Moro Reflex

We are wired for trust.

Out of the womb and into the world, as a species, we possess a dearth of protective instincts. Anyone who’s ever seen a startled infant flail his arms and legs has to get that humans are ill-equipped to make it long-term on their own. The Moro Reflex may hearken back to an evolutionary day of falling primates desperately grasping to illusive clutches of fur. But its modern day display makes it pretty clear that babies truly believe that someone will always be there to catch them if they fall.baby

Fast-forward to 21st century maternal instincts and those Neanderthal kiddos couldn’t have gotten it more right. As a protective breed, modern day moms are even better (or worse) than their forebears. They don’t just protect defenseless babies; they follow those babies through developmental stages much further than any of their predecessors. Moms are catching falling children when they stumble in grade school, high school, and even college.

And their kids trust them to do so, to be there, to take care of things, to clean up after them.

Too bad it isn’t made crystal clear to those kids, though, that not everyone is in their corner like mom and dad. That trust isn’t necessarily the natural order of things out in the big bad world and that it may need to be deserved and earned. That flailing about waiting for someone to catch them is a pretty wrong way to wade through life.

After one of my students felt betrayed by her friends, she told me, “I don’t trust anyone.”

An extreme response.

She had been lucky to find a college group where she fit in. It guaranteed her a lot of fun nights and gave her a sense of security wherever she roamed on campus. After the mind-changing incident, though, she reconsidered whom she should call friend. I also suggested that such a large circle of “friends” might be unsustainable.

She came to believe that never again trusting anyone wasn’t the way to go, but a measure of caution might be a good idea.

Ah, lessons learned.

Michael isn’t as quick to trust as his sister is. He’s also more likely to cut someone off when he feels he’s been betrayed. He doesn’t forgive easily. Or perhaps, he’s like his grandmother who claims she’s willing to forgive, but never forgets. Hmmm.

Michael and I have been dissecting the nature of trust recently. He’s young to be in business for himself, young to be learning some of the harsh lessons to which he’s recently been exposed. He’s trying to decide whom to trust and who may—or may not—deserve a second chance. For now, he seems willing to align himself with “partners” while looking to a future as independent contractor. No surprise. Even in preschool, Michael was a bit of an independent contractor.

My kiddos from college, though, aren’t necessarily set up for such independence. Some of them have gotten used to sturdy safety nets stretched beneath them and have become adept cliff jumpers. It’s hard to blame their behavior; past evidence supports their death-defying exploits. Someone has always been there, able to catch them just before they hit rock-bottom.

The thing is, I want my students to take chances, to believe, to trust –in others, but especially in themselves. I also want them to know, however, that flailing about with open arms into a plummeting abyss is no way to start their lives, and certainly could be one that ends it.

Trust can be ephemeral. It shouldn’t be. But too often, it is.

I don’t (usually) ask my students to trust me. Like my son, I believe trust needs to be deserved and earned. But if I were to posit an unearned entreaty to my students, I would plead, trust me: you need to be careful about whom you trust.

Guilt trip

The parenting book admonished not to use threats, bribes or guilt in childrearing. I jokingly told a friend: she’s taking away all my best tools.guilt

While I occasionally used the first two (but preferred to call them consequences and rewards) I shunned guilt as a go-to strategy –most of the time. In tree-to-apple fashion, though, guilt may have unintentionally seeped into the repertoire of my parenting modus operandi. Interestingly, it worked not at all with Michael and all too well on Alex.

Apparently, it (sometimes) works on students, too.

A student told me the other day that I was making her feel guilty. In a too quick response and not one of my proudest tutoring moments I said –good!

The truth is I don’t want my students to feel guilty. What I do want them to feel is responsible. And not to me, or their professors, or even their parents –but rather to themselves.

