Posts Tagged parenting

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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Bad Parenting Diseases Spread to Social Services

Published by — Healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.


For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school.  It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C..  Not so long ago, kids walked to school.  Older kids walked kindergartners.  And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.

I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn’t his decision, really.  It was a community norm.  In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents’ cars snaked around the block.  Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren’t hurt running between cars.  The Principal was often out there.  Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.

It gets worse.  Parents’ fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture.  Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.

“I am not lost.  I am a free-range kid.”

Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities.  Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being “unsupervised.”  But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a “safety plan.”  Their lawyer’s review is pending.  The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment.  In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are “free-range” and know what they’re doing.  But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.

It goes on.  Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house.  Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for “neglect” because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald’s.  How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?

Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.

By the age of 18, every parent’s precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own.  But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.  In teaching it’s called “release model.”  An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together.  Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo.  Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.

Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes.  Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance.  He went to Princeton, for heaven’s sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age?  Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance.  Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids’ autonomy from that slight distance.  If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we’ll end up raising a generation of young adults who’ll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.

The body politic has panic disorder.

Bad stuff happens.  We can’t prevent that.  We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens.  But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example.  Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful.  But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn’t proof that tree-climbing should be banned.  This is organizing for failure.  It’s like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he’s alive when it’s time for him to run the 50-yard dash.

Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism.  Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won’t take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk.  Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job.  Young adults might rely on them for help or advice.  But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.


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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Family Dinner is All About Learning to Get Along

Published by — Regular sit-down meals form the foundation of a good education.


When my youngest child was a college freshman, he announced that coming home for Thanksgiving was way more trouble than it was worth.  He’d spare us the bother of him and stay at school.  He’s the world’s expert in yanking my chain.  In any case, while I love having the in-laws, friends and girlfriends at my candle-lit Thanksgiving dinner table, the ones I ache for are my three sons. (Their dad is a given.)

My siblings and I jeered at my mother for making such a to-do about having her grown-up kids all home at the same time.  To this day she says it’s the only time she feels completely safe, able to see with her own eyes that each of us is all right.  Turns out the instinct to corral the adult children back to family dinner is a primeval mom-thing passed down genetically.  Who knew?

My kid’s college was so awkwardly located that getting to and fro by public transport was basically impossible.  But failure was not an option.  We knew he liked to be begged to come home.  So I did.  I begged.  Actually the little brat had a solution.  It cost me, but it worked.

With the last kid gone off to college, I was relieved to be done with teaching table manners and adjudicating annoying spats at dinner.  It’s a ton of thankless work, so now I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  My boys, now men, are my favorite dinner companions — resurgent brat behavior notwithstanding.

Years ago Dr. James Comer, the inspirational Yale psychiatrist, thrilled me when, in a speech, he made a huge to-do about the value of the family dinner table.  It’s not a quaint convention, but critical to learning social skills.  So turn off the blasted TV.  Protect dinner as sacred time most evenings.  Learn to live in a community by learning how to break bread with one another so it’s reasonably pleasant for all.  Comer argued, with impressive energy and passion for a man in his late 70s, that regular sit-down meals form the foundation of a good education.  They’re the crucible for manners, conversation skills, and family intimacy.

He said: “It is not the test scores that allow you to be successful in life; it’s the social skills that you learn at the dinner table: You come on time; you listen; you don’t talk for too long; you learn to debate; you learn personal control; you learn personal expression.  As for myself, I’d come home from school thinking about how to present my argument.”

Comer’s parents – a steelworker and an entirely unschooled maid – encouraged debate as an essential life skill, while forbidding actual fighting.  You could win arguments with power of persuasion and the merits of your evidence – Comer and his siblings combed libraries for proofs that they were Right – but the sheer force of shouting was not tolerated.  The celebrated psychiatrist credits those dinners with teaching the very skills that in one generation lifted all five Comer kids out of the lower working-class to become professionals.

