A Note From Noah

Resist the shush factor!

Cutting through a lot of the jargon and theoretical debates, this line was one of my big take aways from this weeks’ Parent Association Social Justice Panel, dedicated to “How do we talk to children about race?”  As the evening unfolded, it became clear to me that we had mis-titled the panel. We shouldn’t be limiting this conversation with our children to “race” – which the panelists described as the potentially simplistic-and-naïve sense of, “Some people have black skin, some people have white skin, and we’re all equal, and it’s beautiful” – but should instead be explicitly talking about “racism.”

Each of the four panelists – Bonnie Cushing from Border Crossers, Megan Madison from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Gab Sussman and Molly Raik from the SEED program and classroom teachers at Rodeph Sholom School – encouraged us to name race with our children, to teach children the word “stereotype”, to talk about our whiteness and our privilege, and to not shield our children from the ugly effects of racism in our world.

Bonnie Cushing shared with us the apt metaphor of the Sleeping Beauty story. An evil fairy curses newborn Princess Aurora, foretelling that before her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel with disastrous consequences. The King and Queen immediately decree that all spinning wheels in the kingdom be burned. On her 16th birthday, the fairy magically produces a spinning wheel, which Auora – having never seen one before – is fatally attracted to. She approaches the wheel and her curiosity leads her to prick her finger and fall into eternal slumber (until of course she is saved from her passive state by her aggressive male hero but I’ll let my last Note speak to that narrative element!).

Bonnie’s point is that race and racism are the same way. She encouraged us to “resist the shush factor” and instead dive head-first into this tough topic. Rather than offer my interpretation of how to do this, here are my notes from what each of our four panelists said:

-Name race. Talk about it. Label your ethnicity. “As a white mother/father/teacher, here’s what I think…”

-If we don’t explicitly combat racism, and instead rely on a general liberal environment (such as the JCC or the UWS) to teach our children values, our children will, simply and plainly, soak up the systemic racism inherent in American culture.

-Conduct a “racial biography” and an “inventory of bias.” What personal biases do you carry around, perhaps without even recognizing it? Where in your life does race matter? How does your skin color impact your daily experience? Explore white privilege: make a list of ten ways in which your life would be different if your skin color was different.

-Shift what you do, not only what you think. Children watch more then they listen.

-Young children are able to think about big ideas (you’ve heard me say that before!). Don’t let complexity be your enemy. Don’t be shy about things you don’t understand. Your child is likely already thinking about them. Not talking about them doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about them – it just means they’re lacking your guidance.

-Ask critical questions around media literacy. While watching TV or reading books, ask your child, Whose voice is included? Whose is excluded? How is beauty defined? Why are all the characters white? How would this book/show be different if the characters were black? Did the author/producer decide to make them all white?

-Grab a hold of the racist elements of society and include them in conversation. If you feel your child is old enough, when they ask about a homeless person of color, don’t only talk about, “That person doesn’t have enough money and so they are asking others for money to buy food for their family.” Include, “I notice that person’s skin is black, and I know that across our country, having black skin makes it harder to get a job and make money. That’s called racism, and it’s a big problem.”

- As Ruth Messinger succinctly put it, perhaps half-glibly and half-sincerely, “institutions that aren’t anti-racist, are racist.” Members of the panel shared that 20% of the American Jewish population are estimated to be racially and ethnically diverse. This is not reflected in our school body. What active, explicit, transparent measures can our own school do to combat racism and the homogeneity of our school? As one of our panelists (a Jew of color) put it, as she was looking for an UWS synagogue to join and didn’t see any Jews that look like her, it is a problem that “Jewish spaces” are also “white spaces”, and we can start by naming it.

