Parenting is a hard enough job. Do we really need all the sensational headlines warning us that our children are destined for unemployment, obesity, and a lifetime living in our basement?
In all seriousness, in the age of social media, where research and opinions on just about anything related to parenting flood our consciousness, it’s no wonder that some parents are anxious about lasting damage they might be doing to their children with seemingly innocent and innocuous decisions. Determining what really should concern us - and what doesn’t deserve a second thought - is practically a full time job.
A few weeks ago, the district I have the pleasure of leading in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Menlo Park City School District, had a cursory mention in a New York Times piece that attempts to draw some conclusions about the impact of screen time on youth, based mostly on the input of one psychologist from the East Bay promoting his book about the dangers of screen time, and a few disperate and incomplete examples of schools’ and communities’ relationship to technology.
Adding to what I would describe as the superficiality of the article and the lack of research (for example, no one from my district or Hillview Middle School was contacted for background information or an interview, while quotes from a Waldorf representative are included), my district--MPCSD--was set up as a counter example to a “rich” private school that has “eschewed” most screens. While it is true that our flagship Hillview Middle School is both public and a 1:1 device school, it is not the “low income, public school” that the author frames it as to make her point that low income, public school students across the country are being taken advantage of by technology companies out to make students addicted to their products. Quite the contrary. Hillview is, in fact, one of the most well-resourced and thoughtful educational institutions of its kind, one that attracts far more “Silicon Valley executives” (the article’s words, not mine) than the Waldorf school to which the author compares it.
This type of “Google search” journalism for the purposes of making a dramatic point fails to appropriately address the actual concern--screen time’s impact on our youth--and sensationalizes the challenges and responses to an honest problem that parents today face. In this blog, I will attempt to offer some clarity, some perspective, and some hope.
Technology is ubiquitous. It is part of how we “do life.” It can be argued that in the United States today it is nearly impossible to function efficiently and effectively without interacting with technology. In most schools, public and private, technology is a part of students’ learning experience because to deny children access to technology or technical training would be to withhold essential skills for their future success.
In our middle school, we chose to provide each student with their own device because we believed that it could do three things. First, it can make organizational and learning tasks more efficient for the student and teacher and more accessible for all learners. Second, it could provide teachers with the opportunity to reimagine learning experiences. And third, and maybe most importantly, it allowed us to partner with parents in educating their children on the safe and effective use of technology. If parents are going to have to navigate raising their children in the world of technology, who better to partner with than the trusted teachers in their community?
In my opinion, we must stop conflating “scary screen time” (my words, this time) with meaningful and efficient uses of technology in purposeful settings. Simply put, not all screen time is the same. In our district, we take great effort to ensure that technology is not a “shiny toy” meant to impress, but which adds little value. Rather, it is a tool to be used to enhance learning, not overtake it. Teachers in our elementary schools, where by design we do not have 1:1 programs, teach all students using Common Sense Digital Citizenship curriculum. We train all of our middle school students in our “Digital Driver’s Licence” program before students are released to responsibility with their new device. Our skilled district librarians regularly instruct students on how to evaluate digital resources and differentiate between reliable information and opinion, propaganda, or outright lies. Our devices are all managed by the school district, linked to our protected district wireless network, and have strict filters. In recent years, our staff have instituted a daily device-free break and lunch. A visitor to our classrooms would note that students often only use the devices a small portion of their instruction time, and when they do use them, students show a fluency and adeptness with the devices to such a degree that the device almost disappears into the background of effective teaching and engaged learning. And if all else fails? Parents in our schools have a choice to limit or completely disconnect from technology for their child’s learning.
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges. Those challenges evolve as our experience increases and the technology changes. We meet those challenges head-on with honesty and transparency, trying hard not to be myopic or reactionary in our response. However, now eight years into our initial efforts with 1:1 technology, I can honestly say that our student experience is richer, our instruction is better, and more students’ needs are met because the educators in our schools have been empowered to use technology as a tool for learning.
No educational reform, program, or tool is a panacea. The same resource can be detrimental or helpful, depending on how it is used. Technology is not inherently bad. I have witnessed some of the best teaching occur with nothing more than a chair and time, and I have also observed incredible discovery when technology is involved.
