The Parent Imperfect just finished a week that was even a bit wilder than usual. Dear Liz started a new job in that city where “ya’ don’t come out the way you went in.” The entire family is in for a lot of adjustments. Always aware, I responded by organizing a week in which I needed to be out of the house for seven nights in a row. It all started with a trip to the nation’s oldest public school for a meeting of the exciting, new Parent-2-Parent group, followed by a lecture by the well-known child psychologist, Michael Thompson.
Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, spoke at the school almost exactly two years ago, and he really got my attention. With Vince in the throes of making a decision about college, and Connie in the throes of eighth grade, I felt like I needed another shot of Thompson’s wisdom. The last talk could have been called, “Seeing Your Highly Competitive School the Way Your Son/Daughter Sees It: A Strategy for Getting a Parental Life,” and this one way remarkably similar.
A very good crowd was on hand for the talk in the BLS library, which says to me that lots of parents feel that they could use a little (or a lot) of help. There is nothing like sitting in the BLS library for two hours to drive home the degree of privilege inherent in being part of that school community. It is an amazing school library, the kind of library that a society with our resources ought to be able to offer every high school student.
One of Thompson’s great strengths and one of his really limiting weaknesses is that he lives in the world of therapeutic interventions. He “sees” students, often when they are having some pretty serious trouble in school. Being in that role means that he also talks to quite a number of parents. His vocation is to help people, especially young people, survive one of the most important institutions that we as humans have created for ourselves..our schools. His experience has taught him that an important part of helping young people survive school is to get their parents to back off a bit.
Thompson has discovered the ancient magic of stories. He heals groups like the one gathered at BLS by telling stories about how difficult it is to be a student today, and how often we well-meaning parents make things more difficult for our children. Many of the stories this time were the same as the stories of two years ago, but that didn’t seem to bother the large part of the crowd that made it to both talks.
Early in his talk, Thompson establishes that, not only has he been a school psychologist for decades, but he has also devoted many days of his life to following children through their school day, something that no one else in the room has ever done. This “hallway cred” and his gift as a storyteller make people pay attention to him. It’s easy to see why schools invite Thompson to speak all over the world, and the man reminds the audience at least twice that his is a global phenomenon. Nothing wrong with being a phenomenon, I suppose.
About in the middle of the talk, Thompson offers his image for the school experience of children. “I have come to see school as a thirteen year hike.” What’s the most important single accessory to a hiker? Their boots, of course. And for some percentage of kids, the school boots fit perfectly from day one. They never feel a bit of pain from their shoes. These are the easy through-hikers. Others, of course, are dealing with sore feet and blisters all along the way, but they find a way to keep going, despite it all. For some kids, however, the shoes of school attendance fit so badly and the pain is such that they just can’t keep going. Those hikers leave the trail. According to Thompson, 36% of the boys who begin high school in New York City do not finish. The hike is a brilliant metaphor that many in a crowd of BLS parents relate to with ease.
Perhaps the most powerful stories are the ones he tells about his own children. This time, Thompson talked about a daughter who suffered from serious dyslexia and had a very difficult time with the academic side of school. In school, she found a way to express herself through sports and other extra-curricular activities, got through school and has ended up as the highly-recognized manager of a high end restaurant. What could be a more hopeful fable?
But it’s another story that receives the most dramatic play from Thompson. The story plays on the regular tendency of many parents, including this one, to always ask kids how school was that day. To drive home his point, Thompson talks about a young kid who accompanied his parent to a Thompson talk. When the shrink sees the kid, he offers him a chance to speak to the crowd by asking if his parents always ask him how school was that day. The kid, almost too perfect to be true, says that his mother does always ask that stupid question and of course he doesn’t really tell her the truth of his day. Ready for the punch line, the psychologist asks the kid if he would share his reason for not telling his parents how his day was. The kid pauses for dramatic effect and finally says, “There’s not that much she can do about it!”
This is the key transformative moment in the talk, and the reason schools the world over line up to pay what I can imagine is a healthy fee to have this man speak in their community. In addition to getting us to see how hard life can be for kids in school, Thompson wants parents to realize that they have little control over the school environment. Much better to get out of the chopper and focus on trying to help your kid get three “simple” things: CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. It is these three things that kids need to get out of school to prepare them for what lies before them.
It has taken Thompson a while to get there, but this is the chase…the climax of the show. If you think about it, this is kind of a mixed message. “Back off, but help your kid achieve three things that that can be very difficult to achieve in a school like BLS (and even more so in other public schools).” If your kid happens to have an IEP, or is a Black or Latino male, then you face some special challenges getting Thompson’s big three, but I guess that’s another talk.
If I get another chance to see Michael Thompson speak, I’ll go again, but I’ll go determined to ask him why he doesn’t talk much about the culture of schools. He describes school culture, but prefers not to use that term. If he buys the idea of “school culture,” I’ll ask him to say what that means to him, and I’ll ask him to tell a healing story about a time when he saw the same damaging thing (like anxiety to the point that a kid can’t go to school) happening over and over to kids to such an extreme that he decided that, in addition to helping the victims, he had to do something about the culture that was contributing to this outcome. He could then tell the story of how he worked with others (teachers, students, parents, administrators…whoever) to make the necessary change.
I know, he’s a therapist who deals with “cases,” but I insist that a story about changing school culture would be a bit more empowering to parents who feel that the culture of their school needs to change in order for their child to achieve CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. Without at least a nod to such stories, Thompson’s message is enlightening, extremely funny, but, in the end, quite disempowering.