Play occupies life before work does, and is in ways a primer for work. As cleverly observed by philosopher Alain de Botton, children gravitate toward characters who are “shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers – people whose labor can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life.” In this way, children’s books help facilitate the conversion of playfulness into industry that can be observed and practically measured. As the prospective roles of adulthood come into sharper focus, the ideals of young people often hover over work that is expressive, and which results in a visible and admirable outcome. Most young people are eager for admiration, and being admired is a key source of compensation for working in the first place.
Modern children face an unfortunate fact. For all the love and attention we lavish on them, hardly a soul takes them seriously. Further, despite abundant indulgence and protection provided to middle-class children, in particular, few are given anything significant to do, because few adults believe there is very much they can do. Accordingly, their serious thoughts on matters of daily consequence are rarely invited. I suspect that the suggestion that this is a problem may strike some as absurd. Yet the loud repercussions of this state of affairs are considerable, and we should address how this imbalance now colors the temperament of childhood. Usually, our society focuses intensely on the effect, while paying less attention to the cause of children’s behavior. So there is ample discussion of the most pressing problems: poor attitude, impulsive self-gratification, aggression, and elements of depression. It is not my intention to suggest that such syndromes don’t exist, because they do, hindering the harmony to which most families and classrooms aspire.
The above is an excerpt from my recently published essay, On Monstrous Children.
I wanted to share this in relation to an interesting story from Canada about a restaurant offering patrons a discount for well behaved children! Some might object to this policy on the grounds that it unfairly penalizes parents of children with behavioral disabilities. True. But in my view, the more significant issue is to understand why children misbehave in the first place – much of the reason has to do with being given little or no respect. We could have a massive and collective effect on child behavior if we changed the way we talk to kids. Our speech is the most important indicator of respect, and too often we talk to kids like they are second class citizens.
We seem to live in a time when almost all discussion of youth is linked to problems and pathologies. This perspective is so deeply ingrained within our cultural psyche that any other concern is effectively squeezed out. I worry that this reflex has repercussions for kids. When we view childhood as a series of dangers to be navigated, negotiated, and avoided, all other matters can seem trivial. One area of life of tremendous relevance to youth, but which gets no attention or discussion, is aesthetics. Let me clarify. I don’t mean aesthetics as philosophy, but as a practical concern affecting everyday life. For example, the form and design of buildings and public spaces. Children move through these spaces, and they have an enormous effect on their developing minds. Yet where do we investigate the effect of form and space? Where do we ever inquire about the emotion of these experiences? I believe we simply don’t. For years, I’ve been fascinated by the design of schools, and the role of design in facilitating learning and social connection. But these topics are rarely mentioned in the U.S. Aesthetics is a special kind of language that attunes young minds to the senses, and the capacity for reasoned judgement. There is ample room for critical thinking skills within the realm of aesthetics. It’s also a naturally compelling subject for young people because it speaks to creative problem solving, color, and imagination. I feel just as strongly about kids being exposed to art, music, and performance, but the immediacy of architecture and space are terrific starting points. Could it be that living in a market-driven culture has made us somewhat ashamed to be excited about such matters? Do we feel embarrassed to be thinking about the shape of a room when questions of medication, discipline, and finance await our attention?
A culture without visionaries, and which does little to raise visionaries, is on a treadmill. A world that marginalizes aesthetic experiences is only running in place.
I came across this thoughtful piece on manners during childhood in The Guardian. Nice analysis of how a person’s socioeconomic class can make manners feel “suffocating.” Do others feel the same? Not sure. I know that I was raised to believe in manners, and I rely on them as a basic form of civility in being with others. I wonder, if manners truly make us dull, is civility out of style? I get how a person might enjoy feeling irreverent and spontaneous, but as I reflect on the various interactions in a typical day, I can’t imagine the awkwardness if I decided to dispense with manners. And if you bypass this learning in childhood, where would you ever discover these reflexes as an adult?
It’s that time of the year when psychologists like myself are doing end of the year, academic consultations at schools. The focus is on trying to summarize the progress of the current school year, and set goals for the next year. Inevitably, there is lots of emphasis on grades, and especially, the results of any psychological testing that has been done.
But let me tell you from two decades of experience that preoccupation with learning differences and disabilities masks a deeper truth about the most important thing that goes on in a classroom: relationship and relevance.
