A lot of parents often ask me how to create reflective, self-disciplined and resourceful kids who know when to ask for help. What parents are really asking is, “What makes a kid successful?” I think the keys to success transcend every lesson. And the goal is to create compassionate, self-reflective and self-regulated kids.
Compassion comes with perspective and understanding. It comes from an awareness of how their lives differ from ours. And it comes from an awareness that what may be easy for us could be challenging for others. To me, the way you teach compassion is to teach perspective. That’s why people get more compassionate as they get older because as we age we shed our own self-directed sense of the world. And we also understand, this idea from the Greeks, that you never know when something is going to come down from the gods. You also teach compassion by being able to reflect. Compassion is understanding in action — the root of the word means “to suffer with”. That’s why community engagement is important because believing that we all have a role and responsibility to play in the world regardless of self or self need is an act of looking outward. It informs how and why we need to suffer with others. In and out of the classroom we try to put our students in positions that stretch them, positions where they have to shift perspectives so they understand that theirs is not only one.
And connected to the idea of compassion is self-reflection. Schools are pretty good at teaching this. Self-reflection is in part about reading something and reflecting on it, and then seeing how it connects to you. Self-reflection is making sure that part of a process in a classroom is a student having an experience and then the time to look at that experience; in other words, to have some sort of meta-experience. This meta-experience takes students out of themselves and offers a time out of sorts. A moment when they can reflect on what’s happened and what’s going to happen, and to see all of the options ahead of them and the decisions that led them there. Some times I think this is the easiest skill to teach, but it’s one that requires more practice than some might think.
That brings us to self-regulation — this is the challenge of adolescence, and the challenge of parenting and teaching adolescents. It’s easy to do with your kid when your kid is a child because you are the source of everything (the food, the comfort, the shelter, the clothes, etc), and so you’re making decisions. But that’s what’s so critical about adolescence and why kids need to practice their autonomy. That’s why we have grades and comments in first quarter. We don’t wait to do that at the end of the semester. We want kids to get feedback along the way and learn how to advocate for themselves and their habits. Self-regulation is also about critical and candid feedback. It’s about understanding more than just what’s in front of you and thinking about consequences. That’s important because during our life we have opportunities to indulge or to exercise caution. We have opportunities to be sloppy or lazy or to do the right thing or make an extra effort because it’s helpful for us or helpful for others. To me, this is also connected to integrity. Integrity is what you do when no one is watching. That’s what real integrity is. Growing up means that, slowly, the eyes of the world and your family and your friends look away from you. You’re left more to make your own decisions, float your own boat, and be accountable for your actions.
Much in our society relies on people becoming compassionate, self-reflective and self-regulated, but those are skills we often push into the back of our minds. So when people ask me what makes kids successful, I tell them to plan backwards. If you want your kids to be able to be all of these great things, make sure you map an idea, a skill set to get them there. It’s true, I want my boys to be able to quote what Keats thinks poetry is. Some people may want their children to know how to do XYZ or that they draw from perspective drawing. All of these things feed into our education here; however, compassion, self-regulation, and self-reflection are the takeaways that trump any individual lesson. If they haven’t learned to exercise those muscles, our students will become those young adults who struggle to thrive in the challenging transition to college, adulthood, and beyond.