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Fathers Forum 2018
May 7, 2018 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Your Child: Defining Success and Finding Balance By John Lloyd
How do you support your child while he or she discovers and develops a passion? And how can you help your child balance excellence and achievement with a well-rounded and healthy adolescence?
This was the focus of the 9th annual PIA Fathers Forum, rescheduled for May 7th at Manhattan’s Collegiate School after being snowed out in March. Attendance and enthusiasm were unaffected by the schedule change, as over 200 fathers heard from a panel of experts and threw a wide range of questions at them.
Jeremy Leeds, a Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Center for Community Values and Action at Horace Mann School, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Kurt Froman, a professional dancer, choreographer, and educator; Douglas Brunt, the author of three novels including Trophy Son; Dr. Michael Sweeney, Director of the Metropolitan Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy; and Tom Kelly, the Headmaster at the Horace Mann School.
Jeremy kicked off the discussion by asking the panel to consider their own path to success:
“If your school-age self could see you now, what would they be surprised by? What would they say “Of course, I knew it would work out that way?”
The panel’s answers were varied. Kurt knew he wanted to be a dancer from a very young age and drove himself towards that goal. Douglas is on his second career, having worked his way up to CEO before becoming a writer. Tom had dreams of being a professional baseball player before finding his calling as an educator. And Michael said, “I was anxious as a child, which is a good pre-requisite for running an anxiety center.”
Michael said all the positions he has held paled in importance to his role as a father. “I’ve been a shrink longer than a dad. When I became a dad I thought, ‘I should give all these people half their money back,’ because while the advice I had given was all correct, how important it was to the recipient was not clear until I was a parent.”
Tom challenged the focus on success right off the bat, however, by asking, “What about happiness?” He predicted that if his child-self saw him now, he would ask: “Are you happy?”
Each person must define happiness and success for themselves. Tom asked, “Is your specialization the one thing that defines you?” He said as parents, we should not allow our children to fall into the trap of ‘one data point.’ “I’m a huge fan of lots of data points on the chart.” A hyper-specialized kid can be devastated by criticism from a coach or teacher. We as parents should be helping our children achieve balance that will lead them closer to fulfillment.
Michael agreed, saying that burnout is a much greater risk for those who define themselves in only one way. “If you have six pillars you define yourself by and one falls away, you have five left to support you. If there’s only one and that falls away, you’re in trouble.”
But Michael pointed out that pushing your kids to try harder isn’t always a bad thing. “Fear and anxiety have a purpose in the right dose. There’s nothing wrong with kids being ‘medium nervous.’” Grit and durability come from overcoming challenges, and it’s better to face some of those challenges earlier when the stakes are lower. We should be less eager to save our children from problems. “The development of identity is effortful.”
Michael said that kids who achieve notable success too early can struggle to fit in with their peers. “Specialness is not your friend, ordinary is your friend. Specialness will diminish your sense of community.”
Kurt had a different perspective. He agreed that being solely defined by one thing was an issue, and he admitted that he struggles with it himself even as an adult. But the New York City Ballet hires dancers at 16, so they need to be fully capable artists at 14-15. “I don’t know if it’s possible to be a [successful] 14-year-old ballet dancer if you’re not fully into it.” He described how he and his brother would spend 4-5 hours a night working on dancing after spending that much time on other homework.
He sees that same dedication in many of the kids he teaches. As a Broadway choreographer, he taught the five 12-15-year-old boys who were rotating in the lead role in Billy Elliot. The boys absorbed a decade’s worth of learning in four months. “When kids are focused and given the right tools, they become like Olympic athletes.”
Passion versus drive
But not every child has the passion to sustain that level of focus. Kurt sees kids join his pre-professional studio who were born with the facility to dance, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to go on to professional careers. Dance became more fun for him as he went deeper into it. But he has worked with incredibly talented kids who no longer enjoy dancing. “You see the light behind their eyes die out.” The parents may want this life for their child, but those parents may not be paying sufficient attention to what the child wants.
Tom agreed, linking this to his earlier theme of happiness. As parents, we have to ask ourselves whether the goals we have set for our children are what they want. We’re all supporting our kids in what he called “high-octane schools,” but he challenges parents to ask, “What am I doing to support their happiness? Am I okay when my kids pull back and say they’ve had enough?”
Kurt, who found his own passion and decided, as a child, to dedicate himself to it, said he came from a broken home where he got no parental support; he was “flabbergasted and envious” that so many fathers would come out to a session like this one.
Although Kurt said he couldn’t imagine someone succeeding as a professional dancer without loving it, Douglas offered another angle. His novel Trophy Son was about a young tennis prodigy and “the cost of early excellence in our achievement-obsessed society.” To research it, he interviewed numerous professional players at all levels. He found that many of them disliked tennis despite their success. Andre Agassi has said that he doesn’t enjoy tennis, and Roger Federer said he wouldn’t let his kids play.
Tennis pros described the stress involved in competition as especially high when they were younger. One player told Douglas that he now feels equipped to handle losing a match, but when he fell short as a kid, “I didn’t just lose the match, it was like I lost my self-worth.”
