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[Chalice]Taking Risks[Chalice]
and Making Connections

Presented January 6, 2002, by Ellen Taylor
Opening Words:

A bunch of us were coming home after a swimming party one night when we passed a farmer's cornfield. Suddenly, we became hungry for sweet corn. We were in the cornfield in a flash, grabbing two or three ears apiece. Then we went over to Doris Jacobsen's house, where we cooked the corn and ate it with salt and pepper and plenty of butter. And my, was it good!

I mention the fact that our mouths were watering for corn not because that makes stealing any less wrong, but because I was reading a while back about a youth who stole just for the thrill of stealing. I wonder whether a psychologist would say mine was a higher or lower form of juvenile delinquency.

Actually, the youth said, he would take one bite of the stolen pears and throw them away. In fact, he had a pear tree in his own yard. His explanation was that he stole simply because he knew it was wrong.

I would expect the psychologist to say that the boy who stole for the thrill of stealing was in a worse way than I was. - George R. Plagenz

Meditation:

Then I would tell him that the pear thief grew up to be St. Augustine, one of the most famous Christians, while I ended up a newspaper columnist.

I tell stories like this to mothers who worry about the misdemeanors of their wayward offspring. It need not mean a thing. There are more examples than St Augustine and myself to prove it.

Napoleon graduated 42nd in a class of 43. Well, you say, Napoleon was a military genius. He wasn't cut out for Greek or rhetoric. Yes, but this was a military school! At the age of 15, Isaac Newton showed so little promise that his bewildered parents actually took him out of school and put him to work on a farm. The teacher of Henry Ward Beecher, who became one of America's greatest preachers, wrote this on his report card: "Henry is a poor writer and a miserable speller. He has a thick speech and is so shy he actually seems stupid." - George R. Plagenz

Talk:

Since Manjur Karim was here this fall, I've been thinking about something he said about terrorists. I've been thinking about young boys, orphaned by war, who grow up disconnected and angry. Looking for someone to blame and desperate for a sense of belonging, they are easy targets for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.

And though I had never thought about this anatomy of a terrorist before, it makes perfect sense. After all, we learn about love and belonging first from our parents. I am not an expert on child development, but I would assume that parental involvement is the single-most influential factor in a child's development of character.

We certainly hear a lot about it in the media. Parental influence gone awry makes for popular television and movies. Think Norman Bates, Sybil, Sonny and Michael Corleone. And since art imitates life, we have the real life versions. Ma Barker's boys, Eric and Lyle Menendez, Kenny Kimes. Recently, there's been media coverage on John Walker, the American ex-patriate in Afghanistan who may be charged with treason. Some conservative politicians have pointed to his liberal upbringing as the obvious cause of his problems, implying that a liberal environment breeds troubled kids. Funny that these same politicians didn't raise the issue of upbringing in the case of Timothy McVeigh, our home-grown terrorist of the ultra-conservative variety.

But, really, it's not that simple. Parental influence is not the only factor in a child's development of character. Most parents don't raise their children in a vacuum. I'm sure many of us would be relieved on some level, if we could be sure that our children's values were shaped solely by our influence. But that's not reality. Our children go to school, they watch television, they go to church, they read books, they go to Wal-Mart. They encounter all kinds of people, and that is both good and bad.

We've all heard stories of teenagers who get mixed up with the wrong crowd. We probably all know at least one person who, for whatever reason, was needy enough and vulnerable enough to follow someone into some kind of trouble. Peer pressure is a powerful force that feeds on the human need to fit in and belong.

I chose today's responsive reading on risk because much of what I'm talking about involves taking risk. Succumbing to peer pressure is risky. If a teenager gives in to the peer pressure to drink or to have sex, for example, he risks getting in trouble. It may just be parental trouble, but it could be health trouble or legal trouble. To resist peer pressure may be to risk social acceptance. And not many teenagers, in fact, not many adults even, are willing to risk being social outcasts. Our need to belong is too great. Too often only those with the strongest sense of self are willing to risk their social position by defying that pressure. So the issue for adults then becomes how to foster a strong sense of self in our own children and in the children with whom we come in contact.

I add "the children with whom we come in contact" because, as I said, parental influence is not the only influence. For example, we who have children here in the RE program hope that our children will build connections here, that they will be encouraged by everyone here to develop sense of self, that through learning about religions in general, and UUism in particular, they will come to a sense of who they are and, to a degree, their place in the world. We hope that through the OWL program, they will gain an understanding and sense of self regarding sexuality that will help them deal positively with what can be a difficult issue for teenagers, an issue with which there can be negative peer pressure.

