Tagged: Guiding Questions

Maturity, Autonomy and Independence

We’ve been working with our 10 year-old on a decision for the past couple of weeks. There’s a summer opportunity we’ve been excited about for him. He has not been excited with us. In fact, he doesn’t want the opportunity. He tried it last year and found that, for him, the cons outweigh the pros. 

We believe the challenges involved would help him develop increased maturity, autonomy and independence. We think the experience, cons and all, would help him build strength. We wanted him to try it one more time. When we told him that’s what we wanted he told us he felt like he was being forced to do something he didn’t want to do.

This was a tough spot. This is the type of decision parents talk about not having access to instructions for. Do we insist that our ten year-old engage in a growth opportunity because we know it’s good for him, or do we give him space to make the decision for himself because we trust that he knows what’s good or him? Maybe the decision itself is the opportunity. Maybe it’s a chance to let him make a decision and live with it. Maybe it’s a safe way to give him a taste of responsibility. 

We decided to exhaust the dialogue with him. We decided to give him some space and time to think and reflect. We hoped he would see things our way after a while. We worked through thoughts and emotions with him for a couple of weeks. We shared our thinking and our feelings and encouraged him to do the same. We told him it was his decision, and we also tried to try to persuade him. We did our best to keep it guilt free, but we could see him struggling with not wanting to disappoint us. 

We gave him a timeline, at the end of which we sat on the couch together, put forward our closing statements and asked him to make it official. Would he take it on or not? He was energized and lighthearted. We could see he knew the decision was his, and we could see he gained strength from that. I started to see the irony.

With a smile he asked if he could use one of our phones to text the other phone his decision. He asked us not to look until he was clear from the room. He texted and left. This is what we saw when we turned the phone over: “I appreciate everything you’ve said but I need to make a decision, so I’m going to say…um, uh, I don’t want to – but I love you:).”

A demonstration of maturity, autonomy and independence. This experience has me revisiting the balance of goal setting and decision making with my kids as they progress toward independence. Turns out there’s more than one path to learning and growth. Once again, the kid opened my eyes. 

We can’t know for sure what’s right in any given situation. When we provide space and time, when we listen with compassion, and when we allow ourselves to consider other people’s perspectives, I feel like we’re on the right track. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Spending the College Fund on a Pony

The other day our 8 year-old daughter approached me and began with, “Daddy?”

I asked, “Yes?”

She continued, “Are you and mommy saving up money for me to go to college?”

I answered, “We sure are. We’re saving up money for you and your brothers to go to college.”

She said, “Great! How much is it going to cost?”

I told her, “Sweetheart, between the four of you it’s going to cost tens of thousands of dollars.”

“Wonderful!” She said, followed by, “I have an idea.

“Let’s hear it,” I prompted.

With an altogether straight face and not a hint of hyperbole, she introduced an option I had not yet considered. “Instead of sending me to college, you could use that money to buy me a pony.”

I realized she and I have very different perspectives on the matter. I also understood that we both have a stake in the outcome, that we were going to have to agree on a meaningful path forward, and that the meaningful path should result in fulfillment for her. After all, it is her life we were talking about.

Maybe, she would be happier with pony ownership that she would with a college degree. Maybe, if we end up spending her college fund on the purchase of a pony, she would end up becoming a pony farmer. Maybe pony ownership is something she feels strongly about and something she could find joy from. Maybe she would raise the first pony to ever win the triple crown or start a pony-pulled sled team that would eventually compete in the Iditarod. Maybe, if we deny her the pony we would be denying her the opportunity to live out a dream.

On the other hand, it seems to me that lot’s of kids talk about wanting ponies. Maybe it’s a passing fancy. What if depleting the college fund in favor of the pony is the wrong move. What is insisting on a college degree is actually the sound decision. Maybe it’s too soon to turn the long-term planning over to our 8 year-old. Besides, I can think of multiple degree that could potentially lead to any farming. Maybe we take it one step at a time and expand her options. 

Maybe there’s a middle ground that would be suitable for all involved. We could send her to college while supporting the pony dream, and help her understand that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal. We could impart the valuable life lesson that not having something today doesn’t mean you’ll be without it down the road. Maybe insisting on college over a pony would help her understand that sometimes in life, “first thing’s first” is a good way to move about. 

