Sunday, January 13, 2013

Building habits through conversation

Sebastian and I went to Dunkin Donuts this morning. Some families have pancakes every Sunday; some make quesadillas. Some families go to church. We do none of those things, but what we do do (tee hee) is, on occasion, go to Dunkin Donuts. I will usually take one kid (more often than not, it's Barbara, who is awake first) and we'll use the opportunity to chat. Today, my conversation with Sebastian got me thinking about best practices in conversations with kids. Though Sebastian is five years old, I think these guiding principles apply to kids of just about any age:

1. What you talk about is what you care about.
2. Ask for evidence.
3. Encourage divergent thinking.
4. Right is right.

There are many more good ideas out there, and there are shelves of books about this (this one being my favorite), but this is just what came out of this morning's trip to what some people refer to as 'the finest purveyor of caffeinated beverages within two miles of my house.'

I also approach this as a teacher who became a parent, so this is largely based in what I appreciate the most about many of the kids I've taught and what they've been able to add to the school communities I've been able to be a part of.

1. What you talk about is what you care about.

Objectively speaking, our kids are adorable. People are always telling our daughter how cute she is, or how much they like her shirt, or that she is dressed so well (obviously not when I dress her.) The downside of all of this attention to her looks is that she comes to believe that appearance matters more than anything else. On the flip side, whenever our kids are talking away, they are often complimented for being 'smart.' I can't affect what people say about our kids, but I do cringe when people say it, so I will usually follow up with a re-framing comment of my own: "They're right, Barbara, you're making a lot of connections!" or "Sebastian, that is a very interesting question." I want our kids to care about thinking, and how they treat people, and just about anything other than how their looks or dress are perceived by others. I want our kids to care about interesting aspects of our world, about other people, and about constantly becoming better in meaningful ways, so this needs to be what we talk about more than, say, their looks.

Barbara's independent reading level was just moved up to an "I" on the Fountas & Pinnell scale; Sebastian's was just moved up to a "G." We talk about all of the reading they did that helped them get there, and we continue to reinforce how great it is that they can now read more interesting books as a result. Instead of calling them smart, we call them hard-working and curious. Those two areas, together, are probably the biggest levers within their control to improve their intelligence anyhow.

2. Ask for Evidence.

We have enough people in this world spouting forth opinions without anything to back up those opinions. I want my kids to grow up to be the kinds of people who think about the world scientifically, who can think about the world and formulate opinions based on what they observe, who look to prove positives and think about the world probabilistically. Basically, if Fox News is still around when my kids are older, I want my kids to laugh at it.

Besides, focusing on math for a second, most higher math is predicated on the idea of rigorous proof, the beginnings of which can be discovered in simply asking how we know something must be true. For now, I'm accepting any anecdotal evidence, but there will come a time and a situation that calls for a little more logic, and I hope I'll be able to take advantage of this situation when it comes.

This morning, at Dunkin Donuts:
Sebastian: "I know what that says! It says "PICK...UP...HERE." [He speaks very loudly.]
Me: "What do you think happens over there?"
Sebastian: "I don't know..."
Me: "How could you find out?"

Sebastian goes over to the counter, snoops around a little bit, and comes back to me.

S: "Maybe it means people work over there."
M: "Why do you think that?"
S: "That's because I see people working behind the thing."
M: "What thing?"
S: "That thing over there."
M: "The counter?"
S: "Behind the counter."
M: "Let's wait and see."

We paid for our fifteen dollars worth of beverages and sandwiches and went over to where the sign was. I asked, "Why are we coming to this area?"

S: I don't know.*
M: Look at the sign; what do you think we're supposed to do here?
S: I don't know.
M: What does the sign say?
S: Pick up here.
M: So why did we come to this area?
M: Let's see if that's true. How will you know if you're right?
S: If they bring the food, that means we are right! [Notice how he spreads his prediction over both of us, cleverly hedging his bets.]

I then picked him up and we laughed about my interpretation of the sign. He said, "that's not what it means, but thank you for holding me, Daddy!"

