A Noah From Noah

Citizens are expected to speak up, to make their voice heard. This tenet runs deep in our school’s activist pedagogy (Note from two weeks ago). It has been beautiful watching the loud voices of our youngest citizens in class this week.

It all starts from knowing that your voice has power.

In Room 1, with our youngest citizens, the teachers noticed the children have been playing with various building materials quite intensely. To support this interest, the teachers added several rich provocations to the class environment. As they wrote in their Daily Reflection, the intent is to show that,

“In following the children’s interested in building, we communicate that we value their thoughts and ideas. It adds to the sense of power and agency that each child has in our community: their ideas and interests matter.”

In Room 6, the children told the teachers that they wanted to be able to save their block structures during the day – which they couldn’t because the block area doubled as the meeting area. The children clamored about this during meeting time, and the teachers listened. Shown in their Daily Reflection, the whole class re-arranged the room to be more conducive to saving block structures for longer periods of time.

This is not cute, sweet, or trivial. These are real citizens, speaking their truth, exercising their power as constituents. The lessons our students learn in Room 1 – when they see their play-schemes extended by their teachers – bleed into their activist stance as they grow and demand change around them in Room 6. Our youngest citizens learn it is a right, not a privilege, to have a say in how their community works. This is the right and responsibility of an active citizen – and our students are certainly active in their expression of this!

In Room 2, a child approached a teacher with a complaint – a classmate had knocked down his block structure. Rather than intervene as the authority figure, the teacher recommended the child speak directly with his classmate. The child-child dialogue is captured in the Daily Reflection:

“I didn’t like it when you knocked down the blocks…when we make it again, can you not knock it down again?”

“Yes. I got one [block] we needed.”

“I have an idea! We can build a castle.”

“I know! We can put it on top (they begin building together)”

Connecting citizens with each other to productively work out their conflicts is a core contribution that schools can make to a democratic society.

In a Reggio-inspired school, committed to building a robust democracy with an emboldened citizenry, social problems are not handled by teacher-as-magistrate. They are dealt with person-to-person, through established relationships of trust. The fact that you knocked down my block tower doesn’t push us apart; it pulls us closer, as we now have a problem we must solve together. I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me. Our teachers lay the groundwork for this type of interaction through the examples from Rooms 1 and 6 above, by showing children the power of their own ideas.

This was felt in Rooms 4, 5, and 6 this week, as two children from each class walked together to donate dozens of apples from their recent apple picking trip to Christ and St. Stephen’s Church brown bag program – the apples were used to help feed 80 people that day. And yet, the student-citizens were not content with this isolated contribution. They ruminated on poverty, hunger, and economic inequality after they returned, with the child-child dialogue captured in Room 4’s Daily Reflection:

“How come we have a lot of food and they don’t? They could’ve bought food.”

“I don’t think they have money to buy food.”

“I have a great idea. We could make a stand of food. We can just give them food for no money. They won’t need money for the food.”

“We could say, ‘No money! You can get your food right away!’”

They concluded the conversation by deciding that they wanted to make a food stand in front of the JCC to give food away to those in need.

This activist stance, and the related belief in the agency and power of an involved citizen, is not coincidental. It grows from those early days in Room 1 and Room 8, from those moments when our student-citizens learn what it means to be empowered, to have adults who listen, to be in an environment in which their ideas can flow forth freely and be met with respect and trust instead of humor or derision. It is because we take children seriously here that they say such serious things.

My greatest hope for all of our child-citizens is that they retain this capacity – to speak out and to speak up – throughout their lives and the many roles they will play as citizens.

With these thoughts in mind, I was thrilled to pick up a new book this week, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School, by Carla Shalaby (the author is speaking on November 8 at Bank St). She writes that school in a democracy must be about teaching freedom and not only discrete facts. Further, she finds deeply problematic the overt power dynamic felt in traditional schools between teachers and children: how can children learn what it means to be free if their teachers wield near-complete control over them?

Ruminating on the Daily Reflections above, I am proud to be part of a school in which teachers and children enjoy relationships of trust in which they each see the other as co-citizens.

Shalaby writes about students in a classroom setting:

“A free person retains her power, her right to self-determination, her opportunity to flourish, her ability to love and to be loved, and her capacity for hope. A free person recognizes when she or others are being treated as less than fully human. And a free person embraces both her right and her duty to struggle against such treatment and to organize with others to do the same as a solidary community.”

I trace a direct line from Room 1, with teachers expressing their respect of children’s play through their material choices, to Room 4, with the child-citizens expressing their determination to provide more food and money for those in need. Our work as a school is to ensure that our child-citizens exercise their voices, power, and agency as essential tools in the building of community.

