A Note from Alicia: Parent Orientation

Finding Grit Within a Community of Care

Dr. James P. Comer, founder of the School Development Program at the Yale Child Study Center, says that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” In his research on low performing schools, he found that often the school communities had a history of being strong and connected, but that when the community connections came under stress and started to fray, the academic performance of children suffered.  

Powerful learning experiences can withstand challenges and hurdles. In fact, the most powerful learning usually takes place because of ideas, questions, or people who challenge us. What learning cannot stand is disconnection. Teachers who inspire and embolden us do so by connecting to us, by making us feel understood and believed in, and by igniting a sense of shared passion and purpose; experiences that yield the deepest learning do so by creating a sense of engagement with the problem or material. 

We are neurologically wired, in the deepest parts of our brains, to seek connection, both to each other and to activities that fill us with a sense of purpose. We are born with the capacity to see clearly just far enough to recognize the face of our caretaker as we rest in the crook of their arm. And when we are profoundly inspired by the life story of another person, we feel their story on the very same parts of the brain that are responsible for keeping us alive. The same centers of the brain that keep our hearts beating and our breath flowing are the parts of the brain that blood flows to when we feel strongly connected to another person’s story. Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says, “We feel our social relationships so directly and so painfully and so pleasurably, because they literally hook themselves into the biological machinery that keeps us alive.” 

And yet, even when we place a high value on the social-emotional development of our children, we often speak as though this domain is separate from learning. We say that we value social-emotional development and we value learning, or that early social-emotional development is critical to later academic success. This segregation of emotions and learning—of meaningful, connected experiences and significant academic achievement—presents a false choice. In fact, this separation contradicts what we know about optimal learning environments and about lifelong success across all measures. The psychologist and primatologist, Frans Waal, suggests, “While we are well under way in discovering all sorts of new cognitive capacities, we need to ask: what is cognition without the emotions? Emotions infuse everything with meaning and are the main inspiration of cognition.” Our emotional lives and our sense of connectedness are deeply and intrinsically bound up with our capacity for learning and for achievement in all areas of life.

Early childhood is the time in which the roots that will nourish and bolster this capacity for connection, and by extension for learning and growth throughout life, take hold. And play is central to this process, not only in childhood but throughout our lives. Play allows us to pursue and extend our curiosities, but, perhaps more importantly, it fuels that sense of connection—to each other and to our activity. The researcher, Brian Sutton Smith, said, “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.”   

One of the most comprehensive, most reliable studies of American childhood ever undertaken, encompassing 90,000 children across the country and examining over a hundred variables in their lives, found that two factors stood out as being the most protective against later depression, anxiety, and all forms of high risk behavior: the first factor was a feeling of connectedness at home and the second was a feeling of connectedness at school. 

Yet, when thinking about the factors that set children up for success in life, what we hear about again and again is the role of “grit” and “resilience,” not connection. And as these terms have become popular, we’ve infused them with our American lens of fierce independence. To have grit, we assume, is to have the mental fortitude to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. To be resilient must mean to rebound from failure by shirking the judgment of others and dusting ourselves off to defy setbacks and doubters. 

But if having grit and resilience means the ability to stand up to harsh circumstances and hold our own all on our own, how can we possibly reconcile this vision of success with the research that tells us that a sense of emotional and interpersonal connection is key? Is it possible that we have mis-characterized grit and, as a result, misunderstood the experiences that foster it throughout our lives? Could empathy, care, and connection in fact be at the very heart of resilience?       

I recently came across a video of the singer, Patti Smith, performing at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm. Patti Smith is an experienced and fearless performer. And yet, on the Nobel stage, in front of a glittering crowd of the greatest minds and world leaders, she stumbled several stanzas in. She paused and apologized as the guitarist vamped. She started again, stumbled again and froze, silent just long enough for the repetition of the chords to become a little painful. Then she looked out at the audience and said, in the softest voice, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Could we start that section again? I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m so nervous.” Prior to this moment, the cameras had revealed the polite, attentive crowd one would expect at such a serious and formal event. However, after Smith faltered and apologized, something transformative happened. The audience burst into applause, and one could immediately see a new sense of engagement in their faces. They were no longer mere audience members. Her moment of failure had broken the fourth wall of the gilded stage and created a bridge of empathy and connection. They were all in it together now. She began again. Her voice, still somewhat constrained at first, gradually grew stronger and stronger and more impassioned, and as the cameras scanned the audience now, they were enrapt, willing her to succeed. By the end of the song many in the audience were visibly moved, some to tears. When interviewed later about the performance, she said:

That experience was one of the most difficult experiences of my performing life...I covered my face. I was so humiliated and ashamed to fail...There were cameras. I knew it was being filmed globally. I just had to tell the truth. That’s one thing I’ve learned as a performer. If you tell the people the truth, they’re very forgiving. And I just told them, I got nervous, and I never get nervous, but I was so nervous. And I just asked if we could start over. And I could feel everyone with me, the King, the Queen, the Lords. They’re like, come on, you can do it! Ya know, I could feel it, and I got through it...And the next day, all the Nobel Laureates were so happy, and so happy to see me, and so happy that I was so flawed and had such a rough moment, because they told me they all do, and they felt such a kinship. 

The most brilliant, powerful, successful minds in the world were moved by their sense of kinship with Smith’s frailty and vulnerability. She found resilience, not in her own determination alone, but in her honesty about her weakness and in the palpable sensation of the audience’s connection to her and support of her. And the audience experienced the performance differently once they were connected to her as well. What if that is grit?  

When I was a three’s teacher, there was a little boy in my class one year who had struggled in every way a child can struggle all year long—to make friends, to sustain play, to control his impulses, and to keep up with the ideas of his peers. One morning, toward the end of the year, he was taking his turn sharing our morning schedule. This was something he had not been able to do earlier in the year, and it was still a challenge. He was uncomfortable in front of the group, shifting from one foot to the other, and it was difficult for him to recall each card, even at the end of a year of repeating these same activities daily. I sat next to him, ready to whisper clues in his ear or to let him retreat into my lap. I was anxious as I watched him struggle, questioning the value of this part of our day, which on most mornings was so quick and routine. But he continued, and when I took my eyes off of him for a moment, nervous that the other children must be growing fidgety and impatient, as three-year-olds do, what I saw instead was a group of small children, sitting up, silent and completely still, more focused than I’d ever seen them, willing him to succeed. Just like Patti Smith’s Nobel audience. And as he got to the last card, the children also burst into spontaneous applause and broad smiles—something they had never done before for another child. Their empathy and camaraderie elevated him. The entire class felt so connected to his struggle and so proud of his success in that moment. It was not only his triumph but theirs as a group. What if grit is really as much about community as it is about the individual?  

We often say that we want to raise good, kind children, and we also want our children to learn and to be successful academically. But perhaps these are not in fact discrete goals. Perhaps they are deeply entwined, and our individual success is bound up in our relationships with one another—our academic learning bound up in the strength of our community.

This year, as our children take the next steps in their educational journeys, I invite you to try to dissolve this delineation. Let’s raise children who are successful because they are kind, who are resilient because they know they have each other’s backs, and who learn and grow because they feel deeply invested and connected, not only to the questions they are exploring, but to their teachers and to one another.

Alicia Stoller,
Parent Orientation 2019