Read an Excerpt
If You Believe What Children Say
I know that school is meant for learning and expanding your personality but adults either don’t think you’re trying hard enough or they don’t care.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
—The Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes 12:12
The question “How was school today?” may be the most-asked and least-answered question in America. It is the question that all parents are compelled to voice every day sometime between three p.m. and bedtime.
“How was school today?” No matter how gently you ask it, no matter how cleverly you phrase it, 99 percent of children don’t give you the information you crave. “Fine,” they reply, or “Okay.” Younger ones may give you some details; a child who is a real talker, a born journalist, may give you an extended news report. But such kids are rare. Most children don’t share the kind of information about school that parents want to hear. Besides, they know that if they made the effort, you’d just ask again the next day. You’d never be satisfied. That’s the way it is with all of us parents, and as our children get older they may protest being asked the “How was . . .” question. “Mom,” they declare through clenched teeth, “it was fine.” What they mean is: “Don’t bug me!”
Still, we cannot help ourselves. We were so connected to our children when they were little. We watched everything they did; we charted their developmental progress daily. We phoned our closest friends when our eleven-month-old seemed ready to walk. “She’s cruising around the living room holding on to chairs and the coffee table.” Nothing escaped our vigilant attention and eager celebration.
Then off they go to school and suddenly we’re starved for information. We can’t see what they’re doing or what’s happening around them or to them. We’re cut off from much of our children’s lives. We want scraps, quiz grades, gossip about the teacher’s personality—anything. I once asked an audience of parents what they would ask for if they had “the teacher of their dreams.”
A mother said, “I’d like my son’s teacher to call me every day and tell me about his day.”
“In what grade is your son?” I asked.
“Tenth grade,” replied the mother without embarrassment, as the entire audience laughed.
But what do we really hope to learn from that question we keep asking? I imagine a parent asking a child, “How was school today?,” and the child answering with something like this: “Mom, I’d like to tell you, I really would, but it is all too complicated to put into words. I don’t know where to begin. The truth is that you’re not asking me about school really, you’re asking me how my life is going, and I don’t have any perspective on that. I’m trying to develop into a person here and sometimes the school seems to be something of a help and at other times it feels like it is totally in the way of my becoming a person. Besides, why do I have to tell you what school is all about? Didn’t you go to school? Don’t you know what school is like? Why keep asking me?”
Of course you did go to school, but what does that have to do with your child’s education? The aim of this book is to take you into the minds of children as well as back into your own school memories in an attempt to put you back in touch with the gritty reality of being a child in school. I hope I can help you appreciate the extraordinary psychological journey that constitutes every child’s institutional education. But first, let’s start with you.
Have you recently thought about your school years, what it really felt like, down to your bones? How did it feel to sit on those hard wooden or plastic chairs for hours, to stand in line to go to music or PE? What about eating lunch in a crowded, noisy cafeteria? Do you remember struggling to master a concept? Do you remember how it felt to get bad grades? Or perhaps you never received an F or a D or even a C. Were you ever afraid of the possibility? Did you come home from fifth grade and find yourself anxious until you finished your homework? Did you ever feel sick just thinking about going to school, or at the end of a school day? I know a talented physician who was, as you might expect, an accomplished student in school. Many days, however, his take on his teacher’s demands made him so anxious that he threw up when he got home.
Did school ever bore you? Do you remember what a difference it could make in your daily life if the teacher really liked—or seemed to hate—you? Do you remember PE class? Did you love it or fear it? Do you remember the texture of it: the exciting, scary games like dodgeball (if you liked it) and the stupid games like dodgeball (if you didn’t)? Were you afraid of being picked last? Were you nervous about the way your body looked or about changing your clothes in front of other children? Do you remember the endless amounts of wasted time in school?
Did your parents care about school? Had your mom or dad been good in school? Do you remember a teacher whom you loved? A teacher who seemed to care deeply about you? Do you still think of her from time to time? Was school a refuge from your family? Did it seem a calm and organized place in comparison to the chaos of home?
There are a million questions I could ask, hoping to make you remember things you haven’t thought about in years. Why would I want to dredge up those memories? As a psychologist, I am fascinated by the lives people lived in school. I am also committed to reminding parents about the day-to-day experience of school so that they can really comprehend what their children are experiencing daily. Every child’s school experience is an intricate, exciting, sometimes painful, often boring psychological journey. We should all be aware of that, but that’s not what parents describe when they talk to me about their children’s school experiences.
Parents Have Lost Their Memories of What School Is Really Like
As a psychologist who works in schools, I spend much of my day with the unhappiest, least successful, and sometimes most bitter children in the building. When I finally sit down with a child, there is the hope and assumption that I will get him back on track in some way, that I will find the key to motivate him, that I will learn some secret about his family life—teachers always speculate that there are problems at home—that will remove the obstacles from his path and help turn him around.
Sometimes I am able to do exactly that. I find the key and I share that information with the child’s educators. Most of the time it is not that easy. Generally I succeed in doing something less magical but more substantial. I learn how a child perceives school, in what ways school might not be a good fit for her, and, most important, I come to understand what she has to do every day to survive school.