Even the maelstrom of family mealtime assures kids – or it should – that someone is there for them, through thick and thin.  Love, trust and resiliency grow in the slog of reminders to put the napkin in your lap and to spare us the sight of talking with your mouth full.

Comer laments that sit-down meals are accepted casualties of the high-tech, on-the-go, hyper-busy modern world.  These days few moms find reason to engage in dinner battles with kids who claim that other kids’ parents trust their kids with more ‘freedom’ (to skip out) or ‘respect’ (to avoid accounting for their day).  Generally these days, many parents shirk the hard labor of disciplining and training their children.  (And then they send them to school.  Sigh.)

Getting along with each other is, was and always will be the biggest challenge humans face, individually and collectively.  From domestic divorce to international war, failure to get along produces misery — not just for the immediate participants, but often for all manner of innocent bystanders.

Whatever the reality behind the story of Thanksgiving, the myth celebrates diverse people cooperating to create a warm, winter meal.  We need more such meals.  I realize that our fragile economy is 70 percent about consumerism, but actually most kids don’t need more stuff.  This culture’s kids badly need more experience with sharing time and food gratefully, pleasantly, with extended family, intimates and new friends.

This year I’ll have to make do with two sons, as that last, the baby, is off having adventures on the other Coast.  Deeply miss him though I will, two new wives will be joining us.  And for that I am most, most grateful.


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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We’re Crippling Our Kids with Fear

Published by — What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “The world is terrifying and you can’t handle it, so we’ll protect you.”

While hiking in the Finger Lakes region, I watched as a three-year-old did a major face plant on a stone path.  Fellow hikers gasped with horrified “Oh, no!”s and were about to lurch forward to… well, I’m not sure what they thought they would do.  But the mom raised her hands in a big back-off gesture and frowned fiercely.  “Let’s see if she handles it,” she said quietly so as not to wreck the kid’s concentration.  The small crowd held its breath.

So, with only grunts, the sturdy little darling hoisted herself up to all-fours, butt in the air, tested her balance, and rose.  She and mom exchanged a glance and a nod that confirmed that she was all set.  The child toddled on.  Mom did not gush “good job!” at her or smother her with sympathy.  She did glare at us.

Mom took the mishap in stride, and clearly felt the rest of us should too.  Falls happen.  Expect them.  Adversity happens.  Inevitably.  ‘Cause that’s life.  Be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Fear is limiting.  And learning to manage your own recovery and restoration will prevent unnecessary future falls better than anything.  The older a kid gets, the less Mom will be there when adversity happens.  And that’s how it should be.

Instead, communities want laws that criminalize youthful independence.

I thought America had reached its peak for over-cautiousness, but no.  Recently a North Carolina mom was arrested for letting her 9-year-old go by herself to play in a safe public park full of kids and fun stuff to do.  Another mother called the cops.  The police collaborated with that helicopter mom to give the “bad mother’s” child a stern lesson in the evils of independence.  The kid hadn’t yet learned the world is an unmanageably scary place.  But thanks to this incident she’ll be scared to death henceforth that her self-reliance will put her into foster care and get her mom some jail time.

That North Carolina arrest was no anomaly. A poll conducted by Reason-Rupe found that a whopping 68 percent of their sample of Americans felt that the law should require 9-year-olds to be supervised in public parks.  At nine?!  We’re making healthy independence illegal and ensuring that kids grow up fearing their own neighborhoods and public spaces.

I hate to date myself, but when we were 9 or even younger, my friends and I were off into the big bad world with only strict orders to be home when the street lights when on.  Often we rode our bikes to a commercial street at least a mile away from the house.  And if we were stupid enough to let our bikes get stolen, oh well.  Such are the consequences of carelessness.  We were expected to handle our own squabbles, our own troubles, unless, as was sometimes the case, we couldn’t.  Once a group of older bullies would not leave us alone, so we agreed to rat them out to our respective parents.  The parents dealt with it.  No one called the cops.  And this was not Mayberry, but Los Angeles.

