On March 14 I experienced 45 minutes I will never forget.
I had just left Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, CA. I can’t help but write my feelings after watching hundreds of students ages 11-14 walk out of class straight to the athletic field, gather together without any adult telling them what to do, and begin walking off campus in the adjoining neighborhood caring signs and chanting, “No more silence. Stop gun violence!” Joining hundreds of thousands of youth across the country, these students forced their voices into the national dialogue. People are listening.
The tragic loss of 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 thus far appears to be a turning point in the public conversation around gun laws. Beyond a few states making changes to current gun laws, including Florida--a state all too familiar with gun violence in recent years--we have yet to see the full impact the events in Parkland will have on policy and national discourse. What’s remarkable about this turning point, however, is that it is being led not by high-priced lobbying firms or savvy politicians. It’s being led by students, most not even old enough to vote. And most of them are students in our nation’s PUBLIC schools.
As a public school district Superintendent, I could not be more honored to be associated with these young people. I do not suppose to take credit for their actions. It is the students who should be applauded. It is the students who should get the credit for what is happening in our country. It is students that are leading this revolution; speaking for this one adult, I plan to get in line and follow their lead. Yet my soul sings to know that the efforts our professional educators have put into developing the thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, leadership, and persuasion skills of our students have had lasting and meaningful impact on our youth. We saw that around the country on March 14. We saw that at Hillview Middle School in my own community. I have no doubt we will continue to see their leadership unfold. I am so proud of them and so proud of my fellow educators for teaching and empowering these leaders.
I imagine there are folks who would read my reflection as support for greater gun control. It actually isn’t. My own opinions about gun control are irrelevant to my enthusiasm for the knowledge and skill being exercised by our youth around the country, regardless of the topic. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, I truly believe the youth leading this movement are driven by conviction and supported by the skills they are learning and practicing in our schools. Political leaders and pundits would be well served to take a step back from their own political position and appreciate the movement being led by our nation’s youth.
Education is a space known for branding reform movements and creating acronyms for everything. A popular movement within schools is what’s known as “Project-Based Learning” (also known as Problem Based Learning) or PBL. High quality PBL, or “gold standard PBL” requires students to begin with a real world challenging problem or question, followed by a thoughtful and strategic process of inquiry, production, and reflection of the results in a public product. What occurred around the country, and in my own communities of Menlo Park and Atherton, was an organic example of problem based learning, the benefits of which will have long-lasting impact on the students who were engaged. In fact, the benefits of protesting were highlighted in this recent NY Times piece reminding us that when adults get out of the way and allow youth to own the development and expression of their opinions, students benefit.
Today’s teen and pre-teen is more aware, more educated, more connected, and in many ways more mature, than just a generation ago. It is our responsibility as educators and parents to remain connected to our youth in their journey toward developing their voice, as they are still young and have so much to learn and experience. However, the days of minimizing their voice, holding back their power, and infantilizing their ability to understand must come to an end. In the different roles that we serve, how might we empower the voices of our youth? Here are just a few thoughts.
Our schools must become places that seek to better understand the student perspective and experience. Efforts like the #shadowastudent Challenge remind us of the power of empathy. I find that so many schools are designed for the needs and fears of adults and not enough around the desires and hopes of students.
Our classrooms must promote thoughtful and informed debate, greater student choice, and meaningful work, all while promoting learning over obedience (obedience is not bad; however, conflating obedience with learning is). Efforts to bring “21st Century Skills” into the classroom are well-founded; the problem is that we are almost a quarter of a century into the 21st. It’s time to start talking about 22nd Century Skills. Maybe those skills will include individual thought, self determination, advocacy, and true personalization?
Our communities must welcome and value youth. James Vollbracht, in his book Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand reminds us that in the often overscheduled, stressed-out, and sometimes dangerous environments our children are growing up in, we all have an obligation to understand our role in supporting our youth through collective community efforts.
Our homes must be places of refuge and honesty where the voice of students is encouraged and then HEARD. It does not mean that children are always right; it means their experience of the world, in all its challenge and opportunity, needs a place to be shared and validated. Parenting should be loving, but firm. It’s okay to invite conversation about the why. Why I tell my children, for instance, that they can’t have a smartphone until 8th grade? There’s good reason. I can share that reason. And, I can allow the space for my child to share how that makes him feel. We need to turn off the iPads more and turn on empathy, storytelling, and shared experience.
Our leaders need to listen. They need to rise above “the noise” of today’s culture and hear the reality of our youth. They have the opportunity to empower youth instead of dismissing them with political talking points. They need courage and conviction to stand up against misinformation, binary thinking, and complacency. The solutions to violence are not easy, but they exist. Who has the courage to partner with our youth and lead us to these solutions?
On March 14, surrounded by scores of supportive adults--teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, grandparents, and neighbors--the middle school students I serve led a respectful, safe, and profound march within their school’s neighborhood returning back to the center of campus for a completely student-led demonstration. Next time a student asks, “Why are we learning this?” I have an excellent, real world example to illustrate the reason. My answer: You have a world to change. In my classroom, I’m letting you practice how you’re going to change it. There’s a world out there waiting for you; they’re listening. What are you going to say?
What can make a hippopotamus smile? What can make him walk more than a mile? It's not a party with paper hats or a case of candy that makes him fat, THAT’S NOT WHAT HIPPOS DO! Nooooo. They, ooze through the gooze without any shoes, they wade through the water till' their lips turn blue, that’s what hippos do!
Just in case you were wondering what makes a hippo smile, right?
Before you jump to the conclusion that I have lost my mind, let me explain. For some, the introductory lines of this blog will ring familiar. They are the lyrics to one of many songs that will echo through acres of forests, hillsides, and riverbanks during the months of June, July and August. These songs will be sung by a passionate army of young children who, along with their mentors and idols, will be participating in a ritual cherished by the inner child in so many of us--SLEEPAWAY CAMP!