Throughout the conversation, tears were shed and emotions were unstable. I am so proud of our parents who joined in the conversation, asked hard, thoughtful, pointed questions, and resisted the urge to hide from our privilege and instead expose it. Thank you to Meryl Brown and Jordana Kritzer for coordinating the evening, and to Betsy Goldin and Donna Sheynfeld for making our PA a space for this type of conversation. I am looking forward to continuing the conversation with our teachers, parents, and JCC staff.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

“Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?”

And with that, we’re off – we’re constructing gender. From a baby’s prenatal days, our most-asked question (OK fine it’s tied with “When are you due?”) already triggers a cascade of cultural assumptions. (Dads, stay with me, this is for you just as much as it is for our moms)

Inevitably, though not inherently or innately, our minds are assaulted by the way our culture expects us to preform gender, shaping our own early expectations of child development, behaviors, and dispositions. Culture tells us how our gender informs who we are; we then tell children (in our own local replication of that culture) exactly the same thing.

Inevitable, because of the omnipresent, persuasive force of culture. But not inherent, because of the remarkable human capacity to be counter-cultural. And not innate, because this one has been decided – it’s nurture, not nature. We create gender, we don’t inherit it. I know, “nature vs nurture” is usually used rhetorically, and the joy of it is that we don’t actually answer the question. But on this one we can turn to our friend neuroscience and realize, as I referenced in a 2015 Note on this topic, that the gendered-differences in our brains are very slim, yet they are exploited by culture and cracked wide open. Or we can turn to our friend anthropology, and realize that across the world and throughout history, gender is not static nor uniform. “Boys will be boys” is actually a historically false statement. As I wrote in a 2016 Note, “We give gender to children; “girlhood” and “boyhood” are not pre-programmed in us but rather mold to the expectations of the particular culture we grow up within.”

I’m thinking about all of this now because of this NY Times article, which reviews how the Swedish state curriculum for early childhood explicitly instructs teachers to deconstruct gender in their classroom. It’s a fascinating article and well-worth reading. The day after reading the article, something that Jonah said to me really stuck out, especially when considering the way the article connects nursery school with gender identity.

Jonah was describing something from school to me: “Sometimes I like being mean. Sometimes we play ‘fighting the girls’.” I was naively shocked, and certainly saddened. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. You might feel this is a reach, but I’m pretty confident here – “being mean” and “fighting” is in Jonah’s arsenal – in his toolkit of behaviors – because of how he has learned to be a boy. Material culture gives children early, repeated exposure; culture assures they inhabit the space of superheroes and bad guys. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not absconding my responsibilities as a parent nor removing Jonah’s general disposition or attitude from the equation.  That is all real as well.  But I know how hard it is for him, and for me, to combat the version of masculinity that culture offers him. I know that the “fighting” and “being mean” that he sees in superhero/bad guy books are not whimsically dismissed – they are absorbed, studied, and then enacted. The things our children see, read, and hear are their culture.

This has been the source of one of my greatest frustrations in the last five years as a nursery school director. As a Reggio-inspired school, we maintain a vision that school can serve as a change agent – I devoted my speech to this topic at Parent Orientation this year. We believe, as we have learned from Reggio, that schools are imbued with the capacity to not only transmit culture but to create culture. I really believe that our classrooms, at their best, are places where kindness, love, and empathy are on such vivid display, are practiced so deeply, that those qualities can emanate outwards and impact the ways in which our children understand and interact with the world. And yet when it comes to gender, it seems an almost impossible nut to crack. Our children arrive at school as toddlers already gendered, already snared in the web of gender expectations. Despite our best intentions and strongest efforts, our classrooms continue to annually fall prey to superhero play for the boys and princess play for the girls – as a near-exclusive, binary fault line. Now, on several levels, there is value to that play – to finding an affinity group, to learning a plot line and exploring it, to build content knowledge in a favored discipline. But our children deserve more nuanced understandings of their own identity, of the possibilities that life presents, of how they can express themselves.