Shabbat shalom,

Noah

A Note From Noah

Having gone over some of our Reggio-lingo last week, here I’m diving a bit deeper into why we are a Reggio-inspired school, and what it means for us. If last week’s look at lingo was seeing each tree, this week I’m zooming out to look at the whole forest. (It’s a big forest so stick with me!)

Reggio is an activist pedagogy – it is non-neutral and embodies a stance of advocacy towards participation, democracy, and civic responsibility. A Reggio-inspired approach is not about the passive accumulation of knowledge and skills in discrete individuals (“schooling”) – it is rather about the active pursuit of a more just world through egalitarian relationships.

This notion is deeply embedded in the history and origin story of the Reggio approach. Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the movement, was born in Italy in 1920 and lived there through WWII. As others have said about the founding story of Reggio:

It started in a little town called Villa Cella in the northern region of Italy known as Reggio Romana. In the political and economic chaos that followed the fall of Fascism and the German retreat from Italy, the villagers, including children and parents, had collected stone, sand, and timber to build a school. Loris Malaguzzi rode his bicycle to the town to have a look and was so impressed by what he saw that he stayed.

The first school was financed by selling a German tank, nine horses, and two military trucks. That first school still exists in the countryside 20 minutes from the city of Reggio Emilia, which in 1963 assumed funding for the preschools.

At our Parent Association meeting last night, we heard from Eve Landau, the Director of the Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility at JCC Manhattan. Eve was part of the small dedicated core who created the JCC two decades ago, and reflected to us last night that she remembers sitting on the 2nd floor on September 12, 2001. Our school opened that week. Eve and her small team of JCC-mates spent the day building the furniture for our nursery school, some of it still in use. Eve commented last night that her squad, despite the horrific events of the previous day, had a collective sense on September 12 that through building the furniture for the school’s inaugural class, they were imbuing our brand new building with a sense of hope. With a stance of optimism for our suddenly fractured world. With an activism that demanded hands-on participation.

So too were the schools of Reggio borne out of their historical context:

The people of Reggio Emilia…set about rebuilding their lives and reconstructing their society, with a strong desire for change and a new and just world free from oppression, injustice and inequality. This hope for change brought about cooperative movements to provide services and redress inequalities in society.

Our school is a place where all voices count – where it doesn’t matter what your idea is, it matters that you have an idea – and more, that you stand up and share your idea. It matters that you participate. This is not a partisan activism, it is a participatory activism. It is a place for dialogue, for individuals – young citizens – to be encouraged to speak up, speak out, and speak at issues that matter to them. Carlina Rinaldi, former director of the Reggio municipal schools and long-time prolific propagator of the Reggio approach, writes:

Pedagogy like school is not neutral. It takes sides, it participates in deep and vital ways in the definition of this project whose central theme is not mankind, but his [her] relationship the world, his [her] being in the world. Pedagogy implies choices, and choosing does not mean deciding what is right compared to what is wrong. Choosing means having the courage of our doubts, of our uncertainties, it means participating in something for which we take responsibility.

The schools of Reggio Emilia, which were born of a true process of popular participation, are a declaration of participation by families, who constitute part of the schools’ identity. Over the years it has become clear that participation is essential to processes of learning and identity in children and adults. Participation, then, is a common journey which makes it possible to construct the sense of belonging to a community.

Walking into Classroom 2 yesterday, I watched as Carla, a co-head teacher in Room 2, was reading a book aloud to her students at circle time. Sitting on her left, a young boy started clamoring to Carla excitedly about something in the book. Keeping in mind the activist stance inherent in our pedagogy – with a goal of seeking participation to “construct the sense of belonging to a community” – Carla paused her reading, listened intently, pursed her lips, and then turn to the class, “So, his theory is…” and then paraphrased what she had heard the child say. Importantly, she then turned back to the boy and said, “Why don’t you tell your classmates again, I don’t think they heard you. It’s important that they hear your ideas.”

Given the historical context of Reggio, as outlined above, one can see why our teachers don’t tell our students, “Honey please be quiet, it’s not your turn, I’m reading.” Quiet is dangerous. It is how community and democracy crumble. We want loud participation, we want robust dialogue. I am uneasy when our students – like any cohort of citizens – is too quiet, too humble. This is why we embrace Reggio pedagogy, inspired by its historical context and correlated activist stance towards participation, democracy, and community.