Today’s reality is this: if 90% of what we learned in school 30 years ago in upper elementary and beyond can now be Googled (not scientific, but you get my point), then teaching and learning must adapt to a new reality. This new reality is one in which the teacher is far more influential than simply a provider of low-level (on Bloom’s Taxonomy) knowledge; rather, the teacher is a learning clinician, thoughtfully posing powerful questions, skillfully designing learning experiences that require students to seek knowledge and then apply it, and adeptly providing meaningful and actionable feedback for students to improve their understanding and skill. When well used, technology is not something to fear in the classroom; it is a tool that allows teachers to teach in a more profound manner and students to own more of their learning. I encourage us to embrace the strategic use of technology in our schools, especially as students get older.
I don’t mean to minimize the cases in which technology is being used poorly by schools, particularly in schools that serve students in high poverty. In those cases, we must recognize it and do everything in our power to change it. However, to paint all technology-using schools with a wide brush misses the point altogether.
But if it’s not in schools where we should be most concerned about screens, where is it?
Most of the nefarious technology examples highlighted in the Times article are not found in educational devices; they are found in the small supercomputer that lives in the pockets and backpacks of many, if not most, of our children, some as young as eight. Yes, I’m talking about the smartphone. If we as parents and educators want to really address what is very likely (although research is still very nascent) the cause of the lion’s share of negative impacts of screen time, we need to look no further than the smartphone most of our children feel they deserve. Last year around this time, I wrote a blog in support of the parents who are struggling to determine when is an okay time to get their child a smartphone. I don’t judge. Every child is different. Every family has different expectations. However, if as a parent you are concerned about your child and screen time, I would suggest you thoughtfully consider the age at which you provide your child a smartphone and the rules and expectations you set around the device should you give them one.
A close second to the smartphone for causes of concern are video games. While there are benefits to video games and I am no luddite when it comes to technology, video games have many of the same concerns associated as does the smartphone. For more on this topic, you may read the blog I wrote last year about the content and effects of videogames on children.
It’s hard to be a parent these days. There is so much competing for our child’s attention and devotion. Screen time is today’s parenting “boogeyman” and, like it or not, we have to remain strong, informed, and determined when managing our children’s expectations with technology. It is possible though. Your child may throw a tantrum or two in the process, but for most children, clear boundaries, expectations that are regularly adhered to, and close monitoring of use is a recipe for success.
There is great research being conducted on a myriad of topics related to technology and our kids. As more of the good research is published and as more “tech natives” are themselves leading some of this research, I am confident there will be a large body of evidence that will tell us precisely what to avoid and what to embrace. In the meantime, I hope we won’t allow ourselves to be too reactionary or too protectionist or too judgmental or too laissez faire.
Knowing our own children as we do, combined with a nice balance of skepticism, mixed with practicality, imbued with confidence in our gut, is the best recipe for parenting I can think of. It’s a recipe that can serve us well as we navigate screen time. And, if we can also trust our teachers to find that “just-right” use of technology in the classroom and celebrate that our schools are partnering with us in educating our kids about safe and good uses of technology, maybe - just maybe - we’ll all get through this crazy modern time in which we find ourselves, relatively unscathed. And our kids will (hopefully) end up employed, healthy, and independent!
If you lived in the US last month and turned on a television, computer, radio, or smart phone, it was hard to avoid the gut wrenching political drama that unfolded around the nomination of our most recent addition to the Supreme Court.
Watching the history-altering confirmation hearings as I did left me emotionally drained and, to be frank, angry. Setting aside the argument around whether or not the justice should have been confirmed, or how brutal the process was, one thing that strikes me (and the only topic that is really appropriate for a blog of this type) is that our efforts to understand and educate our youth on the issue of consent are far from adequate.
If we are to take any important, non-political, message away from the national debate, in my mind it is the profound need to teach our kids about consent earlier and more often.
Some may find it inappropriate or premature for a superintendent of a district that only serves preschool through eighth grade students to address the issue of teaching consent. I couldn’t disagree more. While education about consent looks different at younger ages, it is just as important as discussing it with our high school and college aged children; in fact, one could argue, teaching about consent in high school may be too late. Until young men and women know how to give and receive consent for their actions, the culture that leads to unwanted sexual and non-sexual aggression will not change.
So what do we do?