I mentioned dads earlier because this is harder for us to acknowledge than it is for our moms. I don’t mean this as a sweeping generalization and I understand of course the irony of repeating a gendered stereotype. I mean that, empirically, in multiple Coffee Chats on the topic and numerous informal conversations in our community, I keep hearing the same general statement – “In my house I’m kind of on my own on this one. I think my husband sees it differently.” It is hard for us because of our male privilege, because of the conditioning we’ve all gone through throughout our lives, because being a masculine man – bending towards expectations rather than away from them – tends to work out well in life. But I think our boys deserve better then what we give them. I think the homogeneous boyhood they see in pop culture, on t shirts, in their toys, robs them of so many rich opportunities to learn from a broader, more diverse model of what the world can be. Or as Jonah put it succinctly at bedtime last night after we finished reading Princess In Training, “Daddy, why are there no boy princesses?”

As a classroom teacher several years ago, I realized that when our students entered in the morning, the girls received hugs from us as teachers and the boys got high fives. That was an easy fix – hugs for everyone (kinda catchy right?). It also got me using bud/dude/pal and sweetie/honey/cutie more interchangeably for our boys and girls. Our teachers use “friends” instead of “boys and girls”; we do our best to track and counteract gender imbalances in play areas; we add gender-bending books to our libraries, with female heroes and countercultural representations of gender.

But for several months last year, two advertisements on the sidewalk near the JCC – the last two images you saw if approaching the JCC from the south before entering school – showed first a tall, seductive woman in a bikini and second, Homer Simpson eating a donut and showing off his bowling-ball belly. Your children saw this, every day, for a chunk of the year. Probably none of us talked about it with our children. But they saw it, they absorbed it, and then they entered school for the day.

As I said before, this is hard! I want your help. For all its importance, children’s time in a classroom is only a small sliver of their life. Gender is constructed everywhere and sets in fast. I don’t want to assume your values or perspective here, but I do think we all benefit from critically self-reflecting on the role that cultural gender-expectations are felt in our families and our classrooms. We all benefit from examining what society gives us rather then blindly accepting it, and we can all act as change agents in our capacity as parents, teachers, and community members.

What gender models do you want for your child? What gender models are available for them? Talk about this with your children. Talk about this with your partner. Talk about this with your teachers. Let’s talk about this as a community. As a school leader and a parent, I know that our children are capable of more than we are offering them.

Happy Passover,

A Note From Noah

As Passover approaches, I’d love to share some of our “tried and true” tips for engaging your child at the seder. I’ll frame these tips around Rabbi Joy Levitt’s “Ten Tips for Meaningful Seders”. Joy is the Executive Director here at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan as well as a co-author of a fantastic hagaddah. Interspersed with Joy’s tips I will add a few ways of how to “do this” with your young children. The "numbered" lines below are Joy's original tips; the "lettered" lines under each number are my tips for young children.

Remember:  the mitzvah is to tell the story, not to read the Haggadah

Here is the version of the story our teachers use in our PreK classrooms.

Go back to the source – read the Biblical version for yourself! Knowing the story is a huge factor in helping your child navigate the Seder.

Chabad offers this helpful “story in a nutshell”, or you can always consult the Torah!

There is no definitive “start” or “end”, as the narrative really encompasses a huge swath of Ancient Israelite history – but if you’re up for it, begin by opening up the Book of Exodus. Chapter 1 – Pharoah enslaves the Israelites; Chapter 3 – Moses sees the Burning Bush; Chapter 5 – “Let my people go”; Chapters 7-12 – plagues (there’s a lot of them!); Chapter 12 Verse 33 – Matzah!; Chapter 14 – Crossing the Red Sea.

Engaging children in the preparation--setting the table, preparing the Seder plate, placing name cards and haggadot at seats--helps them feel a part of the Seder.

This is HUGE for young children. Engage them in as many parts of this as you can. And make it fun – see if siblings can race against each other to do the forks vs the spoons. Or have them “hide” something sneaky on the table – i.e., place plastic frogs under a bowl. Then celebrate their contributions at the Seder – at the beginning of the meal, have all the guests take a second to say Thank You to each person who helped set the table. It shows your child that they have a real meaningful place at the Seder table.