It’s February, which means families across the country are securing their spots at one of over 8,400 U.S. sleepaway camps and over 5,600 certified day camps. Have you reserved your spot yet? If not, let me explain why I think you should.
As a parent of three and a former camper, camp counselor, and camp director, I cannot impress upon parents enough the meaningful impact summer camp can have on children. In my parent education classes, I often refer to sleepaway camp as the single most important and impactful experience a parent can provide their child. For most children, sleepaway camp develops the skills and mindsets parents so earnestly want to impart upon their children and does so in ways that we parents are sometimes unable to do. So why am I such a passionate advocate for sleepaway camp?
Support Healthy Individuation
It’s easy for a parent to forget that our number one responsibility is to prepare our children to LEAVE US. It’s counterintuitive, really. We spend so much of our lives connecting with these little beings that grow up so quickly. We offer them all we have. In them, we place our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Only to have them roll their eyes when we perse our lips for a kiss as they leave the car and say, “Gross, mom. My friends will see. Ugh!” As our kids grow older they need us less. And they should. If you want to measure your success as a parent (and I don’t necessarily recommend that you do), consider how well you are preparing your children to leave you.
Sleepaway camp is the single most important resource that I have found that helps prepare our children for healthy individuation. Individuation is a psychological term (coined by Carl Jung) that describes the process of self-actualization. In basic terms, a child’s individuation begins when he/she starts to see him/herself as separate from the parent. As much as we might not feel comfortable with the idea of our child separating more from us, it is an essential part of the process of a child becoming a healthy adult. At sleepaway camp, our children are given the opportunity to see themselves through a lens separate from their parents. The very nature of spending several days and nights without parents in a safe and controlled environment allows children to expand their view of themselves in relationship to the world around them. Their identities away from us are allowed space to grow.
Develop Responsibility and Independence
Of all of the gifts sleepaway camp provides us parents, it’s personal responsibility and independence that are often the most gratifying. After years as a camp counselor and director, the response I most often heard from parents after their children returned from camp was appreciation that their child was helping out more around the house. Parents would comment that they didn’t have to ask their child to take their dishes to the sink, rinse them off, and put them in the dishwasher...it just happened! Parents were shocked to find their child had actually made their bed in the morning.
At most sleepaway camps (and if this is NOT the case for your child’s camp, I would encourage you to find another one), personal responsibility is the cornerstone of daily life. Daily chore charts that require every camper to participate include jobs like: wait the tables in the dining hall, wash dishes, deliver mail, vacuum, collect and empty garbage, etc. At many camps, the kids are responsible for cleaning their own bathrooms. YES, even toilets. My favorite job to be assigned was “super spatula.” This job entails scraping all of the food off of the plates at mealtime onto one main plate and then transferring the “ORT” (or leftover food morsels) to the “ort bucket,” the contents of which would be fed to the pigs at the camp’s farm.
Having a hard time motivating your child to pull his or her weight at home? Maybe try a session of sleepaway camp. You may have the delightful experience one parent had when she said to her son after he returned home from camp making his bed and helping out around the house, “Who are you and what have you done with my child?”
Our children can be forgiven for thinking that the world they live in is universal. After all, many of our children haven’t had the opportunity to see much of the world during their young years. Sleepaway camp, particularly those that attempt to attract children and staff from different cities, regions, and backgrounds, provide our children with new and unique experiences and the opportunity to navigate and negotiate social situations that involve people who are different from them and the friends they interact with every day. Often, many sleepaway camps will hire staff from one of several international staffing agencies, thus diversifying the experience even more. Camp program staff design clinics, courses, and experiences that are likely to be novel for the campers, thus expanding a camper’s view on what he/she might enjoy or be good at. I have had the good fortune of observing scores of campers find new hobbies, interest, and passions from just one experience at camp. I know campers who have become chefs from having participated in outdoor cooking classes or children who have become veterinarians as a result of attending horse/ranch camp.
With peers: Ask any adult who has spent time as a camper or staff at a summer camp and they will most likely have close friends today that they met at camp, as well as an army of others that may not be as close, but whose sleepaway camp bond keeps them connected for a lifetime. Children learn not only how to build and maintain relationships with peers, but they also learn the VALUE of deep, supportive friendships. Especially as kids get older, I find that they appreciate having a world outside of school where friends “accept them for who they are.” At camp, children are able to let go of so much more of the pressures of “fitting in” and “measuring up” because they are in a new space. Not to mention, most sleepaway camps provide a technology-free environment for children to cultivate friendship the old-fashioned way--through conversation and shared experience--NOT through social media.
With non-parent adults: In an age when the pressures and distractions our children face are only increasing, one of the best defenses against childhood and teen depression, anxiety, and self-harm is a supportive adult outside the family that your child knows they can turn to. In school settings we ensure that each child has at least one adult on campus they know they can talk to, and a camp experience widens the net of available confidantes for our children. As our kids individuate, their bonds with other adults become more important. They will value and look up to role models they trust, and those trusted adults become part of the village that helps raise our children. As a “retired” counselor, I can’t tell you how many now-grown campers still reach out to me for support, advice, or just a friendly and non-judgmental ear. It is a privilege for me to me held in that esteem, but also a helpful relationship for them as they navigate their way through young adulthood. I know the counselors whom I most respected held that role for me and my life is better for it.
With YOU: Before you worry that sending your child off to meet and bond with other adults will diminish your own relationship, fear not. Consider that a child whose parents trust them enough to 1) send them to camp and 2) encourage them to seek mentorship outside the parental relationship feels valued and supported, and will actually respect you more for that freedom. I find that as children grow up, the parents with whom they feel closest are the ones who have learned to loosen the strings appropriately. We want the best for our kids, and helping them grow a network of close adults who can provide advice and support is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Believe me, they will not forget about you – they will love you for the experience!
