Posts Tagged enabling

Ask Kids Good Questions, Then Let Them Answer

Published by — In conference, we understand why many parents want to speak for their kids.  But it’s very enabling.


Today we’re in a conference with school staff, Mom, and her middle-school son who we’ll call Ryan.  Kids and their families come to conference when the youth’s behavior negatively affects the school community.  Conferences are structured meetings designed to get to the root of the problem.

Ryan’s already missed 15 days of school.  Mom notes that her kids always skip the first week or so because “nothing happens anyway.”  (School staff cringe.)  Then every day he did come, he was tardy.  Rhode Island law deems that four tardies add up to an absence.  So he’s already way over the 18 days, or 10% of a 180-day school year, that defines “chronic absenteeism” and eligibility for Truancy or Family Court.

Tardiness is not a petty issue.  Once teachers have settled their classes down to work, each tardy kid disrupts the class; each needs settling themselves.

Employers and colleges get furious with K-12 education because K-12 seems to teach lax attendance by tolerating it.  Reliably showing up on time is a basic life skill.

Conferences put the focus and onus on the kid.

If Ryan can’t figure out how to change his own behavior, the adults will have to keep working on it for him.  So after a few preliminaries, the meeting begins by asking him questions to understand what’s making him late.  He wriggles, paying no attention to the proceedings, waiting for it to be over.  Mom answers all the questions.  When asked to let him speak, she says, “He doesn’t like to talk, so I do it.”

While she’s refreshingly blunt about it, conference facilitators see many parents who think nothing of speaking for their kids.  Very enabling.  No one likes the uncomfortable silence that falls while it dawns on the kid that the adults seriously expect an answer.  It’s sorely tempting to let him or her off the hook.

In fact, even some school staff find the silence too painful.  Yes, some are just impatient.  But many suffer the pervasive and misguided belief that a kid shouldn’t feel bad, ever.  So like the parents, they too rush in to spare the kid the work of formulating an answer.

We all hate that prick of shame we all get when we’ve done something we’re not proud of.  But, as John Braithwaite points out, shame builds conscience.  Sometimes children or youth need to squirm on the other end of a good question to start taking ownership of their crummy choices.

What’s important is not to let them get stuck in shame.  Once they’re chagrinned by the poor choices they’ve made, adults can help them find specific strategies to avoid the mess again.  But first the grownups need to swallow hard and not enable.

Recently, Ryan’s mom has been driving Ryan and his siblings to school to make sure they’re on time.  So she’s clueless as to why he’s always late.  With kind questioning, Ryan finally starts explaining that he gets caught up in school social life and ignores the bell.  Oh, and his first-period teacher doesn’t like him.  School staff suggest that tensions with that teacher could be a result of disrupting the class every single day, which might go away when that stops.  Yeah, he can kinda see that.

Mom jumps in again, swearing she’ll make him obey.  Actually, Mom, you can’t.  His behavior is up to him.  In only a few years, after high school, he’ll legally be a man.  It’s easier to learn the habits of successful men while still young.  Later on Mom can’t help him if he’s in trouble.  He’d feel funny about bringing his mom to take care of problems if his boss or college professor is mad about his being late.

Ryan bursts out laughing.  In a little impromptu role-play he tells his imaginary boss that he’s going to tell his mom, ’cause she’s going to fix things.  He cracks himself up.  This is the moment conferences aim for.  He gets what a doofus he’s been.  Whether he changes his behavior is yet to be seen.  But he made it over the first hump and saw himself through the eyes of others in the context of his community.

Then he gets hugely creative with offering specifics for his Restoration Plan.  Many kids just shrug when facilitators probe for their solutions.  But Ryan knows there’s an alarm clock he can use.  He’ll lay out his clothes and shower the night before.  And more.  He’s on it.

Ryan signs the Restoration Plan.

Suddenly super serious, he’s like a national leader signing an act of war.  Mom’s a little taken aback, but she signs too.  They make a date for a follow-up meeting.  Ryan’s strangely gleeful.  Empowered, hopefully.  He gets a late pass and all but skips out of there.

Mom looks like she has a lot of questions she can’t quite formulate.  Her idea of good parenting had been to force her kids’ compliance and when that fails, to protect them from accountability.  It hadn’t been working.  She’s speechless.  Without smiling, she offers her hand and says a sincere thanks to the adults.

