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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Home-based Learning Advice for Parents

March 26, 2020

Now that we have a week of virtual learning under our belts, we hope things are going smoothly at home for your CA student(s)The Cary Academy Learning Specialists are here to support your child’s learning and address any challenges they – or you – might be experiencing.  As we all adjust to supporting learning from home, we want to share some of our advice on how, as parents, you can best support your child:    

WorkstationHelp your child choose a quiet space in your house where they will be able to concentrate and participate in class lessons and discussions. Remind them to use the restroom, have a big meal – get everything done before online school starts.  The workstation should include all of their supplies as well as their class schedule.   

Daily Routine. Help your student create a daily, written schedule that includes class time, work time, some downtime, and exerciseWe strongly encourage students to have a weekly planner or calendar so that they can plan beyond one day. They should also use their calendar to break larger assignments down into daily tasks.  

Planning and organization. At the start of the day, students should have a written to-do list of what they plan to accomplish. The list should be on paper, in front of them. Students should update it throughout the day and cross tasks out as they complete them.  We always advise that students “eat the frog first.” That means that they complete the assignment that they are least motivated to do first and not save it for later. 

Self-advocacy.  This virtual platform is new to everyone, so encourage your child to reach out to their teacher, advisor, or support staff when questions or concerns arise.     

Virtual study groups.  Help your child stay connected by encouraging them to set up virtual study groups with their classmates.  Teams is an easy place for them to connect.  They can even work through problems together on the virtual whiteboard.  

Contact a teacher directly. If you notice that your child is unsuccessful in his or her attempts to gain clarification with content or assignments, you may decide to email your child’s teachers yourself. At-home learning creates physical barriers to seeking help, so don’t be afraid to reach out on your children’s behalf should they seem stuck. 

We are still here (albeit virtually) and happy to help students and parents navigate this new reality. Feel free to reach out to either of us via email: Kristin_lane@caryacademy.org for Middle Schoolers or laura_werner@caryacademy.org for Upper Schoolers. 

Written by Laura Werner & Kristin Lane, Learning Specialists

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Winning at social

January 23, 2020

On January 14, the tenth grade tackled questions of how to navigate social media with positivity, integrity, and responsibility, in partnership with The Social Institute.

Instagram. Snapchat. Tik Tok. Finsta. VSCO. YouTube. Reddit. Twitch. Kik. Tumblr. Houseparty. Whisper. And, even, the old (person) standby (dinosaur?) – Facebook. The list of active social media platforms goes on and on, with new additions made almost daily. What’s fueling this proliferation of sites? Who’s using them? In large part: our teens.  

According to Pew Research Center, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone. A recent Common Sense Media survey on tween and teen media use found that tweens spend an average of 5 hours a day on social media, while teens spend between 6-10 hours, averaging a whopping 7.5 hours a day. Numerous studies have pointed to ways in which social media affect the social and emotional wellbeing of teenagers.  

CA students are far from immune to these national trends; they translate to our community as well. We see it every day.  

In short, social media is an undeniable and ingrained force (both positive and negative) in our culture and in our students lives. And, importantly, it is here to stay. Resistance is, as they say, futile. 

That’s why, for several years now, Cary Academy has understood the need to educate our students about digital citizenship and the importance of navigating social media and technology in a responsible, healthy, and productive manner.  It’s also why our goal has been to teach students how to seek out and benefit from the positive aspects of social media, to avoid its negativity and potential pitfalls, rather than denying social media’s importance in all our lives.   

To that end, we’ve had speakers visit to discuss the dangers of social media, including how it can affect students’ current and future academic opportunities. We’ve conducted sessions in our Upper School advisory program about the differences between various social media platforms and how they can benefit students. And, we’ve shown how social media and technology can complement other resources in various academic disciplines.   

Although these activities have been useful, they haven’t necessarily been coherent or comprehensive. And, in some cases, students have viewed activities as negative in focus and boring in execution, rather than positive and exciting, and relevant to their livesthe kiss of death when attempting to reach teens.  So, given the undeniable importance of tackling the behemoth that is responsible social media use, we recognize that it’s time for something different.  

This year, Cary Academy’s Middle and Upper Schools are joining with The Social Institute to provide a comprehensive social media and technology wellness component in Enrichment and Advisory. 

Founded by a Duke University graduate and based in Durham, The Social Institute partners with independent schools and organizations (clients range from local peer institutions to the United States Olympic Committee) to empower students to navigate social media in positive, healthy, and high character ways.  

What sets The Social Institute apart? Their positive, customized, comprehensive student-led approach that keeps content relatable and personally relevant to students.  

The Social Institute’s materials are developed in close consultation with middle and high school students who share advice and report on real-life social media challenges. They collect data from our students and faculty to further customize content to the Cary Academy communityensuring that activities, videos, and discussion questions are relevant to our students. And, it’s all delivered through an engaging, interactive gamesimilar to the trivia game Kahoot!that uses peer-created content and videos, and research and news articles to engage students and advisors in real-world scenarios and thought-provoking questions that inspire insightful discussions. 

Called #Winatsocial, the game focuses on seven social standards: Play to Your Core, Protect Your Privacy Like You’re Famous, Strike a Balance, Cyberback, Find Your Influencers, Using Your Mic for Good, and Handle the Pressure. Each standard focuses on how to use social media to create a better society.  For instance: 

  • Play to Your Core looks at how our use of social media reflects our values and character. 
  • Protect Your Privacy Like You’re Famous helps students determine how to manage their personal information online. 
  • Strike a Balance focuses on balancing students’ time on technology. 
  • Cyberback promotes supporting each other online. 
  • Find Your Influencers urges students to surround themselves with positive and credible influences. 
  • Using Your Mic for Good shows students how to use social media to make meaningful change. 
  • Handle the Pressure teaches students how to find their own path and define who they are without the pressure from others. 

Our desire is for our students (and even ourselves) to make decisions that lead them to living their best lives. The Social Institute has created a way for this endeavor to not only be thorough in content but also fun and engaging for teens. 

In addition to the activities for students, The Social Institute also offers training for faculty members and advisors, as well as resources for parents that can help you engage your teen in conversations about their social media use and help you understand how to better navigate social media together. We encourage you to check them out and join alongside our students as we #winatsocial.  

Written by Donna Eason and Maret Jones, Deans of Students

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