My life is blissfully busy as a Junior High School Principal and a Mom of two kids in middle and high school. When there is a little time for me to sneak out on my own, or even more rare, with my spouse, I cherish it! A few weeks ago, I was surprised with an invitation to dinner out without the kids who promised to retreat to their own corners of the house to keep the peace while we were gone, and promised they were capable of feeding themselves. As I waved goodbye and shut the front door, my seventh grade daughter sang out “Make Good Choices!” and I froze.
She burst out laughing, repeating in a sing song voice “Make Good Choices, Make Good Choices…hee hee” getting a huge kick out the chance to say those words to me as I walked out the door having heard them countless times from me not only said to her, but mostly to her older brother in high school. I smiled, chuckled, and said “Yes, of course I will” as I waved again and shut the door.
I know I am not the owner of that phrase, I am sure I heard it on a TV show somewhere (where I get all my good parenting advice you know) but I again realize every time my kids walk aways from me how helpless I am to control what happens to them. I have to trust their ability to make choices without me feeding them my answers, my vision, my values, and my guidance right there in the moment. The best I can hope for is to be the voice in the back of their head, the helpful or even if necessary nagging voice of conscience that reminds them of all of those things I would tell them, remind them, if I were actually there instead. Most of the time, they choose well, sometimes they don’t and they learn. They are growing in to amazing people through those lessons and because of that I know it is a good thing that I’m not in control all the time or I would be preventing that growth.
As a Junior High School Principal, I watch students interact with one another all the time and I watch the wheels turning as kids access the voices in their heads. Oh, that’s definitely a real thing- you can actually see it – adolescent children are really fascinating creatures! Where I see it most often is when kids encounter situations outside of the “social norm”. And, in a junior high school – oddity happens. Choosing to respond with inquiry and kindness, or stigma and meanness is a choice grounded in empathy.
Empathy is a skill that junior high aged students have not mastered, I would barely consider them novice level. We focus on empathy so frequently I would call it as much of a core subject as Math. Yet, no matter what curriculum we might teach defining, describing, or showing examples of empathy; what matters most I believe, is the voice in their head in the moment they are making the choice of response to a peer. The voice that asks them to “Make Good Choices” would suggest they ask questions instead of judge, and think about how their words or actions might impact another before saying them. That momentary pause – a blink of time really – helps them think about what an adult that cares about them would expect of them and is often just enough for an adolescent brain to choose compassion over cruelty.
Kids still don’t always choose well. I wish they did. When they don’t, we help our kids own their choices, forgive themselves because we all need our own grace sometimes, and make it right with the person they hurt. We go back to focusing on learning and practicing empathy (remember, the most skilled are barely novices!) and we make the world a better place one reflective interaction at a time.
By the way, I made good choices, I didn’t check my phone at dinner once (a gigantic pet peeve of my husband’s) and thus, had an excellent two hour quiet dinner out during my blissfully busy life!