Connect to the Outdoors
When I was a child, my friends and I were free to ride our bikes to the far ends of the earth (or at least that what it felt like) to discover our own adventures. We explored the outdoors with a lightness and whimsy that is often frowned upon today. Even though our neighborhoods are much safer than they have ever been, providing the freedom for children to explore the great outdoors feels too risky a venture for most parents. And even if we did provide that freedom, the draw of technology or the scheduling of numerous sports and activities has our children indoors and/or booked most of the time.
Sleepaway camp is a ticket outdoors without the worry of putting children’s safety at risk.
You don’t need me to remind you of the myriad of benefits being outdoors has on our health and wellbeing. There’s plenty of great research out there to tell you that being outdoors can do wonders to your body, mind, and spirit. However, maybe we all need to be reminded that our children need it, too. Desperately. And if you are like me and live in the middle of massive suburbia with all of its pressure, stress, noise, and competing interests, then we share an even greater need to get out in the great outdoors. Sleepaway camp provides this necessary connection to the natural world for our children.
Below is a graphic published by the American Camp Association that highlights some of the benefits campers, parents, and staff experience from camp.
I imagine that all this sleepaway camp talk has got you wondering a few things. Let me take a stab at answering the most likely questions you may have.
What about day camps?
I am also a big supporter of day camps. In fact my own children attend several day camps in our area and love them. There are so many great options with specific sports, music, art or hobby foci. There are also more globally focused camps that try to address the teaching of innovation, adventure, or making skills. Day camps are a gradual entre to sleepaway camp, too. All that said, there is some developmental growth and experience that only sleepaway camp can provide. In my book, including at least one week of sleepaway camp in the summer plans, along with a smattering of day camps and family time is a great recipe for summer growth and respite.
How do I know my child is ready for sleepaway camp?
The youngest age I know of camps accepting children for overnights is six and I would say most six year olds are not yet ready for a sleepaway camp experience. In my experience, a great age to begin is eight. All children are different and your child will be the best indicator of their readiness. Some suggestions for starting sleepaway camp off right include:
What are indicators of quality?
I’m going likely disappoint a lot of people by not recommending any specific camp. It’s not my job to presuppose a family’s needs and values; I also don’t want to leave any quality program out of my recommendations. That said, there are some great resources out there to help you identify a great camp for your child.
First get recommendations from people you trust. There is no better indicator of quality than the recommendation of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Second, you want to make sure that the camp you choose is accredited. Accreditation ensures that camps have the proper facility maintenance, staff training and support, safety plans and measures, and philosophical approach. The American Camp Association is the largest accreditation organizations in the U.S., but there are others. To ensure that the camp is a right fit, you can also read online reviews and take a visit. Camps welcome parent visitors to their facilities to discover more; take them up on that welcome.
Should I send my child to camp with a friend?
Sending your child to camp, especially the first time, with a friend is a great way to ease the anxiety that they--or more likely, you--have about being away from home for an extended period. Homesickness is real for many kids, even the most well adjusted and outgoing. Attending with a friend can help create just enough comfort, allowing kids, especially the younger ones, to adjust quickly to being away from home. Often, after the first experience with a friend, the childhood fears dissipate greatly. While attending with a friend is a great strategy, I do recommend providing at least occasional camp options that don’t always include the same group of kids your children hang out with at school or in sports/scouts/church, etc. Having an experience that challenges children to get out of their comfort zones is valuable; attending sleepaway camp with a team and coach they are always with is great, but there is growth in providing experiences with children and staff with whom a camper is unfamiliar.
What if I can’t afford camp?
Many camps offer financial aid and scholarships, as well as discounts. If you are interested in sending your child to sleepaway camp, but worry about the cost, contact the camp you’re interested in attending and ask about financial assistance. Another strategy for managing costs is to get your child excited about sleepaway camp and use earning money toward camp as an incentive or a substitute for expensive gifts at birthday and holiday times. Having a birthday party? Instead of receiving a dozen toys as gifts that will get broken and lost within two weeks, ask folks to donate to your child’s sleepaway camp fund. Many faith-based organizations and local community groups also sponsor summer camp experiences that are low or no cost. If you have the will to send your child to sleepaway camp, there are ways to make it happen.
All this talk about camp makes me nostalgic for my camp days. Nature hikes, horseback rides, all-camp capture the flag, campouts under the stars, the sounds of a dozen hammers pounding leather, S’mores and camp songs by the campfire as fireflies light up the night sky. I’m not sure what can make a hippopotamus smile, but I am sure there’s nothing like belting the song out at the top of my lungs with new and lifelong friends.
If my words have piqued your interest, you might want to sign your child up soon. Spots often fill up in January and February for the summer at most of the best sleepaway camps. Give your camp a call today and feel free to let me know how it goes once the summer wraps up.
What can make a hippopotamus smile? What can make him walk more than a mile? It’s not a tune on the old violin, or listenin’ to the whistlin’ wind. THAT’S NOT WHAT HIPPO'S DO! Noooo. They, ooze through the gooze with batting shoes, they wade through the water till' their lips turn blue, that's what hippos do! Yes, THAT’S what hippos do!
“Let me tell you what I think.” Did that scare you? In many industries, and education is no exception, “feedback” is sometimes treated as the eight-letter “f-word.” But why is feedback so intimidating and is it worth taking the time to change our reaction to feedback? The simple reason feedback is so often feared, avoided, and dismissed is because, generally speaking, people don’t know how to give - or receive - feedback well.
In my estimation, there is no more important skill for an educator, or any professional for that matter, than his or her ability to seek, welcome, and use feedback. One helpful source of good feedback data is surveys, which if designed well can provide valuable information and insight. But we must be open to what we can learn. Much has been written about feedback, including in the 2014 book Thanks for the Feedback by the authors of the best selling book Difficult Conversations, that provides helpful perspectives on remaining receptive. So how can survey responses provide a useful source of actionable feedback for educators and how might we go about reframing feedback to decrease the anxiety it generates?