Considering that the age group most likely to be assaulted begins at the age of 12, consent education must start early. There are compelling developmental reasons for teaching consent at very young ages, even in preschool. At the age of three, there are few if any gender differences in how children receive information about their bodies and their right to control who touches them. And preschoolers are equally comfortable saying “no” to an unwanted touch. Yet by the age of ten, children in general are more concerned about hurting their peers’ feelings than expressing their own. While not always true, girls are more likely to put others’ perceived desires ahead of their own, and boys are less understanding of why someone else might not enjoy something that they themselves enjoy. Waiting until these attitudes have developed makes teaching agency over one’s body and the practice of giving and expecting consent more difficult. Some schools and teachers are even engaging in lessons on consent; maybe you read this recent story of a California teacher designing consent lessons for her young students.
It’s Not Just About Touch
Especially for young children, consent isn’t exclusively about physical touch. Understanding consent is really about respecting boundaries and knowing that you don’t always get what you want. When we tell our kids they can’t have a second cookie or watch another show, we are giving them a boundary and an opportunity to respond appropriately to not getting their way. How our kids learn to deal with these minor disappointments informs how they will handle bigger negotiations later in life. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but kids who seldom hear the word “no” will struggle in the “real world” where “no” is a common and acceptable response. The same goes for kids who don’t experience the impact of failure; they won’t be equipped to experience failure in higher stakes situations as they mature. I don’t advocate a long list of rules, or fabricating disappointments just for the sake of teaching a lesson, but be mindful that kids who get away with everything when they’re young, expect the same when they’re older.
Broaching Consent as a Parent
Parents who model ways for their children to give and receive appropriate affection are well on their way to raising children who respect the boundaries of others, and know how to advocate for their own desires. We’ve all experienced the two or three year old who just has to be on top of us all the time - and it’s completely okay to tell that child, even our own, that we can sit close but don’t want a hug or cuddle right now. They are learning that they can’t have everything they want all the time, and also the words and non-verbal cues to use to communicate when they don’t want something.
Probably one of the biggest opportunities for us to teach and practice consent lies in how we require or ask our kids to respond to those we know well. In my own family, I have a child who is not naturally physically affectionate. I struggled with this because I am affectionate by nature and want our family and friends to feel loved by and connected to our children. For a couple of years I struggled when, for example, our son’s grandparents would visit and upon leaving would desire a hug from their grandson. Like many of us do in this situation, I would try every technique short of physically forcing a hug. Try as I might, nothing worked. It just made it harder. I felt bad. I felt bad for his grandparents. I felt bad for him.
I soon realized that I was the problem. I unintentionally reinforced that my son’s consent didn’t matter. I was sending a message that he didn’t have a choice in who and when he hugged. I was clearly saying that other people’s feelings were more important than his. That wasn’t okay with me. My efforts quickly changed from trying to control him to helping his grandparents understand who is he and how he’s wired; turns out, they knew. The problem was mine, pure and simple.
Whether it is hugging, kissing, cuddling, or (and this is a big one) tickling, it is my belief that we must elevate the voices of our children. These three steps can be the most powerful lesson in consent you can offer your child.
Of course, the best way of teaching these lessons is to model them ourselves. Next time we see our nephew crying, try this, “Awe, buddy, that must be so hard. May I give you a hug?” Simply asking a child if he or she would like to give or have a hug is a huge step in showing them how to have control over their body.
Consent is a Life-Long Lesson
As any parent of a high school student can tell you, issues of consent are squarely in the minds of our teenagers and young adults. Beyond what we can do as parents of young children, the lines of communication need to remain open in high school, college, and beyond. Our sons and daughters should have safe, non-judgemental places to talk about consent. There are great resources out there. Need help in bringing the topic up with your teenager or young adult, start with this outstanding video about a cup of tea. While not for young audiences, it’s a terrific illustration of consent and a great conversation starter for families with older children.
It’s About Being a Decent Person
Fundamentally, understanding and practicing consent is really just part of being a compassionate, empathetic person. All the consent education in the world won’t matter if our kids don’t put it to use, so it’s also a good idea to make sure our kids have exposure to situations that encourage them to grow up to be good people. Showing care towards others, even pets and dolls, is a way the youngest of children start developing compassion and empathy. Reading books with a variety of characters, having our kids help with chores, and making sure it’s not just girls we ask to help care for younger kids - boys need to be expected and trained to help with sibling care, too - are all ways to give children opportunities to show compassion and understanding. Kids who volunteer and work as counselors for younger kids are much better equipped in their adult lives to respect and show kindness toward others.