Either way, she had obviously done the research (thank you internet). We want to encourage that exploration. We also want her to know that we value her voice. We want her to know that her perspective matters, and we want her to feel good about the journey she’s on.

In the end, whatever happens, it’s clear to me that whatever we decide we need to work as hard as we can to understand her perspective and stand behind the vision she has for her own life. Kids don’t have a ton of life experiences they can draw on for long-term decision making. While that sometimes causes them to want to spend their college funds on ponies, it also causes them to have open minds and open hearts, and to believe in a wonderful range of possibilities. While steering them in “right” direction is critical, we should simultaneously seek to support them maintaining that magical perspective for as long as they can. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

The Positive Power of Celebration!

I recently wrote about a great experience I had with our 10 year-old. A few months ago he decided to “be more mature.” He’s always been a nice kid with a kind heart and good intentions. He’s always done well in school and played well with friends. The “more mature” quest came in response to a smoothing out of some edges of silliness that brought him some attention he didn’t want. 

Initially, he asked if he could get some upgraded technology in exchange for the impending maturity growth spurt. If he showed us that he could handle it, would we get him an iPhone? A laptop? Access to new video games? We told him we’d think about it and he went right to work.

Day after day, week after week, he demonstrated that he was more than capable. Then one day we got the first note from his teacher. The note was a glowing review of how he’d stepped up in class. He was being his best self at home and at school, in front of us and away from us. The kid was not only demonstrating maturity, but integrity, too. 

He even shifted away from the tech reward and eventually told us that it didn’t matter anymore, because doing the right things and being his best self, simply “feels good.” It’s been a great time of growth and a wondrous transformation for us to watch, and to be a part of. Our part has been celebrating. 

We’ve now received multiple notes from his teacher over the past several months. Each time we get a note, we celebrate. We don’t celebrate with cookies or cakes, and we haven’t celebrated with upgrades to technology, but with hugs, words of praise, listening hearts, smiles and gratitude. 

Turns out, celebration is really powerful and really positive. It feels good to be acknowledged, valued and validated. When we mention how proud we are of him, how impressed we are by him, and how incredible he’s been doing, he lights up. Doing good and being recognized for doing good, feels good.

We all respond well to positive feedback and praise, and we all have things about us that can be celebrated. We can look for and focus on moments of achievement in our children and in one another to fuel positive progress and well-being. As we continue seeking comfort, joy and balance during these unique and challenging days, we can be using celebration as a tool. 

Pats on the back, kind notes of recognition, hugs, high fives and messages of awareness and pride all go a long way. Genuine celebrations feel good for those being celebrating and for those doing the celebrating. Let’s continue to put celebration at the core of how we take care of our kids and how we strengthen partnerships with one another. Look for opportunities and take the time…celebrations pay social, emotional and fulfillment dividends along the way!  

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Transforming Challenges Into Triumphs

I don’t remember when or how it started. We bring a plastic fork to the table when we have dinner at the Berg house. This particular fork is perfect for spinning. When it lays with the tines curved down, each end hovering slightly off the surface of the table, it’s center as a pivot point, you can give it a twirl and watch it spin – it’s fun! 

More than fun, though, we use the fork as a pointer. Whoever the fork’s tines  end up pointing to shares first. After one person shares, the fork is spun again to determine who goes next, and so on until each member of the family has shared three things: the best part of their day, the biggest challenge they faced during the day, and something they are grateful for. 

For a while, most challenges the kids shared were about a brother or sister bothering them. They regularly expressed thinly veiled difficulties they were having with one another. They did so in light hearted ways. Regardless, the word “challenge” became synonymous with the word “gripe.” 

Lorelei and I were noticing this pattern. It wasn’t in the spirit of the activity. We meant for the practice to be uplifting, reflective and celebratory. So, we decided to be intentional about making a shift. We intervened.

We began by explaining that the challenges we wanted to hear about were not necessarily annoyances or “bad” things that someone did to them during the day, but problems they faced, and moments in time during during which they had to employ courage to solve those problems. We explained that challenges should be things they fought to overcome, not things that simply bothered them. We emphasized that we were looking for reports of bravery. 

We’re still working on it, but every once in a while we get a good one. Focused on a writing assignment or made a new friend on the playground. Every so often we hear about experiences our kids are having through which they learn and grow. Our hope is that along the way, they’re building strength and fortitude. 

