Abandon perfection... or embrace it? (How to raise an adult, task #4)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step four: abandon perfection. 

Or, at least, that's what Julie Lythcott-Haims says. Today marks the fourth installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult, drawing extensively from her book of that name!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

one of the hardest aspects of letting our kids do the stuff of life for themselves is giving up on an ideal of perfection that we can most likely achieve but our kids most likely can't.

I'd like to question this, but first: oh, do I feel it!

Me, I like a clean floor. Clean floors in the evening make me feel calm, and in control of my thoughts and life. My two kids (ages three and nearly-six) don't yet seem to share my obsession!

Now, we're making progress toward having a clean floor. (Deciding that all toys still on the floor at night would be confiscated for a week has made a big difference.) But we're still not there — small cars are still stuck beneath chairs, ponies are still wedged under the refrigerator.

For the last few years Kristin and I have been doing the cleaning ourselves, leading to two outcomes: (1) The floor has occasionally been perfectly clean. (2) Our kids have hardly even begun to learn to clean.

Dumb, dumb!

We've been holding on to the ideal of "perfect" — and not demanding as much of our kids as we ought. In the words of developmental psychologists, we've been indulgent.

We've only recently started letting go of perfect — and about time!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

Perfectionism... is the enemy of adulthood.

I entirely agree with this... except.

It seems to me that this ideal (abandon perfection) is in tension with another ideal: pursue perfectionApproching perfection is what motivates gymnasts, and artists, and pitchers. It's what motivates poets, and mathematicians, and scientists, and activists.

Now, that's (obviously) not to say that actual perfection is possible. But setting a very high standard, and working diligently toward it, is one of the marks of an adult — at least, the sort that we're trying to cultivate.

"The goodness and badness of perfection" is a much larger topic than I'm able to limn out this morning — but I want to identify a possible tension here. And so I'll leave us with a question:

How can we balance "abandon perfectionism" and "set high ideals" in a school?

Slowly get out of the way! (How to raise an adult, task #3)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step three: slowly get out of the way.

(Today's the third installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult; the most recent post was about providing unstructured time. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

Two fundamental choices are at the root of most parenting dilemmas:

Should we demand more of our kids, or give them more help? 

A few decades of developmental psychology has come up with a definitive answer: both. Psychologists have even come up with titles for each of the four possible styles of parenting:

Parents who help a lot, but who don't demand much: indulgent. Parents who demand a lot, but who don't help: authoritarian. Parents who neither demand nor help: neglectful. Parents who both demand much, and help their kids do it: authoritative.

The best style, developmental psychologists tell us, is the final one — authoritative.

Two small notes:

  1. These are dumb names — "authoritative" and "authoritarian" sound alike. This seems a comprehension error on par with J. R. R. Tolkien's decision to call one of his villains Sauron, and the other Sauruman. C'mon, developmental psychologists!
  2. I'm really, really suspicious of any claims about "this is what good parenting is, end of story". And, also, I love dishing out vitriol against developmental psychologists. The trouble is, I strongly agree with this idea — that the best sort of parenting both demands a lot, and helps kids achieve it. If anyone knows any evidence that challenges this conclusion, please share it!

But don't "demand much" and "help much" cancel each other out? How can we do both?

The answer: slowly get out of the way. The same answer, put shorter: scaffolding. 

A scaffold (here's the Wikipedia link) is a short-term structure that's built first, to aid in constructing something grander and longer-term.

As parents, our job is to put ourselves out of work. We teach kids what we know, help them do what we can do, and then send them on their way! This is incredibly joyous, and incredibly bittersweet. This is scaffolding. This is good parenting.

In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims draws upon a framework that a friend of hers created for building skills in her own kids:

  1. We do it for you.
  2. We do it with you.
  3. We watch you do it.
  4. You do it completely independently.

I think I have two questions from this.

First, how can we bring this process into every part of our schools? Do we want to structure student evaluations (previously known as "grades") on this framework? Are there any aspects of our curricula in which this scaffolding would be inappropriate? 

Second, to what extent should we work with parents to help this happen at home? How much do we see "schooling" as separate from home life? In order to cultivate adults who can help mend the world, do we need to help parents shape their kids' lives at home, too? To what extent is starting a school like starting a tribe? 

If you've any thoughts on this, please do share 'em in the comments section!

(The beautiful image above courtesy of liggettlawgroup.com — thanks, lawyers!)

Give kids unstructured time! (How to raise an adult, task #1)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step one: give kids unstructured time. 

(Today's the first installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

As evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has persuasively argued, the urge to play is the primary evolutionary adaptation to prepare juveniles for adulthood. Indeed, other mammals play, too — but perhaps none more than our species.