Kids are often lectured, yelled at or otherwise punished.  But few seem to have actually been held accountable and asked to explain, own and account for their actions.  Conferencing does them the favor of asking hard questions and expecting answers.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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If Parents Want Graduates, Raise Resilient Kids

Published by — If we want to see graduation rates improve, parents are going to have to introduce their kids to adulthood before sending them to college.

Congratulations high school grads!  In the Fall, many of you will go off to college, with all its adult freedom and delights.

But do you have the grit, the resiliency to complete a degree?  Beware.  You have lower odds than you think.

The sad graduation rate of U.S. high schools has finally climbed over 70 percent.  But a dirty secret of higher ed is that, on average, their graduation rates are even lower.  Obstacles abound to finishing a degree these days – money being the biggest.

But frankly, second to money, just leaving the comfortable nest at home has never been so hard.

To explore this issue, I talked with David Lux, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Bryant has particularly acute problems with home-attached students because its mission, and claim to fame, is that it gets its graduates prepared to work confidently in the global economy.  Bryant is known for its business programs, and business is increasingly international.

Bryant requires students to travel abroad, with exceptions, of course.  Its long-standing president, Ronald Machtley, declared ten years ago that 100 percent of its grads would have passports – only 30 percent of all Americans do.  He’s since settled for 80 percent.  Bryant is in the top 20 colleges and universities to give students international experience.

So Bryant students leave not just home, but also country.  More grit required.

Lux says that his colleagues across the country notice the same three problems with keeping students on track.

First is “the overwhelming experience of being away from home for the first time.”

Lux explains, “When I talk to parents, I ask how many of you give your son or daughter a wake up call in the morning, that shout upstairs?  About 80 percent do.  I say, stop that.  Our kind of students are primarily middle class, so they’ve been the focus of helicopter parents.  I ask how many kids have their own room and have never shared a room?  Because they’re about to be jerked out of their comfort zones.”

The inevitable second problem is the culture shock of mingling with peers from all kinds of backgrounds, with different levels of academic preparation.

Lux speaks for them, “Either I’m smarter than everyone, and I already did this.  Or I was at the top of my class in high school, and here I’m the dumbest person in the school.”

Mind you, Lux and I exchanged our own experiences of leaving home and going to college, so the challenge of this transition is not new.  As a fun-loving West-Coast girl, I thought competitive Easterners behaved like walking resumes.  But then, my parents were far from helicopter helpers; it was exclusively my job to deal with competition.

Third, and by far the newest and culturally oddest problem, kids don’t have what Lux calls “college street smarts.”  They don’t know how to hook into what works for them.  And the problems are always someone else’s fault.  The professor is at fault for going too fast or slow.  Students don’t actively use their friends and advisors to find the professors that work best for them.  Their success is not really their responsibility.

Bryant students are generally from homes where small business is important, often the source of the family income.  Such homes give lip service to the idea of self-reliance but don’t get their kids to practice it.  Mom and Dad have been doing for that kid for so long, he or she is calling home daily for guidance on the littlest things.

“Parents call me to complain about what’s happening with Johnny or Suzy – there’s a roommate problem, or grades.  I ask them to send the kid himself to see me.  If kids want counseling services, I hand them a card and have them make the phone call.  Get kids to advocate for themselves.”

So Bryant created lots of strategies to connect students to the college community.  Research shows that more than anything, engagement in campus activities, the extra-curriculars, best improves student retention and academic success.

But developing grit and academic street smarts should start much earlier.  Lux adds that “the world of K-12 education also has set itself against brain executive function.  Parents and schools supervise the whole life experience of a kid.  They debilitate the students from learning any kind of self-efficacy.  There are those who say that K-12 students have fewer civil rights than any group in the country.”

Parents and schools in this Land of the Brave have become stunningly risk averse.  Parents and schools both obsess about safety and control, working compulsively to prevent kids from under-performing on tests or taking risks that might jeopardize getting into the best college.  Schools, zoos and public agencies of all kinds are terrified of liability.  So many kids today grow up in a bubble of protective over-supervision.

Then they leave for college.  No more bubble.

Lux says that Bryant wants to teach students to trust that they can figure it out themselves.  A Bryant student or grad should be able to arrive in an airport anywhere in the world, where they do not speak the language, and negotiate their way to their destination.

Adventure is intrinsically risky.  So are adulthood, business and freedom.  Live with it.

Lux concludes, “Getting out of your comfort zone and learning to deal – that’s what education is all about.”

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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