I can’t imagine a more challenging set of circumstances for parents and educators than the set of circumstances we’re living through right now. Every day I see examples of courage all around me. We’re putting every bit of energy into keeping our kids safe and balanced as they navigate the ebbs and flows of this unique moment. We’re doing the best we can. We’re doing great.  

As we take the challenges one at time, lets remember to give ourselves room to grow. We experience ebbs and flows, too. As we think about challenges, let’s think about how we can use courage to transform them into triumphs. When we do, we model the process for our kids. When we fall short, we’re simply faced with an additional challenge, that of dusting ourselves off and trying again. Another opportunity for us to model the strength and fortitude we hope to instill in them.

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Awareness as an Anxiety Antidote

When the past and the future are out of mind the present is available. That’s why our breath is such a wonderful tool. Our breath is here now. Breathing is what we do in the moment. There is consistency and certainty in our breath. While we live and breath, our breath reliably moves in and out of our lungs. Unlike the many less connected facets of our daily lives that drive uncertainty and plague us with worry, doubt and fear, we can depend on our breath for comfort. 

When we focus on our breath we are focusing on our vitality. In that way, we can use our breath to be aware of reality in real time. Because anxiety is often based on unfounded, even fantasized accounts of the past and fictionalized predictions about the future, awareness of reality in real time can counterbalance it (anxiety, that is). 

Habitual awareness can serve as an extended antidote, diminishing the worry, stress and myriad other negative impacts associate with habitual anxiety. We are each already in the habit of breathing. Broadening the habit to a focus on our breath as we breath can have immediate positive implications on our behavior and long-term positive implications on our well-being.  

Over the past couple of decades I’ve exerted considerable effort and spent loads of time exploring and practicing strategies aimed at finding calm in the eye of the storm. So much time and effort that you’d think I’ve perfected it. Yeah, right. Come to find out, while most of what I’ve learned and relearned is based on a combination of awareness and common sense, it may still be a lifelong pursuit. Even as you read this reflection you may well recognize I’m not referring to anything you don’t already know. Especially if that’s the case, you also understand that knowledge and practice often sit at distance ends of a deep divide.  

That said, in my experience (and according to every philosophy, methodology or program dealing with problem solving, crisis management or deescalation I’ve ever come across) calm continuously surfaces as the ideal posture for maximizing safety, productivity and progress during stressful events or periods of time. Calm is a catalyst to well-being. 

This exploration of calm has been based in large part on the path I tread as a husband, a parent and an educator, it’s predicated on a desire I’ve long held to relieve the feelings of worry and stress I periodically (and sometimes habitually) fall into, and it is now proving as important and opportune as ever during a time when I see and feel a great deal of anxiety swirling around me, seeming to have a deep and determined impact on an enormous swath of the children I serve and the adults I partner with in that service. 

With the world on it’s side in so many ways, I often find myself wondering if now is the ideal time for simplicity. The challenge is, simplicity isn’t easy.

Timelines and obligations are real. The sun rises and sets, and in between those two events we do have to get certain things accomplished. How much time, though, do we spend toiling in worry? How frequently do we think about and relive our regrets, fret over the lack of progress we’re making on a task or a project, or doubt our ability to meed a target date? How often do we stand by while that thinking, reliving, fretting and doubting seizes our minds and our hearts? How much time do we spend outside of ourselves, watching as we perpetuate extended cycles of worry? 

What if we used the same amount, or even a fraction of that time for a focus on awareness? Without even considering a shift in how we feel or how we behave, could a simple shift in how we watch and listen to ourselves support increased well-being? 

What if instead of perceiving ourselves from the outside, as spectators, we intentionally kept and eye on ourselves from the inside? What if we zeroed in on our thoughts and feelings by way of a straight forward, pretense-free focus on our breath, even thoughts of and feeling around worry and stress? What if we accepted and attended to those thoughts and feelings with curiosity and kindness, not asking why but rather how it feels to feel the way we feel? 

Instead of considering what we can do to feel better, what if we could be calm and aware enough to simply ask ourselves to identify details about the thoughts and feelings we have while we are having them? What if a focus on our breath could help us? What if being aware could promote genuine learning and growth? A simple (not easy) path that, with practice and dedication might have the potential for prolonged and universal application and impact. By the way, as you know, breath as mindfulness tool is a centuries old concept that has had an incredibly  meaningful impact on the history and progress of humanity, across a multitude of regions, cultures and theologies.