The Customer Service Business
I’ve been criticized by some for suggesting that educators are in the customer service business. Why might this idea be so hard to swallow? Mainly because customers can be pretty demanding. As authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen aptly point out, there lies a powerful tension at the center of receiving feedback. Most of us sincerely want to learn and grow and recognize the necessity of feedback in that process, but we also want to be liked and accepted as we are.
When we open ourselves to feedback in a space as personal and impactful as education, we become incredibly vulnerable. Teaching is not like most vocations. Teachers aren’t producing widgets, selling product, or running call centers. Teaching is fundamentally relational, multidisciplinary, and often misunderstood. Many of our “customers,” i.e. parents, feel they know better than the teacher what is best simply because they have gone to school themselves.
This idea puts some burden on the providers of the service, too. When we as educators look at our relationships with those we serve as a service, we want every interaction to be an opportunity for fostering goodwill and a happily anticipated repeat transaction. Parents and students may have to use our product, but we are all better off when they are delighted about doing so.
It wasn’t so long ago that parents had few choices when it came to where their child would attend school and how their children would be educated. And for most people, a lack of choice wasn’t an issue. However, today’s parents demand greater options and private as well as public entities have evolved to provide those options for a more demanding clientele. As options have increased, so too has the need to consider the quality of the product. This shift makes the quality of education a value proposition that public schools need to take seriously.
Whether it be pressure to attract and retain families for districts that are funded based on enrollment, or the need to pass local levies and taxes to supplement ever decreasing funding levels, schools are increasingly challenged to prove their value to their community and to ensure the service they are providing meets the expectations of their “customers.” It may be an uncomfortable reality for some, but it is a reality nonetheless. Regularly seeking meaningful feedback from parents, students, and communities is an obligation of schools today. When used well, this feedback can be the fuel that drives necessary change within our service organization, and ultimately serves our customers better.
Perception Data is Different
Educators, like many of us, feel comfortable with quantitative data that is discrete and measurable, like achievement data. However, feedback data is all together different. While it can be reported in measurable quantities like “percent favorable,” the basis for any feedback data involves perception that is wholly individual and contextual. There is no true reality; perception IS reality to the person that is perceiving it. The problem is that many people try to read feedback data as though it were discrete. It’s not. Perception data is often most helpful in the aggregate. Too often, we focus on the “outliers” of feedback data because it’s easy to be distracted by the really bad or really good reviews.
For example, a teacher could seek feedback regarding the quantity, quality, and mode of his or her “communication to parents” and discover that generally speaking, parents enjoy and appreciate the communication from the teacher, but wish he or she provided even more of it. This is a good example of how a teacher might understand and use feedback data. What can happen, however, is that one parent might respond to an open-ended question criticizing the teacher because the parent didn’t know about the field trip volunteer opportunity and the parent couldn’t join their child in this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the teacher’s lack of communication is to blame. What is the teacher likely to remember? Not that parents generally appreciate his or her communication and want even more of it, but that this one parent will never forgive him or her for missing out on the field trip that was in the newsletter, but the parent didn’t see it.
What’s the lesson? For me, it is two-fold. First, we shouldn’t give too much weight to open-ended responses when reviewing feedback data. We should expect open-ended responses to provide color and flavor to the aggregate results and nothing more. Second, if a response appears to be an outlier, either too positive or too negative, treat it as the outlier that it is. If several of the responses come back critical, then we probably have an issue that needs attention. If several of the responses come back exceedingly positive, then there’s reason to smile.
Empower the Receiver
The most important step to decreasing anxiety around feedback is empowering the receiver to determine how to use it. Micromanaging the analysis of survey data and determining what conclusions a person should draw as a result can lead to frustration, distrust, or disengagement. When school sites, teams, and individuals are given access to the data and encouraged to make meaning of it themselves is when the real magic can occur.
As receivers, when we realize that we have the power to use the data as we see fit, the fear of being vulnerable to judgement begins to subside. An important mindshift is in knowing that the person doing the judging doesn’t have the power simply by providing their feedback; the power is in how we choose to receive it. Feedback also leads to insightful “how might I/we” questions that allow the receivers to dig deeper into ways they can adjust their practice - maybe things they had thought of before and now have actionable results to spur on growth and change.
Practice Giving Good Feedback
I would venture to guess that most of us don’t take the time to provide feedback unless we are upset, often really upset, with the service or product that we receive. I would like to challenge all of us to commit to being better about providing feedback when asked. Few of us have time to respond to the litany of requests for our feedback. Does anyone really know anyone who has won $500 for filling out the survey on the bottom of a receipt?
I would like to challenge folks to think of giving feedback as offering a gift, rather than a sword. When we reframe the how and why we provide feedback, our feedback becomes more useful. If our intention in providing feedback is simply to throw a dagger, then we can’t expect that feedback to result in any meaningful change. And if feedback doesn’t result in change, why give it? When giving feedback, try to visualize an action the receiver could take based on your suggestion. Know that your experience is unique, and uniquely valued, and your perspective is genuinely sought by those asking for feedback; providing useful feedback takes some time and thought but is worth the effort. Think about what other factors are affecting your perception of the questions or the target of the questions. A receiver of your feedback can only change the things within their control; consider what you are asking the receiver to do and if it can reasonably be accomplished. Remember that we all have blind spots, so giving constructive criticism gently and with respect will set the tone for positive change instead of defensive retreat.
Feedback exists whether we ask for it or not. In my district we provide surveys for all stakeholders at a set time every year, as all organizations do, but in life we ask for and receive feedback all the time. How was your day? What do you want for dinner? Why did you hit your sister? When will you go to bed? Does this outfit look okay? Our lives are a constant feedback loop and we can make that a gentle and productive give and take that leads to growth on both sides, or we can dig in and fight to win every battle. I heartily suggest we take the first approach. Let’s learn to participate in the give and take of feedback with a spirit of collaboration - the giver and receiver are engaged in a symbiotic balance involving the constant trading of roles and both sides are necessary if we are to make the positive change desired.