Such a sweet kid.

3. Encourage divergent thinking.

This one goes by a lot of names.Some people talk about avoiding yes/no questions; others refer to open-ended questions. I say we should just try to capitalize on the fact that kids aren't tied to "what makes sense" - let them dream a little, and encourage them to, as Robert Kennedy said, "dream things that never were and ask, 'why not?'" So once you have an answer, ask for another answer. Ask a lot of questions about why things are the way they are, and don't stop at one answer.

Barbara: [points to a snowblower] What's that for?
Me: What do you think it's for?
B: I don't know.
M: Well, what could you use that for?
B: Maybe you could use it to dry your hair.
M: How would that work?
B: The hot air comes out of that part.
M: OK, what else could you use this for?
B: Maybe you can put food down that tube so animals can't get it.
M: What else?
B: Maybe you can blow into it and it makes noise?

...a few weeks later, we saw one working, and Barbara was excited to see what this machine actually does, which is pretty impressive to 6-( and 32-)year-olds who have never seen a machine shoot a stream of snow 20 feet in the air.

The key here is to help kids become creative, divergent thinkers. Dan Pink writes about the need for this in A Whole New Mind, and makes the case that this is a necessary way to develop into the kind of person who will be more employable in the years to come. Pragmatism aside, I like that it makes the world more interesting.

4. Right is right.

Via xkcd:

Grandpa, what was it like in the Before time? "It was hell. People went around saying glass was a slow-flowing liquid. You folks these days don't know how good you have it."

Doug Lemov has coined the term 'Right Is Right', which distinguishes between something that is partially right and something that is 100% right. Nowhere does this apply more than in how kids use words to communicate, though it is also a helpful way to deal with not-quite apologies and almost-following of directions like "please turn off the TV quickly."

At Dunkin Donuts, the counter is called a counter. This word is not pronounced "supposibly." Winter is not the time when we are farthest away from the sun (at least here in New Haven.) The topping on the donuts is not called sparkles, but "sprinkles." In our house, we get do-overs when we don't say what we mean the first time. We make a lot of mistakes, and we learn from them. The key is to get it right, and walk away having gotten it right at least once. Though this may run counter to the idea of encouraging divergent thinking, I believe that they go hand-in-hand quite nicely. In order to understand the context of your creative ideas, you have to have a solid understanding of how the world actually works right now. In order to communicate your ideas, you need to use words that mean roughly the same thing to you as they do to your audience.

Anyway, this is important not only because of the power of getting things 100% right, but because it reinforces the all-important growth mindset. After all, nothing shows you that you can learn from mistakes quite like learning from mistakes all the time.

What about you? What do you think are the most important other things to keep in mind when talking with kids? What are your favorite ways to help your kids turn into the people you hope they become? What else do you try to avoid?

*If you have gotten this far, you are a loyal reader. What are your thoughts on quotation marks vs. no quotation marks? I can't locate my Chicago Manual of Blogging Style.


  1. Why would you not use quotation marks? That just seems silly. Then again, I'm only a science teacher...far more loyal than your writing teacher over there who would probably have a superior answer.

    Also, I fully intend on using that cartoon as my lesson plan for the first Tuesday in February. You are SO welcome.

    Andddd lastly, I appreciate the invite in advance to your next Dunks date with your children. Please and thanks.

  2. I would support an elective club that does this, but maybe not the first Tuesday in February lesson plan. But this could become your fact of the day! After all, what's more useful/fun: Knowing the number of bones in a giraffe's neck or knowing all the things that other people are wrong about?

  3. I think the quotes are unnecessary when you separate them from the rest of the text. It becomes redundant.

    This has become one of my favorite blogs, and if you knew that my 5 year plan includes only coming in to teach my class because I am professional blogger, that is a big deal.

  4. Thanks, Meghan. It is my hope that this will lead to a lot of great conversations - in the meantime, your dream sounds a lot like my dream, except my dream involves a lot more teaching, and frosty floats.