Talk To Me!

Parent: “How was your day?”
Child: “Good”
This kind of response from their child often frustrates parents. “How can we get them to talk to
us?”, parents plead.

There are many parts to the answer (more later), but first, change the climate of your interactions. Avoid
having the child feel interrogated. For example, share something about YOUR day and YOUR
feelings first.  “Gee, it was so hot today, I found it really frustrating driving in the traffic and found it hard to be patient.
What was it like for you at recess? Did you play around the trees, or were you on that hot
playground where there is no shade?” Your child’s response will likely give you another
opening to continue the conversation. Continue with an observation, personal memory or empathetic
response to your child.

Remember:

  • Don’t just ask questions
  • LISTEN with undivided attention
  • REMEMBER the details for future encounters

PS Parents of older children often say “yes, I have tried this and it didn’t work”. The older your child
when you begin active encounters, the longer and harder you have to work at it. Sorry! Don’t give up!

Inviting Conversation

Parent: “How was your day?”
Child: “Awful. I hate Suzie. She was mean to me”. If you are a normal parent you might feel like saying:
“what did you do to Suzie for her to be mean to you?”, or “you shouldn’t hate Suzie, that isn’t kind”,
or “you should be nice to her and then she will be nice back”.

 

Don’t. Parenting requires discipline (of the parent!). Of course, you want your child to be caring and kind. But, paradoxically, if you allow your child to express difficult and hurt feelings *she will then be free to get in touch with her natural kind and generous feelings. While the difficult feelings are swirling around, with no outlet for her true experience, all other feelings are blocked. Remember that the expression of ALL feelings is healthy for your child; it does not define who she is as a person. In the meantime you are learning more about your child and how she feels and experiences her world. Your values are not being attacked or jeopardized by a child’s honesty.
Life in the school playground is tough. It is often unfair and sometimes mean. Your child needs you to listen to her point of view and to feel understood.
Remember:

  • encourage all feelings
  • you don’t have to solve the problem, you just have
  • to listen
  • don’t take it personally

*substitute he/his for your son

Impressive Lives

Relationships are hard work but hard work usually brings results, and with our loved ones, a sense of connection and intimacy. Parents today lead busy lives; managing our children’s many after-school activities and chauffeuring them to and fro can be enormously time-consuming. Looking after the practical aspects of their lives can sometimes feel like a full-time job. It is easy to forget, in the day to day bustle, that the relationship between you and your child is the most important thing.

We want our children to talk with us so that we know what is happening in their lives and can support them with their decisions and problems. But we also want them to feel cherished and loved. This requires trusting encounters with parents in order to provide our children with a solid foundation for secure and expressive lives. We talk with our children when they have problems, when they require instruction, when they ask us questions ……but in order for a child to feel nurtured, we must initiate individual time (it doesn’t have to be a lot) to talk or play with them on their terms. We must communicate that we choose (among the myriad tasks of the day) to be with them.

Giving them our undivided attention and understanding their perceptions and feelings makes a child feel safe and strengthens the bond between the two of you. (If your child is feeling more restrictions or stress than usual in day to day life, extra close time with you can help diminish frustration).

Remember:

  • initiate individual one-on-one time with your child
  • give undivided attention and contact
  • understand their feelings and perceptions

 

School

I am astonished at how many of my students find school boring and often unfulfilling. Children are naturally curious and creative and it is infuriating to see these attributes often diminished in our children as they go through school. Their ability to live up to their potential and experience the joy of their own increasing intellectual and emotional development are jeopardized.

On a practical level, employers are increasingly wanting young people who are independent thinkers and can bring enthusiasm and originality to their work rather than valuing the now old-fashioned attributes of learning rules, obeying superiors, and regurgitating information.

Of course schools encourage socialization; especially for sensitive children, the stress of always accommodating others, working in groups and pleasing the teacher, can be high. Parents tend to idealize youth and forget that difficulties are part of life from day one. The push/pull of individuality versus socialization, resolving inevitable conflicts with friends and playmates, surviving a teacher that doesn’t like them, enduring playground taunts and tussles, are all part of life at school.

Parents need to find ways to reduce these tensions. The more space and time a parent can give a child to explore *his individuality and creativity outside of school, and the more time a parent can give to listen to their child’s troubles, the more freedom the child has to discover and explore himself and his own interests.
*substitute her for your daughter

Guidance

Some of my women friends complain about the distribution of household chores and parenting duties. Even when husbands are able to participate fully, women acknowledge that it is not satisfying when they have to ask their spouse to do something; and it is enormously satisfying if the husband instead takes the initiative to carry out a task that he knows requires doing, without being asked.

