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,
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.
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.