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CA Curious

Letting Our Children Be Who They Are Meant To Be

October 27, 2022

The other day I was watching a clip* from a neuropsychologist Dr. Russell A. Barkley who was addressing a group of educators in a series called “Essential Ideas for Parents.”  He began with “The problem with parents these days…” and he almost lost me. Heavy sigh. Eye roll.

I usually have no tolerance for whatever negativity comes after such grand, generalized statements—especially one aimed at parenting (which is arguably more complicated now than in any previous generation). While defensive, I continued watching. He jabbed his finger in the air and proclaimed, “Parents do not get to design their children.”I was intrigued. He went on to say:

Nature would never have permitted this to happen. Evolution would not have allowed a generation of a species to be so influenced by the previous generation.  

A quick perusal of any medical office waiting-area parenting magazines would suggest quite the opposite. There, in glossy print, you’ll find recipes for The Perfect Baby.  The D1 Athlete.  The Child-Who-Has-An-Easygoing-Temperament. Who is writing those articles?

Reading one of those magazines gives a false impression that if parents just do the right things, their children will become what they plan for them to be. No pressure, right? Dr. Barkley would rip those magazines to shreds. Based on everything neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and many other researchers have studied, our children are born with a “unique genetic mosaic” comprised of hundreds of psychological and physical traits from genes that extend beyond the biological parents and well into your extended families.

The development of these genes in your children is, science tells us, largely out of the control of parents. Regardless of whether the mother ate enough broccoli when she was pregnant or if she frequented Bojangles for fried chicken twice a day (totally random example, don’t look at me), a large part of her child’s gifts and challenges are already pre-programmed. Too often, society likes to suggest that we have control over so much of what is not in our control. Our kid’s success, we have been told, is based on the choices we make as parents.

The truth is:  we don’t have that degree of power.  Nature would never permit that to happen.”

What does this mean, that we’re not in control?  Is it frightening, or is it freeing?  You tell me. Yes, Dr. Barkley says, a stimulating environment is better than a deprived environment.  But ‘more is better’ reaches its point of diminishing returns, and overload in the name of child design has negative consequences. Maybe our pre-covid schedules and our post-ish-covid schedules in our homes tell that same story. Dr. Barkley and his colleagues encourage us to think of ourselves as parents as Shepherds, not Engineers. He goes on to explain:

The idea that you can engineer IQ, personality is just not true. Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write.  Instead of an ‘engineer’ view of parenting [that makes you responsible for everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong—totally guilt inducing] step back and take the ‘Shepherd’s View’.  

You are a shepherd to a unique individual. You don’t design the sheep. But shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow. They determine whether they’re appropriately nourished. They determine whether they’re protected from harm. The environment is important, but it doesn’t design the sheep. The shepherd knows that he will never make the sheep into a dog, no matter how much he wants a dog.

I read that as this:  we can do what we can to make sure our children have opportunity and surround them with great teachers, healthy friends, and intellectual stimulation. And then we get to observe, accept, and encourage. 

The stress we put on ourselves to engineer our children, surely rubs off on the child—how can it not?  We can unpack the damage of all that parental pressure:  it undermines confidence, sense of self, sense of trust in knowing who you are, and ultimately, paralyzing stress narrows your child’s options rather than follows their lead to new horizons. It certainly would decrease the competitiveness the world wants us to feel with other parents. Imagine this gentler, graceful approach snowballing into a new wave of parenting that encourages observation, discovery, and celebration. And, imagine, our children growing into their authentic selves—confident, assured, proud, and supported.

*After I saw the short video, I dove into literature that was footnoted at the end of the talk. Wow, one can really go down a rabbit hole if one chooses!  Stephen Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature boils the nature vs. nurture argument down and highlights many of these points.  He’s a psychology professor at MIT and was featured on a MIT author series.   I’ve talked about this book before but Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree reads like a textbook but is an ambitious exploration of children’s search for identity in families, in the world. 

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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Breaking the People Pleasing Cycle

September 22, 2022

What do we do when our children don’t get what they want? When they’re little, we coach them on the value of sharing, waiting their turn, or accepting the situation. If you are a parent of siblings, you’ve probably set multiple invisible timers to negotiate toy time between equally indignant children. You’ve heard ‘it’s-my-time-with-the-Xbox!’ and ‘I WAS HERE FIRST!!!’ I remember the days when one of my children ONLY wanted to practice the piano at the exact time that their sibling was practicing. Have you ever seen piano-bench wrestling? It’s not pretty. 

But how about when they’re older? An adolescent? What happens when your child struggles with self-regulation when they don’t get chosen for a sports team, their arts major preference, or their first choice in an X-day activity? 