Similarly, it is frustrating to constantly have to nag a child to do something when the child is old enough and responsible enough to initiate carrying out the task himself. Initiative comes with independence. When a child feels secure and is mastering tasks appropriate for *his age, he feels good about himself and his march towards independence. This independence allows him to be actively “present” and to live life with a purposefulness as opposed to merely performing tasks by rote. Whereas obeying rules and following instructions were once extremely important in schools and the workplace, creativity, imagination and initiative are now the attributes that are highly valued.

As parents (and it also applies to teachers) we have the tricky task of providing guidance and instruction to our children, but not too much. There must be enough room for our children to learn by experiencing their own mistakes and by discovering what motivates them. When children have too much external pressure they do not have enough room to discover their own natures and interests. All expressive mediums (writing, drama, art, dance), contribute to the process of individuation and self-discovery and consequently enables our children to act with initiative.

*substitute her for your daughter

Resilience

I watched a lot of Barack Obama’s inauguration day. There were many moments when I could see the audience on television getting teary-eyed and I got teary-eyed a couple of times watching Sasha and Malia. Their natural delight and excitement moved me—the innocence and honesty of children often do. These two little girls seem comfortable in their own skin. They have obviously not been coerced to be like little adults, just themselves, and their bright smiles seemed genuine. Donna Brazile, a political commentator, told a CNN announcer that she had a wonderful seat, close to the little girls. She asked Sasha in a mock-stern voice if she was doing well at school. She smiled back and said “you’re not my Mom”.

Cheeky? I don’t think so. I prefer to think of it as spunky. (With a good sense of humour).

It seems fitting, in these times of global crises that affect every one of us, and can shake and alarm our sense of stability, that we consider what makes our children resilient. Obeying rules without question? Fitting in and going along? Learning because they have to get a job sometime? Ignoring conflict?

No. The ability to bounce back from adversity requires a person to be able to be creative, imaginative and flexible. It requires a person, when necessary, to feel deep insecurity and perhaps, from time to time, grief, loss and fear. The strength to endure these emotions gives us the strength to move through them.

The more we allow our children to feel, think, and speak, the more they can revel in their own unique selves.
However, as both a parent and a teacher I know that this is not an easy task. To invite a child show her varied colours does not always please us. But then a child should be free to use her energy to discover her being, rather than only to please others.

Creative expression (writing, acting, playing) gives our children a much-needed additional outlet in this process of self discovery.
*substitute he/his for your son

Initiative

Some of my women friends complain about the distribution of household chores and parenting duties. Even when husbands are able to participate fully, women acknowledge that it is not satisfying when they have to ask their spouse to do something; and it is enormously satisfying if the husband instead takes the initiative to carry out a task that he knows requires doing, without being asked.

Similarly, it is frustrating to constantly have to nag a child to do something when the child is old enough and responsible enough to initiate carrying out the task himself. Initiative comes with independence. When a child feels secure and is mastering tasks appropriate for *his age, he feels good about himself and his march towards independence. This independence allows him to be actively “present” and to live life with a purposefulness as opposed to merely performing tasks by rote.

Whereas obeying rules and following instructions were once extremely important in schools and the workplace, creativity, imagination and initiative are now the attributes that are highly valued.

As parents (and it also applies to teachers) we have the tricky task of providing guidance and instruction to our children, but not too much. There must be enough room for our children to learn by experiencing their own mistakes and by discovering what motivates them. When children have too much external pressure they do not have enough room to discover their own natures and interests. All expressive mediums (writing, drama, art, dance), contribute to the process of individuation and self- discovery and consequently enables our children to act with initiative.

*substitute her for your daughter

Recognizing The Clues

In my last year of school I seriously considered going to university in order to become a Laboratory Technician—one of those people who test blood and urine and other “liquids”. What was I thinking?! The idea now seems absurd and I feel a little frightened that I could have considered taking a direction in my life so against my interests and nature.
I was not good at science, but I had a chemistry teacher, Mrs Offenburger, who decided that she was going to get me to pass my School Certificate (the New Zealand public examination) Chemistry Examination with an honourable mark, something that would not have happened if she had not given me her devotion and time.
I will never forget her generosity and careful and thorough teaching. I felt cared about and was immensely grateful. But how terribly misguided it would have been if I had pursued a science career. The only reason I could have contemplated it is because I didn’t take myself seriously: I was generally not aware of my own feelings about my school work (my primary goal was to be successful, not to satisfy my own curiosity or determine what ignited my passion) and if I was aware of my feelings, I did not attach any meaning or significance to them.

