My cousin, Camelia, who lives in the Boston area, decided that she needed to take her eldest, Sam, into New York City for an adventure and exploration. This child was the cerebral one - she had other children who were artists and athletes, and they seemed more comfortable with a little chaos and happenstance. Sam was a little more introverted. He liked an orderly world where things were planned in advance and then he wanted to follow the plan. The problem was that this “follow the plan” orientation went a little too far. It made Sam a little too brittle and fearful of what might lie outside the plan.
Camelia decided that the subway would be a good place to teach a life lesson. They hopped on a car, and headed off to the Museum of Natural History. As they got closer to their stop (which Sam had memorized), Camelia distracted him by pointing to brochures and looking at the posters on the subway. As was Camelia’s intention, they missed their stop. Once Sam noticed what happened, he melted into a soup of anger and fear. Here they were in a big city - and they missed their stop!! Camelia calmly asked Sam what he thought they should do. But Sam was frustrated and scared and his imagination was running wild with how much trouble they were in. Camelia continued to press him. “What should we do?” Shaken out of his anxiety induced fog, he said aloud that they should probably get off at the next stop. He then reasoned that since there were two sets of tracks running parallel, it was likely that another train would be heading back the other way. He decided that they should cross over the tracks, and take the subway back one stop in the other direction. Camelia said let’s try it, and she let him lead the way. They made it back to the Museum stop and had a lovely time the rest of the weekend.
This trip happened twenty years ago. Sam can tell the story like it happened yesterday because it was an experience that kickstarted a change in how he deals with the unexpected. It was a turning point.
It is good for children to know that the world doesn’t always know or care about our plans. Sometimes things just happen - for various reasons, many beyond our control. The internet goes down, the bus is late, we get flat tires, people are mean. Or we made sincere, carefully orchestrated plans, but as it turns out, they were not the right plans for the situation, despite our best efforts. It is obvious that children need certain assurances - that they are seen for who they are, that they are loved for the same. That for the most part, there are rules that, more or less, are agreed upon and followed. That while things are never perfect, they are, quite often, better than they seem.
“For the most part,” “More or less,” “Better than they seem.” Those are phrases that can accompany the callus-making experiences of the world. As a teacher and administrator, I have met many students who are like Sam. They tend towards perfectionism, and get really thrown when they make a mistake, someone else makes a mistake, or the world just doesn’t cooperate with their plans. When I work with children, I like to use flexible language that shows that most things are at least “good enough,” and almost all are “broadly survivable” - a wonderful phrase that means that few things in life are fatal, and that moving forward is still possible even if things are not unfolding in that flawless way you might have imagined.
What else can parents, teachers and others who work closely with young people do? Here are some suggestions:
- Model a series of responses to situations that are disappointing. Rather than swearing and showing anger that the Red Sox game is rained out on the only night that your distant family is visiting, you could ask your children about what else we could do with the time. What else could be fun? They may suggest indoor Nerf baseball in the basement, or watching baseball movies, or playing wiffle ball outside in the rain. Let them choose one, be part of the solution, and triumph, at least partially, over nature .
- When you see your child or student struggling, ask them how they are doing. When they answer, ask if they see a solution. Don’t just offer the one you see - it may not be what they were aiming towards, and worse yet, the victory becomes yours, not theirs. Asking good questions, and as the answers seem to point out a new direction in the child’s mind, walk away saying something like, “It looks like you’ve got this. Let me know if you need a thinking partner again. You are good to think with.” Which translates to: I get something out of thinking with you.
- Resist the urge to protect them from wrestling with their challenges. And especially, resist the urge to solve the problem. The “wait time” (an old educator’s phrase) is the place between the abrasion and where the calluses start to form. In my 40+ years of working with children, I find this especially true when it comes to interpersonal conflict. When you see two or more children in an argument about something - for example, on the playground of your school - wait and see where it is going. Most times, if left to themselves, children will solve the conflict. If the argument is whether the ball was fair or foul, they will come to the conclusion that we can move along and keep playing if we just call a “do-over.” Or wise peers will suggest that they use “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to decide who goes next. I am not suggesting that you look away, or leave the children to their own devices completely. Watch closely (but don’t hover), and wait (that word again). If it takes a bad turn that requires adult intervention, you’ll be there. But most of the time, it won’t get that far.
