It’s been three days. Three days since our world’s been turned upside down. Three days since our schools were shuttered completely. Three days of Distance Learning. Nearly three days since the Shelter in Place order came down for millions of residents in the Bay Area.
The streets are eerily quiet.
The swings on the playground only move when a gust of wind wills them to.
A few lost sweatshirts hang on hooks outside of quiet classrooms waiting for their owners to return.
Parking lots are empty.
Baseball fields are silent with only distant memories of “aaaaa batta, swiiiing batta.”
And yet, our homes are full of children who look out the window for any signs of life.
Crawling up the walls as they struggle to understand, let alone cope with the dramatic change in their lives.
Mom and Dad look tired. Grandma’s trying to help. The neighbor dropped off some toilet paper the other day; they had more than enough.
Dad struggles to get the kids lunch and hopes he can get them back focused on the tasks the teacher has shared on the internet. He has a 1:30 conference call for work that he can’t miss.
Mom is busy trying to help. She’s on her computer most of the day attempting to “work from home.” The noise the kids make requires her to sneak away into the laundry room to get some peace so she can concentrate.
Looking to mom or dad, the kids hope they’ll hear, “This will all be over soon.”
But we can’t. We can’t tell them it will all be over soon. We don’t know. Our heads tell us, “Surely it will be over in three weeks, right?” But our gut tells us we’re only lying to ourselves. We’ve seen the data. We hear the news. To “flatten the curve” they’re gonna need us sheltered in place much longer...right? We want to be wrong. Desperately, we cling to some hope that the United States will be different.
The reality is, the United States is no different. No country is. Viruses have a powerful way of reminding us that the trappings of status, privilege, education level, employment, country of residence, citizenship are really just social constructs that lull us into believing that the human condition is different for different people. Viruses don’t care about any of that.
So regardless of who we are, what narrative our lives have weaved, we find ourselves in this place together. There are so many unknowns. So many questions. So few answers. And that just has to be okay.
There is one common overwhelming emotion that I sense from people as I attempt to lead a small school district in the heart of Silicon Valley during this unprecedented (at least for modern society) Public Health Crisis. That emotion is anxiety.
Our anxious feelings rise when we feel a lack of control, when the uncertainty of the future overwhelms our ability to naturally calm ourselves, stay focused, accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and support others in the process. We struggle to manage our own response to all the stimuli that we receive.
In my role, I am responsible to avail myself to a variety of people--parents, students, teachers, support staff, the public, policy makers, the press--and receive without judgment their varying states of emotion. I feel honored to be able to do so, really. In many ways it is a sacred trust to be in a position of leadership during this time. I am often reflecting on what it is I can say or do that will help calm the understandable anxiety, especially the last three days.
There is no operating manual for what we are experiencing or how leaders should respond. And so, I show up. I listen. I try to respond the best my heart knows how. Probably the most important thing I am doing, if only for my own benefit, is asking every day and with every conversation, “What am I learning?”
The universe is remarkable at teaching us what we need to know in the moment. We just have to make space for the lesson and silence our ego and fear long enough to listen. I thought that maybe a few folks would be interested in knowing what I have learned in the last three days; turns out leading through a crisis is a master class for which few are interested in signing up and yet many need to attend. So here goes. What have I learned the last three days…
Helpers are our hope.
I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who have stepped up to do their part and offer their services during a time like this. Daily, we have to turn down offers of help from caring individuals who want to do something for anyone who may be in need. The news is full of stories of people rolling up their sleeves and helping. As Mister Rogers famously said and has been shared many times in the last few days, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
We are resilient and our children are capable.
Of my children, two are school aged, kindergarten and fourth grade. My wife and I are both public school educators. If for anyone, this should be easy for us, right? Well, it’s not. It’s hard. Amidst the craziness, we are learning that our boys are capable of so much more than what we give them credit for most of the time. We’re realizing that we can do this. It won’t be easy, but we’re going to be okay. This will be a process. We’ll get better at it as we go. Our kids will likely lead the way.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
It’s no surprise in our community that so many teachers, parents, and even many of our students are going above and beyond to try to perfect Distance (At Home) Learning. If there has been one criticism that I have heard, it’s that we’re trying to do too much or make it too perfect. I don’t know if it is just the community I serve that needs to hear it, but I think we can all benefit from this reminder: You are where you are, and that’s exactly where you need to be. Where do you want to be tomorrow...without wrecking yourself or others in the process? Take this one step at a time. Pace yourself. We really only have two goals with Distance Learning:
It’s all about relationships.
Of all of our teachers’ efforts, there is one that hands-down seems the most impactful--personal contact. Whether it is virtual study groups, community circles via Hangout, video story-time, or one teacher on a conference call with one student, I have been so comforted and inspired by the stories that involve connection. It’s a reminder to us all that relationship is at least as important as knowledge, and I would argue, even more important. Even if your child doesn’t complete all the tasks assigned, be sure that s/he/they are connecting with their teachers when offered and with their classmates and friends as often as possible. It’s been said before, and is more evident now than ever before, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Grace is a choice.
When anxiety is high and answers are few, it’s understandable that folks feel frustration when their expectations are not met. Everyone is meaningfully impacted and challenged by the virus and the Shelter in Place; no one is immune. And since we are all in this together, I believe we have an obligation to offer one another grace, and to hope for it in return. Grace--freely given, and sometimes undeserved, favor--is a choice. Our expectations are not always going to be met. This will be hard. People will disappoint us. And yet, we are all just doing our best. I have seen how my own offerings of grace have made a difference the last few days; conversely, I have seen how my snap judgment and frustration have sowed discontent and impacted morale. Whether it is with our students or their parents, whether it is with our teachers or administrators, whether it is with our family or our neighbors, or even and especially if it is with ourselves, I hope we can all go to the well of grace for it is one of few things of which there is an endless supply.
Public School Teachers are a national treasure!