I can now look back on my high school years and remember the deep attraction to reading, writing, words, biographies (people’s lives), drama and stories. I disliked art class enormously but I remember the class when we were first introduced to a loom and were taught how to weave. I decided to make a patchwork skirt of vibrant colours, and those colours brought me to life and are seared into my brain. I also remember the visceral pleasure when I was travelling with my family and would see a particularly beautiful night sky or marveled at the Kauri forests in the Coromandel Peninsula which I now recognize as a deep love of nature.

Did I ever consider any of these things when I was thinking about a university education and a career? No. I went to Secretarial School, one of the common and acceptable jobs for women “back in my day”. I was successful in my business career and when I moved to Vancouver eventually became General Manager, Office Automation division, of the company I worked for which has definitely helped in my teaching today. However it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realized that my deep love of children, stories, drama, literature, andpsychology were where my passions lay, and where I could more clearly express my own creativity and therefore hopefully unique perspectives.

As parents we must be alert to the clues our children give us about their interests and desires. For the elementary school student, this means listening attentively to their pleasures and their whines and inviting responses, whatever they might be, about school and extracurricular activities. The high school years can be very stressful for teens as they experience pressures from parents and schools to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They often—mostly—don’t know. A way to help, without adding stress, is to encourage the sharing of their innermost feelings and ideas without judgement. Hard to do! I wish I had had adults at my boarding school who had helped me get in touch with my true loves and had validated me. I wouldn’t have wasted hours thinking about chemistry labs or had to find the courage to change careers midlife.

Frist Impressions

I was watching a rerun of one of my favourite television shows recently (a satire about the television talk show
industry). In this particular segment, the talk show host is ill from food poisoning and they can’t get another celebrity to fill in at short notice. The producer finally asks the host’s sidekick to host the show but he has serious doubts about the sidekick’s ability to pull it off.

Hank (the sidekick) is also terrified. But he pulls himself together and gets himself onto the stage. He admits to his audience that he has never been so scared. The audience cheers wildly. They are on his side because they relate to his predicament and exposing his vulnerability has charmed them. He is self-deprecating and the audience loves him.

He is required to do it a second time because his boss is still sick. His success, however, has gone to his head and he is over-confident and obnoxious. He ruins the show and the audience practically boos him off the stage.

I have students whom I help with private school and university admission interviews: enormous pressure is placed on candidates to act with confidence and to be relaxed. Of course that makes sense, and it is nice if it is possible. But for most people interviews are stressful times. I think too much emphasis is placed on being polished and smooth and not enough on being authentic and naturally engaging (see above).

Studies show that interviewers form lasting judgments about you within the first four minutes (or less) of meeting you. There is nothing worse than encountering forced humour or someone oozing over-confidence. This doesn’t mean that interviewers enjoy sullen, glum or withdrawn people; but on the whole they see through artificial veneers.

I teach my students techniques to control nerves, project their voices, articulate well, and prepare answers to common questions. But I also tell them that if I had to choose between a candidate who talks too fast but is full of vitality and curiosity and a candidate who enunciates perfectly and smiles on cue (but is dull) I would choose the first.

Remember: personhood first, techniques second!

Drama

What do my students under the age of ten most love to do in drama class? PLAY! Without exception, they love to assume a character, plot a story, examine conflict and use their wild imaginations.

They invent the most improbable, fantastic stories that make perfect sense to them. Maybe the mermaid has a pet squirrel – and maybe the squirrel is sometimes able to live under water and the mermaid is sometimes able to move around on the land; maybe the girl protagonist can talk to the animals, whether it is the dolphin that lives in the ocean near the hut she lives in, or the silverback gorilla (I didn’t know about the silverback – all my students are stunningly knowledgeable about animals and like to be specific in their classification) in the nearby jungle; or maybe there is a fairy nurse who befriends a sick cat and together they go on a journey full of wonderful characters and creatures, maybe even to an alien land …

They are not interested in adapting their plot lines or body language for an audience. That stops the creative flow and anyway the audience should be extraordinarily impressed with their inventiveness and, well, THEM.

This is how it should be. During this play time (structured and challenged by the teacher), they are learning about themselves and their emotions; they are learning conflict resolution and pondering dilemmas; they are extending their imaginations and creativity and verbal skills and they are gaining confidence in themselves. There could not be a better base for those children who want to pursue theatre in later life, because their future theatre skills will then be based on authenticity and a solid sense of knowing who they are; and there could not be time better spent for children generally, because their honesty and selfknowledge will stand them in good stead when they are required to face the challenges that life presents to us all.