And if you are a parent in the Menlo Park City School District, please take the time to respond to your survey by January 31. We value your feedback!
The holidays are upon us and those of us whose traditions call for gift giving and whose pocketbooks allow us to be generous are considering what to give our children that won’t result in an eye roll, a less than impressed “Really mom?,” or a long wait in the returns and exchanges line. It wouldn’t be the holidays in modern America if many parents weren’t considering the purchase of a new smartphone for their child. And what better time to make that purchase than when every major cell phone manufacturer is luring our children with the next best thing in mobile technology?
As an experienced middle and high school administrator and a semi-regular on the parent education circuit, I am often asked my opinion on when a child should get a cell phone. I usually demur and refuse to answer, choosing instead to avoid offending the vastly different sensibilities and values each family holds dear. I’ve recently decided, however, that it’s high time I put a stake in the ground and offer my opinion.
Why now? The truth is, I’m really concerned.
I am far from a luddite when it comes to technology. As a middle school principal, I led the first district-managed 1:1 device implementation at a comprehensive public school in all of Silicon Valley. I more than appreciate the promise mobile technology provides teaching and learning. However, when it comes to personal use of technology, I grow increasingly concerned about the insidious and damaging impacts smartphones are having on users...especially our youth.
So where do I stand?
Without judgement on any family who has or will make a decision different than my recommendation, I encourage all parents to consider holding off on the purchase of a smartphone for their child until at least 8th grade. I fully recognize the myriad of reasons a child younger than thirteen could benefit from and be responsible for a phone. But, it’s not a simple phone to which I am referring. I am referring to the pocket-sized supercomputer from which many of you are likely reading this blog. By all means, most children over the age of probably nine are fully capable of responsibly owning and operating a phone that can call home, text you when they need to be picked up, or dial 911 in case of emergency. Heck, they can even enjoy a quick game of spider solitaire. But, a supercomputer? The difference between the two could not be more pronounced and, as I see it, the risks of the latter are too great. Let me explain my thinking.
The Underdeveloped Prefrontal Cortex
The core of my, and really just about any, good parenting advice begins and ends with brain development. Our brains are not fully developed until about the age of 24. Between birth and 24 our brains experience rapid changes, no more so than the first three years of life and the adolescent years. The part of the brain that is responsible for judgement, risk management, prioritizing, and decision making--you know, the important stuff--is called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most underdeveloped parts of the brain and “under heavy construction” during the years that many of our children are being given their first smartphone. In the best of circumstances, with little external stimuli, our children often don’t have the ability to make good decisions. Add to that challenge a supercomputer with access to unlimited distractions (at best) and a virtual black hole of potential dangers (at worst) just a click away and we have reason to be concerned.
The brain challenges don’t end with mere distractions to the prefrontal cortex. Our children’s brains, especially as they enter adolescence, begin to seek out the dopamine “fix” that risky behaviors or new discoveries provide. Those fixes can easily become irresistible to the undisciplined brain. And when you consider that the accelerated brain development process occurring during adolescence is actively “pruning” away parts of the brain that aren’t being used and “hard wiring” parts of the brain that are used regularly, the dangers of reinforcing the wrong wiring are concerning. I trust our children; I just don’t trust their brains.
Access to a World For Which Our Kids are Not Ready
Let’s take a moment to address the “black hole” of the internet for a moment. When cell phones made the transition from being phones to being pocket-sized supercomputers is when the game changed. The dangers are two fold. The first is accessibility to a world that literally has no filter, no boundaries, no warnings, no accountability. The second is privacy. Unlike the PC that can sit in the family room or the iPad that is managed by a school district, unless parents are prepared to stay one step ahead of their child at every turn (a losing battle for even the most tech-savvy parent), smartphones simply provide a child too much unmitigated freedom. When you combine unfettered access with broad privacy what results is high risk.
Smartphones are simply more power than any child really requires. Did you know that your smartphone has more powerful technology in it than the rocket ships that sent astronauts to the moon? Let that sink in. That’s a powerful tool. When you consider the computing capability of that phone, it puts into perspective what we are handing our kids.
Phone Addiction is a Pervasive Problem
More than brain development and supercomputing, what really caused me to put a stake in the ground around recommending a minimum age for smartphone ownership is the growing concern of smartphone addiction. Smartphone makers and app developers are designing these phones and the tools within them to keep people on them, using them, needing them...and unfortunately, IT’S WORKING. Have you ever heard of a Snapchat streak? Your kids have. And many of them are obsessed with keeping their streaks alive. It’s just one of a number of examples that are keeping our kids hooked on their phones. And when you consider how our kids see us adults using our phones, who can blame them? My phone has me wrapped around its little charging cord. Most of the time, I’m just too busy being on it to notice. The truth is, my own phone has too much control over me...and I’m in my 40s. This level of control that a device can possess over a person, especially a developing child, frightens me a bit. And if our collective fear can cause us to do something about it, then I hope it frightens all of us.
Unmoderated Screen Use is Unhealthy
More research is being conducted, which is essential, that highlights possible health impacts of smartphone use. In a recent blog, I wrote about the rise of anxiety in youth and made the argument that social media is one of the causes. Smartphones are where the lion-share of that social media access occurs with teens and it is impacting their mental health. Penn State College of Medicine recently released research drawing a connection to screen time before bed with less sleep and higher BMIs (Body Mass Index). We know that the developing brain requires more sleep for optimal development. For me, I just don’t know if the risks are worth it. While research has increased, there is still so much we don’t know and short of better research over multiple generations, I’m really just conjecturing and being driven by my growing fear of the unknown and the little research we do have. So what’s a parent to do?