- Broaden your child’s emotional vocabulary. If the only words they have for emotions are “happy,” “sad,” and “angry,” then they won’t have the tools to know how to respond to what they are feeling inside, and then do something to move forward. Brene’ Brown’s excellent new book “Atlas of the Heart” makes the case that we can’t process our emotions successfully - especially if they involve others - if we can’t describe with some nuance what it is we are feeling. Brown has chapters such as “Words for when things don’t go as planned.” And then describes the subtle differences between, for example, “disappointment” and “regret.” There is a lot of territory between those two words, and helping a child inhabit the differences gives them a map of their emotional terrain.
I remember being a young kid and being promised something (a trip to get an ice cream cone - a highlight of my life when I was five), and the car wouldn’t start. My mom explained that we couldn’t go, and out of frustration, I kept accusing her of lying to me. She had said we were going to do something - and then she took it back. What else could it be but a lie? My mom used that situation to explain the difference between intentions and reality - between a promise, a lie, and a change of plans. And where lying fits in with that. She was wise enough to wait until after she calmed me down with a treat from our own refrigerator. But I started to understand a little about lying and intentionality. Stuff just happens, and it doesn’t always make someone a liar. Heavy stuff for a five year old.
- “Wait time” can also apply to the processing of emotions. There can be a gap, especially with children (but truly, with anybody), between an event and the awareness of feelings about the event. Many children of any age need time to sit and sort it out. Allowing them that time, coupled with exposure to the words that helps them make sense of the feelings, leads them to develop a positive inner life, a place where they can go to make sense of the world.
- Occasionally, big things happen in the lives of children. The dog, or Grammy, dies. They learn that mom got a new job, and they have to move out of the only neighborhood they’ve ever known. These are Big Moments, and need to be treated with the reverence they deserve. Use a gentle voice, ask your best questions, possibly describe your own sadness and fears using words that try to explain the big emotions you are feeling. You and your children (student, etc) form a loop of resilience: you acknowledge and describe the feelings you are experiencing, which allows them to be able to describe (even to themselves) what they are feeling, which allows you to do the same all over again.
- Ask, don’t tell. Even with the smaller moments of life - a fall while walking in the park - can be greeted by acknowledgement: “What a tumble that was!” And then by questions: “How are you feeling?” At one point in my life, I had the habit of telling children, adults and even dogs “you're fine” when I saw them struggling. It was not exactly impatience on my part - I think it was to assure them that as an outside entity, I saw what happened, and they looked like they were going to survive this. But I have found that it is better to ask how they are doing, so that I make room for other options, and so they can use their own words. And that time and those words are what allows a healthy callus to form.
A few years ago, I went to the nursery to get my wife a small ornamental tree. I asked the plantsman how long we should keep the tree staked down before it was strong enough to be on its own. The gardener said don’t keep the tree staked very long because it would grow frail and brittle. He said what it needed was to be buffeted by the winds, which allows the bark to get thicker and flexible making the tree strong and adaptable. While that feels as counter-intuitive as allowing children to be pushed around a bit by life circumstances, it also makes sense. It is our job to help children build the right calluses - a hide tough enough to withstand the abrasions of the world, but soft enough to feel the beauty of it.
Note: I’ve changed the names of Camelia and Sam so that family members will continue to speak with me at family gatherings about important things in their lives.
David Torcoletti is the Head of EXPLO’s Junior Program. He is a longtime educator, former School Dean at Northfield Mount Hermon School and Dean of Students at Milton Academy. He is also a recognized fine arts photographer.