Parenting as Leading

How can we get our children to behave? Simple: Parent like the great conductors. Itay Talgam shows us how it’s done in his TED talk “Lead like the Great Conductors.” Simple, but not necessarily easy. Bob’s story about how his five-year-old son resolved a conflict gives us a vision of what the result can look like.

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The Graduation Speech I Never Gave

It’s the morning of June 30, 2010, the last day of my eight-year tenure as Head of Children’s Day School and the end of 36 years as school principal. As I walk through the empty halls of the school the faces and names of hundreds of children come back to me, and their parents, too. The teachers who teach in these rooms, and who used to teach in these rooms, they all crowd into my mind. On my way into the garden to say goodbye to the sheep and chickens–the only beings I haven’t said goodbye to yet–I hear the mournful mourning dove. Perfect. And as I walk back through the silent yard

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What Is Great Teaching?

How do you know a good teacher when you see one?

In his TED Talk conductor Benjamin Zander says that his definition of success is “How many shining eyes do I have around me.” The same test should be used to determine the success of a teacher. Walk into a classroom (any grade)
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“Is My Child a Genius?”

I am thrilled to introduce my first book, The Genius in Children: Bringing Out the Best in Your Child. It represents forty-some years of helping parents and teachers educate children. Since education is a science, there are principles to follow and disciplines to practice; the book identifies many of these. However, in so far as education, like living, is also an art, this book and this blog are attempts to spark creative thinking about education rather than attempts at definitive solutions.

“Is My Child A Genius?” is the wrong question. Your child has a genius; every person does. The question is: How can I help this genius lead my child out into the world gracefully and effectively?

First, we must return to the original meaning of genius: “The tutelary spirit of a person, place, or institution.” There are many other words for this spirit. To the ancient Greeks kharakter was the imprint that the gods put on the soul at birth. I stand with James Hillman who says that muse, psyche, soul, calling and character are all different manifestations of the same thing: the you that is becoming. Elizabeth Gilbert thinks of genius as “out there.” I like to think of it as inside us. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it lives under the bed. Our job is to act as if it exists.

This is what education is all about and schooling is one of the many things children do to become educated. It is the obligation of parents and teachers to make sure that schooling occurs in the context of education.

What can we do to help? See their academic struggles in a long term context—they will learn how to read, you know. Support them through all their struggles without owning them. Avoid rescuing. Respect the challenges they choose. Value mistakes and conflict as some of the best sources of learning. Maintain boundaries tirelessly as they make their decisions and suffer the consequences. Cultivate the courage to face fears—your own especially. Play position. Love unconditionally. Most of all, believe in the untapped complexity and power in all children.

I wrote The Genius in Children with the hope that it will help each of us notice—or at least catch glimpses of—that beautiful, brilliant, ineffable, unique genius that each of us has. My dream is that we will all come closer together in respect for the infinite variety and complex diversity that make us all the same.

I am deeply grateful for the students, parents, teachers and other educators of Children’s Day School who unknowingly helped me write this book. I am indebted to all the great educators I have known as well as to all the enlightening conversations I continue to have with so many people. A special thanks to my family, my children, and my wife Victoria, who knowingly helped me write this book.

Please join in the conversation and have fun raising children; it’s the only way.


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Graduation Lunch with the Eighth Grade

Our graduating class went to lunch with me last Friday. I can’t imagine a more delightful group of 14-year-olds to be caught in a restaurant with. You’d think that after all these years together they might have run out of things to talk about, but of course not. The intensity

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Are You Overparenting?

Are you an over-involved parent, or are you a “slow parent?”  Do you make yourself known to the teacher on the first day of school or do you think it is better to just watch and wait? How involved are you with your child’s homework? Are you pushing your child too hard or not enough? These days parents are criticized for being “helicopters” or “snow plows” on the one hand, and on the other criticized for being “unengaged” in school–sometimes in the very next breath. These questions all reflect that our eye is on the wrong ball.

The question isn’t: “Is your parenting slow or fast,” but “Whose foot is on the accelerator?”

Last week, a proud mother wanted to show me how beautifully her fifteen-month-old daughter was progressing. “Show Mr. Rick how you can walk,” she said. When the child refused, the mother said, “She doesn’t do it when we want her, too.” That’s right, I thought, and that is something for you to be proud of and nurture. She is on a mission, and it comes from within, but pleasing you is not it.

There is a natural tendency for parents to want to have their children meet or exceed the benchmarks of “normal” whether it is walking, talking, reading or learning algebra. This is often taken too far. In many of our schools it is taken for granted that more, faster, sooner is better. Those who are “below average” are examined for some sort of dysfunction.

As a parent, grandparent and long-time school principal I am happy that many parents are feeling the need to stop pushing their children and are attracted to movements like “slow parenting.” But we are still asking: How slow should we go? How hard should we push? Those aren’t the right questions. What’s this “we?” It’s not about us; it’s about them. Carl Honore‘s titles distract us from the real issue. His son has it right: “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”

Children naturally to want learn? Schoolwork is play for them. Ask most kindergartners what they looking forward to in first grade and they will say: “Homework.” We take their love of homework away from them by owning it. It’s their homework.

Our children’s success is going to be a function of their comfort with and self-discipline in pursuing goals, not how fast or slow they move through the curriculum. Overparenting is forgetting who the chief decision maker is

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Kids and Social Media

The parent of a sixth grader emailed me from her iphone:

” My adjustment to Marcus’s emerging, pre-teen social media life is akin to the four stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. I started with ‘get off the computer now,’ as I witnessed this new viral habit consuming his attention (that previously went to piano practice, reading, and family time). Then, I tried the logical approach. ‘Hey, why don’t you finish up that chat (as the screen pings and his fingers fly across the keyboard in cryptic abbreviations) so that you have time to finish preparing for your math test.’ But I started to recognize that I need to respect his new social media world enough to give it some degree of privacy. I began to notice the rare (and not altogether reliable) sparks of maturity when he might sometimes ask me to help him: ‘Mom. Interrupt me in 20 minutes. I have some other things I want to do besides be on facebook.'”

I congratulate this parent on coming up the learning curve rapidly. The standard adult knee-jerk reactions of denial and anger are bad for many reasons: a) anger is not helpful, b) denial models decision-making based on ignorance, c) the technology is actually turning out to be very useful, and d) it is here to stay. In most cases controlling a child’s use of the technology is proving less effective than staying up-to-date with the latest advances. As parents we tend to forget that our kids have to learn good decision-making by actually making decisions.

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Taking Responsibility

The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.

While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.

I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:

“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“Well, Johnny…”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Yes, but…”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
“Yes, but…”
…and so on until he gets it.

I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

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Freedom to Read

While waiting for my car to be fixed one rainy Saturday, I walked into a local bookstore. The car mechanic had told me my wait would be long and the bill high. I picked up a book and sat down to read, looking for a refuge from the pain.

Before long I looked up to find a grandmother, trailed by a nanny with a baby, telling an intelligent looking six-year-old child, “Sit right here and read.” The girl sat down across the table from me and immediately plunged into reading her book. Every few minutes the nanny returned with more books, which the six-year-old, politely turned down. On the third try, the nanny’s face turned angry. “What’s wrong with these books?” the nanny asked, pushing a pile of books toward the child. The child pulled her body into an angry little ball and buried her face all the more defensively in her book.

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