One of the greatest insights I have ever received on the topic of school answers the question of why kids continue to go to school day after day, school year after school year without more protest. Put simply: because school is where all the other kids are. (I am inclined to credit psychologist and author, Michael Thompson, PhD, with this insight, but I have not yet been able to retrieve the specific passage.)
And if we think about it honestly, as parents, teachers, or just as grown-ups, doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course kids want to be where other kids are. That’s where the action is. It’s where they can really learn the stuff that interests them. With other kids is where kids learn how (and how not) to be themselves. They develop their own idiosyncratic metrics to determine who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. What’s going on at school for kids has everything to do with these factors first and foremost and all else (i.e., academic achievement) has to be viewed within this critical context.
For this reason I love reading Michael Thompson on the topic of child development and school. In The Pressured Child (2004) he describes why he feels that the psychological aspects of school are missing in most talk about education.
We always talk about what we’re trying to teach children in school, and whether they are learning what they need. However, this is only the first of three different levels at which children experience school: The Lesson, The Strategy and Self-Knowledge.
The Lesson is the adult agenda for children. The Strategy is what children develop in order to cope with both the reality of The Lesson and the many other things they are interested in learning from school…Self-Knowledge is what children actually achieve in school.” (p. 14-15)
As adults we typically have a very hard time seeing things from the child’s perspective. We have forgotten what it was like being a child. We can no longer fathom the way they think and how on earth they reach the conclusions that they do. And we have responsibilities: to make sure they are safe, warm and fed, that they are educated, and that they are loved. We’re working so hard to make sure they get what they need and often a fair amount of what they want. Why can’t they see that?
Getting back to my own thoughts on school, I realized that my own positioning is decidedly ambiguous. Having my six year old start first grade in September has thrown this ambiguity into stark relief. While I want my son to have a great school experience, I am clearly braced for the possibility that this may not materialize. In fact, I am sure that my grown-up reservations about school being the perfect place for children are as plain to my son as the nose on my face. This led me to wonder about adjusting my message. What if I told my son, “School is going to be awesome!” and actually meant it?
What if I consciously added this perspective to the mix of messages he is receiving? He is six years old. The song, “Everything is Awesome” makes sense to him. So much of his world is still occupied by magic, miracles and super-hero powers. In his mind, school could become like the secret lair of a bunch of mini masterminds or the enchanted forests of a distant planet. All of that is still so possible – in his mind.
Yet my maternal, adult, educator mind is still saying: “You’ve got to be ready” and “You’re starting school in September” which are both ways of saying, “There are expectations you’ll need to meet, there are challenges you’re going to face” and actually meaning “I hope you’ll be OK,” and “I sure hope it goes well.” And deep down, “Yeah, I’m pretty scared, too.”
Maybe there’s the crux. And I think Michael Thompson would agree: My fears are my own and they surface as I watch my own child venture into new territory. Having that awareness and acknowledging it puts me in a real position to grant my son license to create his own adventure, both with school and without. It’s possible for kids to absolutely love school. And for so many reasons I need to do all I can to support that possibility, to keep it alive in my son’s mind as well as in my own.
I highly recommend just about anything written by Michael Thompson, PhD. Especially, however,
The Pressured Child (2004) NY, NY: Ballantine Books (w/Teresa Barker) or
Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. (2001) also Ballantine Books.