Dr. Judson Brewer wrote a wonderfully thoughtful and well-researched book called, “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to heal Your Mind.” In it, he points to habit loops through a reward-based learning paradigm as the basis for persistent entrenchment in anxiety. He recalls anecdotes from his research lab and clinic and puts forward simplified explanations of neuroscience to point out how we get ourselves stuck in habit loops through triggers, which catalyze behaviors and produce results that trick our brains into thinking some relief is at hand.

For example, if I wake up in the middle of the night feeling panicked about the uncertainly of a busy week ahead I might start making mental plans or checking emails. While planning and checking emails may give me a moment of relief and distraction from the worry, those behaviors are also likely to open the floodgates of stress and trip the signal wire for a worry habit loop. Dr. Brewer might map it like this:

Trigger: Middle of the night panic

Behavior: Planning/checking emails

Result: Temporary relief from immediate worry/perpetuation of extended stressfulness and possible trigger for additional feelings of panic

Alternatively, I could focus on my breathing (consistent and comforting) and turn into the  feelings of panic with awareness, curiosity and kindness, asking my mind, my heart and my body to describe what they’re feeling. I could live in the moment, accepting the situation, exploring what’s happening, allowing myself to spend time with with the panicky feelings, and providing my brain with some important data about how I process stressful situations.

I may not magically feel relieved from the panic and be able to quickly go back to sleep, but in theory, this alternative behavior could help me find pathways to breaking worry habit loops, not necessarily because I’m searching for those pathways, but simply because I’m developing a deepened understanding of myself and my capacities. Again, not easy but simple. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the mindfulness standard “Wherever you go, there you are, reminds us that while being aware (specifically through the practice of mindfulness) is challenging work, it is worthwhile and growth-producing in that, “it literally allows us to see more clearly, and therefore come to understand more deeply, that which we were out of touch with or unwilling to look at (p.8).”

We are living through waves of trauma. If you, your kids or anyone around you are experiencing negative impacts from situational or extended anxiety, an intentional and dedicated focus on awareness through mindful breathing could be a step in the right direction. None of us wants to suffer. We are better for ourselves, the kids we serve and the adults we serve with when we’re clear-headed and calm. Face the challenges, celebrate the triumphs and approach stumbles and roadblocks with forgiveness and loving kindness, for yourself and others. 

It’s a journey for us all. One step at a time, with intentionality and togetherness we are strong. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Relaxation Time

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time as a guest teacher in music and art classes. I’m not a music teacher or an art teacher, but I do appreciate both disciplines, and both music and art play significant roles in my life. So I enlisted my experience with and knowledge of each, and I thought about how the creative arts bring joy and balance into my life as I prepared to teach.

When I was a child my parents enrolled me in piano lessons. I never became a virtuoso, but I gained enough understanding to be able to connect with the keys in a way that produces sound some might consider music. Occasionally I sit at the piano, produce that sound and find myself entering into and enjoying a state of mind research around well-being would identify as a “flow.” It’s a state of mind that can engender pathways to focus and calm.

In each music class I spent some time playing the piano as the kids rested. I asked them to aim at letting the music guide their thinking. I wasn’t sure how it would go. It went well. It especially went well with our youngest learners. Kindergarten and first grade students in each class allowed themselves to dive deep into the activity. The room became still and calm each time I facilitated this process. They seemed to have an aptitude for mindfulness. Moreover, they seemed to have an interest in it.

The day after my short tenure as a music teacher I received a note that described an extension of the meditation activity. A parent wrote to her child’s teacher and the teacher forwarded the note to me. She wrote that her first grader came home from school talking about having “relaxation time” in music class. She went on to share that they recreated the activity before bedtime with some music and guidance on relaxation. According to her report, the child said, “This feels nice, we should do this every night.”

I believe we all should do this every night, or during each day if it fits in better. The fact is, everyone can benefit from mindfulness as a part of a consisted self care focus. 

The world in an incredibly busy place. The stressors are real and the challenges are…well, really quite challenging. When we take the time to be present and calm, when we dedicate ourselves to a positive mindset, when we focus and deeply engage, we reflect, process and heal with increased efficiency and productivity. 

Individually and collectively, when take deep breaths and allow ourselves to live in each moment, we build capacity for a genuine focus on what truly matters…ourselves and one another. When we teach this critical life skill to our children, we enhance their futures and the future of our world. 

