Relationships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

So, it might just be me, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these two New York Times articles from this past week:

I also just finished reading Jenifer Fox’s book, Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, and while many questions are bouncing around in my head, I keep coming back to this one: What role should we (as educators) play in the social lives of our students? Specifically, how can schools do more educating and less policing around the good, bad, and uglyness of adolescent relationships?

Rosalind Wiseman wrote a response to the lengthy cyberbullying article. I’ll let her words do the difficult work of addressing the parents’ role  as she has many more years and experience than this non-parent. However, her main argument — “adults refusal to recognize how their reactions in these [cyberbullying] situations make the problem bigger” — must be acknowledged and addressed. I applaud Wiseman for initiating conversation around these issues but also doubt that parents similar to the NJ ones presented in her article are taking the time to read blogs about cyberbullying.

Since this is the case (and because I believe that schools should focus on educating the “whole child”), I am growing more and more enthusiastic about Fox’s approach to strengths based education – especially in the context of relationships. Fox writes of adolescents desire to connect with something larger than themselves:

In their adolescent years, kids become aware of themselves as separate and powerful people who have choices in their development. This can be exhilarating at times and overwhelming at others. Hormones awaken and release for the first time the deeply encoded messages about life and death, purpose and meaning, love and rage. Adolescents live in a state of heightened awareness, searching for something bigger than they are to mirror their yearning for significance. They look to adults to be that something bigger, to grab hold of them and pull them up out of the general clamor. They long to know that the world wants them and that life has, in fact, been waiting for their arrival. This is not a rebellion, but a strengths awakening. (p. 63)

Life and death. Purpose and meaning. Love and rage. How many cyberbullying horror stories center on these ideas?

If educators begin to recognize this time of adolescence as a time of strengths awakening, it is essential that we help students understand who they are as individuals and who they are in relationships. Michael Thompson, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, presents a number of important points in the NYT article about friendships but here is his money quote:

“No one can teach you what a great friend is, what a fair-weather friend is, what a treacherous and betraying friend is except to have a great friend, a fair-weather friend or a treacherous and betraying friend. When a teacher is trying to tone down a best-friend culture, I would like to know why. Is it causing misery for the class? Or is there one girl who does have friends but just can’t bear the thought that she doesn’t have as good a best friend as another? That to me is normal social pain. If you’re mucking around too much in the lives of kids who are just experiencing normal social pain, you shouldn’t be.”

The balance is essential – and that’s where I see that Fox’s ideas about relationship strengths connect to the reality of what we should be doing in schools. We must be proactive in guiding students through self-discovery exercises which will help them link these powerful (and often polar) emotions to their inner strengths with the goal of having experiences — both positive and negative — which will initiate growth and further self-reflection and discovery. I’m hoping to do that — with the help of our guidance counselor — in our 4th – 6th grade advisory periods (my school ends in sixth grade). As I work this summer of what that actually looks like, I’ll share my thinking and plans. In the meantime, I’ll be reflecting on this quote by James A. Froude: “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”

dults’ refusal to recognize how their reactions in these situations make the problem bigger.