You Are NOT Alone
Our greatest resource as parents in the most important role we play is one another. I encourage ‘tribe parenting.’ Talk to your friends who are also parents, especially parents of your child’s friends. You will be amazed at how similar the challenges are from family to family and, together, you all can agree to norms that reinforce the narrative you want to create for your child and their development. Even when you disagree, you’ll find valuable information and a potential network of support. Your child will have you believe that “YOU are the only one who is making [this or that] draconian and old fashion decision.” “Get with the times, Dad,” they will say. “Every kid my age is getting an iPhone X for Christmas, Mom!” they will assert. It simply isn’t true. When we tribe parent, we increase our defenses, because let’s face it, kids can be relentless. I recently came upon one mother’s quest to tribe parent around smartphone use. It’s brilliant. Wait Until 8th is a national, grassroots campaign to convince parents to hold off and support one another in waiting until 8th grade to buy a child a smartphone. Their mantra: childhood is too short to waste on a smartphone. Amen.
If Smartphones are SO Scary, Is Even 8th Grade Too Early?
Every child is different. Every family is different. No blog, no parent education, no interview on a morning news show will ever substitute for your good judgement contextualized by your family’s culture. The problem with any recommendation of this kind is that it’s too general. Again, there’s no judgement here. There are some helpful questions you can ask yourself as a guide to your child’s readiness to take on the responsibility of smartphone ownership. Thinking about these issues and talking openly with your parenting partner and your child can help frame the step toward independence that a smartphone will catalyze.
The counterbalance to the fear of what could result with a too-young-child having his/her own smartphone is the realization that personal digital technology is a near unavoidable reality in today’s culture. Eighth grade, when a child in the US is 13 or 14, is about the age when the social and developmental benchmarks of an adolescent require the opportunity for trust and release of responsibility in a somewhat controlled and accountable environment. And there actually are some positive trends associated with smartphone/social media use in today’s adolescents:
Once In Their Hands, What’s a Parent To Do?
Regardless of when you choose to give your child a smartphone, there are steps you can take to help keep them safe and hold them accountable. In addition to your efforts to avoid technology obsession, I offer these recommendations whenever it is that you do provide a smartphone to your child:
Where does all this leave us?
I’ve planted my stake, laid out my reasoning, and given you many resources to consider; however, I recognize there are no easy answers. Even the most savvy and experienced educators struggle with the push and pull between technology and its place in our world, and the desire to preserve some childhood innocence as long as possible. One thing I know to be true, is that it’s always, always easier to release some control or loosen your rules as children prove themselves capable and mature enough to handle increased independence. But, it is nearly impossible to regain the narrative and expectations with your kids once you’ve lost them.
Again, if you take only one piece of advice, no matter which age your child gets his/her own smartphone, establish a common family device charging area outside of the bedrooms. Remember, when they ask for a phone, you hold the decision making power by virtue of paying the bills. You can set up healthier smartphone use in your home by making the thing they want so badly come with a few restrictions on when, how much, and where they can use their device. Here are some good tips for reining in device use over the holidays (and bonus tip, these could apply all year, too).
Whatever we decide, we are in this parenting journey together. Our children’s health is just too important to leave up to tech company marketing and adolescent peer pressure. I’d love to hear your thoughts and be part of a community conversation.
Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, comes from a story we all know by heart. Or do we? Howard Zinn, the iconic American historian, playwright, social activist, and Boston University political science professor wrote, by my estimation, one of the most impactful history books of the twentieth century: A People’s History of the United States. Just referring to the book may make some readers cringe at the thought of a Superintendent highlighting the work of a sometimes self-described anarchist and socialist. I assure you that I am neither (not that either are bad); moreover, I assure you that we all have something to learn from Zinn’s body of work and the work of many historians encouraging us to consider, and at times confront, the role bias plays in our understanding and retelling of history.
The celebration of Thanksgiving is a time each year when I am reminded of the biased lens through which I understand history. As an educator, it’s not enough for me simply to examine my own relationship to history; I am forced to also contemplate how historical topics are represented, retold, and reflected upon in our classrooms. Why? Because educators have a responsibility to teach students how to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information, even - and especially - the historical stories and perspectives they are told.
The limited perspective and inaccuracies of the “First Thanksgiving” extend to my experience in elementary school when we were encouraged to dress up during Thanksgiving season. The class was divided in half with half of the boys and girls dressing in what we assume to be “pilgrims” outfits and the other half of the class in face paint, moccasins, and feathers on the head. The truth is that the most widely recognized paintings of the “First Thanksgiving” are not historically accurate in the dress of either the colonists or the native peoples. The 1899 oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The First Thanksgiving 1621” depicts both the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in clothing that is historically inaccurate.(1) If this is the case, what is our responsibility as educators to debunk misrepresentations of historical truth?
What I learned about Thanksgiving when I was in school was only one sanitized part of a story. Sure, after surviving a difficult first year in Plymouth and taking in an abundant first harvest, a group of colonists did share food with a group of local native peoples known as the Wampanoag. Their leader, King Massasoit, and 90 of his men came bearing their own bounty (of dear) and shared a meal with the colonists in celebration of the harvest (which, by the way, was successful due to the native peoples’ agricultural mentoring of the colonists).(1) This event, not referred to by them as “Thanksgiving,” was a one-time experience. Shortly after the harvest celebration, colonists throughout and beyond the region continued mass slaughter of native peoples as the European settlers overtook more and more land.