Slow down, breath deep, we got this. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Breathe. All We Have Is Now. Relax. UR OK.

Breathe. All we have is now. Relax. UR OK.

This is the message on one of the many sculptures along the path of “The Walk of Art” sculpture park (“Art Rapids”) in our lovely downtown Elk Rapids – about five minutes from the farm. If you’re a northern Michigan enthusiast and you haven’t been to the sculpture park, I recommend you put it on the itinerary for an upcoming trip. It’s wonderful. 

One of the features of the park are these intermittent offshoots of roadsigns, with messages of hope, love and inspiration. One is a stop sign that reads, “Start” instead of “Stop.”

Another is a “One Way” sign that’s not rectangular but heart-shaped, indicating that the only way is love.

Still another articulates the foundational message of this post. 

Breathe. All we have is now. Relax. UR OK.

I like the message, and given that I’ve always viewed life as a journey, I like that it’s being broadcast from a road sign in this case.

Another important feature of the park (at least during our visit a few weekends ago) was an overwhelming multitude of what I’ve come to learn are called Oak Leafrolllers. 

Oak Leafrollers are the tiny green worms that hang by threads of silk from oak trees. During this particular trip to the park it was as if we were transported into an Oak Leafroller obstacle coarse. They were everywhere.

The more we focused on the little tree climbing critters the more they seemed to multiply. We realized that they were on our clothes and in our hair. As we walked on we felt them on our arms and worried that they were getting into our ears and mouths. Phantom tickles and itches overtook us.

We began to duck and run. Then we rolled and crawled through the pathways of the woods like highly skilled military operatives. Finally, we ran faster then ever before, bobbing and weaving as we went. Occasionally one of us would grab another, sometimes dropping to the ground, frantically wiping and patting the other clean from these great green silk monsters before scrambling to our feet to flee some more. 

Some of us were laughing with such uncontrolled enthusiasm that tears were streaming down our faces (that was primarily me and Lorelei – some proud parenting moments), while others had streaming tears as a result of the deep, genuine and unabashed fear-based crying they had succumb to in the face of this newfound tiny-worm terror (the kids were getting pretty excited about the sheer volume of leafrollers – the woods were dense with them). It was pretty close to utter chaos by the time we reached the car.

What’s worse, the leafrollers had sent battalions of their kinsmen to cover our car while we were fighting for dear life to avoid them on the forest battlefield. 

We had to expertly navigate our way into the vehicle without letting them overtake us (of heaven forbid, get inside). The danger persisted. Some hung on for dear life as we drove away. We promised the kids that the wind would blow the rest off. It didn’t. We watched through the windows in terror as the strongest and most persistent among them clung on, taunting us the entire way to the farm. 

In the end we survived the vicious attack of completely harmless, tiny little bugs to whom we were not doubt the most menacing, hideous and gigantic creatures imaginable…but only by the skin of our teeth.

Later, I looked them up on the internet. Turns out, collectively, they’re described as a nuisance. Curious. Really they’re just trying to eat some oak leaves, build cocoons, and morph miraculously into moths. 

I wondered if maybe we were actually the collective nuance in this particular situation. You know, because we ran around screaming at them, swatting them with sticks, swiping them around, ripping them from their silk lifelines and violently disrupting their beautiful, natural course with unfettered  rage. Just a wonder I had. 

It made me think about perspective. As parents and educators we often find ourselves in situations that are frustrating, and even unsettling. The Great Berg Oak Leafroller Battle of 2021 reminded me that thoughtful, compassionate reflection can serve us, and those around us well. 

When we take the time and make the effort to relax into the moments of our lives, whether or not we understand them immediately, we seem more likely to be able to enlist our capacity for calm, and as a result, we seem more likely to navigate the ebbs and the flows with strength and empathy. 

Whether we’re being attached by tiny floating worms or facing the bumpy road of child raising, calm hearts and minds tend to win the day, for all involved.

So as we continue together, if you can…breathe. All we have is now, and if you are able…relax. UR OK.

Thank you for reaching…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Shadowy Movement And Sound

Today I’m writing from the farm. The farm is about four hours north of Detroit. Lorelei and I took the kids up to see if we could get a glimpse of some colors starting to change and to lake some long, slow, deep breaths after another stretch filled with busy weekdays. The colors are starting to change but not quite popping, and the long slow breaths are as easy as every to take on the farm. 