We are in this together. Believe me, I’m right in this parenting journey with you. I get it wrong most of the time. We all want our kids to grow up in a safer, more respectful, more equitable society...often in spite of the mistakes we parents make. While it was hard to watch the confirmation testimony and I’m still struggling with the conversations and thoughts it brought up, we can use the experience as a catalyst for helping our kids, even our very youngest, learn important lessons to help them make better choices in a complicated world.
More for those who are interested…
In 1979, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom printed and distributed one of the most enduring bumper stickers of our generation. Adorning bumpers even today, some 40 years later, is the simple, yet powerful message, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
This month’s blog is not anti-military. In fact, it has nothing to do with the military. I am in full support of our military professionals and the Air Force. I do not begrudge the military the necessary resources to do the important job of keeping our nation, including her children, safe. I also don’t think the military should have to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. This blog is about schools. I cannot help but marvel at how profoundly this stark (and in my estimation, true) statement cuts to the heart of our priorities in modern day America.
School Funding Mess
As a School Superintendent in the State of California, I am all-too-familiar with the history, conditions, and challenges of school funding in the great “golden” state. One only need to Google “school funding issues” to find nearly 200 million links to articles describing a long history of challenges in nearly every state in the United States.
Since California is the state whose funding issues I know best, I’ll choose my state to offer a brief history lesson on school funding as an example. On June 6, 1978, California voters passed with a 65% majority what has become known as the “taxpayers revolt” and remains the most consequential act of direct democracy in California history: Proposition 13. Almost overnight California schools lost one-third of their funding. Very quickly, California, once the envy of the country in terms quality of life, went from the top quartile in both school funding and academic achievement to the bottom quartile in both.
What has resulted is a public school system of “haves,” “have nots,” and “have even lesses.” Public school districts across the state must rely on parcel tax campaigns, organize educational foundations, and reach out to corporations and nonprofits to piece together the funding they need to offer the quality educational program that should be guaranteed to all students. Districts that lack the capacity to ask their community for “extra” funding must make do with the funding available from the state. California has recently clawed its way up from near the bottom in funding to where it currently resides at 21st; however, we are nowhere near where we should be as the fifth largest economy in the world. Have our priorities changed? Do we no longer value strong public schools?
Pubic Schools Matter
Over ninety-five percent of America’s students attend public school. As a forum for instilling our ideals, preparing our future leaders, maintaining the world’s largest economy, and fulfilling the great American promise that all are created equally, nothing has greater potential for good in our democratic society than our public schools. Yet we allow them - and the families they serve - to be the perennial punching bag for balancing budgets, curtailing government overreach, or passing blame for societal ills. Even worse, we allow our public school system to be systematically undercut by experiments in private management with little accountability.
We are at a crossroads. For generations our place at the top of the world economic food chain seemed cemented, and now other countries are catching up. That’s not a bad thing; a rising tide lifts all boats. But we must keep up if we are to ensure a prosperous future. Today’s economy and the economy of tomorrow will require divergent thinking, multilingual collaboration, and creative problem solving. Schools must graduate learners that think and work in a fundamentally different way. If we are to be the global leader that we desire to be, we need to invest more, not less, in our public schools.
Whether it be community pride, safety and security, health and wellness, strong local economy, or home value--good schools are the difference maker. One only need to look at the vast difference between school districts just within the San Francisco Peninsula, where the small school district I lead is located, to see how quality schools and the perceptions of those schools impact everything else within the community. There is no better investment in a community’s long-term health than in its public schools. And as true as that statement may be, the challenge we face as educators is making this case to folks who don’t yet, no longer, or will never have kids enrolled in the local public schools.
Be The Change
Mahatma Ghandi is credited with saying, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” If we are to take anything from the 1979 bumper sticker, it’s not that the military should get less or that baked goods are bad for you; it’s that schools must be a national, state, and local priority. We all have a responsibility to see to it that our public schools are supported, that pro-public school candidates are elected to office, and that challenging financial times don’t result in the sacrificing of our most precious resource--our children.