First, effective teaching is built on a student’s positive and reciprocal relationship with his or her teacher. There must be mutual respect – this is the important business to be addressed the first few weeks of school. A student must believe he or she can go to a teachewr with a problem, and that she or he will be treated fairly if there is a conflict. Mostly, students want to belive that their teachers love them! Does this sound unreasonable? Sorry, but it’s true! In this case, love means respect – and it is communicated through our voices, facial expressions, and words. Don’t fight it, just do it! Learn to pay keen attention to your non-verbal communication.
The second big issue is relevance. When school has meaning and personal relevance, students dive in with enthusiasm. For example, being allowed to pick the books you read is an important way to build relevance, and to motivate reading. It’s also critical to help students relate what they are learning back to their own lives. This means school has to make space for students to tell aspects of their personal stories. When students are encouraged to use language in this way, we help them to integrate diverse experiences; to make their lives and learning more coherent. There are somethings that have to be spoken aloud before they fully make sense.
For most students, “the most important subject is me.” A meaningful education has more gravity and staying power. It improves memory, and boosts effort. It fuels student engagement – and makes school a place to learn about life, as well as facts.
Every facet of a community should support relationship and relevance. As important as it might be to have psycho-educational assessments, incentives for good marks, and tutoring programs, at the end of the day nothing beats relationship and relevance for results and happiness!
In a world where ADHD is everywhere, many of us have accepted a short attention span, distractibility, and restlessness as the new norm. We may worry about younger generations, but the worry is mostly misplaced. Young people are carving the world in their own image. Twenty years from now, I suspect few will be talking about ADHD as a pressing concern. For the time being, however, concern abounds. What should we do about all these kids who require medication to get through the school day? What should we think about kids who can’t tolerate boredom; who need constant stimulation?
The first thing to realize is that attention doesn’t entirely live in your brain. That’s the biggest myth about ADHD. Attention lives in the spaces between us. It is far more social than most of us realize. This is precisely why highly inattentive kids can pay attention in some contexts, but not others. If we want to command the attention and focus of children, we have to strategically manage the social space between us and them. This means managing the tone and tempo of interaction. On an intuitive level, you already know this. Think about the last time you had to listen to a speaker that was tone-deaf, who seemed oblivious to the audience. In my professional development programs for teacher, I emphasize the management of tone and tempo because it is the critical fist step in working with 21st century kids. You have to know how to alter the volume, pitch, and pace of your speech, so you effectively connect with kids. It also helps to be aware of non-verbal communication like body language and physical proximity. These critical layers of communication set the table for learning – and they are the tools of master teachers!. You can be a master of content, but until you address core communication signals, attention will drift.
There is no assembly topic more appealing to a majority of schools than bullying prevention. The reasons why are, sadly, obvious. Equally sad, however, is that schools so often approach this topic in a blunt, moralistic manner that alienates young people, rather than motivating them. For example, a speaker who talks over students, or who thinks that a few lame jokes will help kids relate to him.
Another mistake: saying the same old thing about “standing up to bullies.” Who doesn’t already know this is what he or she is supposed to do? Why not talk to kids about why a person doesn’t always make the right choice? I believe students want to understand the psychology of their own generation.Confronting a bully often requires a person to overcome fear and doubt. For many, these are super-human attributes. A person needs practice getting in touch with those kinds of feelings. .
For schools, and student life leaders, it comes down to reframing the challenge at hand. If we want students to join the momentum to stop bullying, it is imperative to associate that effort with positive attributes. We should spend more time talking about empathy, citizenship, and civility, than bullying. It’s better and more effective to teach with a clear image of the ideal, than repeated warnings about the problem.
It’s also important to know and tell the truth. For example, we like to say that “no one likes bullies.” But that’s not true. Research has established that bullies can be quite popular – in no small part because they often confront adults, which impresses other kids. I also worry that the incessant focus on bullying, gives cruel behavior an undeserved degree of status.
Talking to kids over and over about “responsibility” is a snooze, if not condescending. They already get it! Almost every student knows that bullying is wrong. The great majority know bullying when they see it. The reason people do not enact a positive behavior when they see bullying is not because they don’t understand the right choice. It’s because deep down inside they don’t feel right about acting on that choice. That is the supreme challenge of bullying intervention programs. How do we make it easier for students to feel strong, confident, and capable at the critical moment?