I think we do our kids a real disservice when we give them a pass on many of the responsibilities we shouldered when we were their age. A lot of kids are assigned too narrowly focused roles that handcuff them and their ability to mature. They’re required to maintain their grades, but not their rooms. They need to show coaches respect, but not necessarily their teammates. And if they happen to be good students and athletes, then part time jobs are virtually off the table –which means whatever money they have, they must be given.

Taking away their need—and right—to earn their own money may give them time and focus to earn good grades, but it also robs them of their independence. And it keeps us hyper-involved in their lives long after we should be. It’s one thing to hand them an occasional twenty for gas; it’s another thing for them to have to come to us for every penny.

It’s tempting to give to our kids, especially when we can afford to do so. However, if we want our kids out of the nest—and believe me, we do—feathering them too warmly in our protection isn’t the way to get there.

Sure, we can teach financial responsibility by modeling it ourselves, but earning their own money gives kids the opportunity to make good—and bad—purchasing decisions. It teaches them about their own values and priorities –and a lot about themselves. Earning and spending come with reward and regret and the tastes are both sweeter and more bitter when the kids are the ones picking up the tab.

Some parents use money and its attached strings—there are always strings—as one more lengthy umbilical cord. While it certainly can ensure a constant connection for mom and dad, those strings can be strangling to the kids trying to break free.

 

Lanyards

Their successes aren’t mine.

But I do get to live vicariously.

Whether they’re my own kids (organic, as one of my peers suggests) or my students (inorganic), I get to share in momentous happenings on a timeline from which I’m pretty far removed. Even as adults, these young people I know are still going through a lot of firsts.

With school, and jobs and significant others. With life.

Will wants to make our recent meeting a monthly event. Erica updates me through text. Lisa just got a promotion –again.

These are the graduates.

But this week I’ll start with a new crop of freshmen. And even as I know that most of what they’ll be going through as individuals, I’ve likely seen before, I can’t help but get caught up in those firsts.

First times are awesome.

But scary.

And I still get that.

So whether they’re excited or worried, or confused, or just plain afraid, I’ll tell them that it’s okay. That it’s normal. And that in spite of the outward appearance of their fellow classmates, they are not alone.

Some of my students inadvertently flaunt their newness with the bright green beacons they wear around their necks in the form of id-toting lanyards. Others are outwardly confident, sapping from stored supplies of high school popularity, probably not understanding how quickly it can drain. But most are quietly cautious, just trying to navigate this new terrain without tripping onto a land mine, without making any mistakes.

We all make mistakes, though.

Maybe that’s the first lesson freshmen should learn, loud and clear.

Sure, we want them to succeed, not to do anything really stupid that winds them up in trouble—or worse—their first days on campus. But even if they screw up, it’s not like they will be the first ones to have done so.

I won’t tell them that –not initially anyway.

And I won’t share my own stories –probably ever.

But it’s those stories I pull from to gather empathy.

Because once upon a time, I was young. And on occasion (rare), I probably did something stupid.

 

 

You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.

 

 

Foreign Languages

        I don’t have a natural affinity for foreign language. Six
years of publically taught French, a semester of college Italian and I can confidently
say in both languages: Je parle français; io parlo italiano.

But I don’t.

In either.

I do, on the other hand, speak a wide variety of Kid.

When they were little, I translated body language and
syllables into needs and wants. As they got older, I inferred meaning from
actions.  And alongside them, I learned the
varied languages of their newfound interests.

Pitch, box, yellow card, red card.

Horse stance, knife strike, sensei, gi.

When Alex started playing soccer, I had to learn an unfamiliar
game with its own lexicon. Same with Michael and Karate. My limited knowledge of
his sport had been gleaned from the first Karate Kid. Nothing in that flick,
though, had hinted to the forthcoming acrobatic practice strikes performed in my
kitchen or the proudly growing pile of hand-broken boards in his bedroom.

These were new and odd languages, but I soon became fluid.
Adapted. Got interested. Because my kids were.

I didn’t speak baby or toddler until I did. And I
certainly had had no effective tutelage to teenage.