My understanding of a student’s school journey, of his strategy for negotiating school, is perhaps the most important thing I can learn from a therapeutic encounter with a child. This goes beyond any simple diagnosis, and beyond testing for a learning disability, though either of these may be an important part of the journey. Just the act of a child communicating to me how he feels he fits or doesn’t fit into the school environment may change his experience of school entirely: simply being heard and understood can be healing or encouraging. If I can find a way to convey a portion of what I have learned from the child to my colleagues, and they respond helpfully, and to a child’s parents, that too may change the nature of the child’s experience in school.
After twenty years of working this way with parents and children, I am convinced that one of the greatest barriers to helping children in schools is the fact that parents don’t have an accurate view of school. It’s paradoxical: Since parents spent time in schools when they were kids, they should, theoretically, have such information available. However, it has been my experience that adults have lost touch with the texture and meaning of their own educational experiences. As a result, children feel that their parents are “out of it,” that they don’t understand. Parents tend to focus on grades and how it is all going to turn out and miss seeing the realities of their child’s life as it is lived day to day.
This happens for a number of reasons: Our childhood memories are often lost or repressed. Also, perhaps starved for information about a child’s school day, parents are condemned to focus on their child’s future. Doing so, they may overlook important aspects of their child’s present.
Even the most thoughtful parents of school-age children tend to hold the simplistic view that their kids operate at just two speeds: working hard enough or not working hard enough. Parents all too often use mechanical metaphors to describe children. We say that a child may need to “get her act into gear,” or “put the pedal to the metal,” and get her grades up. Sometimes, indeed, it is the case that a child isn’t working as hard as she theoretically might. However, she cannot just be shifted into higher gear, or given a “kick in the butt” or a “jump-start,” as many parents have said to me. If we’re going to think about children as having gears, we should compare them to the most sophisticated mountain bikes. Children have at least twenty-eight gears and are constantly making minute adjustments as they go up and down the hills of the school day.
Every parent should know this because every adult lived through the demands of school life. When I was discussing the ideas for this book with a friend of mine, a woman in her fifties, she said, “Oh, school . . . I was scared every day.” Even if you weren’t frightened or worried every day, there were lots of times in childhood when you felt overwhelmed and little—precisely because children are small. One wit once said that the most powerful person on earth is a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. As a child, it didn’t feel as though you were making things happen. You were under the control of other people and most of it was happening to you.
We repress much of what happened to us in our childhoods. Perhaps Freud’s most original insight was that we are all capable of locking up some childhood memories in our unconscious mind, memories upsetting or socially unacceptable to our adult psyche. Freud thought we repressed much of our childhood experiences because of sexual thoughts. However, I think we tend to repress memories of being helpless and out of control. People selectively remember their childhood experiences. If a parent loses touch with her school experience, she will be at a loss to fully support her own children in their school struggles. One of the goals of this book is to help you, the reader, remember what happened to you in school.
Adults often have a selective—sometimes romanticized, sometimes caricatured—view of their own school experiences. We condense many years into a set of war stories, anecdotal chestnuts that have been polished by repeat performances. If you have attended a high school reunion or college reunion, you have almost certainly swapped stories with former classmates about the popular kids, the tragic suicide or car accident that carried away a member of your class, the most boring or outrageous or sexy or pathetic teachers. Those communal stories need to be shared. But did you tell one another the inside story about being in school, perhaps how angry or miserable you were? Have you ever told someone how incredibly competitive you felt? Have you ever told someone how much you adored a high school teacher?
Many unconscious feelings about school experiences have never really been put into words. I interviewed a very successful real estate developer. He was bitter about his school experience from the first grade onward, even though he acknowledged the importance of education. “Everybody ought to know a certain amount about everything, but God, sitting through a year of it, stuff that you just hate, and so many—probably fifty percent of the class—is basically out of it a lot of the time. . . . I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.”
Did this man’s parents know he was disengaged and angry when he was in school? Did they know his suffering came about because of a huge discrepancy between his native intelligence and a very real but undiagnosed reading disability? Did his parents not know what to do?
It is not only children given the label of learning disabled who struggle and suffer. “Gifted” students (many of whom also have learning disabilities or problematic gaps in their skills) may feel desperate for a genuine challenge or for social companionship among peers. They may wish other skills came easier or feel burdened by others’ assumptions, hopes, or expectations. Some of the unhappiest children I have known have been highly gifted honor-roll regulars. It has been said that all great gifts come with a cost. What does it feel like for a child who lives it?
What about the average, or so-so, students? Just as there are no so-so human beings, no child is average once you get to know her. Is your best friend average or above average? Is a child who shows only mild interest or aptitude for schoolwork only mildly affected by the difficult challenge of school, by an argument with her best friend, by divorce or illness in her family, or by the way everyone compares her to her brilliant sibling?
What about children who cut themselves or use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their unhappiness, or who end up in emergency rooms after suicide attempts? No one self-destructs over a history test, but the school day and school experience are hardly irrelevant. School is always a contributing factor to the quality of a child’s life.
The more I thought about the school experience of the students who came to my office, the more I realized that, despite my own record as a successful student at excellent schools, I had experienced most of the things I was hearing about from these unhappy young reporters, though perhaps not to the same degree. I came to the conclusion that even the very best school is a difficult place for a child. In the words of my daughter, you have to put up with a lot of crap in school.