During the past three or four trips to the farm we’ve been hearing what sounds like a relative large animal bounding about in the woods behind the farmhouse. We walk the trail system a couple times each day. The woods are dense, and until today, I haven’t been able to catch a proper glimpse of the creature that seems to be squatting on our property (or maybe we’re squatting on his). From the sounds and the shadowy movements I have been able to hear and see, I’m guessing it’s a big deer. My goal has been to get eyes squarely on the big guy…maybe even a recognizable picture or two. 

This morning I went out with our 10-year-old. We heard him…and then, for the first time, we saw him. He was far away and all but hidden by some thick brush, but we saw him. 

Upon hearing us coming he leapt in a zigzag motion, through the woods and away. He leapt amazingly high and turned with incredible precision. So much so, that when the kid reported back to his siblings he told them we saw gazelle. What good fortune for us. I don’t suppose there are many gazelle sightings in northern Michigan. A fun story, though.  

Regardless, after dozens of nature walks, over a period of multiple visits, with a singular goal in mind, we were able to move the needle forward on our goal. Our quest continues. This injection of energy is just what we needed to keep the momentum going, the mystery and excitement tangible, and the possibility alive. It wasn’t today and it may not be during our next visit to the farm, but we’re confident that eventually we will meet up with our bouncy, shadowy friend – hopefully from a distance, but meet up nonetheless. 

Through this experience I’m reminded of what it is to learn, for myself, for the many adult partners with whom I collaborate each day, and for the wonderful kids we serve. As we come to understand ourselves and one another, sparks of knowing swirl in our minds alongside the sparks of excitement that swirl in our hearts. 

I’m getting to know the woods at the farm. Through exploration and focused interest, I’ve come to realize that a friend seems to be living there. I’m excited to meet that friend and working to do so with intentionality. It’s the same feeling I get when I discover a pathway to learning, whether it’s my own pathway or a pathway the comes to light around the learning of another. As an educator and a parent, the hint of a pathway can propel me forward with the magical anticipation of possibility…as I believe it can for any growth minded person. 

Once we’re set in motion, visions and goals can unfold. When we know that something is possible, we can shift from imagination to eventuality. One of the challenges we face with eventuality it that it can be waiting around the corner or it can surface three years from now. Either way, with patience, persistence, knowledge and faith, we can traverse any learning pathway we set out upon. 

Sometimes we see shadowy movements along the way, sometimes we get glimpses of outcomes, and sometimes we find ourselves staring at crossroads marking the end of one journey and the beginning of another. In any case, it is our job to hold true to course, bobbing and weaving with the ebbs and flows, and putting one foot in front fo the other for ourselves and the children we serve. 

Each In Our Own Way (An Equity-Based Reflection On Helping Our Children Connect With, Appreciate And Love Those Who Look, Think, And Act In Vastly Different Ways From Them)

*The names I’m using in this reflection are not the actual names of any children involved. I’m using alternate names to protect privacy. 

Confusion, Worry And Fear

A few weeks into the new school year our youngest child, a six-year-old starting first grade, came home from school with a troubled mind. I could see that he was deep in thought. As we went about our typical after school routine he presented as worried and distracted. 

Before long he asked if he could speak with me alone. We went outside together, where he began to reluctantly unfold a story of two children at his school with special needs. As he told me about the kids, tears formed in his eyes.

First he told me about being scared. In his words, he said that Brandon was aggressive on the playground. He told me that he sees Brandon approaching kids and insisting on playing with them in ways that frightened him. 

He said that Brandon gets physical with kids; that he uses his hands and his body in ways that make him nervous and uncomfortable; that Brandon communicates in ways that are different from how the typically functioning kids he’s used to playing with communicate, and that he’s worried about having to confront the potential eventuality of Brandon approaching him on the playground. In his way, he asked for permission to not have to engage with Brandon as school.

Knowing our child, I could see the internal struggle that this ask, and this need presented for him. He’s an empathic, compassionate person. I could see him wishing he didn’t feel this way, feeling bad about himself, and feeling bad for Brandon. 

My Brain Won’t Let Me 

Next he told me about Marvin. He told me that Marvin is in his class. He said he could see that Marvin needs friends but doesn’t have any. He told me he’s not scared of Marvin because Marvin doesn’t behave in ways that frighten him, but in ways that demonstrate his struggles with communication and socialization. He told me that he thinks he could be the friend Marvin needs, but that whenever he thinks about becoming Marvin’s friend, his brain won’t let him. 

