What Are We Training Our Children To Notice?

Joe Harvey, Head of School

I recently attended a workshop by Lynn Lyons, an expert on helping kids and families manage anxiety. One of her pieces of advice for families was to help anxious kids identify not the content of a worry, but rather worry itself. Noticing that anxiety is at work enables a child to develop and pursue strategies that stymie anxiety's ability to paralyze or isolate the child--and instead give the child an opportunity to keep growing and keep connecting with others.

I was struck by the way that Ms. Lyons directed children and families toward a particular kind of noticing and by how crucial that act of observation was to growth. The ability to see worry as a phenomenon that includes a set of physical manifestations (fight-or-flight responses)--instead of seeing worry as about X or Y situation (getting on the bus, trying out for the play, taking a math quiz)--makes all the difference in the next set of actions that someone takes, and in the long-term growth opportunities we might take advantage of.

Whenever we have the chance to listen to people outside of our profession or personal experience, there are great opportunities to notice the effects of shaping one's brain to focus on certain inputs and to underweight others. A recent independent school conference featured a panel of entrepreneurs, who were experts at identifying needs that were not being served, or that might be better served with a different approach based on applying new thinking or resources. A security workshop this summer was striking in part because of the way that the instructor, a retired police officer, applied a lens of risk identification honed by decades in her profession. And, although it was almost 30 years ago, I remember the first time I worked with an arbitrage specialist and being struck by the way he so quickly saw exactly how a corporation was being misunderstood by the broader market and the opportunity to profit from that. I really enjoyed that every one of these people taught me how I might see the world differently.

These moments highlight for me a question that parents and teachers often grapple with in working with kids: how, and what, are we training our children to notice? Part of the joy of teaching English was pushing students always to dig a little deeper in analyzing a novel: to pay attention to patterns, to individual word choices, in ways that enabled them to discover how an author is working and what deeper meaning we might draw from a text. One key for me was to nudge and prompt without limiting students' abilities to see something that I had never noticed about a passage; it required me to stay focused on process as opposed to driving toward a particular end--an end informed by my experience as a professional teacher, but limited by my own perspective. So it was by crafting process that I had the most positive impact on my students, teaching them to develop a disciplined approach to literature as opposed to forming a set of opinions that matched my own.

How might we as parents help our children to develop powers of observation that serve them well as they mature? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Model and ask for both-and thinking. It can be easy to fall into an "either-or" mindset--and sometimes there indeed are either-or decisions to make. Practicing a "both-and" or "yes-and" approach out loud when a new perspective comes along models for our children the notion that there are almost always multiple valuable perspectives within any given situation. Seeing another's perspective not as something to rule out but rather as something to try on helps children develop empathy, flexible thinking, and adaptability--all necessary for leadership.
  • Seize opportunities to be around people with diverse backgrounds, races and ethnicities, cultures, professions, and mindsets. The research on diverse groups points clearly to outcomes of better critical thinking, better perspective taking, and better decisions.
  • Extend the listening/learning/questioning phase (stay curious). When opportunities arise to discuss an idea or an opinion that we encounter--perhaps our own child's point of view or an op-ed piece in the newspaper--look for ways to extend the listening/learning/questioning phase of the discussion. "Tell me more..." or "I'm interested in hearing more about..." or "That makes me wonder..." are ways to model a curiosity that opens the door to other perspectives and helps uncover potential in an idea or perspective that may not seem obvious at the outset. Staying curious ourselves helps us to notice more without discarding something too soon.
  • Intentionally practice gratitude. This one comes from Christine Carter's compelling work at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. She shares the practice of asking ourselves and our children to list on a daily basis things that happened that day that we are grateful for. Research reveals that training ourselves to see good leads to better, happier lives.
Leave room for the kind of observation children do so well. One of the joys that my wife and I discovered from our own child was how much he noticed about the world that we were no longer seeing. Listening to him let us in on a child's view of the world--more vibrant, more detailed, more interesting! Finding ways to nurture--and adopt--that way of seeing can be challenging, but it certainly helps us out of the worn paths we might fall into, and it also helps children maintain their natural ability to see the world, including the people around them, really well. New Yorker magazine literary critic Adam Gopnik once described the role of elementary and middle schools as preserving, to the best of our ability, the sense of curiosity and wonder of childhood. It is a perfect goal.