School Boards play an important role in educating their communities about the challenges that face their schools. I’m fortunate to lead a school district supported by thoughtful and innovative school board members. In our district, the Menlo Park City School District, we have been able to come much closer to the ideal educational experience that ALL children in California deserve. We’ve been able to do so through years of visionary staff and board leadership, the financial support of a hard working educational foundation that raises $4 million dollars per year, and a supportive electorate that has passed five parcel taxes over 25 years. It’s a shame that we have to spend our time fundraising to provide an experience that every California child deserves; yet, we are willing to do it because it is the right thing to do.
The work of our school board leadership is not complete; our members have now embarked on an effort to define what our district’s “experience” would look like if we were “fully funded.” This effort is aspirational, for sure, but the results will not be indulgent. We will seek to define an experience that is research-based, student centered, and reflective of our community’s values. We’ll focus on areas such as class size, facilities, curriculum, programming, staffing, and compensation. And then...we’ll put a price tag on it. We may never get to the “fully funded” ideal that we set forth, but we’ll at least have a benchmark to determine how far away we are and, like a lighthouse beaconing a ship, we’ll have a vision on which to fix our gaze.
As the superintendent of Menlo Park City School District, where I am also a parent, I am grateful beyond words. If you want to know what our community values, look at where they invest--in their schools. I thank every volunteer, every donor, every self-appointed cheerleader for our schools. Without their support and confidence, there’s no way we could offer the smaller class sizes; the modern and safe campuses; the art, music, PE, science, library and electives; the focus on wellness and mental health; nor, the outstanding student-centered education we provide. And the return on their investment? Bright futures for their children and their neighbor’s children--an asset that benefits the entire community. Isn’t every community worthy of this reality? I think so.
If you are reading this and you are a resident in Menlo Park City School District, take pride in giving whatever you are able to the MPAEF and to your school’s PTO. If you are a voter anywhere in the country soon to vote for school board members, or parcel taxes, or bond measures, or state legislators--cast your votes in support of public education. If you are a parent in a public school, join your parent organization, get involved, and share your talents. If you are an empty nester with some time on your hands, visit your local school and volunteer to read with kids. We can all do something. Our schools deserve it. Our kids need it. Our future depends on strong public schools!
What makes you, you? What makes me, me?
The start of any school year provides our students, parents, and staff with a whole new group of people to meet and get to know. That journey of "knowing" is full of curiosity and possibility, beginning with “what’s your name?”
In a place as multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, and multinational as the San Francisco Bay Area, hearing, remembering, and pronouncing people's names correctly can be a challenge for even the most linguistically adept. But does pronouncing someone’s name correctly matter?
Few markers are more core to our identity than our name. Names carry with them layers of meaning about who we are and from where we come. By not pronouncing someone’s name correctly, we miss the opportunity to communicate respect and appreciation. We fail to provide a moment of empathy and attention, often using the pace of life and our horrible memories as excuses to mispronounce this most important of markers.
A couple of years ago, our neighbors to the south at the Santa Clara County Office of Education launched an uplifting campaign--called My Name, My Identity--to encourage educators to pronounce students’ names correctly and to empower children to proudly educate staff as to their name’s proper pronunciation.
What better time to spotlight the importance of respecting everyone’s individual identity than at the start of a new school year? With this blog, I not only challenge myself and the 300+ staff in our local school district to pronounce students’ names correctly; I also challenge our community and students to use this Back to School season as an opportunity to prioritize correct pronunciation of the names of our new acquaintances and friends.
The national weekly education journal, EdWeek, recently ran an article about the importance of correct pronunciation including the impacts mispronunciation can have on some of our most vulnerable students. Students whose names are mispronounced, especially over a period of time, can experience isolation, humiliation, and a lack of self-worth. The mispronunciation, as EdWeek points out, is just one of the many slights non-native speakers of English will experience in our school system and communities. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway...this is not how we want any child to feel in our communities. Fortunately we are not powerless to effect change. We can all be a part of the solution.
What can you do?
First and foremost, let’s make a commitment to pronounce people’s names correctly--children and adults. If you are an educator or school support staff, be sure to learn the correct pronunciation of your students’ names and practice until you get them right. If you are a parent, learn the names of all the students (and their parents, to the degree that you can) in your child’s class. If you are a student, you are in the best position to learn the correct pronunciation, because your minds are much more “plastic” than those of adults and thus more able to get pronunciation correct more quickly. Help us grown ups say your friends’ names right.