While certainly not the intention of a country-wide shut down of our schools, the Shelter in Place we are experiencing has at least reminded me how incredible our public school teachers are. One glance at your preferred social media platform and you will see parents around the country commenting that “Teachers deserve to be the 1%” or “I’ve never been more grateful for my kids’ teachers.” or “How do they do this everyday?” It’s true. One unintended outcome of this situation will hopefully be the realization that my own family is having each day: Our teachers are special. No computer will replace them and no average joe can do what they do. If and when you have a minute, maybe send your child(ren)’s teacher a note to tell them what you LOVE about them and what your kid LOVES about them.
The schools may be quiet and the commute to work for those of us that are essential workers may be traffic-free, but the struggle is real. This new normal will hopefully not be “normal” for too much longer and we can return to “regular” life a bit smarter, healthier, aware, and appreciative of the people in our lives. We will get through this...together.
Growing up, neither my wife’s family nor mine were skiers, so we didn’t go skiing. Spending much of my childhood in Indiana, where I jokingly report the highest elevation to be a speedbump, we didn’t have many ski options anyway. Further, few people wanted to find more snow; they had enough of the cold, snowy and soggy weather.
As an adult, I relocated to the Bay Area and began raising a family. Bay Area transplants quickly realize that learning to ski for many Bay Area children is as normal and expected as learning to ride a bike, even for families that aren’t considered “wealthy.” Not ones to deprive our children of an important skill or opportunity, my wife and I decided we would learn how to ski along with our kids. So on a recent vacation, we purchased some tire chains, rented equipment (now that was an experience, but we’ll save that for a different blog), packed up the car, and headed to the mountains near Yosemite.
As adult learners, my wife and I were very cautious. Always worried we were going to lose control and crash, at the first sign of acceleration or obstacle we would fall on our butts and like a newborn horse immediately trying to walk, spend 10 minutes trying to return to our feet while maintaining the slightest amount of grace.
Our boys on the other hand took to the slopes like fish to water. After the necessary morning to get accustomed to the surroundings and become familiar with the muscles necessary for the task, my five-year old was barreling down the mountain. I watched in awe as he bent his knees, bowed his arms out, and took the mountain by storm. Sure he crashed the first few times, but it didn’t phase him one bit. He got right back up on his skis and headed down the mountain without missing a beat. After several successful runs with one of the many older kids or adults in our group, he quickly felt comfortable jumping on the ski lift by himself and repeatedly heading down the mountain full-steam ahead, no matter that he never learned to turn; turning only slowed him down. The faster the better.
I marvelled at the fearlessness of my boys. As the lift slowly drew me closer to the top of the mountain, I looked down at their courage on the slopes and was reminded of the powerful force fear can be in parenting. If left to my own devices and instincts, I might have protected my kids from every possible risk that skiing presents to such a degree that they would never have really learned how, and further, I would have succeeded in making them fearful of taking a chance because of all of the “possible” yet highly unlikely things that could go wrong.
The underdeveloped brains of children and teens and their relative lack of life experience actually have a lot of value. They are less likely to be “tainted” by all the possible things that could go wrong, thus they are more willing to leave their comfort zones and experience something new. Fortunately, evolution and instinct require that parents play an integral role in ensuring that risk is age-appropropriate, measured, and within a zone of relative reasonableness. But have our modern parenting instincts gone too far? Are we so afraid of what could happen and so convinced of our ability to protect our children and the benefits of doing so that we have taken our parental responsibilities too far?
In her best-selling book, Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy laments America’s parenting evolution that attempts to prevent every possible danger and difficulty from impacting our children’s lives. She, as well as many others, advocates for the necessity of age-appropriate risk as an essential means of teaching our children good decision making, responsibility, and independence.
Journalists, sociologists, and bloggers love to label the parenting overreach de jour. For many years, critics complained of helicopter parenting, where parents pay too close attention to every detail of their child’s life; or tiger parenting, which includes high pressure tactics to ensure a child’s academic success. Today, critics warn of snowplow parenting where parents remove every possible obstacle from the path of their child’s experience. At base, the motivating emotion involved in all of these tendencies is FEAR--a fear that the parents’ expectations will not be met or some harm (be it physical, emotional, psychological, or economic) will befall the child.
For those who think their parental fear is a good thing for children, consider fear’s impact on learning. When the amygdala, the brain’s fear detector, is activated, learning decreases. When we are afraid, our bodies release stress hormones which negatively impact learning and memory. When we parent from a place of fear, we unavoidably transfer that fear onto our children. And in the learning context, what is the opposite of fear? ...Curiosity. How might we develop a greater sense of curiosity in our children without the often unnecessary obstacle of fear?
No doubt, parenting is scary. However, our own anxiety about the very real challenges we face and the very scary “possibilities” that abound are impacting our perspective and judgement. Kim Brooks, author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, details the very real implications of having left her four-year old son in the car while she ran into the store. The resulting fallout caused her to ask some really important questions about how we define “good” versus “bad” parenting and what the rise of fearful parenting says about ourselves.
I’m not sure what it says about us. It doesn’t really even matter what I think. What is important is that each of us takes a step back and evaluates the role that fear plays in the raising of our own children. Do we have a healthy relationship to fear and allow it to influence us in a balanced manner? Or, are our fears clouding our ability to give our children the space and agency necessary to appropriately individuate from us and grow into independent and responsible young adults? After all, isn’t that the ultimate measure of success?
At the end of the day, I hope that my own parenting involves a bit of that abandon that my own children exhibit as they shoot down the ski hill--with a knowledge that, sure, risk is innate, but with a little caution, enough preparation, and a good attitude, chances are pretty good that everything will turn out just fine...and I might even have a little bit of fun (yes, parenting can be fun!).
If you live in the Bay Area and want an opportunity to have your perspective on fear’s role in parenting pushed, please join us in Menlo Park for a presentation and conversation with Kim Brooks, the author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park. If you don’t live in the Bay Area or can’t make her talk, do yourself a favor and read the book or listen to the audio version. You’ll be glad you did!
One million words.
One million words might just be the key to begin eradicating the stubbornly persistent achievement gap that exists between children from low income and middle/high income families, between white and Asian children and their black and brown peers, and between children whose first language is English and those for whom it is not.
