerable questions like where do lost mittens go? And while our children’s imaginations grow, we can pick up some much needed parent wisdom from a mother cow who recognizes that it is ok that her son prefers smelling flowers to butting heads like the other little bulls do, and from badger parents who wait it out until their finicky little girl outgrows her desire to eat nothing but bread and jam.
I hope you and your children have a wonderful winter break, with plenty of time to cozy up together with both new and old favorite picture books. And if you are didn’t recognize the classics I’ve referenced above, I hope this is the vacation you discover Babar the King, Blueberries for Sal, The Mitten, Ferdinand the Bull, and Bread and Jam for Frances. Happy reading!
Matt always complained about the Weed Wallow. “Everyone hates the Weed Wallow,” he’d tell me in the days leading up to it. Then came his follow up question, “Do I really have to go?” Yes. He did have to go.
The Weed Wallow was an annual event organized by my children’s school in conjunction with Clearwater, an organization founded by Pete Seeger with the goal of protecting the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands. Many Clearwater educational programs take place on a beautiful sailing vessel, also called the Clearwater, and since 1966, before everyone knew what it meant to be “green,” Clearwater has held an annual music and environmental festival.
The Weed Wallow was one of many projects that represented my children’s school’s mission which, like PJA’s mission, values “learning by doing” and helping children find ways to effect positive change in the world. On the day of the Weed Wallow, the children wore old clothes and boarded a train that would head north along the Hudson River to where they’d meet the Clearwater. Most years Pete Seeger, whose brother John had once been the school’s principal, was there to greet them. Children too young to participate saw the train off, waving and singing folk songs. Teachers brought guitars and banjos and led more singing on the train. Once they arrived at their destination, the children would tour the ship, learning more about the river and talking about what they and their families could do to protect the environment. Then they’d spend a few hours pulling invasive weeds out of the Hudson. There were more songs, some about being a steward of the environment, others celebrating the results of hard work. Some years it rained. And in those days, before tevas or other river shoes, the children wore old tennis shoes that quickly became soaked and full of the weeds they were attempting to eradicate.
“You have no idea how slimy it is,” Matt would begin his campaign to skip the Weed Wallow. “It’s a waste,” he’d tell me. “All we do is get wet, and there are still weeds everywhere when we leave.” When I was unmoved by that argument, he’d add, “all the weeds we pull, plus a lot more, will be back next year.”
It’s been a long time since the Weed Wallow has come up in conversation about those terrible things your parents make you do. Throughout high school and college, Matt embraced many service learning opportunities, albeit none of which got him too wet or slimy. As an adult, Matt has become much more willing to endure uncomfortable conditions for a good cause. He spent a winter in Iowa, canvassing door to door in sub-zero temperature to garner support for his candidate in the presidential caucuses. He spent another extended leave from work in hot, humid New Orleans, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. Among his fellow Weed Wallow complainers are many other men and women whose lives are characterized by a commitment to social, political and environmental change.
There are many reasons we make our children do things that they’d rather not do because they are a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s easy to explain why, as parents, we are insistent. Other times, when their arguments are, on the face of it, reasonable, it’s harder to explain. I don’t know that Matt would not have become the mensch he is today if I had let him skip the Weed Wallow. But I do know how shaped he was by a attending a school that, like PJA, consciously and consistently seeks opportunities to help children recognize that doing good is not always easy, but is always right.
I’ve written before about my grown sons, Matt and Josh, best friends who regularly go to ballgames and concerts together and meet weekly for after work dinner dates. It wasn’t always this way. They had designated “sides” of their shared bedroom. We used a timer to allow each “alone time” in that room, and all kinds of systems and rules about how to handle shared toys and books. By the time I moved out of their childhood home, those days had long passed, and they easily divided up the baseball cards and other childhood possessions they had left behind when they moved on to homes of their own. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to who took what, but in the years since, I have been delighted and somewhat intrigued by the items from their childhood I have found in each man’s home.