After you make the personal commitment, be an ambassador for the effort. Allow your own vulnerability to be an example for others. Support others by helping with pronunciation. Engage in conversations with people about the importance of NAME to the individual. You might even consider signing the My Name, My Identity Pledge. Log on now to My Name, My Identity and take the pledge.
Lest you think I am preaching an irrational expectation, respecting an individual's identity by pronouncing names correctly is not about perfection. It’s about the interest and effort. Feel free to ask the person how her name is pronounced. Feel free to ask more than once. Acknowledge your desire to pronounce your new friend’s name correctly and ask for her patience as you practice.
Follow up with questions about how he got his name. Use the experience of learning his name as an open door to find out more about him. What is the origin of her name? What does his name mean? Heck, share stories behind your name. Why did your parents choose the name they chose for you? Is it a family name?
If you are an educator, an organizer of an activity, or the leader of a meeting or an event, consider using name tags and encourage everyone to wear them and call one another by name. This can happen in our schools with children as well. Encinal Elementary School, in my district of Menlo Park City School District, started the 2017-18 school year with a commitment to looking at everything through the lens of equity. The first step was making an effort to understand WHO each student IS. They launched a school-wide effort to learn and share the names of everyone at school. Teachers were asked to share their own names with other staff members and create a unique poster for their name before students arrived. The first week of school, teachers were invited to select one of a myriad of name activities in which to engage students; this included name tags worn by each child, posters by each child in the classrooms, or in-class presentations about the origin and meaning of each students’ name. While only the first step to creating deeper connection among students and teachers at Encinal, it was an impactful one. The equity efforts in their school continue today.
I am mindful that there is a danger of folks feeling shame around mispronunciation. Don’t. This message and the My Name, My Identity effort isn’t about making people feel bad. It’s about celebrating our differences. If you are the person learning and practicing the name--resist the urge to feel guilty about not getting it right the first time...or even the third. If you are the person whose name is mispronounced--consider how you can help the person to pronounce your name correctly without shaming them. Help them practice it. Make it a teachable moment with, maybe, a pneumonic device and a word of encouragement.
The diversity of our communities is a strength. With so many people of different backgrounds, faiths, languages, and countries/regions of origin, there is an open invitation to us all to expand our understanding and empathy by taking a moment to get to know the person behind the name and share more about ourselves, as well.
Signing off...Erik, with a “k,” because we have Scandinavian ancestry and my parents thought Vikings were cool. Pronounced “ERR + ik.”
13 Reasons Why is coming back for a second season on May 18, 2018. You need to know this.
When the 2017 Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why, burst on the scene in dramatic style, teens around the country started viewing it and talking about it. Parents, schools, and mental health professionals soon began sounding of the alarm. Rightfully so.
A hit for Netflix, 13 Reasons Why is an emotional, raw, and dramatic look into the lives of a group of teenagers at a fictional high school. The show is a screen adaptation of the best selling and acclaimed 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher.
The first season centered around two friends, a boy and a girl in high school. The boy finds a box of cassette tapes left on his porch. The tapes contain audio recordings of his friend who took her own life two weeks prior. In the tapes, the young girl who committed suicide reveals the thirteen reasons she took her own life, all somehow connected to people she knows. Each tape must be heard by a person to whom she attributes her death in a chain that, if broken, will result in the public release of humiliating information.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10-24. In the SF Bay Area, many communities have been directly impacted by the well publicized and widely felt suicide death of at least one student in the last five years. Increased stress and anxiety, as well as greater attention to issues of mental health, have heightened our awareness around the issue. It is a reality of our youth, whether we want it to be or not. Certainly, burying our heads in the sand is not the answer. However, what are parents and educators to do when the fears around teens viewing shows such as 13 Reasons Why are so legitimate?
Why are teens attracted to 13 Reasons Why?
It’s important to understand why teens are so attracted to such seemingly negative and dark material. The first and primary reason that teenagers are attracted to 13 Reasons Why is because it’s about THEM. Teens are developmentally self-centered. It’s not completely their fault. Their emotional, physical, and mental development during the teen years causes them to focus on their own journey of individuation. There is very little value to many teenagers in the sanitized and pollyannic world of entertainment that we want to build for them. The producers of 13 Reasons Why understand that a raw and explicit show centered around issues that may not impact every teenager, but do impact at least one person every teenager knows, is television gold. Teen brains love shots of dopamine and watching shows with explicit topics, themes, scenes--especially those that teens know their parents don’t want them to watch--provides a steady stream of dopamine to the brain’s reward centers.