In 2019, Ohio State University published a study that found that students who are regularly read to prior to entering kindergarten are exposed to 1.4 million more words than those who are not. That difference, the study supposes, could be the reason the gap in achievement begins at a young age and grows as the years progress. Further, we know that success in school is highly correlated to earnings throughout life.
In this, a presidential election year, candidates and pundits fall all over themselves to sell you their solutions to fix the growing income gaps in America, lift families out of poverty, and reverse the trend of stagnant wages. Maybe - just maybe - folks would be well served to visit a local high-quality preschool to realize the answer.
Early childhood education is imperative. All things being equal, it is the difference-maker. It is the one tool in public education’s and the government’s tool belts that can be used to the greatest effect. When you can solve for poverty and economic mobility over the long term, you have a chance of solving the achievement gap for future generations. Without great, accessible early childhood education, we can only hope to make change around the edges. It is the gift that keeps on giving. For my money, there is simply no better investment that impacts a child’s success in school and future earning potential than high-quality early childhood education. Full stop.
It’s not often that school districts attempt to do something they aren’t required to do and for which there is no money. In California, where recently we have struggled to even get to 38th out of the fifty states in school funding, providing preschool is not required of local school districts. The cost of providing the programs, even with some state and federal funding reimbursement, is monumental. The bureaucratic red tape, while well intentioned, limits school districts’ abilities and willingness to consider providing these services, even when the need is clearly there. Governor Newsom has made expanding preschool services a top priority and has put some funds forward to try to do so.
The reality is that without a significant influx of funds and a long-term commitment by policy-makers and the electorate to prioritize early childhood education, we are unfortunately doomed to a groundhog-day-esque circular conversation. People blame public schools for not closing the gap and schools throw up their arms in frustration without the necessary tools to address the challenges of doing so.
There is much to do. We must ensure access to high quality preschool for all children in our state. We must increase the wages of our preschool educators and end the second-class treatment of our early childhood educators. We must ensure that preschool programs are equipped to serve students with identified and unidentified special needs. We must invest in high quality teacher training programs and professional development. We must prioritize the creation of equitable preschool classrooms that expose our youngest children to the rich diversity of culture, income, and perspective that defines our great state.
We have a pretty good idea of what the answer is.
We have to have the will and conviction to make it happen.
I am proud to serve a community that decided not to wait for state policymakers to solve the problem. I am also fortunate to lead a district that is creative and well-resourced enough to design outside-of-the-box solutions. With a commitment of one-time set-up funds and ongoing facility and infrastructure provision, our district is able to provide a high-quality, fee-based preschool program to families who can afford market rate preschool and reserve 25% of enrollment to low income families on a sliding scale. What has resulted is a diverse community of children together receiving a high-quality preschool education focused on the whole child. Our teachers and staff are paid far better than their private preschool counterparts and our program is aligned to the vertical experience they will have in their K-12 school experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. It’s a model for other communities that want to see action.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like me, want to see our communities and state take action to provide high quality early education, or if you desire more information about this regional, state, and national issue, I invite you to join us for a screening of the acclaimed documentary No Small Matter on January 22, 2020 at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.. We will view the film, which addresses the need for and challenges involved with quality early childhood education, and engage in a panel discussion with regional leaders. Sign up for your free tickets, and free childcare if needed, here.
In addition to the No Small Matter event, electing candidates who value and prioritize early childhood education is another important step we can take. Our friends at the Community Equity Collaborative are sponsoring a candidate forum for the upcoming California District 13 State Senate election. My school district is hosting this event at Hillview Middle School on February 9, 2020 from 3-5 p.m. The ECE State Senate Candidate Forum will convene a diverse gathering of community members, educators, local organizations (including faith-based institutions) along with local leaders and candidates for the District 13 election in order to increase awareness of and encourage broad-based commitments to early learning priorities. During this moderated conversation we hope to learn more from the candidates about their platforms and plans for elevating these issues and leading our state to greater equity in education, especially for young children and preschool teachers. Please join me at one or both of these outstanding events.
It is possible to stop spinning our wheels and take action to close the achievement gap. I hope you will seek information, press your leaders, and take action. Big challenges call for big ideas.
As modern technology is designed to do, my go-to places for news automagically curate a series of articles in which I am most likely to be interested. Inevitably my list includes parenting articles and blogs based on my frequency of clicking on all things parent-advice related. Intellectually, I understand that most articles and blogs are “clickbait” and provide very little real value.
Even knowing this, I never cease to be amazed at the level to which clickbait-copy-editors will stoop to get people to click on a parenting-advice article. Were you to believe the eye catching titles, you would be convinced that no matter the label you would give to your parenting style--it’s wrong. You would also be led to believe that the secrets to good parenting are kept so tightly hidden that only a select few are smart enough to know. You’d be quite sure that not only will your child not get into an elite college, but they’ll be lucky to leave your basement before the age of 40 because of all the terrible decisions you have made as a parent. Suffice it to say, none of the overzealous claims made in these blogs and articles is of much merit; they are simply trying to get you to click.
However, parenting does change from generation to generation. Knowing how and why parenting evolves is an important consideration when preparing our children for the world into which they will be launched rather than the one into which we were set in motion.
So how might this generation of children be pushing our thinking around parenting? I think we can take a page from what is happening in schools around the country for an indication. Much attention has been paid around something known as restorative justice; it is providing a model to look at discipline in schools differently.
As educational leaders, policy makers, and researchers look deeper into the causes of generational poverty, achievement gaps, and high school dropout rates, etc., many are asking if the punitive manner in which schools have traditionally approached discipline exacerbates problems, rather than fixes them, especially among ethnic minority populations, low income communities, and boys. Borrowing from work within the criminal justice system, schools began experimenting with restorative justice as an alternative to more punitive and exclusionary discipline techniques like suspension. Rather than punishing someone for their choices and meting out external consequences that have little impact on future choices and often further escalate division, restorative justice emphasizes accountability and making amends. When successful, restorative justice repairs harm caused by an infraction resulting in transformational change, relationship building, and empathy; it also dramatically decreases recidivism.