Watching Carla and her class, my mind went to the New York Times article from the day before on our country’s well-documented abysmal rate of participation in midterm elections. Our pedagogical priority is not to finish our read aloud, complete the lesson, or ensure knowledge transmission. Activist pedagogy is more intent on making sure your child grows up in an educational environment in which they are comfortable and confident flexing their voice as a citizen, at every stage of life.

That your child hears adults tell them, “It’s important that they hear your ideas.”

Shabbat shalom,

Noah


A Note From Noah

As a Reggio-inspired school, we tend to use a lot of lingo!

I’d like to use this space to share what we mean with some of the words we use, and along the way shed some light on our teaching practices. I hope this helps better digest the information our teachers share and informs you a bit on what happens in our classrooms.

100 languages of children – This eponymous poem was written by Loris Malaguzzi, considered the patriarch of the Reggio approach. The poem speaks to the “hundred languages” which children communicate in. In our school, we “listen” to your child by considering their stories, watching their play, observing their paintings, inquire into their block building, honoring their physicality, appreciating their silence, reciprocating their facial expressions, respecting their emotional outbursts – in short, we de-privilege the “narrow” literacy of spoken language in order to more broadly and robustly listen to what children are contributing to the world.

Provocations – These are typically tangible artifacts, but can also be abstract ideas, that quite literally “provoke” the child’s curiosity. Think about walking along the beach and stumbling on an exquisite shell that you can’t resist picking up and running your fingers over. We replicate that feeling in our classrooms by putting out interesting and unusual materials – and also “regular” materials in novel ways – to provoke children’s explorations. We want children asking questions such as: How does this work? What is this? How did this get here? What can I do with this? What does this feel like? What does this smell like? To provoke those questions we need objects that are not all primary colors, not all right angles, and not all common in the child’s life.

Environment is the third teacher – You are their first teacher, our teachers are their second teacher, and the world around them is their third teacher. We use the physical environment of the classroom to promote curiosity and learning. Materials are intentionally displayed on low shelves, rich textures are preferred over plastics, elements of the room such as lighting, flooring, and partitions are all carefully planned out. Particular spaces in each room are designed to be loud and boisterous and others soft and soothing. Learning is not solely an internal process, it involves engagement with the physical world; the tangible environment is implicated in learning.

Investigations – This refers to threads of inquiry – the ongoing projects – that children are involved in. Typically one investigation will emerge in the Fall and take over the classroom for the remainder of the year. Consider the line from Where The Wild Things Are, as Max’s bedroom turns into a jungle: “…and the walls became the world around him.” Your child’s classroom will be consumed by an investigation at some point this year. We use the word “investigation” (as compared to other possibilities such as “project” or “curriculum”) because it implies an ongoing quest, a search for meaning, an active stance as a learner. Within investigations, children are not being “taught” discrete modules, rather, they are exploring a topic in depth and establishing meaning and context as they go. Three crucial ingredients in Investigations are: social collaboration, a common purpose, and cognitive conflict. When we have all three, authentic learning occurs.

Small groups – Investigations then branch out into small groups, typically three per class (each with one teacher). The small group is tasked with researching a particular niche within the investigation, becoming experts in their area, and bringing their knowledge back to the rest of the class. Small groups give children an identity in the class, a cohort they are intimately involved in, and allow for multiple entryways into a common body of knowledge.

Studio groups – This is a group of 3-6 children who work with an atelierista (studio teacher) and/or classroom teacher on exploring new and difficult material, such as clay, woodworking, or sewing. The goal here is for children to master different “languages” to use in the classroom and, ultimately, within their small groups and investigations. This stretches children’s material competency by ensuring their exposure to artistic mediums beyond the standards of writing, drawing, and painting.

Open-ended materials – These are materials that must receive their purpose from the child rather than offer a script for the child. Clay is a good example – it lies dormant, purpose-less, until a child picks it up and gives it purpose through the child’s creativity, inventiveness, and imagination. Consider the contrast to a jig-saw puzzle, which is completed in an “appropriate” manner and has a finite goal. Our classrooms feature a balance of open- and closed-materials. We appreciate open-ended materials for their proclivity to invite children’s imaginations to be expressed throughout the classroom.

Documentation – This refers to the capturing and displaying of children’s lived experiences within the classroom. Documentation should “tell the story” of what is happening rather than offering still, static moments. You won’t only see the finished block structure – you’ll see the idea that sparked it during a read aloud, the tense child-negotiations over how to accomplish their plan, pictures of the trial and error along the way, and the class reflecting on the building once complete. You’ll see the story of how the structure came to be.