As the mother of two elementary age boys, fostering sense of self is important. I watch both of my children deal with their self concept in the context of school, which, at this point in their lives, consumes a significant amount of their time. One son has set a pace for himself that, in his mind, requires perfection. An A is no longer good enough. It has to be 100%, unless of course there are 5 extra credit points available, in which case it has to be 105%. My other son's school-related issues are probably more common. He just can't sit still and be quiet. And, as you probably remember, school is a place where kids are expected to sit still and be quiet. Those kids who don't sit still and who aren't quiet, are quickly labeled as trouble-makers, or "bad," or, at least "difficult." I see my job as a parent to balance things out, to provide opportunities which allow them to see themselves in ways they aren't seen at school.

Think about your elementary classrooms. Think about the kids in your elementary classrooms who were the "bad" kids. They were the ones who frequently had to sit in the hall or stand in the corner or stay in from recess. Usually their crimes were getting out of their seats or talking out of turn, maybe tugging someone's ponytail. Now think about what you know about 7 year old boys. Our educational system was not designed with active little boys in mind. And how do we deal with that? Many of us use various systems of rewards and punishment, a few rely on Ritalin. Either way, the goal is to make these kids conform.

As a society, we say variety is the spice of life. We say we value original thinking. We say we value creativity. We say our children will grow up to discover a cure for cancer or to invent something revolutionary. But judging by our expectations, especially in school, what we really seem to value is conformity. In order for kids to find acceptance and fit in, they must conform.

As parents, we hope that the adults with whom our children spend their days will appreciate their uniqueness and foster sense of self. As a mother, the hardest part of seeing my children start school was not that they weren't babies anymore. It was knowing that no matter how good their teachers were, my children would not be spending their days with someone who truly loved them unconditionally and valued their individuality. I knew that they were entering a world in which the group must, of logistical necessity, take priority over the individual, a world in which following teachers' directions - a means of conforming - can be more important than learning the curricular concepts. I wish I had a dime for every time my children answered a question correctly but were counted wrong because they circled when they should have underlined, or underlined when they should have circled. They were entering a world in which the system we have created encourages conformity and competition, but not risk taking. And we want our children to take some risks; that's how they learn. They will never discover that cure for cancer if they believe the only correct answer is the one in the teacher's manual.

There are also positive qualities to the system and fortunately, most children survive this indoctrination, many even thrive, because they are connected. Most children live with parents who, though they make mistakes, love them and try to help them deal with growing up. But those who don't must make their connections elsewhere. Sometimes it is with a teacher. Those of you who have ever been in a classroom with students of any age have seen those kids who were hungry for someone to connect to. Sometimes it is with a neighbor. Maybe you've had a kid hang around your house long after all the other kids have gone home. They gravitate, sometimes cling, to anyone who shows the least bit of interest. The need to belong, to have a connection, is deep within us.

As our children grow into teenagers, their connection needs may shift, but are no less important. It goes without saying that teenagers still need strong home connections, even though parents of teens may think their kids avoid home. But they also seem to need more outside connections. When I was a teen, my outside connection was a woman for whom I babysat. She and her husband were young and good looking; they had a new baby and a Trans Am, and I thought they were so cool. She was fun and easy to talk to and was very good to me. A few years alter, when Joe and I got married, she hosted a luncheon for our mothers and grandmothers.

As a high school teacher, I am surrounded by teenagers 176 days a year. I see teens who have incredibly strong sense of self, teens with virtually no sense of self, and everything in between. Ironically, those with the strongest sense of self are those who appear to care less about conforming. They have found their niche. Through the risks of trial and error, they have discovered their strengths and weaknesses and their circle of like friends.

Those still searching for connections aren't unlike their elementary-age counterparts. They hang around after class, drop in before and after school. They tag along after other students, often unwanted additions to the crowd. Sometimes they're ignored, sometimes they'remade fun of. In extreme cases these are the kids who become the infamous school shooters. It may sound cliché or oversimplified, but negative attention is still attention.

One of the most interesting phenomenon I've observed since I started teaching is that the students with whom I have the most disciplinary trouble in the classroom, the ones I assume will be the happiest to get away from me at the end of the school year are the first ones to stop by my room at the start of the next school year to say hi and ask how my summer was. Invariably they also ask, "Did you miss me?" And equally surprising to me is how often I hear myself say, "That kid drives me crazy. He never shuts up. But I just love him."

What I hate to see is the kid who wants to conform but just can't. Or the kid who does, but shouldn't. It breaks my heart to see kids ignore what sense of self they do have because someone has given them the idea that it's wrong or not good enough. These kids especially need supportive adults in their lives, adults who show appreciation for individuality and difference.

I certainly don't know everything there is to know about parenting or about teaching, but my philosophy from both perspectives is that teaching is as much about connecting with kids as it is conveying knowledge, probably even more. Last year I had a conversation with the principal of my children's school. We were talking about school in general, not my children specifically...test scores, curriculum, state mandates, and how those mandates seem to increase the demands on teachers to cover certain curriculum. I said that it may be arrogance on my part, but that I'm not too concerned about my children learning. They're bright. My primary concern is not whether or not their teachers cover the curriculum; it is more important to me that my children have teachers who make school a desirable place to be. I believe that, in most cases, if children enjoy being at school, the learning will happen, and will happen more easily.