In my own community of Menlo Park, our school district began restorative work early on in the effort to rethink school discipline. In the first two years of implementation, our middle school, Hillview, experienced a dramatic decline in the number of suspensions, a near eradication of recidivism, and an elimination of the over-representation of students of color being disciplined at school. Over the two-year period, suspensions decreased from 112 to less than 12 in an entire year. Six years later, suspension rates remain low and restorative justice circles have become the approach of choice for helping pre-teens and teens own their mistakes and make amends for the harm they have caused.
Restorative justice is one example of a larger movement in our society known as restorative practices. Restorative practices refer to the mindsets and operations we engage around communication, conflict, and community building. In my community, we rely heavily on resources and wisdom from the International Institute for Restorative Practices to help guide our work around two aspects of our Whole Child Learning and Development Framework: Healthy & Collaborative Relationships and Integrated Well-Being.
Nearly all of our teachers have been trained in restorative practices and weekly or sometimes daily utilize an effective restorative strategy known as “community circles.” Whether it is starting out the day or identifying a brewing conflict within the class and strategizing how to resolve it, community circles give voice to all members of the class and encourage students to practice important skills like empathy, advocacy, allyship, decision-making, and problem solving.
“But I thought this blog was about parenting?” you might be asking yourself. It is. Strategies like community circles and the mindsets that drive the work are useful not just in the classroom, but also in our homes. When we empower our children to give voice to their feelings and experiences, to express that voice, to listen to the voice of others and then engage in empathy, advocacy, and problem-solving we are giving them an invaluable gift.
When our children misbehave, and they will, we can choose to engage them in a process of accountability, making amends, and strengthening the bonds of community within our own families. In doing so, I contend, we are providing them with much more than what punishment alone can provide. Restorative parenting, which takes a page from non-violent communication, reminds us that we operate in quadrants between high & low control and high & low support. Restorative parenting is firm and fair. It honors rather than manages or ignores. It doesn’t rescue the child. It requires them to take responsibility for their actions, elevating the voices of those who may have been harmed in the process, and invites the child to make amends for their choices--something punishment rarely does.
Before you accuse me of blasphemy and characterize my perspective as anti-punishment, I want to assure you that I recognize the value and necessity of punishment in our homes and schools. However, I invite you to learn more about the restorative mindsets and strategies that have evolved my thinking about effective parenting and teaching. I promise you will not be disappointed.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have a wonderful opportunity to hear from one of our favorite Restorative Practitioners, Karen Junker, as she joins the Menlo Park community for a talk on restorative parenting. If you are a parent in our district, her talk will beautifully complement the messages your students are hearing in their schools and the experiences they have when conflict or misbehavior strike. Join us on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School, 1100 Elder Ave, Menlo Park.
Whether you can make it to Karen’s talk or not, I invite you to read more and learn more about the additional parenting tool--restorative practices--that you can add to your tool belt. It just may save you from the next time you want to yell, “You’re grounded until 8th grade!” “I’m gonna throw away all your toys!” or “Why I oughta…!”
A blog expressing gratitude is one of my favorites to write. Science has confirmed that regularly engaging in gratitude releases us from toxic emotions and, over a relatively short period of time, actually changes our brain function. And what better time to share a message of appreciation than a week from Thanksgiving, in the middle of National Gratitude Month.
There are so many selfless, inspiring, and dedicated groups of people I could highlight. As a father of three who tries hard to instill all the right lessons in my children, I have personally experienced the indelible impact of an often unsung group of volunteers. I’d like to spend a moment thanking...
Volunteer Youth Coaches.
I imagine that many parents have, at times, had the same experience as I in raising my own children: it doesn’t matter how much life we’ve lived or how much expertise we might possess on a particular subject, our child just simply isn’t interested in being taught, coached, or mentored by us. It’s as though we have no value to add.
Enter “Coach.” Watch as your son’s or daughter’s eyes light up with the wonder and admiration that only an 8 year old can muster. (And then stop yourself from jumping out of your skin when your child responds with devotion as the Coach says, almost verbatim, what you have been telling your child for the last four weeks.)
There are few more rewarding moments for a parent than to witness your child open up and respond to a coach that has volunteered his or her time to help shape the minds, hearts, and character of our young progeny. There’s something magical about that relationship.
Staying up late putting together the lineup.
Racing from work to get to practice on time.
Showing up early to water the field.
Reaching into her own pocket to buy equipment.
Knowing just the right thing to say at just the right moment to inspire confidence.
Wiping away a tear after the fall.
Exhibiting incredible patience when the animals take over the zoo.
Cracking the relatable joke that exponentially increases their cool-factor.
Building camaraderie and and a strong work ethic.
Reminding them that it’s not about the score; it’s about love of the game and how you play.
Inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves.
These are all things our volunteer youth coaches do and they do them so well. As a result, our children grow as athletes, but even more so as people. The impact is palpable and I, for one, am incredibly grateful.
So this November, let’s take a moment to appreciate all the volunteer coaches who for no other reason than love of the game and a commitment to your kid, give of their time and energy to teach the lessons our children need to hear.
If you know a youth coach who has impacted the life of your child, maybe send them this blog as a message of “THANKS” for the time and energy they have invested. To all the coaches who’ve mentored my children...and you know who you are...THANK YOU!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Note: While this blog was written for narrative clarity with a lean toward athletic coaches, the messages and appreciation ring true for all coaches, whether they be of music, theatre, debate, STEM, chess, or any other venture. If you consider yourself a ‘coach,’ this blog’s for you!
When you blog about education, parenting, and community as I do, you run the risk of making whatever suggestions you provide sound so easy. “If only parents would--FILL IN THE BLANK.” It’s never that easy. Parenting is the hardest job, one for which few of us are ever really prepared. As a teacher, principal, and superintendent I have read countless books on parenting, seen some of the best parents in action, and heard my fair share of speakers discuss the ins and outs of successful parenting. As a parent of three unique kids, I have also had my share of fails.
All the parenting advice can be quite dizzying. Someone recently asked me what I thought to be the best advice on parenting. I took the question as an opportunity to frame what advice I think stands the test of time--that which is good advice regardless of what era we find ourselves raising children. I came up with twelve. I offer you, Parenting By the Dozen. Take it for it is worth. There is no judgement, simply an opportunity to reflect. Maybe a few of these will resonate with you, as well.