The recent poll goes on: 43 percent think 12-year-olds should be supervised at parks.  OMG.  Twelve-year-olds who’ve been shielded from unsupervised socializing with other kids become entitled little beasts who don’t know what hurts or offends, or in any case don’t care.  Maybe we want them supervised in order to protect ourselves from what they’ve become.  Parents should be the backup at age 12, not the kid’s first line of defense.  Kids will grow up, whether we like it or not.  So they need to be confident they can solo safely, socially, healthily when no mommie’s around.

Resilient kids fall down, go boom and recover.

Preventing kids from even the smallest risk is now the cultural norm of “good” parents.  Moms such as the one hiking with her three-year-old are often called “free range” moms, referring to the free-range chickens that get to run around instead of living out their lives in cages.  “Good” parents now metaphorically cage their kids by keeping them indoors, supervised at all times, and doing only what adults teach or direct them to do.  (No one seems to care about the substantial risks of kids living in the world of electronic entertainment, risks such as obesity and anti-social behavior.)  But this kind of protectiveness is like dressing kids in a ton of Medieval armor and hoping they’ll dance through life.  Young American can-do spirit is now met with “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” and “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”  Have we thought through what sorts of young adults we’re aiming towards as the result of all this protection?  Will they have the resilience, autonomy and common sense to solo out there in the real world?

What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “We don’t believe in you.  The world is terrifying and we know you can’t handle it.  So we’ll protect you and prepare you for a life without adversity.  Which is to say we won’t prepare you at all.”

Keeping kids scared will warp their adult chances at becoming resilient, innovative or much fun to be with.  I think that the nation’s poor academic performance stems from shielding kids from learning life’s basics.  What a nasty thing to do to kids.

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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Survival on Urban Mean Streets at Odds with School Success

Published by — Since 6th grade, she’s been a hair-trigger fighter, as Dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she realized she’d better get with the program.

Kaitlyn finds herself in a weird fight with her dad — her beloved dad, I might add.  “I respect him so much.”  But she’s torn between two incompatible worlds — his and the school’s.  (Kaitlyn is not her real name.)

Since 6th grade, she’s been a hellion, a hair-trigger fighter, just as dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she got “that really ugly orange slip that said I was at risk of failing 7th grade.”  Certain school support staff, whom she also adores gushingly, finally got her to understand that if she didn’t buckle down, her friends would go on without her and she’d still be in 7th grade.  That staff had been working with Kaitlyn for years, but it wasn’t until that fateful day that she realized she’d better get with the program, immediately.

And she did.  Furthermore, doing school work actually produced results.  “I’m getting an 86 in science!” as if by miracle.  She’s thinking of becoming a nurse, “or something,” that only comes with academic success.  So she’s determined to work hard in summer school and in 8th grade before heading to high school, “where it really counts.”  Because, she says, eyes wide with horror, she’s not going to be like her older sister who already has a baby and “is stuck.”  Kaitlyn wants more options than the poverty-ridden streets of her home town can give her.

Dad’s fine with improved grades.  But he’s not at all fine with her “becoming weak.”  Fighting is survival.  He’s furious and blames the school.  “He wants to be sure I’m protecting myself.  He’s so worried I’m going to get stepped on.  He always says that if you give them one chance and they don’t back off, you have to react violently.”

Whoa, did he really say “violently?”  Her saucy teen self let me know what a clueless question that was.  “Yea-ah.”

But this is the reality of mean-streets parenting.  This dad’s by no means the only parent at odds with the school culture.  Low-income parents can’t watch over their kids all the time.  Even kids being cooped up indoors have to go to school, get milk, or see a friend occasionally.  So many urban parents want their kids to respond to the slightest threat with fists and fingernails.  Otherwise they get “stepped on.”  A scary presence keeps the bullies away.