No two children are the same. That said, most children’s unique qualities don’t overtly differentiate them from the group. At least not in the eyes their peers. Most children, regardless of gender, learning style, energy level, interests, developmental readiness, capacity for age-appropriate communication, and lived experiences don’t stand out in ways that make them unapproachable. Brandon and Marvin are both visibly unique from most other kids. 

As parents, guardians and educators, we can tune in to subtle and explicit differences between children. Children, with their concrete, relatively inexperienced world views, tend to be less adept at identifying subtle differences, and they tend to be hyper aware of explicit ones. 

To no fault of their own, children tend to notice when other children behave in ways that appear “out of the ordinary,” and because they don’t have the knowledge or experience to process why a peer would look and sound so different, they can easily fall into worry and even fear around socializing with kids who they identify as acutely different.

Our child’s description of the struggle he’s experiencing around wanting, and attempting to support a friend with special needs (“my brain won’t let me”), tells us a lot about a critical and persistent social emotional challenge felt by all of children.

We know that, like our child, both Brandon and Marvin need to experience genuine friendships. We know that developing genuine friendships with people who present as different from us, whether vastly or subtly, is mutually beneficial. 

We also know that diminishing classroom, school and community cultures can quickly and easily (while often unknowingly and inadvertently) be built around kids who’s communication and behavior are outside of the norm. This is an incredibly important point for parents, guardians and educators to be aware of as we work hard to listen to and guide our children around challenges that surface at school. 

When children come home with negative reports and concerns about their peers, we can help them focus on an “each in our own way” lens by exploring context with them. We can remind them that each person views the world in a unique way, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced, and that our abilities and world-views tend to guide our thoughts, feelings and actions. 

We can teach them that we’re all learning all the time, and that generally, people want to do good things and be nice. When our friends aren’t being their best selves it can often be because they don’t know how, or because they’re hurting. Sometimes it’s challenging, but patience, understanding and kindness can help.

Positive classroom, school and community cultures can lift kids up and build bridges to health and achievement, while negative classroom, school and community cultures, pointedly focused on the expressions and actions of a particular child, can deteriorate that child’s self image, limit their potential, and engrain increased worry and fear in others. 

Fortunately, as parents, guardians and educators, we have the power to perpetuate change in this area, to build paradigms of understanding around diversity, to help our children uncover the inherent foundations of compassion that exist within each of them, to drive equity, and in doing so, to enhance their lives and the world in which we all live.

Not Answers…Opportunities

When we teach our children to embrace diversity, to move toward rather than away from that which is different and/or unknown to them, to be reflective in their processing of communication and interactions with others, to consider multiple perspectives, to seek understanding (even through worry and fear), and to pull from kindness where frustration persists, we give them opportunities to expand their horizons. 

When we guide children through problem solving in any area we provide them with safe, supportive spaces to grapple with specific challenges.  When we give children safe, supportive spaces to grapple with specific challenges we provide them with experiences that can support the development of their ability to grapple with other challenges. 

Children become better problem solvers when they have our permission to work on solving the problems that are in front of them. Along with that permission, they benefit from our support, our love and our guidance.

A Solid Foundation For A Lifelong Journey

Our child continues to tell me that he’s nervous around Brandon and that he still hasn’t approached Marvin or become his friend. He also continues to tell me that he thinks he can be the friend that Marvin needs. 

The other day he told me that he thinks the first step will be introducing himself. He said, “We’ve never even met…maybe if we met we would become friends.”  He’s outlined multiple pathways to officially meeting Marvin, from asking his teacher to introduce them to approaching him on the playground. He continues to grapple and I continue to support. 

I don’t have the answers. While I hope they do, they may never become friends. I nudge but I don’t push. I listen and I affirm the reality of swirling emotions. I don’t know how to ease the intensity of those emotions or impart a sense of comfort around this or any of the multitude of difficult childhood challenges. 

I do know that every child is living a life in which developing skills of compassion, along with the skills needed to communicate, collaborate, and otherwise engage with one another, is a potential pathway to increased joy and balance for them and for those who they meet along the way. 