#1. Be the parent you are. Parent the kid you have.
If I had to select only one piece of advice to offer a parent, this would be it. We are so hard on ourselves as parents and the spirit of comparison that we often find ourselves in doesn’t make it any easier. There are so many theories out there. So many people making money selling their version of the "parenting panacea." The hard, yet freeing, reality is that every kid is different. Every parent is different. Different kids need different approaches. Different parents have different skill sets. Parents will have more success in parenting when they parent from a place of authenticity. This requires parents to take time to look inward, though, to understand ourselves, including our shortcomings. It also requires parents to take time to get to know what makes each of our children tick. The biggest gift I have found in my own parenting is that each of my children teaches me how to parent them; it just requires me to suspend judgement and listen, observe, and learn sometimes--a posture we adults struggle to take at times.
#2. Be present when, where, and how your kid wants to talk.
This piece of advice is especially important as our kids get older. There is a natural part of growing up called “individuation.” This process begins in early adolescence. It’s hard for many parents to warm up to this stage of growing up because we’re not ready to let go of control; however, it is essential to our children’s healthy development. During the individuation process it’s normal for kids to avoid talking and sharing with parents. However, the same phase involves a lot of curiosity, feelings, and fear--emotions they will need to share and process. All too often, we expect kids to talk to us on our timelines; that often doesn’t work out well. We have to be ready to listen when our kids are ready to talk. As best we can, we need to pause what we’re doing when, where, and how they are ready. Preteens and teens often like talking when you (and they) least expect it. You can help promote those “moments,” though. Boys will often open up when they are engaged in an activity. Want your boy to share with you? Try tossing the ball with him and just start talking. Many boys also find face-to-face conversations to be intimidating. Try talking side-by-side when you are driving in the car; sometimes the lack of eye contact is all it takes to open the lines of communication. Girls, on the other hand, tend to prefer special, organized, and planned time to communicate. Regardless of where and when your child wants to talk, be ready and drop what you are doing and listen.
#3. Trust, but verify.
Children are going to make mistakes. They are going to disappoint us. The tricky thing about independence is that we have to offer progressively more of it over time in order to develop trust. Kids have to trust themselves that they can handle the independence. They also have to have some independence in order to show us that they are trustworthy. I have heard parenting likened to bowling: you let the kid bowl, but the bumpers are up. They may not get a strike, but they won’t land the ball in the gutter, either. As parents, we have to gradually let go of the reigns and develop the trust muscle. A great example is the time our kid asks us to go the movies or the mall by themselves with their friends. You give them the opportunity, set the expectation, and then put the check-ins in place to make sure they are following the rules. If they screw up, as they sometimes will, we bring in the reigns a little bit and then let them build that trust back. There is, of course, a balance. Too much freedom with no accountability can lead to really bad decisions, especially as our kids get older. Our kids often overestimate how much they know, what they are capable of, and how safe they are. It’s our job to be the bumpers, but we still need to let them bowl.
#4. When you get into a power struggle with your kid, you’ve already lost.
This nugget of gold was advice given to me in my student teaching experience by my master teacher. It’s not only true for a teacher working with students, but it’s also good advice for a parent. When we get into a power struggle with our kids, it sends the message that they have power over which to struggle with you. Successful parenting involves empowerment. Struggling with and questioning authority is also an important part of growing up. However, empowerment doesn’t need to supercede the reason and domain of the parent. In my humble opinion, a healthy level of respect for “the rule of law” is still an important component of effective parenting. Sometimes our kids just need to hear, “I’m not arguing with you. When you calm down and are willing to reason, then we can talk.”
#5. Too much of anything is probably not good.
There’s a lot of noise out there about what might otherwise seem innocent enough, but might really be damaging for your kid. Is screen time robbing children of their childhood or is it a revolutionary tool to unlock self-directed learning? Are our children so overscheduled that they can no longer manage downtime or are we helping our kids by providing productive interests? Is homework taking over family life and children’s free time or is it an essential tool to advance academic progress? Is social media destined to conscribe our children to a life of unsatisfied comparison or is it a natural and healthy social outlet? When it comes to these value-laden questions, I tend to lean toward balance. Rather than approach parenting as a set of legalistic decisions, parenting that allows space for “just enough” and “not too much” is often a great approach. It’s not either-or, it’s “yes, and…”
#6. Not getting what you want? Try something different.
In nearly every parenting workshop I have led or participated in, someone raises their hand and asks a question that goes something like this, “You said in your presentation that if my child is doing BLANK, that I should try BLANK and that should do the trick. Well, I’ve been doing that for the last year and it doesn’t work.” As I shared in #1, every kid is different. Not every strategy works with every kid. In a talk I have given called “Parenting Teens Without Losing Your Mind,” I identify what I believe to be the three “currencies” of the teenager: freedom, privacy, and material possessions. Not every kid is motivated by all three and not all in the same ways. For one kid, losing screen time will be a great motivator, for another it won’t have any impact. The trick is knowing what motivates your kid and adjusting your responses to get the desired response. If what you are doing right now isn’t working (even if it was written in a book, works for your neighbor, or worked for your older kid), give yourself permission to try something different.
#7. Three words...Sleepaway. Summer. Camp.
I can’t say enough about the benefits of sleepaway summer camp. I just don’t think there is anything that produces the independence, perspective, safe risk taking, and identity development that sleepaway summer camp can generate. Now, I know there will be folks who say that their kid just isn’t a summer camp kid; and there are probably a few of those kids out there. There are, however, any number of different summer camps that can capture the imagination of a child. If you can find that one for your kid, it’s life changing. I wish sleepaway summer camps weren’t so expensive, but don’t let cost get in your way. Most summer camps provide scholarship opportunities. For more insight into the benefits of sleepaway summer camp, check out my SupsOn blog on the topic.
#8. Character is learned and it takes time.