Most recently, I saw The Carrot Seed on one of the many bookcases in Josh’s Brooklyn apartment. At just 101 words, The Carrot Seed, written by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson, was one of the shortest picture book texts when it was published in 1945. It’s been in continuous print since then so clearly classifies as a classic. The book opens with the words: "A little boy planted a carrot seed. His mother said, 'I'm afraid it won't come up.’” Despite the skepticism of his parents and, particularly, his older brother who tells him, “it won’t come up,” the little boy “pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water." For a few pages, the boy looks at the bare ground where “nothing came up.”
The book concludes simply, "And then, one day, a carrot came up just as the little boy had known it would."
I must have read that book hundreds of times. Josh could recite the words with me and always giggled at the final picture in the book, a carrot so huge that it fills a wheelbarrow.
What does it mean, I wondered, that Josh was not only so drawn to that book as a 3 year old, but also had kept it for the 25 years since? Was it, for him, a story of a little brother who proves an insistent older brother wrong? Did this tale of persistence, of laboring at something, without the help of others or any immediate evidence of success lead Josh to become the novelist he is today? Did The Carrot Seed introduce my apartment dwelling city child to an unknown world where children have gardens and wheelbarrows and can go outside by themselves? Josh wasn’t sure. What he did remember, he said, was how much he loved sitting on my lap when we read it and how I would pause so he could say the words with me. And he liked that the little boy is wearing overalls just like he always wore. But mostly, my writer son told me, it’s just a perfect book about someone who defies the odds, worthy of its spot on the same shelf as two of his other favorite books, Don Quixote and Moby Dick.
on Monday October 15, 2012 at 02:55PM
As adults, most of us have fond memories of spending long summer days outside. Many of us can recall the summer we discovered a new author, garnered the courage to jump off the high diving board, or built a tree house. While most PJA students list activities like those as what they look forward to as the school year winds down, many tell us that summer vacation also means more time to surf the Web, watch TV, download iTunes, go to the movies and play video games. And, if, as one student told me, summer vacation means “parents can’t use that ‘after you finish your homework’ line,” how do we help children balance media exposure with other activities? How much media consumption is too much? What media choices are best?
Two organizations – Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) and The Parents Choice Foundation (www.parents-choice.org) – offer valuable resources to help parents navigate the fast-moving media world. Both provide reviews of “hot” video games and current movies, as well current research about the impact of media usage. While no website or research study can answer each parent’s questions about what is right and best for individual families and children, experts do agree on these general guidelines:
Set family rules and stick to them. "It's just like anything else in parenting," says Peter Katz of Common Sense Media. "You've got to set guidelines." While those guidelines can vary from family to family (and might change for the summer) children need to know you will follow them. Consistency through the years is also important, Katz adds. "If you are a permissive parent for the first six years, it makes it harder to switch that off later on."
Limit screen time. In setting your family rules, keep in mind that most experts recommend no more than one to two hours of 'screen time' (TV, DVDs, computers and video games) per day. It's important to consider that it's not just TV but all forms of media that need to be considered when setting guidelines.
Be conscious of age-appropriateness. "What's OK for 8 isn't OK for 4," says Claire Green, president of the Parent’s Choice Foundation. Use your judgment and consult media reviews. Be aware that although several companies are marketing videos for babies and toddlers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children under the age of 2. Learn not just what the different TV, movie and video games ratings mean, but why a particular show or game was given its rating. As you consider ratings, give equal consideration to your own values and child’s development and temperament. Remember that a PG-13 rating on a movie doesn't necessarily mean that all 13-year-olds are ready to see it or that a younger child shouldn't see it. If your child is prone to nightmares, he or she may not be ready for a “scary” G movie.
Use media together. Whenever you can, watch, play, listen and surf with your child and talk about the content. Have regular family movie nights and use them as opportunities to watch together and discuss. Be on the alert for “teachable moments”. Pose questions like “Why do you think the characters are being mean to each other?” or “what would really happen if a person did what that video game character is doing?” When your child expresses interest in a particular topic, visit relevant Internet sites together and use that as an opportunity to help them assess the usefulness and biases of particular sites. Show children where they're allowed to go, not just where they're not.