So remember – although the results of playtime are not measurable (like solving math problems), play may be the most important activity your child engages in.

Writing

The Coromandel Peninsula on the north-east coast of New Zealand is my favourite place in the world. I spent several hot summer Christmas holidays there with my family when I was a child. I never failed to be delighted by wiggling my toes in the sand of Hot Water Beach, along the shoreline, and feeling the hot spring water bubbling up from the earth’s depths, covering my feet. What a delicious feeling to be in the sea hot and cold at the same time. The deep crimson flowers of the pohutukawa trees bloom at Christmas and the tree has a remarkable ability to grow horizontally from sheer white cliffs, while remaining steadfastly rooted. The flowers hang over the clear azure blue sea and the sand is tinged pink by the eroded shells.

The vivid colours, the heat (from both the sun and water) and the bliss of those carefree days of childhood summers will remain with me forever – as only childhood memories, etched into our consciousness, can.

I also clearly remember being given an English assignment in Grade 6 – I was to write about a summer holiday using as many adjectives as possible and I wrote about Coromandel. Although I didn’t know why, I did know that the piece of writing I submitted was awful. Yes, it had the adjectives, but a soulless, contrived piece of writing it was.

If only a teacher had invited me to write of my experience, to get in touch with my senses, to encourage my enthusiasm and tap into my natural expressiveness which was lying in wait. Instead I was given an EXERCISE which had nothing to do with me.

Children are full of stories and delight and tragedy and passion. And too often misguided adults ignore what is lying in wait and impose exercises which dull creative expression and diminish the child’s expressiveness – the very thing that will bring success. So remember – the more adults encourage what’s already there, the better!

Writing Is In The Details

The most common suggestion school teachers make on my students’ school report cards for improving writing skills is that they should write “more detail”.

Sometimes children find this difficult because the teacher has assigned a subject the child does not easily relate to. This is why I ensure that my students decide what they want to write about. Usually they have lots to say when they are enthusiastic about a topic. I also ensure that I get to really know the child—not just his interests and hobbies, but also the many facets of his personality and how he sees and relates to people and events in his life. Encouraging and validating his world point of view results in an enthusiasm to communicate.

Which brings me to another reason why students can be reluctant to add details to their writing: they don’t really see the point of writing in the first place. Once the understand that writing is just another form of talking and communicating with people and is an important and rewarding form of self-expression, the details start to flow.

Writers must also be keen observers—they need to notice life around them and their responses to it. Reading and writing ability is linked—improvement in one skill, also improves the other. Any writing class must also include reading. The more the child understands himself, the more he understands the wide variety of characters he encounters in his reading and will also be able to describe complexity in characters.

Noticing details in life (visual, auditory, tensile, taste) allows the student to automatically want to include them in a story—to paint a picture that is complete for the reader.

Writing should be a joyful activity for the child and I hope he would have an eagerness to express his thoughts, feelings, opinions and observations with humour, insight and truth.
Substitute she/her for your daughter

Authenticity

I don’t think I ever said to my son “say you’re sorry” even if I felt it was clear that he should. I squirmed inside many times when others expected an immediate apology while I instead would take him aside and ask him if he did, indeed feel sorry, and if so, could he say it. Usually, he did the right thing, but occasionally he was stubborn or contrary, or felt that it was the other person who should apologize. Sometimes he was right and when we would discuss it later he would feel angry and wronged. Sometimes he was wrong and he would struggle with the reasons.

We all know when an apology is not meant, and sometimes children (and adults) will say it. “You’re NOT sorry, you’re just saying it”. A false sorry never feels very good and a sincere apology creates closeness.

An authentic person is generally appealing and creates respectful relationships. Authenticity also means that a person can be trusted, means what she says, and is emotionally true.

This is particularly useful in writing class!

A student who can write about the disagreement with a friend, the reprimand from a teacher, the struggle with jealousy, the frustration with *her own expectations, or her personal responses to an animal or book—in other words, her authentic life—will be well equipped to write interestingly and with verve. Not only does this serve her well in her personal life (to express herself intelligently, to communicate with others in a true and interesting manner and to accept all parts of her experience) but it also serves her well on a more mundane but relevant level, with examinations and university applications.

Grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, transition sentences and thesis statements can all be learned by example and practise once the principles are understood; to express yourself honestly and from the wellspring of your own uniqueness however requires encouragement and validation because it is an internal process.

The child who speaks the truth and writes about her experiences from her unique perspective writes usually with humour, energy and about themes to which we all relate.

Society generally coerces children to conform. I want my classes to be a place where each child feels secure enough to speak her mind.

*substitute him/his for your son.

