Winning

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Photo by ANDRIK ↟ LANGFIELD ↟ PETRIDES on Unsplash

 

I’ve taken a long, intentional hiatus from this blog.

For one thing, there’s a lot of incredibly wonderful writing out in the world these days, and I find I spend most of my time reading it. I’m reading really excellent journalism, fiction, narrative nonfiction and books on the craft of writing.

Sometimes – actually, too often – I read tweets. On my better days, when I’ve tired of reading long form, I read Real Simple or Southern Living, or I just stare at beautiful things on Instagram. I’ve been writing, too, but not for public consumption – not yet, anyway.

In the midst of this reading and private writing, I’ve also been mothering my quickly growing children – children who are, suddenly, no longer babies. And I’ve seen the emergence of a theme, perhaps, a national epidemic.

Unlike so many things today, this isn’t something that can really be politicized, although it certainly contributes to our country’s fractious conversations. It isn’t something I hear a ton of parents debating. It isn’t something that people feel obliged to discuss as right or wrong as it applies to privilege or lack thereof. It just rests, as an undercurrent, beneath the surface of all that is and, according to now, ever will be.

I’m talking about winning.

There have been plenty of studies and articles pointing to teenagers who are over-committed, anxious and stressed. Lots of books have been written about grit, determination, and character development. Doctors and psychologists insist that it is okay for kids to fail – that parents should let them fail.

All that’s fine and good, but I’ve found it flips the issue upside down. If we feel compelled enough by a study, essay or article, we’ll do our damndest to apply the wisdom. We will work hard, really hard, on letting our kids fail with the same fervor we pursue so much of what characterizes our highly-curated lifestyles today.

Our kids will be the failingest kids in the country … and gritty … and determined. Why? Because we’re Americans. We can win at failing, too.

If you look at what’s trending in today’s media, so much is about who’s winning and who’s losing. Everyone has to choose a side, and there is no middle ground. This is an element of today’s culture that I find so exhausting and anxiety-provoking that it makes me want to throw my iPhone in the Harpeth River and let it sink to the bottom.

What our obsession with #winning tells me about where we are as a country is that we are truly, deeply failing, and failing in a way that actually matters. Our collective failure, laid especially bare over these past several months, is a failure to embrace nuance and teach it to kids who need most to understand it.

Nuance. It’s one of my favorite things, really. It’s a reading between the lines, an effort to understand. Nuance offers a holistic approach to life. It requires critical thought, a second, long look. Nuance is useful because, truly, nothing – nothing – is ever, actually, as it seems.

If we lose our ability to acknowledge and appreciate the depth and dimension of all that is at hand, we lose. End of story.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing my children’s lackluster athletic pursuits. The fault of this lies squarely on me. My oldest, now nine and a half, has the form and physique of an athlete. She looks like she was born to do something – to run, scrimmage, or cartwheel her way down a field in pursuit of some big win. She’s tried out a few sports: pirouetted down the soccer field and catapulted her way through gymnastics, sprinted through the water in summer swim team. She’s taken piano and guitar.

But because of my reluctance to upend our entire family’s routine, I haven’t pushed any of these extra-curricular activities, and have even found myself dissuading her from a few based on the time required.

Now that she’s decided that she genuinely loves to swim, I’ve allowed her to pursue it, but, at nine, she’s gotten a late start, and while many of her classmates are on competitive teams, she’s still perfecting her form.

If I didn’t embrace nuance, this could be really hard.

Parents take a lot of pride in their kids’ accomplishments. And the dedication and determination of many young athletes truly is remarkable. Many of these kids are more disciplined than mine are, but there’s a trade-off, too, and that’s what keeps me from turning our weekends into a circus.

Our pediatrician sometimes looks at me curiously when I say my kids (9 and under) are only casually involved in after-school activities. “They’re active, though, right?” he says, knowing me well enough now to anticipate that they’re not spending their afternoons in front of the TV.

Active, yes.

Winning? No.

Because, here’s the thing, and this is what slowly came to light following my middle child’s most recent well check:  What I thought had everything to do with scheduling actually also encompassed this larger conversation. I don’t like today’s insistence on winning; I reject the constant pursuit of prestige to an abnormal degree. I want my kid to be a kid, in the old-fashioned sense, where her interests and passions grow from tiny seeds, not trophies.

Do I think this means my kids will never do anything of value? That they’ll never learn to be disciplined, or to find their passions, or that they will fail so constantly that I’ll be the winningest mom in allowing her kids to fail in the history of the planet? Of course not.

I trust that my kids will find their way, that they will insist on pursuing the things they love when they find them. We will encourage them to move their bodies for the singular joy of moving their bodies. We will expose them to opportunities that might lead to participation, but not push them to try everything, in search of the one thing where they can, with some level of certainty, win.

Plenty of you out there grew up enjoying competitive sports and probably have a different perspective on this than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are probably more athletic than my kids, too. They may receive real joy from their three practices a week, and you might be able to impart invaluable wisdom to them thanks to your own athletic experiences. That’s great.

Or, you might be a parent who has intensely determined kids who have found a passion that you don’t quite understand, and yet, you’re going with it because they love it. And I’m okay with that, too.

All I’m saying is this: what if we promoted experience and participation over success? Our kids are paying attention. If we champion the gray area a little bit more, it won’t lessen their discipline or determination, but it might make them kinder, more compassionate human beings. And heaven knows we need more of those right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Genius

On occasion, my husband, A, and I have conversations about what we would do if we had an inexhaustible amount of money. Since I will likely never have to make good on this, sometimes I try to impress him and say I would give away half and invest the rest. But if I’m honest, I tell him I’d spend a lot of it on continuing education, enrolling myself perpetually in classes covering everything from literature and art history to astronomy and biology. I would want to be responsible for completing a lot of interesting, difficult homework for these classes and to get a real grade, even if my grade ended up not being very good (see: astronomy).

I am not owning up to this so that you will think I am smart, but because it is (somewhat embarrassingly, strangely) true. There are just few things I love more than school, and there are few ways to recreate the joys of discovery found in a university setting once your time is up. Until now.

A couple of years ago, I discovered TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.   Each week, experts in their fields speak for twenty minutes on their newest discoveries, creations or innovations, and TED, God bless ’em, puts these talks on the world wide web for free. Like that favorite college professor, the presenters are all, almost without fail, charismatic, convincing and convicting. They cover fascinating topics you wouldn’t otherwise know or care anything about, and, before you know it, their passion for natural light or leadership or the printing of organs has hopped from their minds and hearts to yours in a matter of seconds.

The constant presence of the Web is, in my house, anyway, not always the best thing.  Like the Pied Piper, the charming, insidious chimes of our cell phones and the ever-presence of the internet and its relentless deluge of (often useless/empty) information,  leads my family away from one another, because family – even at the very happy, early stage we are in – takes emotional work and active investment, while our electronic “communications” allow us to function at B-level all the time.

But the makers of TED have somehow redeemed the internet for me, making it, in my mind, what it should be – a vehicle not only for spreading ideas, but inspiration, artfulness, intrigue, beauty and light in a world that shifts all too naturally into corners of desolation, defeat, cynicism and darkness. And although it doesn’t assign homework (am I the only person who’s disappointed about this?), TED does allow for the kind of interesting follow-up conversations that I crave, especially after a day of saying “no-no, no-no” to an eleven month old and “yes, of course I want to see how (big you are/well you can crunch your pretzel/beautifully you twirl)” to a three year old. Watching TED reminds me that there are still amazing and incredible things happening in the outside world, and it allows me to be a part of them – if only vicariously, for now.

To watch: http://www.TED.com

Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.