Finally, be a role model! Remember that children attend more to what we do than to what we say! If your children see you spending hours as a couch potato or tethered to your iPhone, you will undermine your message of moderation. Share your fondest summer activity memories with your children. Get their opinions about the books you loved the summer after you were in third grade, jump off the diving board with them, or go build something together! Have a wonderful summer!!
I was in the full day Ganon classroom last week as the students excitedly completed preparations for their Mother’s Day Tea. “This is my VERY best work,” one girl proudly told me as she showed off the flower-adorned hat she had made for her mom. “My mommy is going to look so, so, so beautiful when she wears this,” one of the boys added. As I listened to their voices, and looked into their bright eyes, I saw my own two sons on Mother’s Days past. I recalled Matt’s broad smile, his teeth a little blue from the bite he had taken from the painted macaroni necklace he made me when he was 3. And I could hear Josh’s voice as he read to me from the card I carried until the paper literally shredded. In his very best “invented, guess-and-go spelling,” below a drawing of a trophy, he had written, “There otta be a hollafam for mothers.”
It has been so many years since I received a handmade mother’s day gift (unless you count the mimosas Matt made a few years ago before taking me out for brunch). I say this not nostalgically, but in disbelief. The cliché is true. While the days are long, the years go so quickly. The last picture in which I am taller than both my sons was taken 19 years ago. I long gave away my copy of Siblings Without Rivalry. The two boys who needed a timer so each could have “alone time” away from the other are now men who regularly meet for dinner after work.
Some of the “other mothers,” as the boys called them, the women I met when our children were in preschool, whose friendship and generosity I relied on for everything from pick-ups from Hebrew school to advice about packing for camp, are now grandmothers. Some are joyfully enmeshed in new empty nest careers, while others are blissfully retired. After all these years, when we see each other, we are still mothers who don’t know how we did it. But we did. We nursed our children through ear infections and strep throats. At night, when we finally got them to bed, and we were completely exhausted, we packed lunches, sewed costumes for school plays, and baked cupcakes for birthday parties. As mothers of teenagers, we waited up until they got home safely and grounded them when they got home late. And then, suddenly one day, we found ourselves helping them move into their first homes away from us.
We did it in the days before Facebook. During their elementary school years, there were no cell phones, e-mail, or internet. We had a few reliable parenting books, the pediatrician, and each other. And still, we spent hours sorting through the conflicting advice. I remember us one morning, during those early pre-school years, sitting over coffee, sharing our latest mistakes. We promised from then on to tell each other whenever we blew a child-rearing decision. We said each mother’s mistake would be learning experiences for the rest of us. That way, we concluded, no one would repeat the mistake, things would all even out, and our children would be fine. And then some of us had a second child, or a third, and we realized that what was a mistake with one child, even one of our own, was just what another child needed.
Looking back, I laugh at most of the mistakes, and cringe at others. But if there is one mistake I made that I wish I could help other mothers avoid it is this: I did not live in the moment enough.
Earlier this year, while preparing a memory book for my own mother’s birthday, I looked through hundreds of old family pictures. There was one I could not put down. It was taken at what we called the “regular playground,” on what must have been an unseasonably warm winter afternoon. There is snow on the edges of the swing set, but the boys, probably ages 5 and 8, are dressed in sweatshirts. Although the sun is almost down, and the boys are shrouded in shadow, the smiles on their faces are radiant. Josh is on his knee, holding a football for Matt to kick. I wish I could remember what else we had done that day. What did they talk about on our way to the playground? Did we buy snacks at the deli and eat it on a park bench? When we got home, did they remember to wash their hands? I hope that on that rare beautiful afternoon, I didn’t rush them, didn’t lose patience if Josh kicked a pebble all the way home or Matt asked questions I was too tired to thoughtfully answer. I wish I could remember their voices at that age, the smell of their freshly shampooed hair, and just how they looked when they slept. I wish I had not been in such a hurry each day to check off my “to do” lists and had not been such a slave to the routine: homework, dinner, bath, story, bed. I wish I had treasured just “being” a little more, and fretted about “getting it done” a lot less.
And for those of you not practiced in the decoding of new writer’s spelling, Josh was telling me that “there ought to be a hall of fame for mothers.” He’s right. I wish all of you a very happy Mother’s Day.