Daily Reflection – In Daily Reflections (themselves a piece of documentation) this year you will notice a few common elements: pictures of children, excerpts of child-conversations, teacher-reflections on the happenings, and teacher-planning for what they will do next with the ideas captured in the Reflection. We encourage you to look at the Reflection with your child, and, importantly, to give your teachers feedback and ask them questions. We want to hear from you what your child is talking about outside of school, we want to offer ideas for how to extend learning into the home, and we want to hear at a basic level what is working and what is not from our Reflections.

I’d love to hear any questions you have about how we “do” Reggio in our school, and any feedback on the topics above. This concise overview of Reggio-principles is also a helpful document, or for a deeper dive, check out these two scholarly articles.

Shabbat shalom,

Noah

Coffee Chat: Join me for our first coffee chat of the year this coming Friday, October 5, 9:00am in my office. I bring the coffee, you bring the agenda (or don’t bring the agenda and we’ll just schmooze!).

Research study: Our school is participating in a study being conducted on potential links between “mindfulness training” and skill performance, conducted by a PhD student at Fordham University. We are hoping that a few dozen students will participate (must be 3 or older). Please read the very brief study overview; you can submit the parental consent form directly to me to have your child participate. I will be coordinating the visit by the researcher and sending her your consent forms.

Grandparenting program: Much has changed since we were young parents. Our discussions will focus on the latest research on child development from birth to eight years and how you can support your grandchild's learning and well-being and foster strong relationships with your grandkids and adult children. Of course, we will spend time sharing the joys and dilemmas of grandparenting from near and far. Six Thursdays, Fall 2019. Details and registration here.


A Note From Noah

What does it look like to move away from strategies of control and towards relationships of trust?

This is the question I’ve heard from many of you in the past few days, in response to my remarks last Thursday at Parent Orientation. Thank you for believing in trust, and thank you for querying me - “Well, wait, how do I actually do this?” and, “When I ‘trust’ my children they inevitably wind up smacking each other with blocks or destroying their rooms!”

For better or worse, contemporary society doesn’t prepare us to trust our children. It prepares us to measure them, to teach them, to train them, to schedule them. So when we pivot into looking at “relationships of trust”, though it seems simple enough, it can often feel like stumbling in the dark. We’re out of practice.

Andrew Solomon, in his epic “Far From The Tree”, writes that parturition is not the act of re-producing, despite the common parlance. It is an act of PRODUCTION. Trusting your child means that you have accepted that you have created them, you have not re-created yourselves. It means that you accept both who they are NOW and who they are on the road to BECOMING. When we accept that, we are no longer compelled to control (as many) parts of their life.

So, here are a few “ingredients” I find helpful around trusting your young child. At the bottom of this Note I’ll link to other authors and resources that have informed my thinking on this topic.

Start early and often – When your infant is navigating a new fine motor task (stacking a block, putting a shape through a hole, etc), they will inevitably turn to you at some point during their frustration – their look saying, “Ugh! I can’t DO this!” Smile and tell them gently, “You got this!” Pull back on your inclination to intervene and instead build in them twin muscles of resilience (“I can keep trying even though it’s hard and I’ve already failed”) and self-support (“When I don’t get it the first time, my responsibility is to try again, not to turn and ask for help”).

Set up environments you know they can be successfully trusted in – Think back to “baby proofing” your apartment. Now think about what it might mean to “trust proof” it. For both of our kids, our goal has been to create a living space in which we do not feel compelled to watch where they crawl/walk/explore, because we know everything within reach is “allowable” for them. This keeps us from needing to intermittently shout, “No don’t touch that!” or “Sweetie stay away from that corner.” The flip side of this is then filling spaces in your apartment with engaging materials your child CAN use. Leave open baskets of magnatiles or wooden blocks or dolls or whatever works for your child – materials they can use anytime without restriction. Setting up a “trust proof” environment means that you can turn your back (or leave the room, see below) and not worry about what they’re doing. “OK, you’re good? I’ll be over here doing [fill in the blank].” The message is received loud and clear – “S/he trusts me in this space. I do not require supervision.” How liberating for a young child, who is supervised the vast majority of the day!