Hint: The stories we tell kids about those situations have to be linked to community ideals about love, respect, and shared responsibility for one another.
And it’s also about practice, and an ongoing dialogue with students. Even a great annual school assembly is not nearly so valuable as a dozen short conversations throughout the school year. At present, most anti-bullying programs get way too moralistic, with an ominous tone of condemnation. Let’s save those talks for individual perpetrators – in the principal’s office. The tone for the larger student body should be more joyous, more affirmative, and more instructive with respect to community standards. The intensity and prevalence of bullying fades, when it becomes cooler and more satisfying to live differently.
If you are at all like me, you occasionally have unexpected experiences which change your understanding of something important. Last night I was in the Orlando airport, on my way back home from a business trip. I was tired, and eager to see my family. Because my flight was delayed, I spent the better part of two hours watching a parade of families who had come to Orlando to visit Disney World, I don’t know if last night was an exceptionally busy travel time, but I was struck by how many disabled children were among the visitors. Much has has been written about autism, and as a psychologist, I’ve spent some time with autistic kids. But the presence of so many autistic kids in the airport was remarkable and emotional.
I noticed that some kids were more difficult to parent than others, and that some parents were less patient than others. There was some hard tugging on arms, and expressions that conveyed fatigue and frustration. There were even more moments of compassion. Dads crouched with kids in corners, working hard to coach behavior, and to make a connection. Moms working hard to keep kids clean and safe, Families undaunted by the rigmarole of travel, knowing that Disney promises something other places don’t.
Watching the families, I tried hard to think about the affirmative stories I have heard and read by parents of kids with autism, especially the amazing article by Ron Suskind, Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney, in the New York Times a couple of months ago. I know that many feel their life has been changed and elevated by having to contend with disability. I know that such challenges can focus people on what is most important. I know that such relationships teach us how to love more deeply. Then why did I still feel so sad? I felt as though I wanted to know what these kids were thinking and sensing. I felt that if I could get inside their world, I would feel as though we were not so separate. I felt then and now that the most difficult part of seeing disability is the loneliness it engenders in the viewer. It seems more important to connect with, and touch those who are disabled. For me, there is a need for more proof that we’re in this world together.
Although I am personally not a big fan of Disney movies or products,, I can see that Disney is a big inclusive mecca. I am very appreciative for the genuine way that Disney welcomes kids and families – of every kind. It’s a positive measure of our civilization that there is such a place, working hard to produce fun and magic for all.
It’s reported that the Mean Girls cast will reunite for a comedy sketch on a network to be announced. On one level, it makes sense. The original movie, based on a book by Rosalind Wiseman, was a huge success. Its characters captured a special dimension of mean girls’ lives, making the absurdity of their manipulations comic fodder. I bet the new sketch will be equally clever. Tina Fey is a comic genius, and if anything she’s gotten better since the movie’s debut a decade ago.
Question: Is it okay to riff on mean girls, when real mean girls are working their real mean magic on defenseless kids every day? This is not an abstraction to me. I am often talking to girls about the subtle bullying that goes on in school; the subtle innuendo of hurtful, insulting language, the clever use of semantics, the particular expressions, and unsettling laughter that make up the mean girl arsenal. These are the social cues that make girls on the outside feel anxious, and in some cases, paranoid. Note: this is not the funny part of the mean girls phenomenon.
In real life, real mean girls make the lives of other girls miserable. Mean girls can drive other girls to change schools, need mental health treatment, and in the most tragic situations, commit suicide. None of this is nearly so funny as the girls depicted in the movie.
Another question: Is there is a double standard for gender, when it comes to bullying?. Imagine that boys who intimidate, bully and brutalize other boys became the subject of a comedy called Bad Boys. The movie would be nonstop laughter as bigger, stronger, antisocial boys pushed around other boys, who had too few friends, who looked weird to bullies, or who dared to express a different viewpoint. (Many bullies are especially sensitive to kids who use big words – can you guess why?) I’m thinking that Bad Boys wouldn’t get a free pass. Instead, it would be challenged, and hopefully called out for its regressive ideas; for making the daily horror of children the subject of entertainment. We should be smart, and have the character not to let our kid’s traumas and dramas be cannibalized for entertainment that lacks a more transcendent message.