Teens also love to FEEL. While the prefrontal cortex, or the “CEO of the brain” is underdeveloped in teens, the parts of the brain that process emotion are more developed and working overtime. Teens are attracted to shows that make them feel scared, sad, elated. It’s not so much that they care WHAT they are feeling but THAT they are feeling. 13 Reasons Why has all kinds of “feels” and that, in and of itself, is enough to attract teen attention and engagement.
It also doesn’t hurt that the show is done well. The show, its producers, writers, and actors have all received acclaim. Who doesn’t like a well produced, well written, and well performed television show? Certainly, our teens do.
How can parents respond?
The most important step a parent can take is to be informed. Read this blog. Check out what Common Sense Media has to say (it’s on the front of their website this week). Watch Season One. Talk to folks who have seen the series.
The next step is to talk to your child. Does your teen have any interest in watching the show? What do they know about it? How do they feel about it? If your child has never heard about it, let them know that if and when they do, you’d love to talk about it with them; otherwise, you don’t need to worry. If they have heard about it and don’t have any interest, do the same--let them know that if and when they do that you’d love to talk about it with them; otherwise, not to worry. If they have an interest, it’s time to consider what you will do next.
Decide the expectations you will set. Will you let your child watch 13 Reasons Why? If not, why not? This is important to know ahead of time, before your child asks. It’s okay to be honest with them. For students in our district, ages three through fourteen, we do not recommend allowing students to watch 13 Reasons Why. We particularly caution parents of children whose mental health and wellness are already a concern.
If you decide to allow your teen to watch the series, consider asking them some important questions that require them to process the impact of what they are seeing. The high school my district’s students matriculate into recently sent these great questions to their parents. Engage in a discussion with your child around these questions.
Additionally, if you are going to allow your child to watch the show, please consider watching it with them so you can help them understand and process what they are seeing and feeling.
The National Association of School Psychologists published a thorough resources page on 13 Reasons Why and provided the following suggestion to parents and those working with youth.
There are a variety of resources in our schools and communities. Don’t hesitate to reach out to school staff including our amazing counselors and mental health professionals. If you live in California’s San Mateo County you may consider one of the many local resources available.
Nationwide, teens in crisis or a friend or loved one of a teen in crisis can contact the Crisis Text Line. Simply text the word “REASON” to 741741 or visit http://www.crisistextline.org. Communication is free, available 24/7, and confidential. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available by dialing 1-800-273-8255 or visiting http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Discussion guides to facilitate talking with teens about some of 13 Reasons Why topics include:
Raising, educating, and supporting teens is a challenge even in the best of circumstances. We can’t protect our children from everything; however, understanding the messages that bombard them and opening lines of communication are two proactive steps we can take to increase the chances that the teens in our lives will survive and thrive the roller coaster that is adolescence.
A concerned parent reached out to me recently and asked a very important and thoughtful question. She shared that her son, a middle school student, was actively involved in the student-led activism around the country that called on leaders to address the current spate of highly publicized events of gun violence. Like many families, hers talks openly about issues and seeks to make life choices that reflect their values and conscience. She went on to share that her son, like many adolescent boys, is enamored with a relatively new online game called Fortnite.
For those who don’t know it, Fortnite is a violent role playing video game, not unlike others that have come before it. It’s the hot new game and it’s very attractive to our young children, especially boys. Imagine the conscientious mother’s confusion when her compassionate son participated in activism around gun violence only to return to his computer after school to play Fortnite--a game whose purpose it is to kill virtual people with guns.
Maybe you too are struggling with the reality that your child--a thoughtful and kind individual with a budding sense of personal identity around what is right and what is wrong--is so attracted to a game centered around guns and violence.
Fortnite is not the first violent video game that will spark concern and it won’t be the last. I’ve been asked similar questions about other video games. As a parent of three boys, I understand the fear and the desire for an answer or some tips on how to address the issue of violence in video games with our children. I wish there were clear answers. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there are.
