What I most want people to know

I was recently part of a mini-workshop on authentic speaking, in which each of us was asked to answer the question, “What do you most want people to know?” It was a difficult question for me to answer in the 60 seconds we were given in that workshop. I’ve been thinking about it ever since then, mainly in the context of how I describe what I do in my work.

Here’s one version, and my thoughts related to it:

I give parents the tools and community to become better teachers and role models of  lifelong learning for their children.

What we’ve collectively forgotten as a society is the fact that parents are teachers, consciously OR unconsciously. We’ve separated learning from everyday life. But it’s not separate. It IS everyday life. Children are learning from their parents, their peers, their teachers – in short, from every situation in their environment, all the time. What they learn has something to do with who these people and what these situations are, but it also has a lot to do with how these people and situations are explained to them. In the process of going through experiences, and hearing them explained, children eventually develop the ability to explain things for themselves. Lack of explanation is also a form of teaching. It’s called modeling. It’s a lifelong process to continue consciously learning from the people and situations you encounter – a process I believe is instilled from an early age, constantly reawakened in adulthood, and refined throughout a lifetime. This is what I call “lifelong learning”. And somehow, we’ve run out of time, energy, or ideas about how to explain the world to our children. It’s worth it for all of us to remember that even if we don’t explain in words, it is the model of our actions that does the teaching for us.

How you see things changes the things that you see. – Wayne Dyer

How’s that for inspiration?

Imagine that you have the power to change what you see by changing how you see. Imagine that by teaching someone a new way of seeing, you can actually change what that person sees.

We’re now enjoying the fruits of a society in which everything can and will be questioned. But in the process of all this questioning, what happened to the declarative sentences? What are we willing to declare anymore? Why are we so afraid of declaring a point of view? No wonder we are wandering. Exhausted. Lost. In search of something that we believe either no longer exists or is so elusive as to not merit the time and space to seek it.

I actually don’t see widespread problems among children. I don’t see “syndromes” and “disorders” or “deficits”. But what I do see is an entire generation of parents (a generation that I belong to also, even though I’m not yet a parent) who have lost clarity. When I listen to the speech that parents use with children, it is not clear. It is very much infused with “valley girl” interrogative sentences ending with, “okay?” or starting with, “can you…?” When I listen to it, I have no idea what parents really mean. What do they want? Often, ideas that are phrased as questions are just veiled attempts at trying to persuade or encourage a certain behavior, but the attempt is so veiled that the behavior never happens. When there is no response, the same questions are repeated. Or they are rephrased as a “choice” between two alternatives. The more clever parents will try make it obvious which one is preferable to them, but ultimately end up accepting either alternative. It’s an exhausting art form to try to constantly come up with two alternatives, guessing which one the child might choose, all the while hoping, with fingers crossed, that they’ll choose the “right” one. Here’s an example:

Mom: “Do you want to carry your backpack?”

Child: [no response…probably trying to decide whether he really wants to or not]

Mom: “Do you want to carry your backpack?”

Child: [still no response…still trying to decide, or maybe ignoring the question]

Mom: “Well, you can either carry your backpack, or carry Mommy’s purse. Which do you want?” [at this point, the parent is just hoping and PRAYING that their child will choose to carry their own backpack, but the thought of “fighting” about it or taking more time to ask the question a third time is just too much to deal with]

Child (with a grin, responding to an invitation to play a game): “I want Mommy’s purse!”

Of course, this wasn’t the answer Mommy wanted to hear, but at least it was a response, which is then counted as a “better than nothing” victory for that little episode. What was missed was the opportunity to teach the child to carry their own backpack, just like Mommy carries her own purse.

Another way to approach the same situation? How about this?

Mom: “Here’s your backpack. It goes on your back.” [which she says while getting at eye level with the child and simultaneously helping the child place one arm through each loop of the straps…in other words, show AND tell] “Now Mommy’s going to carry her purse [which she says while getting her purse], and we’ll be ready to go!”

These kinds of scenarios are everywhere, if you listen closely to enough conversations between parents and young children.

And most often, these scenarios involve everyday actions which once, perhaps a whole generation ago, were considered non-choices. Certain actions used to be regarded as “just what we do, no questions asked,” because they were considered part of the “lesson plan” of life. Some might call these “manners” or “etiquette”, but more simply they can be called rules of living.

I’m lucky enough in my job to deal with parents who, in their philosophy and intentions, are willing to do the work of becoming conscious teachers to their children. But the reality of teaching is that it’s hard work! In order to do it well, it is a full-time job with demands of emotional engagement, close observation, patience, persistence, playfulness and vision. It is a creative endeavor, since each child is a unique human being, and each moment in their lives presents unique learning opportunities. It is also work that must be done without expecting immediate gratification, since students often realize the value of certain life lessons only many years later, if at all. Luckily parents are not a child’s only teachers. They are, however, their child’s first and most influential teachers.

I’ve written here previously about our President’s current call to action regarding education reform, and there have been several recent writings on the role of parents as teachers and models of behavior. I’m encouraged to see these ideas gaining relevance in the national dialog about our future, because I feel an urgency for all of us – parents or not – to become aware of our roles as models of what we wish to see in the world.

I laugh sometimes at people’s attachment to “methodology” in teaching because it’s just like parenting. Since when do you look at a good person – a genuine, connected, thoughtful, compassionate person – and ask, “What method did your parents follow?” As if there is ANY book out there written on that subject! As if there is a reference manual for life!

So many parents seem to just stop at “resting assured” that their kids have gained enrollment into the “best” schools. But what does it all mean? Who cares? It’s the processing of what takes place inside a school that determines how and what we learn from school. We need to continue learning beyond the point where we are forced to show up and sit in a chair facing the front of the room to look at a chalkboard. We don’t realize that sitting there is not the learning. But what happens in our heads both during the class and afterwards as we process it – THESE moments are what constitute learning. Whether we later think differently – or even pause to think at all – as a result of the teaching is what determines whether we have learned.

Considered in this way, how much did any of us really learn from school? If it were the pure act of sitting in a classroom – just showing up with our bodies – then any number of years of so-called school learning would not make a difference in anyone’s life, other than perhaps make them resent authority and structure. But it’s the care,  maintenance and cultivation of the mind – the way a person processes experiences, observes his surroundings, receives and gives advice, communicates with people – that is the real teaching, and that determines the real learning.

Whether you’re in a low-performing, low-expectation public school, or in a selective-admission, high-tuition private school, you need to see it for what it is, do your best in that environment, and go home to a place where you set high standards for yourself, where your parents (or guardians) tell you that what you see around you today does not represent the entire world. That the world is a very big place, with a lot of people, both nice and not so nice, and with a lot of opportunities for those who have the ability to see them and act on them with enthusiasm and diligence. And to recognize that to “win” in one small neighborhood or even at a top school means very little in the world at large. That the most important – and only – competition is the one with yourself. That what you make of your experiences will determine what you experience in life.

That’s what I would most want people to know.


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