Set clear expectations and then walk away – The second part is essential. Make sure your child knows what is expected – “Your job right now is to clean up all the toy cars”; “Get dressed, we’re leaving in five”; “Flush the toilet and wash your hands.” And then leave the room, walk away, find something to do. Hovering and watching tells the child, “They are right there waiting for me to mess up so they can intervene” – which leads the child to respond either by not trying since they know you’ll do it for them, or being mad at you for not trusting them to do something they know they can do on their own. Walking away offers the further motivation that if they want to move on to the next activity, there’s only one way to get there – complete the task. There is no room for the negotiation and haggling of “Can you help?”, “But I don’t know how!”, or “That’s not fair!” There is simply them and the task. (This was me walking away after witnessing Jonah and Solomon drawing on the walls. I KNEW that if I stayed in the room to “teach them a lesson” Jonah would simply protest, negotiate, and slip his way out of it. And Solomon – well he would have laughed the whole time.)

Don’t meddle in the details – Set up some routines (we clean the living room before dinner, we get dressed before we leave the apartment, etc) and then don’t worry about the small stuff in between. So their idea of “playing trains” is throwing tracks back into the bucket? OK. Their idea of “arts and crafts” is smushing together dozens of pipe cleaners in no discernible manner? OK. Their idea of a playmate is running around like lunatics with their shirts off screaming at the top of their lungs? OK. Children do not live our lives. They do not have our outlook on what is right, proper, and appropriate. I promise you, they WILL learn all of that over time. But trying to control a three year old in the midst of an impassioned screech-fest only gets you a tense relationship and a breach of trust, it doesn’t actually get you a gentler, more mild-mannered child. Showing a child what they “should” do with pipe cleaners just leaves them feeling less-then-capable and still-not-as-awesome-as-my-

parent. Just take a deep breath, accept it, note that kids are supposed be kind of wild and crazy, and focus on something else.

Acknowledge but don’t (overly) praise – OK so after you’ve left the room, your child (sometimes!) proudly comes up to you to show you, “Mom! I cleaned everything up ALL BY MYSELF!” or “Dad! I put my shoes on ALL BY MYSELF!” Overly praising in a cloying manner upends a lot of the work you’ve already done in giving them trust and autonomy – it shows them you didn’t actually think they could do it to begin with. If you did, why would you be celebrating so much? Jonah taught this one to me and Shira, as he started getting mad at us when he was around three. We were celebrating his small milestones (wiping, flushing, sneakers, etc) and his vehement reaction made us realize we were embarrassing him to an extent. He seemed to be telling us, “Guys, I’ve got this. I know you expect me to do it. Now I can do it. Let’s just leave it at that.” Think about if co-workers threw a party every time you completed a basic report. Patronizing, right? I’ve learned that what Jonah appreciates after he conquers a new milestones, more than a celebration, is a gentle nod of the head, wink of the eye, or thumbs up. And then we move on with our day. And I kvell about it later to Shira!

Give space­ – When we arrive at playgrounds I tell our children – both of them – “OK kids, have fun! I’ll be here if you need anything” and show Jonah the bench I’ll be sitting on. The message I’m sending is I trust you to find your own fun, to make your own path, and to figure out any peer conflicts that arrive. Yes, that’s me on the bench watching as either of my children get in a squabble with a sandbox-stranger over who-had-the-toy-first, and no, I don’t plan on coming over to “help” them figure it out. If (when) Jonah does come to me for help in those moments, I tell him, “You know the most important thing is to always be nice. Always. Make sure you do that, and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

Let them lead – Walking down the sidewalk in front of you, pushing the elevator button, opening the door, going through the subway turnstile or getting on the bus first, entering their classroom before you – these are all ways your child can feel like they are in control of the situation (instead of being controlled). When you sit down on the rug with your child and a bucket of toys, fold your hands into your lap and watch what they do. With inviting eyes, glance at them and glance at the bucket. They’re receiving a message of, “I trust you here – this is your arena – take the lead and I’ll follow.”

Give them real responsibility around the house – Children (like all of us) need a balance of play and work, of frivolity and accountability. Expect your children to start chipping in around three years old. Replacing empty toilet paper rolls, taking out the recycling, setting the table, throwing out dirty diapers, sweeping up after dinner, putting away laundry – being responsible begets trust.

Cherish the warm moments – This sounds so simple and honest but is essential to consider when thinking about “relationships of trust.” In the easy, breezy moments – however infrequent they can feel at times – squeeze your child, kiss your child, and tell them you love doing [fill in the blank] with them. Too often we get consumed with our agenda for our child that moments of control seem to define the relationship – controlling leads to big emotions, tantrums, rules, tears – instances that can last a lifetime. The work in cherishing the warm moments is to be explicit enough, and often enough, with your child that THOSE moments define the relationship, instead of the intense moments of control.

