Like many children, my step-daughter struggled with the transition to middle school. Going from a small neighborhood grade school, where more often than not she had the same teacher for two years in a row, to the larger, less personal middle school, with its expectations for greater autonomy, left her feeling alone, overwhelmed, and uncertain. Trying to find ways to help her navigate the situation, I asked if there was a teacher to whom she was drawn, and with whom she might be able to share her struggle. At first she replied with a series of less than plausible reasons why asking a teacher for help would not work, and when she realized I wasn’t buying fully into her ideas she finally said in exasperation “don’t you remember what it was like? Wasn’t there anyone you were afraid of when you were my age?” In that very moment I was transported back fully to when I was near her age, and yes, yes indeed, there was such a person. MB. She managed the local stable where I took riding lessons.
As I thought about what it was that frightened me, it was MB’s no-nonsense, to-the-point manner; her ability to set clear boundaries and expectations; establish and stick to the rules; and her downright efficiency and capability. I think part of me was in awe, and part of me was intimidated, but mostly, as a young adolescent, I didn’t have the skills to navigate and understand an adult’s reality. Reflecting on it now, MB and I share a laugh because that is not the way she remembers our relationship and all, and in all honesty the traits that disconcerted me back then are very much traits of my own today. What I didn’t see as easily was MB’s fairness, helpfulness, and desire to support all of us kids who showed up to ride. Not to mention her care, humor, and loyalty; MB and I have gone on to have a life-long, wonderful friendship. The photo at the top is of MB helping me get ready for Little Scholar’s first dressage show a couple of years ago.
I shared earlier that I am currently reading a biography of Fred Rogers (AKA Mr. Rogers), and learning a great deal about his life and commitment to healthy child development. The set of the “neighborhood” as I remember it was rather simple, with its kingdom of make believe, the trolley, lots of puppets, and of course Mr. Rogers coming in daily, putting on his sweater and changing his shoes, all while singing “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” What I am learning is that behind the scenes there was very detailed care put into every word that was written in the script – words that were based on putting adults back in the world of children, and especially in little children, a very literal world that can be confusing and scary. Fred Rogers worked closely with a developmental psychologist, Dr. Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh to go over every educational idea and resulting script to be sure that what was said affected the children viewers in a positive way. The care that Fred Rogers took to ensure he looked carefully through the eyes and experience of children is uncanny in today’s hurried world, and something we might all want to think about in our practice.
This weekend I read an article by Erika Christakas, the author of The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grown-Ups, on the topic of preparing students for active school shooter scenarios. When I think back to my own time in my own small neighborhood grade school, and the safety I had there that I never had to question, I have trouble fathoming what it is like in schools today. Christakas describes how in helping students prepare for active shooting situations, we are trading the need to develop protocols to keep student safe, for the damage such protocols are doing to the mental health of students. At the heart of her argument is that we are asking youth and children, sometimes very young children, to think and act like adults in these situations, something that is developmentally impossible. In an effort to help keep children safe, she argues, we are trading their mental health and well being.
As you think about your work with youth, are you mindful of seeing the world through their eyes and their level of experience? Can you put yourself back to that same age and time in your own childhood and remember what it was like- how you felt, and what you understood at that time? As youth development professionals we have to be careful to avoid adultism- the tendency to assume youth can think the same way as adults, and always focus on the developmental appropriateness of our interactions with youth.