I’m sure that many would argue that Mean Girls is in fact transcendent; that it is a form of social critique. I don’t doubt that there is a layer of this, but that is not what made the movie popular and financially successful. For me, a film like Mean Girls is actually less problematic than how we as a culture digest it. Like other aspects of mass culture, which we consume without much sensitivity to nuance, mean girls becomes a “thing” – a social thing to think about, reference with friends, and vaguely worry about if we have daughters. Even the term “mean girls,” the ways it is so easy to say, and how it has an ambiance of silliness, somehow makes it more acceptable. By referring to “girls,” it becomes easier to write it all off as coming of age stuff – nothing to worry too much about. But what if the things that mean girls do is genuine antisocial behavior that warrants diagnosis – and police intervention? Why do we smile wryly at snide behavior, when we know it conveys an absence of empathy, and joy in belittling others.
It may be that mean girls gets a pass because we believe that the intra-gender struggle for power deployed by some girls is a reaction to living in a world where girls and women are systematically denied their share of power and influence. Maybe mean girls reminds us that desire for power is alive and well among girls. Maybe that’s the main point; what we need to take in before worrying about the kinds of social consequences I’m raising here.
However, it seems especially easy to sympathize with mean girls in the movies because they are almost always pretty, and often seductive. It’s those very qualities, in combination with their meanness that makes them interesting to watch. But let’s be honest, many an antisocial personality has been a charmer. They know how to hold our gaze, and command our subordination. Mean girls know how to make us afraid to be ourselves. They silence other kids, and ultimately make the world a smaller, less diverse place.
Being seventeen should be a great time of life. Many have worked their way through the awkwardness of earlier years, and now enjoy a more relaxed and satisfying social life. Plus, most of the work of secondary school is behind you. It’s a time to appreciate that nearly your whole life is stretched out in front of you – many exciting transitions are just months away. Soon you will have more freedom, and your life will more closely resemble that of an adult than a child. This what you’ve always wanted, what you’ve worked so hard for. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But if all that’s true, then why are so many next generation seventeen year-olds burdened by depression and anxiety? I’m especially attuned to the prevalence of depression among high achievers. This problem seems to disproportionately affect kids who have the most to look forward to. I’m talking about those who have worked hard and done well in school. Those who will assuredly be admitted to good colleges and universities. Those who should be destined for long-term success.
Do you have an intuition about the rhyme and reason of this phenomenon? Can you see that age seventeen is a unique crossroads – a time when the past has to be reconciled with the future. At seventeen, all of those beliefs you accepted without question for years are now up for re-evaluation.
For example, the best students typically march their way through school without questioning the merits or the purpose of their efforts. They work hard because at a young age they accepted this imperative, and internalized this core value. Good students often don’t permit themselves to deviate from a proven path – and they get lots of positive reinforcement for this commitment. Without ever articulating their own thought process (which never gets defined, because there is no conversation about it), these kids come to believe that if they simply follow the recipe for success, as laid out for them, everything else will take care of itself.
For many years, things go right along without a hitch. A young person’s faith in the process propels discipline and hard work – what most of us describe as motivation. When the commitment disappears, as it often does at age seventeen, we wonder where it went. Why, at this critical moment, when academics count for so much, is there an implosion of belief and effort, a collapse of motivation?
From my clinical and coaching vantage point, here’s why: the person in question has become too much of an adult to believe in hard work untethered to any larger purpose or goal. At seventeen, we reach a point of psychological sophistication that demands a greater understanding of what we are working toward, and why. Because there are so many years out in front of us, it feels overwhelming to throw oneself into what feels like an eternity of effort.
I believe there is an emptiness that profoundly affects some, perhaps most, seventeen year-olds. It is an existential malaise that doesn’t respond well to antidepressants, because it has little to do with chemical imbalance, and everything to do with life imbalance. Although life is full of reflection, there are some points that weigh more heavily on the human psyche, because they feel like an important fork in the road. Seventeen is one of those times, and the effect is heightened by competition, economic anxiety, and the frequent loneliness of an electronic culture.
At seventeen, college and its requisite decisions loom large. You have to at least think about where to go, and declaring a major field of study. This is serious business, and a good many seventeen year-olds haven’t a clue about how to approach these choices. Older people understand that a choice need not be forever, but at seventeen, a choice has much more gravity, much more meaning. It’s a choice intertwined with identity. When you don’t feel any intuition about that choice, it’s as though you don’t really know yourself. And that’s exactly right!