I have seen it. It’s real. Some kids are just born with a tendency toward kindness, justice, empathy, and good judgement without ever being taught. For some, it’s just their natural instinct. However, this penchant for what one would consider “good character” is not an ingrained response for all kids. It’s also true that children learn from making mistakes, and this includes making mistakes that hurt others’ feelings, offend indiscriminately, and push peoples’ buttons. Most of what we consider right and wrong is a social construct and requires patient teaching, modeling, correction, and encouragement. As parents, and I am guilty as charged, we sometimes let our embarrassment about our children’s inability to follow our meticulous character building direction allow us to lose site of the marathon we are running. Character, in fact, is learned. It takes time for kids to understand, to practice, and to have those behaviors become habit. Empathy takes time to develop. Context is an abstract idea. Our little ones are still under construction. Let’s not be surprised when our five year old acts like a five year old or when our fourteen year old acts like a fourteen year old. We don’t have to condone or excuse behavior, but we can refrain from shock, surprise, and embarrassment and allow our children’s missteps to serve as yet another teachable moment.
#9. If they can do it themselves, let them.
Let’s face it, parenting is a long process of launching our kids into independence. Did you know that some animals grow up without any help from their parents? They are independent from the moment they are born. Somewhere between those animals and your 40 year-old son living in your basement exists the healthy roadmap to human parenting. Every kid is different and some require more “hand holding” than others; however, every child requires the expectation of and opportunity to take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks. In education we refer to this idea of letting go of the learning as “gradual release of responsibility.” If they can put their dishes in the dishwasher, make them. If they can make their own school lunch, expect it. If they can do their own laundry, go for it. The sooner and more completely you can release independence to your child, the better for you and better for them.
#10. Modeling has exponential power.
Before I go to sleep, I like to read the news, watch an SNL or Daily Show video, and maybe clear my personal email inbox--all on my cellphone as I rest comfortably in my bed. The problem, though? I really don’t think it is healthy for kids to have screens in their room or watch screens within an hour of going to sleep. The reality is, I’m not sending the right message to my kids of what is in their best interest. My kids are young. They don’t yet have smartphones (and won’t until they are in 8th grade). They are, however, impressionable. I’m trying to discipline myself to stay off the screens for the hour before they go to bed and to avoid them seeing me on my phone in my room. Why? Because I know how influential my modeling is on my kids’ choices. Want kids to eat healthier? It helps to eat healthy ourselves. Want kids to read more? It helps to read more in front of them. Want kids to be less emotionally dysregulated? It helps to yell less, rush less, harp less, stress less. Yes. We parent more effectively when we are the better versions of ourselves; ugh!
#11. Pick your battles.
Parenting is full of battlefields; picking the right battles is a science that takes time to learn and the strategy changes with each passing age and phase. Generally speaking, parents who feel successful in their parenting are able to reserve “NO” for those times that require us to say no. And when we say it, it’s best that we mean it.
#12. Have a life outside of your kids.
We are at our best as parents when we take care of ourselves. If you are married or otherwise committed to your co-parent, the single best thing you can do to improve your parenting is to take care of your marriage/relationship. It’s important to maintain your friendships and have those friendships be centered around something other than your kids. It doesn’t count when you hang out with your friends and all you talk about are your kids. You are more than your kids. You were interesting before you were a parent; it’s okay to still be interesting once you have kids. What hobbies do you enjoy? What sports do you like to play? What would you do this Saturday if you didn’t have kids? Do those things! And do them without the kids as often as possible. Take care of yourself so you can be the best version of YOU for your kids.
So there you have it. The twelve best pieces of advice for parents that I have come across in my work as a teacher, school leader, parent educator, and parent myself. Did I miss any? Did I get any wrong? Feel free to email me at email@example.com to share your thoughts.
These dozen may be common sense, but let’s face it, parenting is one job that will make us lose our senses sometimes. It’s nice to be reminded that wisdom precedes us. Eighteen years is a long time. Enjoy them while they last. I’ve heard it said about parenting: the days are long, but the years are fast. You got this! Before you know it your kids will be out of the house and the cycle will start again...for them.
Within my 5 year-old’s book collection from which we read each night is a book called Superhero Dad. You can imagine the storyline. The young protagonist in the picture book claims his father is a superhero and proceeds to list the reasons. The dad is fun, knows what his kid likes and engages him in those activities, builds things, fixes things, and even scares away the monsters. In the classic expression of fatherly love, the father claims that he is not the superhero, but in fact, it is his son who is a superhero.
As the new school year begins, I’m reminded of the heroes that reside among us...our teachers.
Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to truly appreciate how complicated and demanding the profession can be. At a recent conference I attended, a well known neurologist and researcher remarked that teaching requires a heavier “cognitive load” than just about any profession that exists, as much or more than a surgeon. This might come as a surprise to many, but not to those of us who are privileged enough to work alongside teachers every day.
In any hero’s journey, it’s important to consider what the hero is up against. So let’s take a gander at what our teachers are up against. For the classroom, teachers spend countless hours preparing instructional experiences that have the best chance of meeting the differing needs and interests of 20-35 children (over 100 children for secondary teachers), all of whom have different levels of foundational knowledge about each topic that is taught. And those children? Not a one has a fully developed brain or sense of self; many of them come with anxiety, trauma, and challenges that are outside of their control. The languages they speak at home are often different than the one in which they are expected to learn, and their homes vary in size and comfort; some don’t even have a place to call home. Teachers in many districts are expected to purchase their own materials for the classroom taken from already low salaries that in most states have not kept pace with the increase in salary in nearly every other profession that requires a college education. In the San Francisco Bay Area where a fixer upper in a decent neighborhood can cost $2 million, teachers often live over an hour’s drive from their school, simply to be able to afford to live on a teacher’s salary.
