Winter of Wonder: The Magical Detective Trick to Stop Fighting with your Kids

Hey Tribe,

        To risk the cliché, this pandemic has got me reflecting on what really matters, and that line of thought has put some cognitive dissonance in my brain; it’s made space for two competing truths to consider at the same time. And, since I’m working on my own flexible thinking (a super important Executive Function for teachers and other humans), I’m almost enjoying the banter of paradoxical thinking.

       For example, in the last podcast, we explored the idea that because society still uses grades as an access point for opportunities, like scholarships and even sports teams, we have to take them seriously and play the school game. Yet, we also know that great people sometimes earn awful grades, and our kids can grow a bunch without their amazing growth showing on a report card.

       Right now, I’m considering the clash between what school values and what life rewards. In school, the self-control executive functions are key. You have to maintain a quiet body and mouth but participate enough to make teachers feel you’re invested. Yet, outside of school, being only silent in a meeting can lead to being passed up for opportunities, and some jobs do not require any quiet sitting. Kids with quick brains are told to settle or kicked out of class; yet in life, they may be just the problem solvers a company needs to move beyond a roadblock. I have to admit, tribe, that much of my first decade of teaching was spent over-emphasizing the importance of my students looking and acting like students, rather than filling up their toolbelts to help with missing skills. Now that I know better, I walk the line between supporting students’ grades and supporting their executive function skill acquisition for life. It’s a sign of an outdated school system that these two things do not align well.

       For example, we recently had a student announce, 30 minutes before the final writing assignment was due, that he needed some help. His actual words were (spoken in our Google Meet), “You guys need to show me visuals. I don’t know what to do.” This was three-groups-of-ten minutes before the end of the finals. He had been in the final with us for an entire hour before he decided to tell us that he needed help. I breathed hard, through my nose, and took a beat before I responded. My student teacher shut off her camera briefly, afraid her face would give away the feeling. Really? Really, kid? We’ve told you how many times, and you’re going to come at us with what we didn’t do right?

       And here’s the paradox of what we were facing: it was incredibly bad timing and sounded pretty rude, yet the kid was doing what we’ve requested all year, he was asking for help. He did the right thing, and he also did the wrong thing. I was pleased that he asked for help, and I was confounded at the tone and timing. He spoke up for himself, but he did so while his grade was crashing and burning. Which brings me to the ultimate paradox lately, something I’ve mentioned before but rings so true, especially in the season of reflection and resolutions:

We are all works of art while we are works in progress.

       You can accept and love someone where and as they are at the same time that you acknowledge weaknesses and flaws. You don’t even have to rebrand the flaws and call them quirks. You don’t have to like the flaws. You can love the whole person and want better for them.

       In teaching, when I embrace this paradox, it helps me disengage from potential conflict. It helps me not take things so personally because almost nothing is personal. It helps me more objectively see where a kid is, in order to help her grow.

       Back to the kid who asked for help last minute. The good news is, he survived. We didn’t yell or scold. I thanked him for asking for help and told him to check his email, where I would send more support. I asked him what prompted his asking for help right now. In my brain, I was wondering if he signed in to class but was ignoring us? Or maybe he was unconcerned with his grade, I wondered? Turns out he had finally gotten the courage to speak up about needing more visuals after he asked in his science class and was met with kindness, so he figured he’d try here too. We were able to work together to help him understand his assignment, and he wrote enough to save his grade. After finals, we had a chance to talk to explore how his tone came across and why it is important to ask for help before a deadline (which, let’s be honest, sometimes we grown ups are not that great at either). It’s humbling, to put it nicely, to realize how much more we expect from our kids than we actualize for ourselves.

       Let’s imagine, though, that I didn’t embrace the idea that kids are works in progress. Let’s imagine I went straight to fix-it (or scold-it) mode. I would have lost the kid for the rest of the year. I would have shaped his future behaviors by punishing his asking for help. It might have felt a little better, for a little while, to let some real out of me…but to be honest, I don’t think the immediate retorts are always the real. Sometimes our amygdalas choose nasty words that fly out of our faces before we can use our executive functions to control them!

We are all works of art while we are works in progress.

       This means you, as a parent, a partner, a teacher, are not going to do everything perfectly all the time. And that’s not a reason to dislike or berate yourself. You’re just human.

       Your kid’s a human too. And, if he or she is lacking some EF skills, chances are, he or she will be a little extra human at times.

       You might be warming to the idea that we’re all under construction in some forms, but how does this play out in real life? Behold! The Winter of Wonder!

       Instead of reacting right away, do a quick count in your head and ask, “I wonder what’s driving that?” Instead of yelling or launching into lecture mode, you can ask your child (or yourself), “I notice you are ___ing, I wonder why?” If this is too touchy-feeling when you’re really feeling upset, instead, label the moment, “You’re having a human moment,” then walk away to get space. Sometimes a little distance of time and space can bring your brain activity back to a more rational space and help you be open to wonder.

       Of course, if your child is hurting himself or others, intervene. But otherwise, take some time to wonder. This switch will put you into Detective Perspective and get your brain to disengage with some of the negative emotions. If you’re looking for causes and taking on your child’s perspective, your brain will be busy productively approaching the issue, rather than reacting.

Asking questions like, “I wonder what he’s getting or avoiding from doing this action?” or, “I wonder what skill he might be lacking in his executive function toolbox?” will help you get in a productive line of thinking, instead of blaming or fighting. It will take what could be an hour-long argument down to a manageable twenty-minute conversation, where you both talk and problem-solve, especially after you’ve both had time to take space.

       In all my relationships, I get to choose my thoughts. Here’s what I’m working on for myself:

       “I can love this human as he is and still want better for him. I can accept myself, where I am, and also identify where I need to improve. And we approach this paradox of being perfect and always-growing with the perspective of wonder.”

Grab that kid! Time for this week’s pep talk!

Happy 2021, you wonderful kid!

       I hope you are doing well and entering the new year with a happy mind. I don’t imagine everything is perfect right now, but, spoiler alert, it never will be. What can be great, though, is how you look at things, how you problem solve and wonder and try and fail and try again!

       This week your grown up learned about using wonder instead of upset emotions. When you are human and you make a human mistake, your grown up is going to try to ask you, “I wonder what you were feeling when you made that choice?” Or, “I wonder what could be making them act like that?” It’s not the usual, “Why would you do that??” but instead, a chance for you both to stop and think backwards in time. Right before the naughty or mistakey thing happened, what was going on? Were you having a big feeling? Were you confused about what to do? Or, did you impulse take over and you acted before you had a chance to stop? Whatever reason you figure out together, your brains and relationship will feel better. You’ll have a chance to make a better plan for next time because you won’t be fighting with each other.

       Because the truth is, you will make mistakes every single day for the rest of your life. Unless you’re asleep. But, actually, I know people who talk and toot in their sleep, so you make mistakes there too. Ok, plan on being human and making human moves for the rest of your life.

       We are works of art and works in progress at the very same time.

PS Remember, if your grown up gets upset with you, you can also take a minute to wonder about them. I can tell you a secret too: Probably your grown up is more scared than mad. They want you to have a great life—better than theirs—and sometimes they feel scared when you’re not perfect. Their brains can forget (because they are human too) that you’re under construction because they see as such works of art. So silly, huh? So, be understanding with your grown up and help them wonder too. Maybe you both can work together on your humanness.

Talk with you soon and all my love to you!

SarahPhoto by Radu Andrei Razvan from Pexels