And parts of our society are squeezing out play. In the last few decades of U.S. history, play has morphed from an unstructured activity to a formal, structure, supervised enterprise.

This is bad for kids.

How can our schools bring back unstructured play?

In school, we can make time for it: give students perhaps an hour a day of outdoor time (regardless of the weather) in which to run, skip, jump, dash, and make merry. Climb in trees! Splash through puddles! Wrestle, play games, make-believe! (For more on this, see our plans for an adventure playground on school grounds, and the series of posts on the book How to Raise a Wild Child.)

Children's lives are (in the middle-class population I work with) overscheduled. Free play is dying in part because there's no time for it. This we can definitely fix.

In school, we can prompt kids to do it — and maybe even give them a little instruction. I know what you're thinking: if an adult is participating in it, it's not unstructured play. I, too, once thought this, and was horrified to hear there was a company — Playworks — that was teaching kids how to play at recess.

Ridiculous! Preposterous!

And then I read that Lenore Skenazy, the progenitor of the "free-range kids" movement, was a convert. Her brief article describing her support for Playworks — Even ‘free-range kids’ could use help with recess — is excellent reading.

Play is a natural, spontaneous human activity. Forms of play, however, are also cultural activities passed from kid to kid through the ages. A single group of kids, by themselves, may not invent the rich diversity of play ideas that is available to them.

Quote Skenazy:

We may like to think of play as innate, but what’s innate is the desire to play. It isn’t innate to come up with the rules of four square, or a rhyme about a wardrobe malfunction. Those are things handed down from generation to generation.

When they’re not, it is like a lost language. If a parent speaks Spanish, but not to her kids, the kids don’t automatically learn it. Likewise, just because we all knew how to organize a game of “Mother May I?” doesn’t mean today’s kids will, if they haven’t been taught by the older kids, or even just watched them play it.

So we might teach delightful games to play, provide costumes for imaginative play, and encourage them to do it. Kids can be lazy, and just want to lay around — and part of our job is prompting them to get over their short-term wants, and into things that will bring them lasting joy.

After school, we can limit homework. Grade schoolers should have next-to-no homework — and I'm not convinced that middle and high schoolers ought to have much more.

We have names for adult jobs that demand more of our time than the 40 hours spent at the work site — we call them stressful jobs, jobs that'll burn you out. They are, frequently, bad jobs.

Going to school should not be a bad job. Long slogs of homework should be an exception, not a norm.

This may necessitate lengthening the school day. But I wonder if parents, at least, would be happy to make this trade, if it means that their time with their kids can be less tense and drillmaster-y. It's not fun to have to, night after night, force your kid to do worksheets.

Finally, throughout a child's K–12 education, we can help work with parents to cultivate a culture of free play. I wonder if, to this end, the book How to Raise an Adult might be good mandatory reading. We can teach the principles in this book, and conduct the sort of Socratic seminars with parents that we do with their kids.

And we can be even more helpful: help parents organize to get kids together to play at the park, have cookouts, have campouts.

And we can invites parents to share their struggles with bucking the trend: a squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the nail that sticks out will be hammered. Parental peer culture can be intense, and rejecting the norm of helicopter parenting might invite antagonism from other parents. We, perhaps, can help create a tribe of like-minded parents who support one another through difficult choices.

If a new kind of school can succeed at doing some of these things, I wonder if we can bring back the culture of unstructured play time that nurtures healthy kids, and healthy adults.

(Image courtesy of appetiteforeducation.com — thanks, guys!)

How to Raise an Adult


Schools work with children and adolescents — but our ultimate goal is cultivating adults. How do we do that?

For the next few days, I'll be going over some of the major prescriptions of Julie Lythocott-Haims book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

The book is excellent. For me, reading it was a gratifying experience — seeing many of the parenting and educational principles I've collected over the years put into one whole. As Orwell's protagonist reflected in 1984:

The best books... are those that tell you what you know already.

Reading it didn't give me so much the electric buzz of new ideas, but the growing excitement of one question:

How can our schools use this?

The problem: Many parents of a certain socio-economic culture (cough cough upper-middle class cough) have veered toward overparenting — aka helicopter parenting. This is bad for children and other living things. It's connected to a lack of life skills, of anxiety and depression, to addiction, to lessened job outcomes, parent stress, and a pathological obsession about college admissions.

Can a new kind of school fix this? Or, more reasonably, can a new kind of school help to mend this, both by what it does when kids are in school, and in the parental and community outreach it does after school hours?

Frankly: I'm not sure. But I'm interested in exploring how we might. 