And she had been stepped on.  Badly.  Through 5th grade she was a quiet, good student, suffering constantly at the hands of bullies.  She couldn’t tell anyone because Dad would go nuts.

“But when I got to 6th grade, everything changed.  If I wasn’t different, I wasn’t going to make it.  So I just let go of the pressure and was myself by blowing off steam all the time.  It got so easy just to not care.  My friends stayed the same as they were, so I hung out with other people — obnoxious, mean, disrespectful people.  Someone tells them they don’t like their shirt and they’d go crazy.  They took immediate control of the situation.  Everyone knew not to mess with them.  I liked that.”

Just as her dad advised.

“So I became just like them.  If someone accidently pushed me, I’d go insane.  My dad had lots of advice about how to fight.  And I did what he taught me.  But it wasn’t helping me in school.  I was always wrong and always in trouble.”

Which was fine.  Until it wasn’t.

Well-trained in restorative practices, the support staff at Kaitlyn’s school had been persistently working on building relationships with her, knowing that if they could earn her trust, she’d take charge of her own behavior.  She gets teary talking about the Restorative Coach.  “I didn’t listen to her in the beginning, but then she became a second mom.  I finally realized I wasn’t alone.  I wanted to be a mean person so people couldn’t hurt me.  But [the support staff] weren’t hurting me.  They were calm when I exploded.  So I already had a good relationship with them when they sat me down and painted a picture of my future.  I changed the day I got that slip.  Well, mostly.  And a month later they were all saying how proud they were of me.  Oh, I have my days.  But now I’m becoming a role model to my younger siblings.

The school’s relations with Dad are still a work in progress.  If Kaitlyn ever got hurt, no matter where or how, he’ll be down those principals’ throats.  But she feels strongly that the choice to be successful at school is hers.  Staying out of fights is a different way of staying safe.  She’ll handle Dad.

Adults in urban schools complain bitterly about the aggression that many kids bring to school with them.  For good reason.  Parents teach jungle survival skills because they worry their kids will get hurt without them.  So until the streets are reliably safer, you can’t really blame the parents.

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 analyzes 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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Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

Published by — Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

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, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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It Takes Guts To Depict A Healthy, Happy Childhood

Published by — This film’s 1950s vision of heaven for children’s play is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good.  Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage.  The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell.  Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty?  Dull, dull and dull.  Tough work competing for attention.

But compete they did, because they had to.  Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all.  Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right.  However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story.  Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.

These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families.  On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim.  Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson:  falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened.  Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.

So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children.  It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film.  In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”

Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan.  Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.

As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams.  Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses.  A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script.  The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.”  The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.

The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character.  Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.

The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them.  Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands.  “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.”  Children choose what to build and do.  They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too.  This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics.  They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle.  Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults.  But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are.  Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.

The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film.  Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves.  The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.”  The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult.  Talk about an image of Good!  Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field.  Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.

As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives.  Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so.  The last line of the movie is:  “And your reward is just this:  the sound of children’s laughter.  No music was ever sweeter.”

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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.

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Stranded in the Land of Over-Stimulated Kids

Published by —  Sometimes the grand adventure of making fun family memories turns to trauma.

My husband and I were supposed to transfer planes on January 5th, just after a storm and before the super-freeze — a fatefully bad day for travel.  The Orlando airport teemed with children, which is not surprising since it’s the put-in for Disney World, Universal Studios and, as we subsequently found out, about a thousand other theme parks and “attractions.”  Even with mouse ears on kids and adults alike, the tense gloom was palpable.  Big ads on the walls showed super-happy families on some ride or other, “making memories,” as Disney says.

Some memory.  People packed the waiting rooms and hallways, killing time because of delayed flights.  For our plane home, there was a first three-hour delay, and then another, and yet another.  We’d been in the airport for 12 hours already, when, at 3:30a.m., airline personnel announced that while we had a plane, we had no pilot.  New FAA regulations limit how long a pilot can fly in a day.