During awake hours, teachers often spend more time with our children than we parents do. Not only are teachers engaged in teaching our students how to read, calculate, understand history, and deploy the scientific method, they are also teaching our children how to be good people. Teachers navigate a daily balancing act as they try to make sense out of a sometimes dark, confusing, hypocritical and intolerant world while managing the emotions of our young people. For example, they must teach our children how damaged our environment has become as a result of choices we adults have made for many generations and choices we often continue to make, highlighting the real possibility that the world is doomed if we don’t do something dramatic very soon, all while not freaking the children out or placing blame on anyone they know or love. In the same breath that they provide a safe and nurturing environment, they must prepare students for the very real possibility of violence hitting their community or school. Teachers do more than teach every day. They provide counsel, therapy, conflict resolution services, executive functioning coaching, nursing and emergency services, health and wellness advice, furniture repair, tech wizardry, and parenting support. They do all this and more knowing that everyone is watching nearly every decision they make, some doing so in preparation to pounce whenever they perceive a teacher to have made a mistake.
Anyone in this line of work would need some tools to help meet these challenges head on. As all heroes have one or more “super”power to help them triumph, teachers have many at their disposal. Teachers have an uncanny ability to see potential in our children that we often struggle to see ourselves. They are “kid whisperers” speaking possibility into the minds and hearts of our young ones. Teachers can teach children how to read the written word--the most important gift anyone can be given. Teachers give supernatural hugs; they also have outsized hearts for caring and superpowered hearing for listening patiently and understanding. They can somehow read hundreds of narrative essays and find the uniqueness in each. Teachers possess magnificent feedback-skills, providing insight that challenges our children to stretch beyond what’s comfortable. Deep within our teachers exists emotional x-ray vision that allows them to know when our children are hurting, or lonely, or bored. Quick with a snack when our little ones are hungry, encouragement when they are sad, and the just-right-book when a lesson needs to be learned, our teachers seem to always have the right tool when they need it. And with a bullhorn or whistle one teacher can manage scores of little ones on a playground, a feat few of us mortals could hope to accomplish.
Like most heroes, teachers give the credit to others. As a group, teachers are some of the most selfless people on the planet. Were they motivated by fame, money, or prestige, they most certainly would not have chosen a career in teaching. While most people, parents in particular, have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that by the way the profession is sometimes maligned by the news media or politicians. When they do receive praise and accolades, they regularly deflect, opting instead to shine the light on the children they serve. Their support of our children extends beyond the classroom walls, too. It is common to see teachers in the stands at their students’ sporting events or in the audience at their plays. Some of the biggest fans in our kids’ lives are the people they call teacher.
Teachers are very much like the dad in the children’s book I read to my son, as the father closes his hero’s journey deflecting his own heroicness and breathing a message of encouragement in his son.
“Superhero Dad,” I say, “you are the best by miles.”
My dad says, “I’m no superhero,” then he stops and smiles.
But I know a superhero who is brave and kind and fun.”
Who is it?
“Why, it’s you! You are my superhero son.”
-Tim Knapman, Superhero Dad
Teachers do that everyday. They whisper into the hearts and minds of our kids that they are, in fact, the superheroes of their own tales. They help our kids discover their own superpowers and then send them out into the world to use those powers to do good and be good.
Each year, my school district’s education foundation hosts an auction that raises money to support our schools. In support of that effort, I am asked to “donate” the role of “Superintendent for a Day” for students. I’m not sure why being a Superintendent for a day is attractive, and yet, the children who have joined me have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learned a ton about leadership.
This year I had the pleasure of hosting two of our students--one a third grader and the other a sixth grader. I loved seeing the world through their eyes for a day and having them see the world through mine. The experience reminds me of the power of empathy to understand another’s point of view. One of my favorite initiatives in education is the Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by the School Retool organization. The Challenge encourages educators and community leaders to walk in the shoes of a student for a day by shadowing a student in their local schools. The experience is powerful.
In the spirit of celebrating the “walking in the shoes” of someone, I thought I’d share some of the experience of the two young students who walked in my shoes and through whose eyes I saw my district.
The sixth grader who joined me, Arhaan, had the opportunity to meet with our city’s mayor, Ray Mueller, to discuss how our city could better meet the needs of youth in our community. Here’s what Arhaan wrote about his experience:
As Superintendent of the Day, I had the opportunity to visit most of the schools in our district. One main event that happened today is that I interviewed the Menlo Park mayor. We talked about topics that affect students like: crossing guards to ensure student safety and downtown shop owners welcoming youth and being extra nice to them. We also discussed how the middle school experience as a student is a lot different than being behind the scenes like a superintendent or mayor. One thing Mayor Mueller talked about was how he tried to pass an initiative called Menlo Park Loves Kids. When he heard my thoughts on improvements the city could pursue, he was inspired to try and pass his initiative again. He said that as part of his job, he talks with people who feel frustrated or sad about something and want to see something to improve in their community. He said that sometimes if people have a need, that they may even walk up to his front door and knock in order to get his attention.
When Mayor Mueller and I were talking about crossing guards, we both agreed that there should be one on El Camino [a main thoroughfare in our community]. This is because this is a major road for kids on one side of town to get to the middle school on the other side. If there were to be a crossing guard then those kids could have an easier and safer way of getting to school. When I was shadowing Superintendent Burmeister, I learned that there are many things that are different between our schools, aside from their location.
How cool that our mayor took time out of his day to talk to our Superintendent for the Day, and that our student was able to share insightful feedback and learn more about the community partnerships that make cities work?
My third grade protege, Jacob, requested that he be able to reflect on his experience and ask some questions by interviewing me in a “vlog” (video blog) format. He even came prepared with questions that he asked his mom to help him with before spending the day with me. Take a look at this fun and insightful interaction.
There are so many perks of working in schools and getting to impact the lives of our young people. One of them is the regular opportunity to see the world through their eyes. The more I do it, the better I am at my job! Maybe a summer challenge for you could be, “How can you find a way to spend some time walking in someone else’s shoes?” You might be surprised by how much you gain from the experience.
The end of the school year is quickly approaching. That feeling of excitement as summer is just around the corner is palpable.
As a 20+ year educator, I have often found parents excitedly jump into summer break with its opportunities for more family time, deep dives into hobbies and interests, and lack of homework. It’s at the end of the summer when I chuckle at the parent faces that now read, “Thank goodness school is starting again; please take my child.”