Reading

To become a good writer, you must read. To more fully understand the world, and possibly yourself, you must read. I loved reading as a child because it helped me make sense of the world: I particularly enjoyed autobiographies and discovering how other people thought and felt. But there are many reasons for reading – the experience can provide comfort (there are other people like me), solace, take you on an adventure, expand your horizons, delight and amuse you, and allow you to imagine different possibilities in life.

My son was a late reader and there is much debate about the best way to learn to read (phonetics versus whole reading). But I am particularly interested in those older children who read well but not deeply.

I often encounter the situation where a school teacher has assigned a book for a class to read which is too advanced for a student I teach: NOT because the vocabulary or sentence structure is too difficult, but because the child is not able to relate to or understand certain situations/dilemmas in the book. This might be, for example, not understanding why a character reacts to another in a particular way (in anger or confusion …). The character’s reaction might be outside of the student’s experience and capacity to comprehend.

Drama can help; creating and developing stories, exploring emotions and reactions, discussing characters,  imagining new situations …all this encourages self-knowledge, develops imagination and deepens reading comprehension. Parents can help too. Reading aloud to your child is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Not only is snuggling up with a book a great bonding time between parent and child, it also gives you a wonderful opportunity to communicate a love of language and stories and to talk about the complex (hopefully)  circumstances in the book.

Stories

All children love stories and I am enchanted when I see the rapt attention I receive from a group of students when I tell them about a story in my life (which I often do).

They are astounded to hear about the year I lived on Big Balcony at my boarding school, exposed to the wind and rain (and how I would store my school uniform at my feet overnight so that it would be warm when I wriggled into it in the morning). They are both horrified and intrigued that I bit a girl in Grade 5 when she and two others pinned me down on the ground, for no apparent reason other than to exert power and how, instead of breaking my spirit, I suddenly felt rage and bit the girl whose arm was closest to my mouth (and was later shamed by the teacher).

Stories like these guarantee an engrossed audience and enormous curiosity: they help children make sense of the world and of their own lives. Stories help children deal with difficult emotions and also shows that life can be filled with great joy and beauty.

Words have enormous power. As a Speech & Drama teacher it is my job to ignite a passion for words and stories from which come meaning and insight. Children can work through their own feelings of powerlessness when confronted with Roald Dahl’s protagonists who are nearly always ruled by evil and manipulative adults (but who also always demonstrate feistiness and intelligence in order to survive); they identify with Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s wonderful series of books when Ramona is always getting into trouble and being misunderstood even when she has such good intentions. It happens to us all!

Poetry, plays and novels all tell stories but in different ways. They have the power to motivate, comfort,  nstruct, illustrate a different point of view, and make us laugh and cry. They broaden our world, sharpen our senses and extend our imagination.

So remember: read aloud to your child and tell your own stories – you are teaching the subject of life, perhaps the hardest and most rewarding subject of all.

Where do ideas come from?

Writers are often asked: “where do your ideas come from?” This is usually considered an irritating question. It implies, I suppose, that it is easy to “find” ideas. I have heard writers answer provocatively with something like: “Oh, I get my ideas from the bottom right-hand drawer of my bureau in the bedroom” or “I find them at the bottom of the garden on the first of each month.

But as a teacher I need to help my students come up with imaginative ideas all the time—whether it is writing a story or a poem or a scene to act. I guide them in realizing that they can mine their own lives for writing material—this is a lot more difficult than teaching sentence structure or vocabulary or plot.

Children eventually understand that every day provides them material to write about: a thought, a feeling, an opinion, a question, a daydream, an observation ….And it is the uniqueness of their experiences that makes writing compelling. One student may enjoy the poet Siobhan Swayne comparing the sea to a cat (“think of the ocean as a cat with her grey fur pushed high upon her back white boots kneading the shore”) while another may instead relate to the more sensory poem of Judith Thurman (“with shoes on, I can only feel how hard or soft the rock or sand is where I walk or stand. Barefoot, I can feel how warm mud moulds my soles …”). The child must be aware, of both his* internal and external worlds. The more parents and teachers authenticate the child’s unique perspectives, the easier it is for him to feel confident about having access to material to write about and the more rewarding the writing process is.

How do we do this? We relate our own stories, we share our own feelings and thoughts, we provide a safe environment where there are no “wrong” ideas, we encourage questions and curiosity and then we listen intently. We also read aloud, preferably daily, and help our children associate reading with joy (definitely not as an assignment or chore) and demonstrate that words are fun and interesting and aid in our communication.

That’s in a perfect world. In the real world, we do as much as we can!
* substitute her for your daughter