That language, in particular, was set in code. Especially
as (not) spoken by my son. Years of incessant chatter had given way to sullen
and sometimes seething silence. There were piercing looks and shoulder shrugs.
Grunts, monosyllables. I had to master intent and outcome from a whole lot of
words not being said, decipher a new vocabulary without translation guide or
codebook.

But like the results from a language immersion class, I
got it. Because I listened. And because I was willing to follow the instruction of native speakers.

Michael’s been teaching me again. A new vocabulary, a new
language. Hookups and pickups (not the kind you think), capacitors and
compressors, reverb field and phase cancellation, C12s and Telefunken U47s.

It’s his language.

And if I listen -allow him to be the teacher- I’m in.

It’s not so much a difficult lesson, as it is one that can
be a bit disorienting. Dizzying, even.

But it is learning and I still love to learn.

I actually don’t understand how others do not.

I learn a lot from my students. I think it’s supposed to
be the other way around. But if that were the only paradigm I was willing to
consider, I also think I’d be worse off. We all would be.

Although most buck the concept, some of my students understand
the merit of peer evaluation. They get the idea of learning not only from their
professors, but also from their classmates. A few of them, anyway. Fewer still
believe that their own ideas can be instructive; that they can be both student
and teacher at the same time.

As parents, maybe we should embrace a bit more of this fluid
concept of instruction. We’ve got a lot of lessons to teach, wisdom to impart.
But we can also learn from our kids and the other children in our lives.

We just have to listen and be willing to twist our
tongues around a new syllable or two.

 

Imaginary Lover

Who
could have foreseen that a 70s song could so aptly foreshadow 21st century
relationships? Imaginary lovers never
disagree. They always care. They’re always there when you need, satisfaction
guaranteed.

Can
it really be so shocking, then, that Manti Te’o opted for imagination over
reality? In fact, maybe it’s more surprising that his peers aren’t doing the
same.
 

Or
maybe they are.
 

For
all the accurate images of college life picked up and portrayed by the media, a
foot-on-the-ground stroll across an American college campus might be more
telling. Particularly if you get the full tour. Weekdays and weekends included.
 

From
my mini-view on my little campus, the numbers from the studies seem sound:
three-quarters are hooking up. The boys with more partners than the girls, but
the ladies are nonetheless hot on their heels.
 

The
weekends are wild, with the majority of students pretty willing to lay themselves
naked -just not metaphorically so. When it comes to weekdays and daylight,
there’s much less of laying themselves bare.
 

In
Monday morning classrooms, they interact not with one another, but with smart
phones and laptops. Avoiding eye contact is its own art form and they’ve got it
nailed. Their eyes are glued instead to their screens, tapping and texting, but
not talking.
 

When
my students share stories—and they always do—I often have to interrupt. So was
this an actual conversation or a
cyber chat? They rarely differentiate. But as they relate their tales, they
include an ascribed tone and intent for the sender. My suggestions that they
may be misreading their text readings are usually soundly dismissed. They heed
my interpretive warnings only with regard to student-professor correspondence.
 

Of
course it’s generational.  I get that
they communicate differently than we do. But it seems not to be just a
different means of a communication, but 
a
lack of one. Rather than face-to-face interaction, with real-time dialogue,
they’re texting and waiting, and filling in the spaces. They read between the
lines and create gaps where there are none, mistaking humor for insult, lust
for love, a casual friendship for a meaningful relationship.
 

I’d
like to support my kids and this written word connection of theirs, but they
seem to have it all wrong. In the brevity that allows them to leave out so much
out, they’re missing out on too much. Then, when they do share—often alcohol
fueled and impulsively sent—it’s too much with too many. They’ve jumped in the deep
end with no arm band floaties.
 

And
then too there’s that other part of human connection –the actual connection. Eyeball-to-eyeball,
hand-to-hand. You can’t read body language in a Tweet; words can’t replace touch,
and in spite of the emoticons to the contrary, you really cannot send a hug via
text.