Beyond the first harvest celebration, as a holiday Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had left to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut. The fighting led to the enslavement and massacre of over 700 men, women, and children from the New England-based tribe, a bloody precursor to what would be centuries of strife for native peoples in North America.(2)
Thanksgiving’s journey from its colonial origins in the mid seventeenth century to a national holiday in the United States of today took many turns. Reasons for recognizing the holiday ranged from celebration of battle victory to boosting the young nation’s economy. Following George Washington’s “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” after the American Revolution, it was up to each president to declare a national day of thanksgiving - or not - and so it was an on-again, off-again holiday. Abraham Lincoln thanked the Union Army and God for a pivotal victory at Gettysberg and on October 3, 1863 announced the official Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated November 26, 1863. The fourth Thursday of November remained the national day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday to give Christmas shoppers a few extra days. In 1941, Congress reinstated the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving holiday, and there it remains today.(3)
So what? The point of my musing is not just to teach a lesson on Thanksgiving, but to use this holiday season as a reminder of the importance of considering multiple points of view and confronting bias in the telling of history. If our students are to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information--a necessary life and career skill made even more important in today’s political environment--we must not shy away from encouraging students to explore truth even if that truth is uncomfortable or shameful. Children have broad capacity to think critically, often much more capacity than we give them credit for. In my mind, educators and parents have a shared responsibility to gradually release our children to greater and greater access to information in conjunction with powerful and thought-provoking questions that require children to examine, reflect, challenge, and draw conclusions.
Most certainly, adults must respect intellectual and emotional readiness when approaching truth and bias. However, telling skewed versions of history out of fear that children can’t handle the truth creates more insidious problems later on. In my opinion, it is better to not say anything than to tell an inaccurate or misleading version of the truth simply because the truth of history is too hard to bear. Further, telling history from only one point of view similarly debilitates a child’s developmental ability to draw their own conclusions.
As a Superintendent, I hope that teachers in the district I serve feel empowered to develop the critical thinking skills of our budding historians, by including the following in their practice:
For families and teachers who are interested in learning more about bias and its influence on how history is told, there are excellent resources out there, and my district’s middle school library’s web page is a good place to start. Howard Zinn, in fact, published a version of his bestseller for younger readers entitled, A Young People’s History of the United States.
Before anyone accuses me of being the anti-Thanksgiving Superintendent, I also want to suggest that new meaning can be created out of darker parts of our history. Children are often more skilled than adults at finding opportunities for forgiveness and healing and creating a new reality. They are uniquely able to both acknowledge the painful parts of history and positively redefine cultural symbols. For me, Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity for us to “celebrate the harvest” in our own lives. It’s a time to consider who in our lives has become “the other” and to commit to reaching out beyond our comfort zone to build bridges toward seeing them as “us.” It’s a season of gratitude and humility. It is most certainly a time to fellowship with those we love. And ultimately, it is through recognizing its dark origins that the blessings we celebrate during Thanksgiving today are most meaningfully appreciated.
Sources and further reading on the origins of Thanksgiving:
On October 11, 2017, an article highlighting the increase in the number of teenagers suffering from severe anxiety appeared in the NY Times Magazine. Since it was published and shared throughout social media platforms, several parents and colleagues have forwarded it along. As a superintendent and someone known in the community as an advocate for the needs of youth and parent education, I often receive “Did you see this?” inquiries. I had seen this particular article almost as soon as it was published.
The topic--severe anxiety in teens--is not unfamiliar to me. As a middle and high school teacher and administrator, I have worked with scores of young people impacted by anxiety, from common teenage angst all the way to life-altering, debilitating anxiety. I also have a personal connection to anxiety; as a teenager, I was diagnosed with anxiety myself, having experienced some challenging trauma as a middle school student. I share this not to make the issue about me. Rather, I share it to convey the empathy with which I come to this issue.
The NY Times piece highlights a reality that our educators experience daily. Our young people are incredibly susceptible to the lies anxiety tells, the insecurity it breeds, and the fears it attempts to hardwire into our children. As an educator, I am the first to admit that schools, in general, are often not well equipped to respond to the needs of children struggling with anxiety. As a leader of a gifted team of teachers and administrators, I regularly witness our educational professionals asking important questions about what more we can do to accommodate the needs of children battling anxiety, without enabling negative habits that only serve to exacerbate the problem. The challenge is not easy. Schools cannot do it alone.
While there are no easy answers, I cherish the opportunity to share what I know to be true about anxiety and young people with our parents, educators, and communities as we come together to support our children and their families who are struggling with anxiety.
Anxiety in youth is not new. My own experience is one small illustration of a truth that is sometimes missed in the urgency of the current debate around anxious youth. Youth have always been more susceptible to anxiety; it’s a reality of the human experience. However, youth today are under increasing pressure, including changes in environment and culture, that exacerbate the impacts of an already anxious time of life.
Anxiety is an equal-opportunity illness. Some may think that anxiety is more prevalent in certain communities: among the poor, among children exposed to violence, or among residents living in urban centers, as examples. The reality is that anxiety affects children and teens across all demographic subgroups. No one is immune. Even those youth that society perceives as “having it all” experience concerning rates of anxiety and stress. As the NY Times piece highlighted, “privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America.” We must let go of any assumptions we might hold regarding who does or doesn’t or who should or shouldn’t suffer from anxiety.
Social Media didn’t create youth anxiety, but it greatly exacerbates it. While not new, anxiety among our youth is enabled, elevated, and made more complicated by social media, which has dramatically shifted the norms around privacy, introspection, and self identification. The ‘normal’ human, angsty, emotional, insecure experience of being a teenager is played out in real-time for all to see--and to judge, “like” or dislike, criticize, make fun of, and tear apart. In an effort to save face and create the “self” most likely to receive approval from peers and society, many of our children are engaged in a game of self preservation where there are no winners. Positive uses aside, social media sites that have become ubiquitous such as Instagram and Snapchat, as well as more insidious sites like askfm, kik, and whisper, are hotbeds of bullying, narcissism, and harassment where the natural insecurities of teens are often exposed and exploited. A pragmatist, I don’t promote a luddite response to social media; however, every parent should be wary of when to allow non-educational social media into their child’s life and closely monitor social media use.
Schools must be part of the solution.