When I think about the best teachers I ever had, I immediately think of those who seemed to truly care about kids. I can't tell you what teachers taught me the most about any given subject. But I can tell you that my third grade teacher in Fulton, Missouri, Ophelia Foster, had a rocking chair in her room that we could earn the privilege to sit in. I don't remember the criteria, but I remember sitting in it. And when I returned to Fulton to start college, she heard I was there, took me out to dinner and gave me a handmade Raggedy Ann doll. I can tell you that George Nelson, my ninth grade civics teacher here in Quincy, called my home periodically to see how I was feeling during the three weeks I was out of school with mono. These people made connections.

Think back on the adults who had an impact on your life. I'll bet that virtually all of the people you think of are people who made you feel like you belonged. They aren't the people whose only contribution to your life was drilling you on multiplication tables or hiring you to babysit. I would even go so far as to bet that you saw these people as people who treated you like adults. When we're adolescents and teenagers, treating us like adults simply means listening to and respecting our opinions.

Obviously it is important for us to listen to what kids say. But that's the only way in which they should be treated like adults. I'm going to get on my soapbox here for a minute and complain about how we push children to act like miniature adults when we need to allow them to be children first. The irony is that then we're distressed at the results.

We push them in school. The work that I did in first grade 35 years ago is now done in pre-school. We're so concerned with test scores that we sacrifice recess for more instruction time. We start them on career paths now in junior high.

We push them at home too. We over-manage their time, forgetting that in order to develop sense of self, they need free time to play, to explore, to wonder. In our zeal to make sure our children are responsible, we forget that they are children. Responsibility comes developmentally and in degrees. I find myself getting irritated sometimes when my students exhibit sophomoric behavior. They're sophomores! I sometimes get irritated when my own boys act silly. They're still in single digits!

I saw a show when I was about 24 or 25 in which Andrea McArdle came on stage in a beautiful red sequined gown with a slit up the side. I remember saying that I wanted to wear a sequined gown someday but I'd have no place to wear it. The only time I saw sequins and limousines was when I watched the Academy Awards on television. Now we let our 15 year old daughters wear them to high school dances and we let our 10 year olds wear Britney Spears-style midriffs and hip-huggers.

We push them here and we push them there. Grow up. Act like an adult. And then we wonder why our 6th graders are drinking and having sex. We wonder why our teens, even adolescents, are so stressed out. We can't have it both ways. We can't push them to act like adults and then freak out when they do.

I mentioned risks earlier. It's all risky business. There are risks for adults too. Having children in the first place is a risk. We might make mistakes. Our children might grow up to be John Walker or Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden or recruits for Osama bin Laden.

There's also the risk of making connections. If we listen to kids, we might not like what we hear. We might discover that they do have their own sense of self and that it is independent of our sense of them. We might discover that they have their own ideas, their own beliefs. They might not be like us. Worse yet, they may actually want not to be like us. Can we handle that rejection?

Can we surrender that control? We may as well, because we don't really control them anyway, regardless of how hard we try. We can enroll them in the best pre-schools before they're born. We can start showing them flash cards before they walk. We can overschedule their time with all kinds of lessons and beneficial extracurricular activities. We can limit their television time. We can monitor who they spend time with. We can put zeroes on their papers that demonstrate understanding and creativity but don't conform to our arbitrary parameters. All these efforts will influence their development. But in the end, they are individuals, independent of us and built to have unique personalities.

We can and we should teach them and model desired behaviors. But we should also accept them for who they are. Most importantly, we have to love them unconditionally, to let them know we love them unconditionally, and assure them, through words and actions, that they belong.

Closing Words:

Lucky for these youngsters that their parents and elders gave them up for hopeless. Had they dragged them from psychologist to psychiatrist, they might have straightened them out and made them normal.

In a recent issue of the medical newsletter, "Health and Healing," physician Julian Whitaker criticizes his profession for using drugs to correct children's behavior problems. Speaking of youngsters with hyperactivity problems, Whitaker says, "These are not symptoms of disease. They are characteristics of childhood behavior. There were plenty of overactive kids when I was growing up, and I was one of them." When he got too far out of line, he says, "I got the what-for at home and that was that."

If a child is too energetic, Whitaker writes, "what's wrong with running him around the track a couple of times?" If modern-day shrinks had been diagnosing kids of the past who didn't conform, says Whitaker, "both Beethoven and Mozart would have been turned into little robots." - George R. Plagenz

©2002 Ellen Taylor

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Taylor, Ellen. 2002. Taking Risks and Making Connections, http://www.uuquincy.org/talks/20020106.shtml (accessed December 10, 2018).

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