There is no rule that says the Seder has to be at the dining room table.  Consider beginning in the living room where children have more freedom and are less likely to think about food. (Note:  make sure you cover your carpets and consider using a bento box for Seder foods like parsley and charoset).

For your older children you can draw the parallel for them of “Exodus” – just like the Jews move from one place to another during the story, so will we move from one place to another during the Seder.

For young children, this is more plainly just a good way to keep them engaged, by moving from one setting to another.

For all children, you can have them “pack their belongings” like the Israelites did. “OK is everybody ready for the exodus? Make sure you have your fork, your plate, and your napkin! Let’s go!”

Use the moment of Karpas--dipping parsley into salt water--as an opportunity to bring out more dips--guacamole, salsa, etc. and raw vegetables.  This is entirely consistent with the rabbis' understanding of the seder as an imitation of the Roman banquet and will buy you at least 15 minutes of seder time before guests (including adults) starting clamoring for dinner.

I think this one speaks for itself! Involve your child in the prep for some of these dips – create shopping lists, have them help mash avacados, etc.

In advance, take a look at the web for fun videos for children about Passover and start showing them to your children.  Same with music.

Check out the “Bible Players” (yes, it’s real, and yes, they’re awesome!) here here and here.

Look for “Early Childhood Singing Seder Story”, a playlist on Spotify.

A great Sephardic custom involves children (or adults) walking around the table swatting the backs of guests with scallions to simulate the oppression of the Jews.

OK I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to help you with this one other than…try it!

Check out the play in the back of A Night of Questions (Levitt and Strassfeld) for a fun way to present the story of the exodus.

This is mostly for older children but you get the point – get into dramatic play! All of your children have been doing this already at school this week. Provide your children with a list of characters – Pharoah, Moses, Aaron, Yocheved (Pharoah’s daughter), God (!) – and ask which they’d like to play during the Seder. Don’t worry if they all choose the same character – go with it – and you can give them “lines” to say from the Haggadah at various points throughout the Seder.

The central point of the Seder is to ask questions because that was the rabbis’ definition of freedom.  Encourage your children not only to learn the “four” questions but to think of one new question themselves.

This is an excellent one for your young learners! They’re all about questions! Check here for an earlier note of mine dedicated to young children’s questions around Passover.

One way to encourage team work with looking for the afikomen is to hide multiple pieces of matzah in envelopes with each child’s name on it.  All the pieces have to be found before the Seder can continue.

And, then reverse this – have the children hide it for the grownups – and watch as hilarity ensures!

Remember: the mitzvah is to “teach your child.”  You are modeling the best of experiential Jewish education when you lead a Seder.  If you love it, so will they!

Which is to say – just be yourself and try your best to enjoy it all. If you can – let the tension with in-laws evaporate, forget about work, ignore the mess the matzah is making – just let go of it all and let your children watch you having fun at the seder. Nothing – nothing! – matters more to them then what you’re up to. The biggest takeaway they can get here is that you had fun, and that is their best invitation to have fun too.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

I’ve always wanted a living room like this.

A few years ago I started referring to the 2nd floor Common Space as our community’s living room, and it certainly felt that way this week. It is the space where it all happens, the hearth of our school. I’ve been privileged to watch some of our younger siblings crawl for the first time or take their first steps right here in our living room. One of our staff members got engaged right here in our living room. Our living room has seen birthday parties, Chanukah parties, and alumni parties.

Just in the past two weeks alone, our living room hosted: a group of writers and researchers piloting scripts for new Daniel Tiger shows to some of our students, a 50-parent workshop on Exmissions 101, a full-staff breakfast, community-wide Shabbat sings, 3s age-band Shabbat sings, two sessions of Baby Play, a sing along for newly-admitted families, teachers touring our school from the Job Fair we hosted in the auditorium, two groups of teachers visiting our school from Temple Israel across the park and JCC on the Hudson just upstate.