Before he became an educator, Tom was a promising baseball player. He was drafted out of high school and made it to the minor leagues. But he wasn’t good enough to excel at that level and he is thankful to the coach “who told me, ‘Go to college. You’re good enough to be here, well done, but don’t stay and be good in a small pond.’ That was a blessing.”
Framing such weighty decisions as success versus failure at such a young age can put a lot of stress on a child. Kurt said those kids who show an early love and skill at dance but who don’t become professional dancers “instead become our theatregoers, patrons, teachers, or just great people.”
“We want to give kids the space to discover their passion,” Douglas said. When he was a kid, he had time after school to wander the neighborhood until dinner. He’s said he is not against specialization, but he’s against forced specialization, and the feeling that a child must choose early. He spoke to a sporting goods store owner, who lamented that kids used to buy different gear for different seasons, but now they typically only buy equipment for “their” single sport.
Tom said that at Horace Mann they have tried to adjust their definition of success. “We hope that colleges say first, ‘This is a great kid,’ then only second, ‘and wicked smart.’” He said that it’s very easy to do what everyone else does or wants to do. “But if we did that, we’d never have special people like the ones on this panel.”
A father in the audience asked how to help kids who may be struggling to keep up with the demands of New York City independent schools. “The bar keeps getting higher.”
“Aim for personal bests,” Tom suggested. When a teacher signals that your kid is average at a top quartile school, are you hearing the whole message or just the word ‘average’?
He discussed the school’s role in this process, focusing on the purpose of report cards – they are meant to be descriptive, identifying where the partnership needs help, and measuring against a norm. Every year at Horace Mann, they work on developing truthful and constructive messages.
As the headmaster, Tom often hears from parents who escalate issues to him, including one father who questioned why his son wasn’t placed in an advanced math class. Tom showed the father sample tests of students who showed affinity for the topic, who “splashed down and tried everything they could think of” instead of just leaving a question blank when they didn’t know an answer. The father was upset at the placement but the student was not. “He wasn’t a math kid, he was a theatre kid, and he went to a theatre school and was happy.”
When is your child “busy enough”?
A father asked the panel how to determine when his child was “busy enough.” This father observed that his own child thrived within a structure, and that when he was under-scheduled he did worse because he spent all his downtime on screens.
The panel had differing takes on this. Douglas felt that the constant availability of screens today meant that addictive behaviors could arise more quickly than when we were kids. He has imposed structure on his kids’ screen time – an iPad limit of one hour, except for on car trips. He said that discipline is on the parents. “Once you give a tootsie roll after lunch, you always have to give one.”
Michael noted that the subject of screen consumption differs from child to child, and the same number of hours could signal different things for different children. One child’s behaviors might be typical of his peer group, but others might be so shy that they are using devices to avoid engaging with other people. “Do a little detective work about why they’re on screens all the time.”
Before he was a writer, Douglas was a CEO. He spoke about how jammed his day was then – he had no time to think. “I felt like I had stepped into a batting cage with a pitch coming every second and a half, swatting away like crazy with no time to reflect.” In his second career as a writer, he gets to reflect and gather his thoughts before writing. “What a gift that time is. Kids today are like me in the batting cage. So much structure, multiple travel teams, always someone telling them what to do.”
Tom said that “kids are growing up in uncharted waters, with information coming at them at ridiculous speed.” Does a child have enough time to be settled, structured, and thoughtful? Parents have some control over this. “If a kid is over-tutored, that kid didn’t write the checks or book the tutor.”
Jeremy picked up on this and talked about the Importance of reflection. We all need time to step back and think, including planning next steps. It isn’t just about finding the time, it’s about making reflection an integral part of the process. As Michael said, “Kids need unstructured time, please find it.”
How to engage and be engaged
Jeremy and Tom had asked their Ethics in School and Society class how they define success. Jeremy reported that the discussion focused on communication with parents. Their responses included: “Give examples of what you went through when you were my age”; “Don’t assume that the way you engaged with my older sibling will work for me”; and “Don’t be afraid to say no but give reasons.”
Michael distinguished between a conversation and a monologue. He said if you want to engage your kids, start with empathy and kindness, and don’t start with an agenda.
As your child gets older, Tom stressed how important trust was. If you’re not comfortable that your high school senior can go to a party and make good choices, remember that next year they’ll be in college. He encouraged letting your child take a healthy risk: “You’ve made a lot of good decisions, I’m going to let you make this one.” And if they do make a mistake, then that’s teachable, although he advised postponing a lecture in the heat of the moment. “They won’t tell you the truth if it always comes with consequences.”
Jeremy summed up the evening by remarking on the wide range of experiences and opinions on this year’s panel and stressing that everyone has a different story. “I hope you’re taking away different ways of thinking about how to address issues. There are choices you make; and whatever you decide, there’s something you’re not doing. That’s sometimes hard to accept.” He also pointed out that defining and understanding one’s values is crucial to parenting.
Finding balance is our job as parents, he emphasized, and he reassured every father in the audience that they are capable of achieving that balance.