Last month, the NY Times “Motherlode” blogger KJ Dell’Antonia asked, “Who sold you your last batch of Thin Mints?” She described experiences that many of you will recognize. “You’re sitting at your desk, or pushing your cart through the grocery store, thinking about spring, when a sheepish parent sidles up — and he’s not even wearing a Girl Scout uniform. The next thing you know, you’ve agreed to take delivery of three boxes of Trefoils.”
Ms. Dell’Antonia’s complaint that, ‘I can’t remember the last time either I or my husband was asked to buy a box of cookies by an actual Girl Scout,” reminded me of a science fair I visited at a school many years ago. As students wandered the gymnasium perimeter, parents talked to each other about displays that looked more trade show than an elementary school. There were all kinds of things that lit up and blew up, and there were posters that explained, in beautiful calligraphy, the life cycles of plants and insects that I had never heard of. And everywhere, there were parents proudly, and in great detail, answering the question, “How did you do that?”
While most of us would agree that the parents at that science fair went too far, most of us also have had times when we have found the line between helping our child and doing her work for her to be blurry.
In conversations about “how much help is too much,” I recommend parents begin by asking their child or her teacher about the goals of the particular assignment. When we understand the purpose of an assignment, we can then ask ourselves the following: Will the assistance I’m contemplating support that goal? Or, will my involvement deprive my child of the intended learning experience?
Some rules of thumb I offer are, “Help, don’t do,” “provide guidance, not answers,” and, when it comes to his homework, “never work harder than your child.” Some of the best ways to support a child’s school work don’t involve the school work itself. Among the most helpful things you can do are to set up a designated work space for your child with the supplies he will need and, knowing his rhythms and activity schedule, help him find the right time to do daily homework and develop a schedule for completing bigger projects. And then, less is more. Doing homework independently is a way for children to be alone with their work in a way that they can’t be in the classroom.
I remind parents that the old adage that “we learn from our mistakes” particularly applies to school work. Let your child make mistakes and then, with his teacher’s guidance, learn from them. Praise his efforts, willingness to take risks, and growing independence. If he asks for help, ask guiding questions, suggest resources that might be useful, and give some feedback. But don’t pick up a pencil or touch the keyboard. And, given that the temptation to “just fix one little thing” can often be too much to resist, I suggest making a practice of not looking at your children’s projects out of their presence. Don’t “rescue” a child who has put off a major assignment until the last minute. Instead, consider the responsibility that grows from learning that there are natural consequences for not meeting expectations and the importance for teachers to see when a student needs help with time management skills.
I remember my own Girl Scout days and the conversation my troop leader had with us after one girl announced that she’d sell a “million boxes” because her dad worked at a very big company and her mom has friends over for card games while she is at school. Our troop leader very kindly said how wonderful it is that her parents knew so many people who might like cookies. Then she asked all of us to think about how that girl could sell the cookies “all by herself” to her parents’ colleagues and friends. She praised our suggestions and then said she wondered if the that girl might want to invite one or two of us to go with her to her dad’s workplace to practice our “people skills” which, she reminded us, was one of the most important things we could learn by selling cookies. She also suggested that some other troop members might go to her house if her mom had a card game during a school vacation day. That way, we could help add up the cost of multiple cookie boxes and help her make change, since another important reason girl scouts sell cookies is to learn “money skills.” She didn’t have to tell us that these are skills that we couldn’t learn if our parents sold the cookies for us, just like my parents didn’t tell me they were worried that with my then very quiet voice and floundering math skills, I might run into trouble as a cookie salesperson. What I do remember is how proud I felt when, for the first time, I knocked on a neighbor’s door, looked her in the eye, told her about the different cookie options, and, after she bought 3 boxes, counted out the change. All by myself.
on Tuesday April 17, 2012 at 10:17AM
A few weeks ago, at the height of “Lin-sanity” (the explosion of international media coverage of Jeremy Lin, the unlikely hero of the New York Knicks basketball team), I had a conversation with a Middle School student who knows my lifelong devotion to the Knicks. After exchanging favorite Lin exploits from the past couple of games, our conversation turned to a review of the path that brought Lin to the Knicks and national attention.