What we do know is that even with decades of research to access, it is still somewhat hard to make a predictable causation from virtual aggression and violence to physical violence in the real world. While the tendency towards aggression after exposure to violent media has been well documented, physical violence, especially lethal violence, has not been categorically linked to violent media. Does this mean there is no role for the parent to say, “Hey, this isn’t okay with me. This isn’t who we are or who we want you to be?”
Unequivocally, the answer to that is NO. There is a role for parents to play and regardless of a lack of causal relationship between engaging in virtual violence and becoming a violent person in “real life,” there are many reasons to consider the impacts playing these games have on young, developing minds.
I advocate that parents take an active role in the virtual/digital lives of our children whether it be related to social media or video gaming. I don’t advocate for a total ban on much, although I completely support a parent’s right to do so and hope for their success in the process. My experience tells me, though, that not all parents are interested in complete bans and that actually banning something so attractive and pervasive as social media or video gaming can actually backfire. So, what’s a parent to do?
In 1998, the most comprehensive assessment of screen violence was completed. It estimated that the typical child will have seen 8000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence (including rape and assault) before middle school. While shocking to me, more shocking is that this study only included television; in the ensuing 20 years the platforms for children to experience violent images have increased exponentially. It is my belief that the frequency of access to incidents of violence (which includes role playing video games) is something parents should monitor and manage. Our best efforts simply cannot immunize our children from seeing violence. In my mind, if it’s futile, it’s not worth trying. The alternative, I believe, is twofold: first, we need to engage our children in conversation around the violence they are seeing and experiencing; second, we need to provide agreed upon (between you and your child) boundaries within which this violence is seen and experienced.
What this requires is that we actually know what our children are into and doing. Do you know if your child knows about, likes, or is playing Fortnite? If not, you might want to ask. If they are or even if their friends are, I would suggest googling it as soon as you are done reading and “liking” this blog entry.
Beyond knowing, we must engage. This takes time, energy, and purpose. If your child is playing it, have they played in front of you? Have you played it with them? Have you asked them how it makes them feel and why they enjoy it? Have you shared with them how it makes YOU feel that they play it? If not, start there. Then begin the conversation with them about how often and under what conditions you are willing to allow them to play this game and what signs you will watch for in them that will tell YOU whether or not their playing the game is impacting who they are becoming as a person.
I imagine that some of you, after reading just a little bit more about Fortnite, might reconsider your child’s ability to play the game. You might read about how Fortnite was accessible through a porn website during an outage at the company, or that a parent recently lamented about almost losing her son to Fortnite, or that Fortnite was forced to eliminate one of its weapons because it was simply too controversial. It would be totally within the realm of reason for you to present your child with the information you have learned about Fortnight and say, “This is not okay in our home or in our family and here’s why…” and then to say they may not play this game.
If you take this approach, I encourage you to do the following:
For those parents who believe forbidding your child to play Fortnite might backfire or that your child is mature enough to handle the game (both reasonable personal conclusions), might I suggest that you have found a great “carrot” to use when discussing what behaviors you want to see your child exhibit at home and in school? If they want to play Fortnite so badly, start talking to them about what it is going to take for them to be allowed to play it. Use the game to your parenting advantage.
In addition to using access to the game as a carrot, the three most important steps you can take as a parent should you allow them to play the game are to…
Whether it’s Fortnite, social media, a new group of friends, or any other outside influence that you are concerned about, your child’s behavior is the best guide to knowing how they doing. Rather than recommending prescriptive approaches to parenting, I encourage you to see how your child is behaving. If they continue sleeping, eating, and interacting with their friends, school, and other activities normally, they are probably handling their exposure to video games appropriately. Even a child who can’t wait to come home and play Fortnite is probably fine if they are actively participating in the rest of their lives in a healthy way. Adolescent children can usually distinguish between reality and fiction, so as long as they aren’t exhibiting violent tendencies then they are probably able to engage and disengage with their game in an acceptable way. However, if your child becomes withdrawn, irritable, exhibits more aggression, or you notice any other changes, then video games or the amount of time spent in the virtual world may be something you need to address.
And finally, keep asking questions--of me, teachers, your pediatrician, other parents, your parents, and children themselves. For my money, the most crucial factor that leads to individual and collective wellbeing is community. When our children feel connected, protected, and loved, no matter how much they protest the attention, they will surely find healthy outlets for their emotions and end up leading us all to a more compassionate, less violent future.
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.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.