A groan rumbled through the crowd at our gate, eventually pierced by a kid whining, “But Mommie, I want to go home.”

Trust me, Honey, Mommie wants to be home even worse than you do.

Anyone can get caught in travel snarls.  But in Orlando an upsettingly high proportion of the stressed, miserable people were children.  This being the new post-civil America, many adults got belligerent, behaving far worse than the kids.  I so wanted them to calm down, since I too was freaked about losing control of my life.

For many, the grand adventure of making fun family memories had turned traumatic.

The three women in front of me at the re-booking terminal were in tears, worried about losing their shop-clerk jobs at a CVS pharmacy.  The soonest available reservations were three days hence, and those were going fast.  The airline guy was reassuring about how employers are understanding about such eventualities, but no, airlines no longer provide hotel rooms under such circumstances.  On those women’s salaries, God knows how long it had taken them to save up for this trip.  More nights in hotel rooms?  Get real.  Their plight drove home my relative wealth, allowing us to be reasonably comfortable.  But if their finances are so frail, why blow big bucks answering the lure of corporate-enriching past-times?

Amusement park marketing not only pitches fun, but intimacy and togetherness.  Throughout the airport, huge pictures show two-child families having a blast on roller coasters, sealing family bonds.  Were the many newly-weds we saw really hoping to establish the beginnings of a life-long relationship?  Did the women from CVS get so tight with one another that they could be kind and loving through a 3-day ordeal?

In fact, aren’t the rides, shopping for souvenir junk, and gawking at the bizarre environments just huge distractions from paying attention to one another?  I realize people have fun at these places.  But no one bonds with anyone except by sharing excellent, consistent attention.  The kids get so over-stimulated, it’s a wonder they can stand school the following week.  Poor teachers, who have to compete for kids’ attention with such a standard of amusement.

On my first trip to Disneyland, as a little girl growing up in L.A., I was so intrigued by following a marching band, I got separated from my parents.  Seared in my memory is running up and down Main Street calling for them hysterically.  After what seemed like an aeon, Park personnel reunited us, but all I remember from that trip are minute details of the separation.  Being terrorized by the Matterhorn is all that’s left of another trip.  Decades later, when we took my twin first-graders to Disneyland, they were terrified by some rocket ride whose name I don’t remember.  I do remember them being furious at me, but not a lot of family bonding going on.

Contrast that corporate-sponsored effort at closeness with a recent scene at a hospice facility where my friend’s mother was dying.  The disease had come on fast, but her kids all managed to come, many with kids of their own.  So, surrounded by her husband, children and grandchildren, she listened as a daughter-in-law played her favorite Christmas carols on a violin.  I lost it just hearing my friend describe the scene.  More importantly, it was a seminal moment for everyone there.  I could never wish such grief on anyone, but death does come, and when handled well, it can cement families together in adversity.  That’s a memory worth making.

So as I stood in endless lines in the wee hours on that awful night, I kept thinking that if those women had spent their hard-earned vacation dollars visiting their brother, their home town, or a high school friend who’d moved to some interesting place, at least they might be able to turn around and get friends or family to help them.  But the Magic Kingdom is home to no one.  It’s an adventure in distraction that is actually pretty shaky when it comes to guaranteeing fun memories.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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.

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Giving Thanks for What’s Left of Childhood Magic

Published by — You rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.

Completely by accident, on a get-away to Maine, my husband and I ran across a fairy village created by children.  It was so large and thrilling, it took us a minute to take in its riches.

I’d been focused on the views of the Casco Bay.  But tucked on the interior side of a woodsy path going around one of Maine’s myriad islands were dozens of structures big and small, each quite unique, though made entirely of the natural materials at hand.  We were already content with exploring the moody, fall-colored coastal woods, but unexpectedly encountering children’s magic made us gasp.

You so rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.  In a regular public park or a playground, if children took down a structure and made it into something else, painted or decorated it with fun found materials, they’d be vandals.  Miscreants.  They’d be bad kids deserving to be punished for defacing some painfully sterile bit of “play equipment,” designed primarily to pacify adults and lawyers.