I know that we serve children well when we drive cultures of acceptance in our classrooms, school and communities, and aid our children in understanding that they can and should love and embrace others, even those who behave in ways that confuse and worry them. 

When we help them see that the personalities, inherent capacities and lived experiences of those around them contribute to their thoughts, feelings and actions, we help them put behavior into context and better manage their  interactions and relationships.

As with all challenging journeys, the complex pathways of supporting our children’s positive progress and well-being are long and winding, they’re sometimes shrouded in mist, and they’re often confusing. I would suggest that an “each in our own way” lens is solid foundation for achieving healthy outcomes, for them and for us.

Some Strategies For Coping With Anxiety

This is a uniquely challenging time. We’ve been engaged in a new type of uncertainty for a while now. Information comes in waves, and often in pieces. Parents, guardians and educators have been charged with putting those pieces together day by day and moment by moment…and to our credit, we’ve done so in ways that have kept our kids safe and balanced. It has not been easy task.

If you’re like me you have good moments and not so good moments. Some of the questions we have to ask ourselves have no “right” answers and some of the directions we have to go in have really winding roads, with hazards that are shrouded in mist until they’re directly in front of us. 

If you’re like me you’ve been able to celebrate some wonderful successes over the days, the weeks, and the years…and you also stumble, fumble, crash hard into walls and find yourself filled with worry at times. Our kids are everything. Keeping them safe, healthy and learning is priority number one.

For us, and for our kids, these strange days come along with increased levels of stress. Anxiety is real and it’s present at varying degrees among adults and children alike. As we walk this path together, I would suggest that staying mindful of the presence of anxiety in ourselves and in the kids we serve is one way to perpetuate the safety, health and learning.

I came across this TED Talk the other night. It focuses on coping with anxiety. This is the link: How to cope with anxiety (Olivia Remes) 

The message may resonate with you or it may not. I understand that while we are all living through a pandemic, we’re each living experiences that are unique to us. Whether or not you identify with Remes’ message, I believe the strategies she outlines can provide fodder for reflection, and possibly some tools to help as you work to find joy and balance in these uncertain days, for you and for your kids.

Do It Badly

It’s easy to get stuck under the weight of these intense challenges. We want so badly to do things the “right” way for our selves and for our kids. We want, and we need to get it “right” so intensely that sometimes it’s difficult to put one foot in front of the other. When that happens, we can try to remember that taking action, even if we get it “wrong” at first, can be better than staying in a rut. Remes suggests that one way to mitigate the anxiety of any moment is to plow forward. Take action. When you set yourself in motion you can give yourself momentum. One foot in front of the other. If you can muster the strength, get started and adjust along the way.

Forgive Yourself

No one is perfect. As we struggle with the challenges associated with really tough times and uncomfortable feelings, we experience ebbs and flows. In order to make it through the ebbs and into the flows we’ve got to treat ourselves with kindness. When you stumble, fumble, crash into walls and worry, shake it off as quickly as possible. Show yourself the grace that’s needed to keep moving forward. Don’t dwell in the past. Don’t dwell in any moment. If you can practice forgiving yourself for the missteps, you may find that the positive steps forward come with greater ease and efficiency.

Find Meaning by Helping Others

While self-care is critically important for our well-being, it can also be important to take breaks from a focus on ourselves in order to find, and truly experience meaning, especially when high levels of stress turn that focus to the negative, which can be frequently during uniquely challenging times. We can find strength in the compassionate work we’re doing for our kids and for one another. When we lift one another up and hone in on spreading joy with kindness and intentionality, we tend to feel enhanced positive emotion, which has the power to mitigate some of the harmful, anxiety producing impacts of the layers of trauma that exist within and all around us. 

In many ways, we’re living through the same “storm,” however, we’re each doing so in “boats” that are unique to our specific experiences. These strategies may be easier for some to enact and more difficult for others. You may find them connected to your world view and you may not. My hope is that, whatever you’re experiencing and however your responding those experiences, Remes’ suggestions can bring you some pause for reflection, some confront in the “storm,” and some ability to work through the particular challenges you’re facing, on behalf of yourself, each other and the kids we serve. 

Don’t forget that you’re surrounded by people who care. There is strength in community. As you reflect on your daily practice and on your progress, remember that we are always stronger together. Turn to those around you for support, practice projecting grace in every direction along the way, and stay in motion. The truth is, we’re doing incredible things…and we got this!