Balance out control and trust – Pick what areas of your relationship you cannot give up control over, and draw a firm line there. This all works in balance – the more you trust your child in certain areas, the more amenable and comfortable they will be with your control in others. Children (like all of us!) need to know they are trusted, need to know there are areas for them to breathe freely and experiment. If they truly feel that in certain areas of their life, it will feel less choking for them when you mandate your “absolutes.” Consider it all in balance. Give up some areas that you realize you don’t really care about (Do they need to be wearing a shirt at dinner? Does it matter if their socks don’t match?) so you can clamp down where it does matter (Sunscreen. Screen time.) We each have our own balance, the important thing is to find yours.

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. What works for you around “relationships of trust” with your child? Where are you successful, where do you struggle? What parts of the day would you say, “No WAY this will not work”?

Shabbat shalom,

Noah

A Note From Noah

Dear parents,

We are looking forward to Monday, as the doors open on the school year and the myriad possibilities ahead.

Please find my remarks from last night below. I have included links to relevant authors, books, and articles, and added a years' worth of reading for those of you ready to go down the rabbit hole!

I am looking forward to a year filled with "relationships of trust."

Shabbat shalom and shana tovah,
Noah

--

I walked through the doors of the JCC for the first time on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008, and was greeted in the lobby with a warm smile and hug by Felicia Gordon, then Associate Director of the nursery school. The immediacy and intent of that greeting by one of my bosses – a person I had only met before in an interview setting – would set the tone for my time spent here over the following decade: “Welcome, you belong here, we appreciate you.” I have spent every day in this building since then dedicated to one thing – building relationships. Though my first five years were spent as a teacher and the next five as a director, make no mistake – my priority then was not teaching, and my priority now is not directing. It has always been building relationships.

Alison Gopnik, the nation’s most widely-known developmental psychologist, who translates research to the public – she’s really the expert on how children learn – tells us, “Fundamental relationships of trust are more important than teaching strategies.” It’s not teaching, academics, or classroom management at the center of all of this. Its relationships.

On each of your admissions tours, I told you that we are not “just a school”, we are a community built on a school. Let me create a mental picture of what that means: In our school this year, if you add together the students, teachers, parents, and caregivers, you get 600 or so individuals. Picture each individual person as a plot on a map, and now picture each plot as connected to every other plot with a line. Each line represents potential relationships. If you were to count up every line, you would arrive at 179,700. Each of those lines defines what we are as a school – each of those lines is more important for our children’s learning than teaching strategies. The topography of those lines makes up the contour of our community. And so I’ll use my time tonight to set the table, to orient us around our relationships – with our children, with our teachers, and with ourselves.

Last month I come across a thought, a book, an author that truly startled me, presenting a refreshing string of ideas that breaks through the vast literature on children, offering something new, insightful, and useful. As soon as I opened the book I knew I would be sharing it with you all tonight; and as soon as I finished it I handed it to Shira and said, “Your turn.” You can borrow it when she’s done.

Kim Brooks wrote her book, Small Animals, published last month, after undergoing an experience as a mother that left her feeling judged and exposed. Brooks deconstructs the factors which have driven us to where we are. When I say “us”, I really do mean “us” – parents who both care so much about their children they would do anything for them, and, largely, are in the fortunate position of having enough resources to follow through and actually do just about anything for them. Instead of offering tips and strategies – ways to be a “better” parent or have a “better” child – Brooks offers a brilliant expose on the state of contemporary parenting, turning over a rock others have ignored: How did parenting become a competitive sport, driving us towards anxious impulses and a desire for control?

Brooks describes her first four years of being a parent as a long list of mistakes, of failing to meet her own expectations, of getting it wrong. She describes that she was so concerned about getting it wrong that she did everything she could to get it right. This is where she fell into a trap.

Brooks shares what she describes as her own anxious over-parenting, recounting a scene in which she is back at her childhood home, watching her own mother play cards with friends. Her mother’s friend has just asked Brooks how she’s doing with the kids. Her mother steps in and answers for her: “She worries about the kids. She obsesses over them. There’s the baby sign language, the breastfeeding on demand, the co-sleeping, the mommy-and-me classes. Baby monitors all over the house. Then she’s schlepping them to calculus for two-year-olds, baby language immersion, yoga. Yoga! Because it’s good for them. Why does a three-year-old need to take a yoga class?”

What Brooks realizes is that she had been, in her words, “an uncritical consumer of anxiety.” She writes, “fear tends to feed on itself, drawing parents into an ever-accelerating arms race.” The fear that Brooks describes is the tri-pronged fear of getting it wrong as a parent, watching our children get left behind, and being judged in the process. As Brooks points out, we have succumbed to a cultural parenting paradigm in which our fear and anxiety overwhelm our warmer, softer instincts. Fear and anxiety drive us to over-parent, to worry, to care so deeply about each and every one of the millions of details that produce a child’s life. This fear far too often winds up governing our parenting and our schools – unwittingly and unintentionally – and yields paradoxical results, taking us far afield from our desired goals.