They might seem mad or sad—even indignant; fear of rejection can wear many masks (and some, simultaneously). And, wow, can it be tough to parent a child through that, especially when, as parents, we might struggle ourselves with FOMO (a.k.a. Fear Of Missing Out. It’s a real thing, I promise).  

Or maybe it’s not self-regulation they are struggling with, but rather: what if they’re struggling with a side effect of people-pleasing?  It might stem from a fear of disappointing YOU, their parent, if they did not get or do something that was expected of them.  How can you parent them through those choppy waters?

You can ask a parent of a first-year college student who is at their ‘second choice’ school and thriving. Or you can ask the parent of a child who was put into a random X-day activity last year and ended up loving it.  Or Jay Sagrolikar ’21 who was placed in band as his second-choice arts major in the 6th grade and ended up being one of our school’s most prolific and joyful saxophonists, completing multiple independent studies and performing as a key player in a newly formed jazz band.  His band teacher wrote

Jay, Xavier, and Marvin all stopped by at the start of this school year just to jam a little bit together and be in the band space.  Wonderful young men who have definitely found a passion in their gifts of music.  Here is a short video of what they were playing around with that morning.  Warmed my heart for sure!  

There are lessons to learn here that go well beyond placement.  Parents who have experienced such challenges and have experienced any measure of success have reported that they did a few things:

  1. They let their child feel their emotions—whatever those were.
  2. They sought their child’s permission to discuss the disappointment and their feelings about it.
  3. They discussed it without shame or judgment, approaching the issue with curiosity and empathy, including that it’s okay to have “wants”.
  4. When their children felt like a victim of ‘not being selected,’ they kept the focus on things in their child’s control, like attitude and enthusiasm.
  5. If it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it.
  6. Worth repeating: if it wasn’t life-threatening, they didn’t jump in to fix it. (It’s hard, I know.)
  7. They asked their children for their suggestions on how to move forward, opening an empowering space for their kids to flex agency, figure out self-advocacy, and practice problem-solving.

In short, all found success when the parents signaled that their kids could handle their disappointment and when they stopped assigning judgment to their kids’ feelings. It’s totally normal to feel sad and disappointed and bummed—yes, it makes us parents uncomfortable, but there are no such things as ‘bad’ feelings. 

I know it can be hard to watch your child sit in discomfort, to resist the urge to swoop in and manage a situation or “fix” it on their behalf. However, I promise that there is something extremely valuable in finding safe, low-stakes ways for your children to experience disappointment and find acceptance of an outcome different than what they had planned and envisioned. In a recent podcast entitled How to Raise Untamed Kids, Dr. Becky Kennedy talks with Glennon Doyle and her pod squad (We Can Do Hard Things) about these very topics.  

Of course, I’m not talking about ‘settling’ in a marriage or a career or anything like that. Rather, having a mild-to-moderate disappointment is a chance to understand that sometimes, for reasons that may be as random as a lottery, life deals you your second choice–and that you will be just fine, perhaps even better for it. It can also present an important opportunity to practice breaking the bonds of people-pleasing, which plague so many of us adults. 

You might be saying, “But Josette, my child has had her fair share of disappointments.”  And there are undoubtedly heavy sighs when we recognize societal disappointments, like how COVID shaped the last few years of these children’s social lives.  But if we are genuinely looking to celebrate authentic success, let’s start by recognizing the value in building a worldview in which our children are sometimes the main character and, other times, a supporting crew.  After all, it is in those alternate outcomes, second choices, and “disappointments” that resilience and flexibility are forged. And these are skills you want your kids to have in spades when larger challenges and disappointments come their way. By granting a space for your children to experience and process a disappointment, you are arming them with the confidence and knowledge that, when things don’t go their way, they can handle it—that they’ve “got this.”

And that is how disappointments don’t become setbacks, but new opportunities.

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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March 19, 2020

Welcome to the new trimester! Or, perhaps we should say welcome to a whole new way of life? As we turned on our screens this week to connect with each other virtually, we cannot help but be in awe of how different the world looks at the start of T3 compared to how we ended T2 just a few short weeks ago. As we prepare to greet each other virtually, we wanted to offer a few words of encouragement as well as some resources to possibly help guide us in this unique time in which we find ourselves.

In the midst of a pandemic, it is important to recognize that our mental health is a vital component of our overall health. We need to attend to our emotional needs just as we do to our physical. Handwashing? Check! Covering our cough? Check! Deep breathing? Check! Each one of us is experiencing a myriad of emotions – this is normal. From disbelief, to grief, to anger, to confusion, fear, and loneliness – and yes, perhaps even joy that school has gone virtual – we are charting new territory that may be leaving us feeling adrift. As we work toward a more comprehensive “virtual counseling program”, we wanted to begin by sharing some of our thoughts and reflections on supporting ourselves and each other during the start of our virtual trimester.

Be well!

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