On the whole, summer is awesome for parents and kids alike. Let’s consider a few helpful tips to make the transition into summer as enjoyable and valuable as possible.
Routine Adds Value
My first tip is don’t kiss routine goodbye. Summer is a great time to have a different routine, but a lack of routine altogether can have short and long term impacts for kids and families. Rest is important. Downtime is essential. Even long stretches of unstructured time can be life-giving for our children. However, all of those things can happen in the context of a routine. Children's brains seek routine. They need it. They appreciate being able to anticipate what happens next. And they will respond with better behavior and a more positive attitude when a routine is created and followed. It doesn’t have to be militant; it can feel very low key.
What are important areas around which families might want to agree on summer routines, even if they are different from the school year?
The effects of not having a routine can range from family conflict and mood swings, to reinforcement of unhealthy habits, and even depression in some kids. It can also be exceedingly difficult for students to transition back into school once summer is over, and they can experience more pronounced academic slide. I don’t share this to scare anyone, but simply to say that a balanced approach (like most things in life) supports our children’s developing minds.
My second tip for the summer transition is to keep the learning happening. Learn by doing. Learn by exploring. Learn by getting kids out of their comfort zones. Day trips to museums, parks, hiking trails, farms, new communities, and historical locations are all fun experiences for families and reinforce the message that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE advocate for summer camp, including sleep away camp, as my February 2018 blog, Gimme S’more, illustrates.
Promote summer reading, too. Visit the library twice per month to check out new titles and explore new subjects. While you’re there check out the video section; lots of interesting documentaries provide fodder for discussion and experimentation. You’ll also find that many libraries allow you to check out games or engineering kits and even have wonderful classes for kids.
Both parents working? Don’t fret. There’s an army of completely able high school kids in your local community who are comfortable with younger children, would love some ‘running around’ money, and need something productive to do. Hire them to mentor your younger children and lead some of these great learning excursions. No need to hang out at the local Starbucks to find an interested high schooler: post a want ad on Nextdoor.
Your own kids in high school? Think about a summer job. Not everyone will hire high school kids, but some excellent places will. Call your local YMCA or community center to see if they have camp counselor positions available for the summer. Better yet...have your high school student call them! In my community, Menlo Park, our city sponsors an outstanding summer camp for kids and hires local high school youth to serve as counselors; they even have a service program for middle school students.
My last tip as we transition into summer is to set aside time to set goals and a vision for the next school year. Summer is a perfect opportunity to encourage your child to think about the upcoming school year. Some thoughtful activities to promote reflection and goal setting include: journaling, dream boards, and dinner table discussions. Posting these goals around the house reminds and reinforces, especially as summer starts coming to a close.
When I was a middle school principal, I would often send students off for summer with a series of challenges such as the following:
The number and order don’t matter; it’s the spirit of an expansive mindset that will determine whether the summer is time well spent.
Sleeping in? Great. But what’s the limit?
Netflix and chill on the coach? Yes ma’am. Who’s going on a run with me after?
Take a trip to Tahoe? Count me in. And can we get locked up at the Tahoe Old Jail Museum?
So get those vacations in, those long days at the pool. Go to bed late and sleep in. AND...don’t miss the opportunity to ensure your summer adds value for the whole family.
In January at an event honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King, newly elected congresswoman and media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an alarming statement, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change...This is the war — this is our World War II.”
Say what you will about AOC, her politics, or her stardom, due to her social media and policy influence, AOC’s comment continues to reverberate. It stands as a harsh reminder that we are up against something big--climate change and the toll the human race has exacted on the spinning ball we call home. “The end,” as AOC puts it, may not be in 12 years, but some really tough decisions are upon us. Scientists agree, if we hope to turn the tide of destruction, we have to act quickly and boldly.
I don’t know about you, but the sheer size of what we are up against weighs heavily on my heart. I can’t seem to be able to wrap my head around what I, my family, or my community can do to make any impact. When challenges just seem too big and my impact just too small, I always remember the starfish story. Do you know it?
It goes something like this…
A young man was walking along the beach. Off in the distance he sees a figure bending down, standing up, and throwing something into the ocean. Over and over, the figure repeats. Bends down. Picks something up. Throws something toward the water.
As the young man gets closer, he realizes that the figure is an older man bending down to pick up starfish off of the shore that have washed up onto the sand at high tide and are stranded in what will soon be the hot sun, certain death awaiting.
The young man noticed that the entire seashore was lined with thousands of starfish. He approached the elderly gentleman and said, “Excuse me, sir. I can’t help but notice that you are picking up these starfish one by one and throwing them into the ocean. I imagine you’re doing so to save them from being dried up in the sun.”
“Yes, son. That is true,” replied the old man.
As the young man looked down the shore seeing all the starfish remaining, he remarked. “But, sir, there are thousands of starfish along this shore as far as the eye can see. How can you possibly make a difference?”
The old man looked at the inquisitive young man, slowly bent down, picked up a starfish and motioning to the starfish in his hand, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”
He promptly threw the starfish in the ocean and continued his effort.
I have loved this story since the moment I first heard it as a high school student. I have used this story in my own teaching and harkened back to it in my own life.
As I think about the immensity and intensity of the environmental challenges facing us, I’m reminded of the starfish story.
I know there is so much I can’t do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.
As we approach Earth Day 2019, will you join me in considering how you might individually do your part?
Maybe it’s discontinuing the use of ziplock bags when packing your kids’ lunches and instead using alternatives to single use packaging.
Maybe it’s regularly carrying a refillable water bottle and refusing the single use bottles prolific in modern life.
Maybe it’s refusing the straw at your favorite restaurant.
Maybe it’s biking with the kids to school or carpooling with neighbors instead of driving.
Maybe it’s going solar at your home or simply turning down the thermostat.
Maybe it’s purchasing a more eco-friendly car.
There are also some great resources and events for those of us local to the Bay Area...check these out.
Apps and Games
Hike in Woodside
Mountain View Earth Day
Save the Bay
Doing our individual part provides a great example for our children, too. Consider ways in which you can engage your entire family, especially your children in taking smalls steps that make a big difference. Together, we may just be able to save a lot of starfish.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.