But in a fairy village, reconstruction is what children do.  Well, minus the paint.  A sign put up by the local Parks and Rec Department specifically asks children to use only the natural materials they can find there.  In deference to one another, the kids probably didn’t dismantle one another’s structures because they could just keep delving into the ample woods to find more space, more tree roots, stumps and hollows that would make a perfect foundation for a new fairy home.

The inventiveness.  The charm.

Without any hard evidence to back me up, I thought I could see gender and age differences.  To my mind, girls had continued along the path a ways and taken the long flight of stairs down to the shoreline for seaside materials.  Seaweed thatched the roofs of small structures, and served as curtains elsewhere.  Shells, sometimes matched with great precision, provided the Spode china for tea parties.  The place settings were laid out on a variety of tables, suitably flat surfaces, sometimes fashioned from a split branch, supported by fat legs of stones balanced on top of one another.

Surely it was older children who’d woven a biggish Lincoln-log sort of structure with ingeniously-defined doors and windows.  And surely older children were the ones to build a house up in a tree, though below my eye level, with a base balanced on a couple of broken branches.

Branches made Stonehenges, reverently adorned with shells, rocks, pine needles and bark.  Designs on the ground carpeted the way between houses.

I’m thinking the boys and tomboys, perhaps with the collusion of their dads, had hauled logs, larger branches and pieces of driftwood to make tepee-shaped hobbit houses with yawning doorways.  A supplemental sign, merely laminated paper, forbade the use of any wood longer than three feet, arguing that large structures could be dangerous to animals, children and in bold, block letters, to FAIRIES.

But the three-foot rule had been broken repeatedly, and indeed the largest structure would have collapsed on any little fool who’d dared to enter it.  But really, nothing serious could have resulted.  Seemingly, adults whose kids frequent the place allowed the more impressive monuments to stand.  Some rules beg to be broken.  So these kids have very common-sensical adults in their lives, including the Parks and Rec folks.  If only many more were like them.

When I was growing up in the middle of Los Angeles, we had no such woodsy areas for fairy villages.  But we certainly had magic spaces.  Ours were corners of garages and city gardens, fed by the then-plentiful scrap wood piles, bags of fabric left-overs, all manner of found objects, and natural detritus.  We banged things together with hand-me-down tools.  These were our spaces and our structures, destroyed only by weather, or by being cannibalized for better uses, or by ill-advised sprucing up by the adults.

When I see the word “interactive” on video games, all I can think is that the buyers don’t know the meaning of the word.  Magic spaces invite genuine interaction, because there is no “there” there unless kids make it themselves.  Today “interactive” refers to a kid plugging into a pre-fabricated electronic world that has fantasy aesthetics, but none of the kid’s own imagination.  Consumerism has colonized all that once was magic, so adults pay through the nose for admittedly-fun, but passive entertainment, like Disney’s “Magic” Kingdom, where Snow White looks the same in everyone’s mind.

If urban kids had bits of woods where they could build little structures, they might learn to love nature, and even science.  Yes, it  might take a generation before older kids and nasty adults would quit vandalizing such places.  I assume that present-day graffiti defilers and similar hoodlums did have not have their own building spaces as children, so they don’t know the pain of someone wrecking their creation.  To have a sense of place, kids need little corners of the world where they can make magic.

As some kids in Maine do.  Let us at least give thanks for that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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.

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We Are Raising A Generation Of Slackers

Published by — Paying jobs are scarce.  But work?  Never.

Look around you:  there’s no shortage of work to be done.  If anything, public-service budget cuts are making most communities shabbier.  Paying jobs are scarce.  But work?  Never.

However, in my lifetime, work and money have become confused with one another.  As any good mom will tell you, her hard work never yields a dime.  Still, good mothering is tremendously valuable and Hugely satisfying.  Like the best of jobs.