 

 

I-Dream

Our generation has been telling the next since the day they were all born: do what you love.

I think they’ve gotten the message loud and clear.

Unfortunately, as we were setting a bright beacon on which they could universally focus, we didn’t necessarily include instructions on how to reach the star. We failed to offer them much of a map or for that matter, a real destination.

Ooops.

Big oops, actually.

We told them all—over and over—to find the one thing they loved to do above all others –as if it would hit with epiphany-like clarity, as if there were a single answer to their single selves.

Talk about setting them up for disappointment.

My college has jumped on the bandwagon we’ve all driven as parents by bringing onto campus The Dream Share Project. While the mission of the endeavor—to empower young people to chase their dreams—may seem a noble goal, more than a few of my students came out the other side of the presentation with an enough-already plea.

See, the problem with telling our kids to chase their dreams is that if they don’t quite know what those dreams are, they feel like losers. So, they grab onto something, anything, just to fit in.

One of my students recently said that she was no longer sure of her major but was too afraid to switch because the decision could affect the rest of her life. Rather than upset the status quo, she was going to stay on a forward path, with no regard to the inevitability that it might not
allow her to reach a dream which hadn’t quite become clear to her yet.

She’s not alone. Too many kids measure their goals by a furiously ticking clock which demands they decide right NOW what they’ll be doing 20 to 30 years hence. And it’s not just the college kids with this mindset; it’s high schoolers and younger. Kids not through puberty are planning
strategies now to assure some ninth grade ideal of a future success. Instead of taking chances, they’re taking courses; rather than exploring, they’re bent on securing the next rung on the imagined upward ladder –even if they’re not quite committed to the top of the climb.

Of course we want our kids to follow a passion, find a dream, do what makes them happy. But there’s a backfire in forcing the ideal down their throats. In making them choose too soon, we set some kids trotting along well-worn paths with blinders on against intruding distractions. And those distractions aren’t just of space and scenery; they’re opportunity and experience and life. While following a straight path may indeed be the quickest route to a good job, the truth
is, our kids’ dream jobs may not even exist yet. So many fields—think social media—weren’t even imagined 10 years ago. Who knows what the future holds? While dreamers of the past may have been accused of having their heads in the clouds, today’s kids may well find their dreams jobs in iClouds and beyond.

 

Brand Loyalty

coffinMy friend’s dad passed away recently. Sad, but at 84, he’d lived a good, full life and leaves a legacy of family, friends and service. 

At the bottom of a lengthy obituary, I read that the wake would not be held at the local funeral home with which we’re all most familiar. I asked my friend –why not? After all, her parents had called our town home for nearly 50 years. They were both public school teachers, avid churchgoers, active in their community. And this other funeral home was in a town to which they had no affiliation or allegiance, no connection. 

But for one. 

See, the funeral home was owned by Lou’s friend. A childhood friend. 

Nuf said. 

Her dad and mine grew up in Eastie, stood on different street corners of the same small neighborhood of a big city. Graduated from East Boston High, married Eastie women. Had Eastie friends. And they took a piece of that culture with them wherever they went. 

They went far. 

Both sets of parents quite literally travelled the world. 

But home was still home and roots were set deeply. And friendships were forever. Just like family. 

So of course Lou would honor his friend by choosing the alternate location. Fully his decision, it made total sense to anyone who knew him or men of his generation. 

I hate when people make sweeping generalities. 

But I’m about to. 

The generation of young adults with whom I deal every day cannot comprehend that kind of loyalty and they never will. 

They may be members of teams, schools, and communities, but those connections never become as intrinsically a part of who they are as it did for the generations before them. My parents’, and even my own. 