And those are only the scheduled programs! This week our living room also saw our atelierista Sari work with paint with numerous groups, Room 1 build a boat out of hollow blocks, Rooms 4 and 6 contribute to the Penny Harvest bucket, Room 7 sketch the babies during Baby Play, and Room 8 explore the kitchen for ingredients.  Our living hosted countless parents and caregivers schmoozing and passing time before, after, and during class; our living hosted numerous spontaneous playdates after dismissal but before children were ready to leave.

I’ve always wanted a living room like this! And I’m so glad to share it with each of you. Please linger – come early, leave late, feel at home. Feel comfortable. It’s our community’s living room.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

“Remember the job is not to solve your children’s problems but to help them learn to run their own lives.”

With that, I was hooked. My sister sent me this book review two weeks ago and I have to say, it is one of my favorite things I’ve read about children in a while. The book, The Self-Driven Child by Stixrud and Johnson, details “the science and sense” – the why and the how – children need to be in control of (certain) elements of their lives.  The book is phenomenal and I highly recommend it – yet it focuses overwhelmingly on K-12 and leaves our young learners mostly untouched – which is where I step in!

The general ethos of the book is highly congruent with some of my recent Notes (here and here), and my dissertation research at Teachers college, focusing on “adult-imperialism”. This is a concept which I define as the extension of control from one person (parent or teacher) into the life of another (child or student), guided by a cultural paradigm in which children are seen as inherently dependent on adult regulation. Adult imperialism is benevolent in intention, typically driven by love for children and desire to see them grow and be successful. Yet, when see through the young child’s eyes (as I experienced spending nine months with a two year old child for my research with this lens in mind), adult imperialism often unwittingly represses or rejects the child’s agency and autonomy.

Stixrud and Johnson eloquently describe that a child’s path to both happiness and success lies in what is referred to as “self-determination theory”, or more commonly as intrinsic motivation. In empirical research proven time and again over four decades, psychological researchers Ryan and Deci have explored “why we do what we do.” They find, time and again, that people thrive – they are happy, successful, and make good choices – when they have three key ingredients: autonomy, competency, and purpose (also referred to as relatedness or social context) (fortunately they wrote a slim, easily-digestible book summing up their work, it is a really insightful read).

Stixrud and Johnson assert something that is easily missed if you’re not looking for it, yet seems ubiquitous once stated: parenting culture in America has become one in which competency (skills) and purpose (being on a team, making friends, etc) have been prioritized – and autonomy has been ignored (and likely significantly repressed, as sociologists have well-documented over the past 50 years the steady decline of truly “free” time that young children have). Stixrud and Johnson explain that these three ingredients for happiness and success are like a stool – if you stretch out two legs but not the third, you don’t end up higher – you end up wobbly.

 I can write all I want about why children need freedom from imperialism – but as a parent asked me in response to my Notes on this topic (linked above), “So, I buy into it, but what can we do as parents to support our child’s agency and lessen our imperialism?”

Before sharing my ideas here, one caveat: as Stixrud and Johnson lucidly state, “Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it…waiting until they are mature enough before giving up on the enforcer role means you’ve waited too long.” And also, “First, set boundaries within which you feel comfortable letting them maneuver. Then cede ground outside those boundaries.” Their point is – to do this well, it will push both you and your child into potentially uncomfortable situations. We know that we only grow when we face new challenges. Challenge yourself, and your child, to stretch beyond what you are comfortable with.
Here are my suggestions, some particular and some general:

Let your child walk in front of you. Give them a feeling of being the leader, a sense that they are the vanguard. Let them experience navigating Manhattan pedestrians, figuring out how to get around a puddle (and the consequences of a wet sneaker if they walk in it!), and learning to look around for obstacles instead of having you point them out. When Jonah and I take the train to work/school each morning, as we approach the turnstile I say, “You choose which one, I’ll follow you.” He has to figure out how to establish himself at the turnstile as a crowd of people are coming out, and through this experience, challenges himself to be autonomous instead of relying on my guidance. 