Today, adults — parents, schools and communities — are enabling kids’ lazy habits and sad work ethic by waiting passively for a better economy to provide youth with work experience.  I encounter hoards of kids whose attitude is that they’ll come to school faithfully, be on time, and do homework the moment someone pays them to do so.

Last spring, Atlantic Magazine ran a scary piece subtitled “The Slacker Trap.” Its cautionary tale looked at the long-term effects of joblessness among Japanese youth unable to connect with employment during Japan’s 1990s recession.  Bottom line:  not working is habit-forming and becomes a stigma, when applying for work eventually.

Japan’s low birthrate means their children have more adults to dote on them, a situation similar to American parents enabling their kids rather than expecting them to do their share of household work.  The unemployed Japanese youth got used to taking occasional short-term, temporary work to generate pin money.  Now they hang out in “alternative” life styles that sound to me like hippie culture.  Today, one-fifth of these now 30 and 40-year-olds still live at home, mooching off Haha, aka Mom.

The Atlantic author, Ethan Levine, reports that the Japanese slackers now “cannot find good jobs, don’t learn new skills, and neither earn nor spend enough to help get the economy moving. That generational problem, while far more advanced in Japan, is not unlike our own.”

Economists call this population NEETs, Not in Education, Employment or Training.  The Economist magazine estimates that in 2012, the U.S. had over 6 million NEETS, ages 18-24.  The unemployment rate for that age group is 15.1%, more than double the overall 7.3% rate, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

God knows we’d all like the U.S. economy to catch a spark.  (And government shut-downs don’t help.)  But until things improve, adults of all stripes can share the work of acculturating kids to the expectation that they work.  Granted, it’s often more work to get the kids to pitch in than to do the work yourself.  But it’s our job to model and teach them to work to make their homes, neighborhoods, and communities better places.

In living memory, young people had useful, respectable, unpaid roles in their families and communities.  On a farm, 4 and even 3-year-olds can feed the chickens.  When I was young, every household had a job rota assigning kids to clean dishes, common areas, their rooms, and generally take chores off their parents’ backs.  These days I see most families, at all socio-economic levels, virtually waiting on their kids under the mis-guided understanding that school is the more important work, because eventually it will lead to money.  Absent a culture of work, many high school students quit doing homework just because they can.

A mom recently complained that the school didn’t inspire her kid to go to school and to do homework, so he’s failing.  I suggested she withhold video-game privileges until he got with the program.  She said, “Nah, I just don’t roll that way.  I could never do that to him.  It’s the school’s job to get him to do what they want.”  Good luck, School.

So let’s consider Eagle Scouts.  Employers have long sought them out.  They’re go-getters and have learned the joys of acquiring skills and persisting in an endeavor.  They’ve all completed an Eagle-scout project.  They identified a community need and project-managed its fulfillment with planning, fund-raising, materials procurement and conscripting labor.  They build outdoor classrooms, turn nasty dumps into gardens, or build raised trails through swampy Audubon areas.  Scouting is not the only route to guiding a kid through a finished project, but it is super-effective.

Every kid needs to feel useful.  Every kid, of any ability, can be helped to identify a mess in their own community that would get better if they rolled up their sleeves and worked on it.  Every kid needs to know that work done for their community will fill them with a sense of mastery and pride in having contributed.

Improving their communities will not quickly change our youth’s unemployment rate.  But getting into the habit of pitching in will prepare them to be ready, willing and able to connect with paid work, when more is available.  Some will acquire the guts to create their own jobs when the economy refuses to provide one.  Honestly, I bet kids would be more willing to do homework if they could just see the real-time value of learning skills.

Evidence shows that if we wait passively for an uncontrollable economy to put kids to work, they will surely fall into the Slacker Trap.  If we’re that lazy, we’ll be the ones paying dearly for a sub-par workforce, social services and inevitable NEET depression.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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.

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