I’ve asked my students and my own kids if they think I’m giving their generation short shift here. They don’t. Even those who quickly vouch for the genuineness of their own friendships are still reluctant to say that their peers and they have anything resembling what I and my parents have had –friendships which have lasted a lifetime. Relationships with people who can revel in your successes at the same time that they put you in your place. People who will stand by you regardless of the missteps you make. People who have your back. 

Sure, these kids haven’t lived as long as we have. Only time can truly test my premise. 

But then time may also be the culprit at the crux of where the roads of allegiances diverge. 

From the time our children were impatiently interrupting our phone conversations—and we allowed it—these kids have demanded immediate gratification. And as parents we enabled this warp-speed mentality by enlisting them in every sport, club, activity, that came along. 

And then came the internet -making the world smaller, while at the same time exacerbating isolation. 

When they spend hours faux-chatting with people they don’t acknowledge in daylight; when they can “unlike” someone by the click of a mouse; when more of their relationships occur online than in-person, it’s easy to see why their interpersonal skills might be underdeveloped. 

I frequently drive by bus stops, or walk by kids on campus who have their eyes glued to handhelds, intensely involved in their cyber-relationships, while ignoring the real people in their lives and by their sides. 

Maybe they’ve got something there. Maybe fast and furious is an easier path. After all, face-to-face requires effort and planning and interaction. It’s time consuming. It can be difficult and messy –and it can’t be ignored. 

On the other hand, no lol comes close to belly laughs shared with longtime friends; L can’t replace tears, and nothing feels quite like a hug.

 

Learning New Tricks

A long
ago traveling companion became a lifelong—hers, not mine—pen pal of mine and I
looked forward to her annual Christmas notes with the same sort of relish that I
have for those catch-up conversations I share with close friends. Her Christmas
letters didn’t at all resemble the photocopied family newsletters which often flutter
to floors from cards sent out en masse to friends and strangers, alike. Rather
her notes, often squeezed within the confines of the greeting card itself, consisted
of hand scripted prose that first asked after me and my family and then told of
her latest adventure.

Each year
she recounted global travels which beckoned of worlds beyond my reach. It was
as if I had a firsthand correspondent bringing to life the travel pages of newspapers
and magazines which I was reading with longing. Often inviting a grandchild or
two along on her trips, Bea embraced the other countries and cultures she
visited. She seemed gloriously sure that there would always be something new
and wonderful just around the next bend.

Even when
it was only her own city she was exploring, there seemed within her an unquenchable
thirst for knowledge. Into her 90s, Bea took a class at NYU and wrote to me
that any day she learned something new was a good one.

What a
wonderful life philosophy.

Because I
work in a college environment, I have ample opportunity to test the premise.
Although I’ve yet to sit in on a catalogued course, I often read what my
students are reading, watch what they’re watching. I look at professorial
Powerpoints, consider rubric specifications, flesh out and interpret
assignments, follow their progression. I ask a lot of questions; seek out answers
for my students and myself.

But the
real learning often comes in other forms.

Sometimes—being
the digital natives that they are—my students do some unknowing teaching of
their own, guiding me from Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Prezi.

In other
ways though, they teach me even more.

They are
twenty-something in the 21st century.

They
serve as a sort of guide to a world to which I’d be privy only as a parent, but
for the access they grant me.

That’s
mostly rewarding –sometimes disappointing.

I wish my
students were less entitled, more impassioned.

I wish
that of the other kids I know, as well.

On the
other hand, they’re happy and funny, honest and resilient. They may not have
passion for the sorts of things their parents and professors deem important,
but many of them are nonetheless passionate. For a boy or a girl, quite often.

But sometimes,
for something more.

On
occasion, I see a flicker, that other spark –of interest. In something beyond
themselves.

I’ve
enjoyed the vicarious ride I get to take with the kids in my life. In the best
of days, I see something good and real. I see the glimmer of a future. Not just
theirs, but ours as a country and a world. I see hope.

Even on
days that disappoint, though, I take something from our encounters. I learn a
little something.

And any day I
learn something new, is a good one.