Schools cannot focus solely on teaching academics. Today’s youth and their parents need the engagement and commitment of school leaders, teachers, and support staff in the battle against anxiety. Educators cannot simply cover their eyes and close their ears to the role schools plays in increasing anxiety and the role educators play in addressing the impacts of anxiety. It’s not enough to say, “When I was in school, we had homework and stress and we just dealt with it.” A healthy dose of empathy among educators is needed to effectively support student social-emotional needs. In the district I serve, Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley, where anxiety and stress among teens is an ever-increasing challenge, our staff are being trained on Restorative Practices in the classroom as one way of providing our youth with tools around battling stress and anxiety.
Children need sanctuaries.
After recognizing that anxiety was impacting my well-being in high school, I was fortunate to have two adults in my high school who created a sanctuary for me--a place without judgement, a place to retreat and find quiet or a listening ear. Not every child who suffers from anxiety is so fortunate. Our homes, our schools, and our communities need to prioritize the informal and formal places of refuge for our youth suffering from anxiety and stress. A great place to start is, once again, a place of empathy. Begin by asking yourself, “If I were a young person in my home/school/community suffering from persistent stress and anxiety, where could I turn? Who would help me? Where could I find quiet, peace and/or a listening, non-judgemental ear?” If you can’t answer that question with at least three different clear options, maybe it’s time to take action to create such a sanctuary.
Don’t dismiss it, but also don’t give anxiety the power it seeks. Help is out there.
Anxiety thrives on silence. Persistent anxiety is about fear and control. Children suffering from anxiety need to know the signs and need to be encouraged to seek help. It is precisely in the taking control back and AWAY from anxiety that anxiety loses its power. When youth can claim control back, they can begin to conquer it. When the caring adults in the lives of our youth empower and support those struggling with anxiety to take control, we offer hope. Don’t dismiss the signs and don’t dismiss those youth who are struggling by minimizing their experience. However, DO empower them to name it, face it, fight it, and get to the other side of anxiety victorious and with the necessary coping skills for future success when anxiety again rears its ugly head as it almost always does.
In the Menlo Park area, where I am Superintendent, we are fortunate to be served by SafeSpace, a recently opened center for youth to find support for anxiety and other mental health issues. Other places to look for resources that help families tackle anxiety include:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Freedom from Fear
National Institute of Mental Health
I feel grateful to lead a district that is partnering with parents and empowering students. This month, in my own district, we are featuring a speaker on this topic as part of our parent education Speaker Series. Dr. Jacob Towery, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist and Adjunct Clinical Faculty at Stanford University, and author of The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy, will speak from the heart to parents about what they can do to help their children when signs of anxiety and depression arise. You may have noticed changes in your own child that are concerning, and even if you haven’t, the more adults in our community that are aware of the signs of anxiety and depression and of ways to offer help to kids struggling with them, the more places of sanctuary and support there will be for all our children. Dr. Towery notices in his own practice the increasing number of youth seeking help for anxiety, and brings his compassion and expertise to the Speaker Series on Wednesday, November 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School. All are welcome to attend; please find details here. You may be the safe adult to whom another parent’s child feels comfortable reaching out; let’s all be prepared to give youth the support they need.
It really does take a village to raise a child. In today’s age, those words have never been more true.
It’s not hard for me to imagine what it feels like for parents to drop their children off at the doorsteps of our schools each day because it is a ritual I experience with my own three kids. As I hold my breath for a split second in that cosmic moment of ‘letting go’ each morning, my false sense of security when they are in close proximity to me gives way to the realization that once again they will be in control of their own decisions, actions, and reactions. All my insecurities as a parent are wrapped up in that moment of release, when I kick my kids out of the nest and await their flying “home” at the end of the day. This daily act of radical trust gives me pause to reflect on what I hope and expect for them. I kiss my kids goodbye and leave them three messages:
“Be good. Be kind. Learn lots.”
But what do I hope they hear when I say those six words each day?
I want them to value and appreciate the climate, culture, and routines of the space they inhabit during the day. I hope they hear that on some level I expect them to be obedient because, while not my primary value, I do want my children to follow the rules out of respect and generosity to those around them. Beyond doing what is expected of them, I hope, too, that they try their best at whatever they are doing, learning, or trying. I don’t need them to be the best; I just want them to try their hardest. When I say, “Be good,” I want them to know that I subscribe to the growth mindset philosophy, rather than the fixed, in that I believe “good” and “smart” are things you become, not things you are.
Probably the most important character trait I want to instill in my children is kindness. When I say, “Be kind,” I hope my children hear that I want them to approach the kids and adults with whom they interact with the same compassion, grace, and understanding that they would want for themselves. It’s the golden rule, right? Do unto others as you would want done unto you. I want them to know that more than getting good grades and making the right choices, how my children treat people is most important to me. And, like any parent desires, I hope that kindness is returned to them. What goes around comes around.
School exists to teach our children the lessons they need to know to be successful in life and effective members of our democratic society. And so, when I send my children off with the final refrain, “Learn lots,” I hope they hear loud and clear that I do not want them to experience school as simply an exercise in obedience. I want them to choose to be challenged. I want them to seek information that they do not know. I want them to apply the information they acquire in meaningful ways. I want them to explore their world. I want them to ask hard questions and not quit until they find the answers.
The community’s kids are also my kids. Parents bring children to our doorsteps every day filled with their own hopes and expectations and nervous moments of radical trust. Parents trust teachers to have patience and skill. They trust friends to show kindness and acceptance. They trust their kids to make good decisions and come home knowing more than when they left. They trust themselves to have prepared and loved their kids so they are ready to be sent into the world. And our highest calling and greatest joy as educators is to pick up where parents let go so that all our kids feel good and kind and ready to learn lots.
As we dig into the school year, what are your bottom lines? Have you considered your family’s non-negotiables? I think it is helpful for our kids to know what we expect and hope for as we release them each day onto the doorsteps of our schools. And, if your children are anything like mine, they will not always deliver…but there’s always tomorrow.