If you had the chance to listen in on a conversation between two longtime friends, both of them among of the best known, most respected, wisest people writing and speaking about girls in particular and children in general, you’d jump at the chance, wouldn’t you? I certainly did, attending an event Tuesday night at Smith College sponsored by Smith College Campus School, finding a seat next to our school counselor and my own longtime friend, Ellen Carter (and a few rows behind Julie Mencher, a noted gender specialist with whom our school has worked in the past).
As I listened to Rachel Simmons and Rosalind Wiseman, through the evening frequently nodding my head in affirmation or recognition, I could see several themes developing. One was the simple fact of human existence that we are none of us perfect, nor are our children (/students), and we need to both acknowledge and accept that. Mistakes being inevitable, the question becomes how best to profit from what is, after all, a learning opportunity. In the process, having a good sense of one’s own guiding values as well as those of one’s family (or school, depending on the context), is necessary to help frame a given learning opportunity and guide one’s response.
Ms. Simmons and Ms. Wiseman began by talking about the topic of friendships, with Ms. Simmons noting that we often expect too much of kids, especially girls - that kids need to develop friendship skills just as they do with other parts of their lives. “Relationships,” she observed, “are a classroom for learning.” In that context, she noted, struggle, suffering, and even failure are features of learning, recommending in the process Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure as one of the best parenting books out there. We must, she said, leave our kids space for social failing. The more space, the more learning.
Ms. Wiseman continued to talk about the cliché that it takes a village to raise a child. After all, she noted, that village is incredibly complicated, not everyone raises their kids like you do, and you don’t know everyone out there. The question becomes, she said, “What does it take to raise a village?”
And there, it seems, it comes down to building connections. Connections with your kids’ friends. Connections with other parents. And then doing the work to maintain those connections through the teenage years, which isn’t always easy. When kids stop getting along, their parents often stop getting together, yet those are precisely the kinds of connections that we need to keep.
One of the fundamental questions the two women raised, “How do we frame conflicts, struggles joys, successes from when our kids are young?” let to a story by Ms. Wiseman about a time when one of her sons seriously misbehaved at a playground. Her first instinct was to have her child apologize, but he flat out refused; she knew immediately it was no longer about the actual incident but about a power struggle. And besides, as she put it, “Why would I want a child to apologize if they don’t mean it?” Instead, she spoke personally and from the heart to the parent of the child involved and to the other child himself, using the moment to express her own values (what Ms. Simmons would later refer to as “narrating your family’s values”).
To do this, of course, it’s important to define what you (what we) stand for. Ms. Simmons quoted Brené Brown: “We can’t give our children what we don’t have.” We can give them words, and they can use the words. But ultimately, it’s all about the role modeling, which we are constantly doing for them whether we know it or not.
Ultimately - and I think this simple truth is behind much of the power of the work of both of these amazing women - it comes down to recognizing we’re all human. Our children are. We are. So, it’s important to forgive yourself that your child is a human being. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our own real - or imagined - mistake.
The second main topic of the evening was digital citizenship. Here, Ms. Simmons noted, fear is used much too often. She recommended avoiding anyone whose approach to social media is all doom and gloom. It will never teach kids anything of use, and the constant pressure to never make a mistake in this context is both unrealistic and seriously stressful. I found myself wondering to what extent social media itself induces stress and to what extent our cultures’ view of it is responsible. Something to think about.
All that said, social media is here to stay. We should try and understand some of the reasons why kids like it. We want them to communicate with us about this. The fear-based approach builds on a common assumption that kids should never ever make a mistake in their social media lives. But in fact, they will inevitably make mistakes. We all do. So we have to establish lines of communication so they will be able to talk through those inevitable mistakes with us. This ought to, I thought to myself, both enhance the chance they will learn from their mistakes and lessen the chance that their stress levels will soar.
While this is less of a question in our school, many parents of elementary-age children (such as Smith College Campus School) may be wondering at what age their child should be given a phone. The short answer is that no one age that is right. It really has to do with an individual child’s readiness. Ana Homayoun’s book Social Media Wellness suggests parents look at their child’s readiness in terms of socialization, self-regulation, and safety.
And, as with friendships and relationships, the role modeling done by parents matters. For example, a parent may take a time-out from their kids to read and respond to emails from work. They may tell their kids, “This is really important.” But of course, to the kids, what they are doing is important. Who they are is important. Furthermore, if parents post pictures of their kids without their consent, they are sending some powerful and probably unintended messages, never mind compromising their safety if the posts include their location.
One audience member asked a question about different social media platforms. With Instagram, the comments on the individual posts are telling and appalling. The platform has become a place which girls in particular view as a running advertisement for themselves, which is concerning enough on the face of it but becomes even more so when one realizes that a certain ideal is being communicated. Kids (girls in particular) are trying to present a certain way. How authentic is that? How programmed are the responses? How does that shape friendship?
Snapchat, on the other hand, provides a chance for kids to get a little goofy, to kick back and relax and just be themselves. Of course, the impermanence of Snapchat posts (which, it should be recognized, do remain on their server) that enables those positives has its own down side. Again, regular communication is the key. You can’t discipline properly when you don’t understand.
Regarding group texting, Ms. Simmons and Ms. Wiseman observed that relational aggression can be very strong in this context. There are gradations of seriousness and, should an issue arise, the way we handle it depends on what has happened. As with all learning, it’s an ongoing process with an elusive destination. One important contextual point is that relational aggression tends to become a problem in homes where parents condone or ignore it.
Adults are more and more often identifying mean behavior as bullying and instantly going into crisis mode. But, as Ms. Wiseman defined it, “Bullying is an imbalance of power... stripping someone of their dignity and worth.” That is an extremely serious problem, but all conflict is not necessarily bullying. Adults *must* take the time to understand what is happening. In the process, you want to give teenagers voice, but if you act as though you weren’t listening, you undo the good.
Bullies are often rejected by their peers, and that is those kids’ right. Everything happens for some reason even if we don’t always know what it is (and this is again where the importance of ongoing communication comes up). It can be painful to watch your child be rejected by their peers and not know if (or how) they may actually be contributing to the problem. But children do learn when peers push back. Also, it’s important to remember - are we really saying our kids have to be friends with people who are mean? What kind of message does that send?
The final question of the night concerned the reality that sometimes different kids within the same family need different approaches and different rules. It’s okay to discipline kids differently because they are different. Just explain that fact and stick by it. Within a school, of course, I thought to myself, you can’t necessarily have a different set of rules for each student - but the underlying concept of listening to and working with a given kid to develop the most effective approach still applies.
Ms. Simmons and Ms. Wiseman had originally intended for there to be a third main topic, developing character in kids. But as I think about it, that was actually another of the main themes running through the evening. And, alongside it, developing character in ourselves.