My plan is to take a day each to unpack each of Lythocott-Haims' "do this" chapters, and to imagine how her ideas could help form the basis of our new kind of school. These'll include the following pieces of advice:

  • Give kids unstructured time
  • Teach life skills
  • Teach them how to think
  • Prepare them for hard work
  • Let them chart their own path
  • Normalize struggle
  • Have a wider mindset about colleges
  • Listen to them

Lythocott-Haims, it should be said, is a parent, and a professor. She served for a decade as Stanford's dean of freshmen, where she saw helicopter parenting swell. She criticized it — but then, as her own kids matured, began to see it in herself:

As a dean I was getting quite good at telling other parents not to overdirect their kids' lives, but as a parent, I was having a hard time following my own advice.

Here's what I take from this book: it's hard not to over-parent, or at least it is if the parents around you are doing the same thing. If there's going to be widespread change, it will come from people who directly address these problems — who point out how over-parenting limits kids — and who imagine other ways of parenting, and who work with small communities of parents to live out these ideals.

Teach life skills! (How to raise an adult, task #2)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step one: teach kids practical skills. 

(Today's the second installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult; yesterday's post was about providing unstructured time. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

Contemporary schools don't teach kids how to live. I'm certainly not the first person to point this out — there have been a series of reform movements in the last century to inject practical skills into K–12 schooling. And these reforms have been mildly successful — they're where we get home ec, typing, and auto shop from.

But we can do so, so much more. And we can do it by not dividing between what's "practical" and what's "intellectual". To quote the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,

There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.

As I've laid out in our page on "practical superpowers", the academic and practical are two sides of the same coin. So teaching kids how to master the basic skills of living doesn't deviate from our goal of cultivating genius — it fulfills it. 

We're always teaching something. If we're not teaching self-efficacy, we're teaching learned helplessness. If we're not teaching walking kids through how to take on the responsibilities of adult life, we're teaching them that they can't be adults, that they need to rely on the competence of others to do the basic things.

As Martin Seligman has demonstrated, teaching learned helplessness is a powerful path into provoking depression. 

What is self-efficacy? In the 1980's, American schools went through a fad of trying to inculcate self-esteem — trying to directly increase kid's sense of self-worth. This movement seems to be dead, or at least dying — and from where I stand, I say good riddance. There's been research linking heightened self-esteem to heightened rates of narcissism, depression, and violence. Perhaps thankfully, there's also been research indicating that interventions to raise self-esteem largely haven't worked!

Self-efficacy is different than self-esteem. As Lythcott-Haims writes,

Self-efficacy is built by doing the work and seeing that success came from effort. Self-efficacy is built in large part by the repeated trial-and-error opportunities afforded by childhood.

Self-efficacy can give you self-esteem — but as a by-product. Self-efficacy comes from struggling with a task, and from achieving mastery.

And mastery, if you'll recall, is one of the three basic pieces of our schools' philosophy!

Our schools, I'm thrilled to say, seem already designed to teach self-efficacy. In at least this important way, we're already set up to raise adults.

What life skills should we teach? 

A helpful year-by-year list is provided by Lindsay Hutton at the website Family Education. Some excerpts:

  • Ages 4–5: kids should know their full names, addresses, and phone numbers — and how to make an emergency call.
  • Ages 6–7: kids should know basic cooking techniques: mixing, stirring, cutting. They should know how to make a basic meal, use household cleaners safely, and straighten up a room.
  • Ages 8–9: kids should be able to do basic sewing, sweep and dust, write a grocery list, and water and weed flower beds.
  • Ages 10–13: kids should be able to wash clothes, use the oven, mow the lawn, look after littler kids, and buy things at the store.
  • Ages 14–18: kids should be able to prepare and cook full meals, interview for (and get) a job, change a tire, and unclog a drain.

I think these are wonderful. (And I say that as someone whose 5-year-old son doesn't currently know our phone numbers or address — something I'll rectify shortly!) But I think our school can go far, far beyond these. 

Some of this I've mentioned before. One large theme of our school is cultivating practical superpowers. I've written about how our students will make lunch together daily — I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect they'll master making full meals by age 9 or 10. I've also written about how students must be in charge of cleaning the school.

But I think we can go even beyond those. I think we can have all of our middle schoolers adept at basic first-aid. I think we can have all of our high schoolers prepared for emergency management (something I'm especially keen on, as I live in an earthquake-prone zone that's currently gearing down for The Big One).

Let me ask this question: What else might we prepare our students to do? I invite discussion about this on our Facebook page!

Our schools can excel at teaching life skills. And by doing so, we can help raise adults.

(Image courtesy of icebike.org. Thanks, folks!)