Listen to your child and repeat back what you’ve heard, rather than ask questions. Then pause. Them hearing your words, followed by a silence, shows them two things: (1) This adult is really listening, not just waiting for their turn to talk. (2) I can now keep saying what was on my mind, instead of being pushed around by the adult question (adult-imperialism is also the agenda-like control that adults often have over conversations).

Actively engage your child in real, adult conversations. At the doctors, prep your child by seeing if they have any questions about their body. That rash you’ve been putting lotion on? Remind your child to ask his doctor about it. When you’re child makes a new friend in the sandbox and his mom asks you, “How old is he? What’s his name?”, re-direct her to your child to speak for himself. Same goes for adults asking you, within earshot of your child, about upcoming plans – Where are you going from here? What are you doing for the summer? Find ways in which you are speaking for your child, in areas you know they can talk about with some coaching, and let their voice replace your voice.

Give in. This is the hardest one! Think about all of the (many!) ways in which we force children to follow our directions. Find some of them (push yourself) that you can, simply, give in on. Speaking with a parent recently, she asked about her daughter’s apprehension about a new gymnastics class. Her daughter wants to bring a lovey to class with her. If she brings the lovey, she is happy but watches instead of participates (Ryan and Deci’s autonomy). If she doesn’t bring the lovey, she participates and learns the skill (Ryan and Deci’s competency), but this also means an argument between mother-daughter about leaving the lovey at home. Each of these areas to “give in” are values-laden. My point is, inspired by Stixrud and Johnson, we should see autonomy value-added, just like we see skills and competency as value-added. If you want to get competency out of this, stick to your guns and leave the lovey at home; if you want autonomy, allow your child to bring it. Then, talk to them afterwards – “I noticed you brought your lovey, just like you wanted. I also noticed that even though you love gymnastics, you just watched the whole time. What can we do at next week’s class to help you participate?” By giving in, and then reflecting with your child, you highlight their autonomy and hopefully also have them contribute to planning for next time. With Jonah, I’ve learned to allow him to put his sweatshirt and jacket on in our lobby. It’s annoying, it slows us down. But when I’m getting everything but it allows him to say “No” and me to listen.

Remind your child of the general framework of responsibilities and expectations, rather than telling them what to do. “When we’re on scooters, we always stop before the ramp. You remember where to stop, right?” or “After we enter the apartment, and before dinner, each person in our family has to wash their hands. Everyone has to make sure they do this for themselves.” Giving your child responsibility instead of directives can shift the whole nature of the power dynamics in the relationship. Arm them with information and remind them of what is expected – and then back off and let them find their own way to it. Your child doesn’t want the clothes you’ve picked out for them? Don’t run around trying to find the right ones. “Everybody needs pants before leaving the apartment. You know where your drawers are. I’ll be putting my sneakers on while you find new pants.

Somewhat selfishly – send them to a progressive nursery school! Daily in our classrooms, our teachers pull back to afford your children high degrees of autonomy. Making choices of how to spend their time, both as individuals and as a group; moving materials around the classroom at their own volition; co-creating rules rather than being told what they are by imperial adults.I encourage you to take a mental tally for the next few days – what are you deciding for your child, or making them do, that would be OK if they decided, or did, on their own? Yes, all of our children have inherent biological limitations. Yet, our culture of “parenting” picks up where biology leaves off and often further constrains our children, unnecessarily restricting their agency. Where can we shed cultural constraints, and allow our children to own their own lives?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please email me with questions or challenges! If you find time to read Self-Driven Child, I’d love to know what you make of the book.

Shabbat shalom,