We have been led to believe, through a devilish combination of developmental psychology, consumer marketing, and relative affluence, that if we can only make the “right” decisions as parents, we can control our children’s path through life – we can ensure a good outcome. As Brooks deftly points out, the unspoken converse of this is that we are then silently judged and critiqued when we make the “wrong” decisions. We drift towards control because we are fearful of being judged as a parent of an out of control child.

The problem is that control, as agreed upon by an overwhelmingly broad consensus of early childhood researchers and practitioners, is the exact opposite of what children need. They need all the things that control does not provide: freedom, whimsy, autonomy, and healthy doses of boredom and conflict. Jessica Lahey writes, in her 2015 book, The Gift of Failure, “Applying pressure in the form of control is the single most damaging thing parents and teachers can do to their children’s learning, whether in the form of bribes, deals, imposed goals, evaluations, or even rewards and praise.”

What other options do we have?

The other path we can walk down is trust.

Trust.

The antidote for anxiety and fear is trust.

Which brings me back to Gopnik: “Fundamental relationships of trust are more important than teaching strategies.” Strategies attempt to control; relationships of trust offer possibilities. When ensconced in a warm, loving environment – such as your family, this school, our community – trust gives children everything they need. Trust gives them self-efficacy, purpose, confidence, resilience, an internal locus of control. Trust gives them the opportunity to explore, to inquire, to provoke, to stretch. To learn.

When I think of “relationships of trust,” I think of my father, sitting next to me in the minivan in 4th grade, after having struck out with the bases loaded to lose the game for my team. He turned to me and said, “I’m glad you could experience that. Next time you’re up in that situation you’ll be more prepared because you’ve been there already.” I think of my mother, who when she stays over at our apartment, still wants a hug and kiss before heading to bed. I think of three year old Andrew, who in the fall of 2010 entered my classroom with a wild streak, knocking over block towers and hitting his friends. We gave Andrew (a pseudonym) exactly what he needed – love and support, relationships of trust. We hugged Andrew as often as we could. We told him he belonged. We gave him trust. By the winter, Andrew had found himself. He made friends, he contributed, he learned.

Your children will receive trust in spades from their classroom teachers. We annually see beautiful growth blossoming from the wellspring of trust – we trust your children to determine right from wrong, fair from cruel, and meaningful from frivolous. We trust that they are smart, that they seek community, that they have the capacity to be the authors of their lives – and we build our classrooms accordingly.

You will receive that trust from us as well – we trust that you are here because you love your child, because you believe in the power of a values-oriented school, and because you seek goodness in the world. I trust that each of us acts accordingly within the confines of our community.

What I will ask of you tonight is three things:

Trust your teachers. Trust yourselves. Trust your children.

Trust your teachers. Trust that each and every decision they make this year is painstakingly intentional, is rooted in the best possible intentions for your child, and considers factors both visible and invisible to our parents. Trust that your child could be in no better place than this classroom, this year, with these teachers. And when you hit a road bump – we all will, at some point during our years here – when you are frustrated at your child’s progress or learning, when you are upset about something you saw in the classroom, when you disagree with a teacher’s approach – rely on trust rather than control. Trust that some of the hardships your child will encounter in her classroom this year are by design, are meaningful, and are curated growth opportunities. Lean on trust, reach out a hand, ask for a conversation, and partner together with your teacher.

Trust yourselves. There is no textbook on your child – there is only you, their expert. Their superhero. Trust yourself to be yourself, instead of how Brooks describes her former self – competitively over-parenting. Children do not need the “right” parenting strategy, the “right” behavioral management technique, the “right” workbook. They need exactly what they have – you. Trust that you are what your child needs, not your control or intervention.

Trust your children. This one might be the hardest. Returning home after spending Rosh Hashanah with family in Maryland two nights ago, I found my own opportunity to tell my children I trust them. While I unpacked our endless supply of car snacks in the kitchen, Jonah and Solomon played elsewhere in the apartment. At one point I went back to check on them, and found them in quite the scene – 19 month old Sollie, stripped down to his diaper, was holding a brown marker in his hand, with a long stripe from a red marker down the middle of his belly and shorter, matching marks on both cheeks. He looked ready for war! The wall had several brown and red squiggles drawn on it. Next to him, of course, was four and a half year old Jonah, red marker in hand, adding a fresh squiggle to the wall. With his back to me, he was instructing his brother, “See, Sollie? You go like this.”