Most of you have probably heard it many times already. Even though the Palo Alto High School team Lin captained had a 32–1 record and upset a nationally ranked team to win a state title, Lin received no athletic scholarship offers out of high school. He went to Harvard, where one of his coaches described Lin during his freshman year as the physically weakest player on the team. While he didn’t play much that year, as a senior, Lin led the team to one of their best seasons ever, and he received some national attention for his performance in a NCAA tournament game that Harvard lost. In June, he entered the NBA draft, but was not picked by any team. In December, he was hired first by the Golden State Warriors and then by the Houston Rockets. Both teams let him go. Then he went to the Knicks where, unexpectedly, over a two week period in February, he had one electrifying, game defining play after another.
My middle school friend knew all these facts about Jeremy Lin. So do many of our younger students. Like news reporters across the country, they are intrigued by the fairy tale aspects of his story. As we recounted the highs and lows of Lin’s career, the focus of our conversation shifted. How, the student wondered, did Jeremy Lin feel when scouts didn’t show up to watch him play? What did he say to himself when no team deemed him talented enough? We speculated about why he didn’t give up on basketball and how he kept his commitment after two teams cut him. In short, we considered what made Jeremy Lin resilient. What, the student asked, makes some of us – adults and children – more resilient than others? And how can we become more resilient?
A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings, is a new book by pediatrician Kenneth Ginsberg who looks at the complex combination of factors that build resiliency. Dr. Ginsberg believes that children need to realistically recognize their abilities and have experiences (including disappointments and defeats) to develop their inner resources. He identifies “seven ‘C’s” that help children mature into self-reliant, resilient adults: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control; and he offers advice about how to support children’s growth in each area.
Children who feel competent effectively handle new and “trying” situations. Teachers and parents can foster the development of competence by helping children focus on their individual strengths and by pointing out specific mistakes, and turning the correction of those errors into growing experiences.
Confidence grows from competence. Therefore, Dr. Ginsberg reminds us to focus praise on activities and accomplishments that take real effort, and to let children know when we see them demonstrate qualities such as fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness. He suggests that we avoid generalized praise; children perceive it as unearned and, as such, it does not help them recognize their unique strengths, and the particular qualities and skills they possess that help them grow and rebound from disappointment.
Jeremy Lin has identified his strong family and religious upbringing as sources of strength, and Dr. Ginsberg concurs that these are key factors in building resiliency. He calls “connection” the “third C,” and writes that developing close ties to family and community creates a solid sense of security that helps children face challenges. Close to “connection” are Dr. Ginsberg’s “fourth and fifth”C’s”: character and contribution. “Children,” he writes, “need to develop a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong and to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others.” Adults, he believes, should teach children to see how their behavior affects others. Taking a strong stand against racist or hateful statements or stereotypes, he states, helps children assume responsibility, rather than looking to blame others, when things do not go as they wish. Showing children the value of contributing to the general good, and creating experiences that allow them to do so, likewise, put disappointments in perspective and help children move on from unhappy times.
Dr. Ginsberg’s final two “C’s,” “coping” and “control,” go hand in hand. Children who realize that they have some control over the outcomes of their decisions are more likely to realize that they have the ability to bounce back. And children who cope effectively with stress are better prepared to overcome life’s challenges. It is important for children to see specifically how actions have consequences (good and bad) and for their parents to consistently model and support positive coping strategies. Resist the effort to soothe hurt feelings with gifts, food or other treats. Rather, follow a warm hug and a comment such as, “I’m so sorry things turned out that way,” with conversation about what they might have done differently and a consideration of possible “next steps.” Don’t try to “fix” things for your children, but rather recognize how much they will grow by “owning” their experiences.
At the time of this writing, the Knicks have fallen six games below 500, and while Jeremy Lin is still playing solidly, we are seeing less of the public’s “Lin-fatuation” and fewer “thrill-LIN” headlines (and puns). I hope, however, that the example of Lin’s perseverance and resiliency will continue to be fodder for conversation.