Few of our best and brightest have spent any time thinking about where they fit in the world. They’ve been driven by a different set of priorities, a more succinct hierarchy of values. The prevailing belief has been “if I work hard enough, and do well enough, the world will be mine.” And indeed the world does bend – to some degree – for those who have worked hard, and done well. Yet that still doesn’t resolve the problem of personal happiness – which stems directly from feeling as though you belong in your life, and that you are creating a future which will continue to make you happy.
At seventeen, you want to feel as though you have some control. And although people might tell you that you do indeed have control over your choices, such reassurance only heightens anxiety, because you don’t always know what to do with that power, this imposing freedom of choice.
From the sidelines, this situation stirs concern and panic. How can we help this person we love so much? What can we do to preserve the benefits of years of hard work? What is the treatment for this type of depression?
The best treatment includes validation, patience, and an opportunity for re-appraisal.
It’s nearly impossible to think your way out of an existential depression. You can lie on your bed, blare the music, and try to work it out. But at seventeen, confronting new kinds of doubt, your thoughts tend to be circular and unproductive. You may cry or act-out. People want to help, but most don’t really get it, and everything they say seems wimpy, or besides the point. You know that people love you, but that’s not enough, or the right kind of help in this situation. You need time and space to push your doubt and anxiety up and out into the light of day. That’s how you objectify strong emotions, and begin to take charge of them.
The discipline of psychology is fond of prescribing cognitive-behavioral therapy for every mental health ailment, but learning to channel more positive thoughts barely scratches the surface of an existential depression. What you need at this moment is the feeling that everything – and I do mean everything – is up for reconsideration.
The very second that idea becomes clear and believable is the moment your depression begins to lighten. The claustrophobia of your condition recedes. There is a feeling of daylight, and of possibility. From the shadows, the authenticity of your life emerges – maybe for the very first time. You understand that the only truly important and enduring purpose is to shape a life that works for you. For years, you have been working hard to serve a script given to you with the best of intentions. But now it’s time to begin writing your own script.
You no longer look blankly at someone assuring you that you are the writer of your own life, you actually begin to see how that makes sense, and how it’s done. Real time and space are given back to you. The psychological contraction of depression is reversed, and your life is enlarged. You have more room to roam, to explore what is authentic to you. That’s all that really matter at age seventeen anyway. It’s the trail of authenticity that promises to set you free. You wish there was a class in school dedicated to this subject. The subject being “me.” You may have an intuition that all knowledge is interconnected, and thus wonder why it is important to study any academic subject, separated from your own personhood. It’s the connectedness that makes every kind of learning so meaningful. It’s the connectedness of your life to your studies that brings the joy of being a student, and of learning, back into focus.
Suddenly, the future looks less foreboding. Less like someone else’s dream than your own. All of the answers may not yet be present. (You still don’t have a clue about your university major.) But here, in a moment of unification between personhood, study, and life choices, the endeavor somehow seems more playful, and more authentic. The fun of life returns. It’s like you are fifteen or sixteen again.
It seems like a seventeen year-old is simply entitled to happiness, but I believe it has to be earned. There’s no free pass. Without doing the critical work of building self-knowledge, you continue to exist in a shrinking mental space. I know that many young people will simply wait it out. I feel particularly concerned about my fellow New Englanders, who I think are more prone than most to accept depression as part of the hardness of life. Something to be suffered and endured as a test of character and resolve.
If you are a parent, I hope you won’t endorse this position. We may be talking about a complex reassessment of personal philosophy, but there’s no reason that common sense shouldn’t prevail.
When depression strikes, a window has opened. A young person can potentially see things more clearly, more honestly. There is more openness to taking risks because what one has tried in the past hasn’t worked. No one wants depression to last. It is an unpleasant experience that warrants respect and treatment. But for better or worse, depression is a supremely teachable moment.
At seventeen, action without reflection has lost its luster. Now is the time for important conversation about the path forward. Wherever that conversation occurs, it should affirm life’s freedom, and possibilities. It should assert the right to author your own story, to take risks, and to change your mind at will. This is comforting, and makes the world a more welcoming place. It’s the kind of love and respect we owe people at seventeen.