I thought of Kim Brooks, and urged myself to move towards trust instead of control. I told Jonah, “I trust you to be responsible and make the right decisions. You know that markers are not for walls. You are responsible for keeping your room clean. I’m walking back to the kitchen now.” Just as Jonah started protesting – he actually said, “But how did you see?” – I mean, he was literally caught red-handed – I quietly walked away.

Jonah found me in the living room a few minutes later, and said with confidence, “Dad, I’m trying to tell Solomon not to draw on the walls anymore and take away his marker but he won’t listen!” I’m not sure who was prouder that Jonah was stepping up and being responsible, him or me; the moment made us both feel good about our relationship. Together, Jo and I went back to his room, took the markers out of Sollie’s hands, and closed the bedroom door behind us so they could play elsewhere. Later that night, just before bedtime, the three of us sat down to wipe the wall clean. While we cleaned, we talked about being responsible, and I sprayed cleaner on the wall and Jonah wiped the marks off.

Tell your children you trust them, and back it up with your actions. Look them in the eye and tell them you trust them to responsible, you trust them to figure it out on their own, you trust them to find their own happiness. You have to give them this trust before they’ve shown you they can earn it. It is up to us as adults to break free of the cycle of fear and control that Brooks highlights. Once given trust, I know that your children will show you why they deserve it. Their eyes will light up, their chests will puff out, and they will show you just what they are capable of doing on their own.

179,700 relationships, a constellation defined by trust. Think of what we can do together.

Trust your teachers. Trust yourselves. Trust your children.

--

Further reading, all of which deeply informed my remarks above:

Kim Brooks: Read her OpEd or NY Times book review on Small Animals.

Julie Lythcott-Haims follows the longitudinal consequences of this thread in her 2015 book “How to Raise an Adult”, warning about the “over-parenting trap” that we fall into when we seek to control our children in order to protect them from life’s twists and turns. She illustrates how disastrous this is for our children when they leave home, arrive at college, and have no idea how to navigate those twists and turns for themselves. Julie is speaking at the JCC on October 11th.

KJ Dell’Antonia recognizes this in her book published this summer, “How to be a Happier Parent”: “We expect our constant attendance itself to be enough to get the job done. We show up relentlessly, as though looking for a good attendance award, when we might teach our children more by being less present.” She points to a deliciously-titled book by Catherine Pearlman: “Ignore it!: How selectively looking the other way can decrease behavioral problems and increase parenting satisfaction.”

William Stixrud and Ned Johnson published a fabulous book last February, “The Self-Driven Child”, which hits on many of these themes as well; I discuss their book at length here. The book speaks about the “aftermath of early academics gone wrong” due to overly-controlling adults, and urges us to “teach your kids that they are responsible for their own education.” The authors are speaking at The Portfolio School, a new school downtown, on September 24th.

Barbara Fass, a social historian focusing on childhood, identifies this thread clearly in her 2016 book “The End of American Childhood”. She writes, “It is the striving for control that differentiates family life today from that of fifty or one hundred years ago. Control, above all, became the guiding principle of “successful” parenting during the past generation, became more important to parents than independence, more important than giving children the freedom to choose their own futures.”

Jennifer Senior recognized this thread in her 2015 book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting”: Because American families have fewer children than ever before and are concurrently privy to a far broader set of knowledge about child development than ever before, we turn our gaze towards each child in ever more forceful ways. Each individual child, in our culture of fearful and controlling parenting, is subject to constant attention, vigilance, supervision, surveillance.

Peter Gray nails this in his must-read 2015 book, “Free to Learn." Gray is an evolutionary psychologist who literally wrote the book on this – his 700 page psychology textbook is now in its 8th edition. Gray writes about Gopnik’s book, “The Gardener and The Carpenter”: “If we take this approach and let children learn in their own natural ways, we are giving up the illusion that we can control what they learn and can shape them into being the particular kinds of persons that we might want them to be. We are, instead, trusting children to shape themselves.”

And lastly, another quote from the same book by Gopnik: “’Parent’ is not actually a verb. To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing,’ to be a friend is not to ‘friend,’ and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers. To be a parent—to care for a child—is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love. The purpose of love is not to change the people we love, but to give them what they need to thrive.” The adoption of “parenting” as a verb, and the cultural ramifications on both parents and children, has been “a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations.” Gopnik expands on this theme in an interview with The Atlantic.