Leaving the Din of Trifles

So, Emerson.

He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.

Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.

This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.

As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.

With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:

Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”

This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.

Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”

IMG_4616What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.

Are we doing this today?

Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?

Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”

Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.

Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.

He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”

For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”

For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.

For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.

This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”

“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.

Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.

I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.


raise an adultWe’re just days away from our San Dieguito Book Club meeting on April 25th, when we’ll be discussing Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult. Over the past few couple of weeks I’ve had more than a few teachers tell me that they’ve been reading the book and I’ve spotted copies being passed around at my last two or three parent coffees. Our parent foundation even purchased a few books that our students could check out from the school library, and all have been off the shelves since the day they arrived.

I’m really looking forward to standing at the confluence of all three of these points of view, as teachers, parents, and students each bring different perspectives to the ideas in How to Raise an Adult.

I know I’ve got my own opinions, formed over twenty two years of being an educator and almost twenty years of being a parent. I’ve tipped my hand on some of these thoughts in recent posts, and since I hope to do more listening than speaking on Monday night, I offer this mini-retrospective as my initial contribution to a big discussion.

A young Danny Zuko looks forward to Macbeth

Thoughts on a magical coaching moment in softball

Developing a capacity to wince but not to pounce

I also know that these thoughts are only my own, and that they aren’t more right than many other of the perspectives we’ll hear at our book club.

I love that Lythcott-Haims tells her readers: “We’ve been given the awesome, humbling task of helping a young human unfold.” As a person who has dedicated his professional life to the service of helping students do just this, her words ring true. As a dad, I see the challenge from a slightly different (and perhaps more emotional) perspective. Reflecting on my own growing up, I know that I viewed that unfolding differently when I was a teenager.

It may be in the definition of “helping” that our discussion on Monday night will be at its richest, and as a preview, I offered Lythcott-Haims’ line to some parents and teachers. Thoughtful and real, they told me:


I’d define “helping” as guiding and supporting, while also modeling the process.



I interpret both a parent and a teacher’s role of ‘helping’ as thinking through to ‘set the context’ where teens can experiment and learn to ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’ based on their choices, ideally without having too far to fall, if they do fail in their initial attempts. For example, Aeries can be a great way for parents to see how student’s efforts at SDA progress over time, before grades are finalized. If used appropriately/judiciously, this tool can help parents and teachers, identify opportunities to help set/change the context for a student/students to be as successful as he/she/they want to be. For some students, this may be as simple as asking the right questions at the right time to help them explore options and consider new opportunities.

-Parent of a high school student


I think “helping” really means to be able to stand back and watch her do things for herself. When she says “I can do it” it means letting her do it-and waiting until she asks for help before stepping in. I want her to learn to ask for help (I think many people struggle with that) but I also want her to know that I trust her. If my child says they can do something then I should have complete faith that they can. I think “helping” should also mean truly letting kids tackle things on their own. If they say they will talk to a teacher about something, let them do it, no need to follow up with an email to see if they did. And more importantly don’t jump in to get them the response that they (or you) want. If the answer is no then let the child sit with that answer. It’s ok to teach our kids that their are limits to what they can accomplish. Helping children does not mean allowing them to have completely unrealistic expectations. If they exceed what we think they are capable of that’s great, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow kids to think the world is always entirely their oyster…when it’s not.

-Teacher/Parent (age 3)


My husband thinks the story, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, is a book about an enabling parent.  I suppose most of us, including Shel Silverstein himself, have read it this way. However, upon reflecting on the word “help” as presented in the book, How to Raise an Adult and upon Bjorn Paige’s suggestion, the image of the tree has come to mind but in a different light. The tree is rooted, strong, and capable of providing the human with the nourishment, materials, and support he needs.  Never does the tree “help” him by holding his hand, carrying him, protecting him, traveling with him, telling him what to do, or doing his work for him.  The tree is always there when the human needs him and helps him when he can. True, the tree is seemingly stripped to nothing by the end, but perhaps this bare symbol can also represent the limits one human faces when attempting to “help” another. For me, a helpful yet humble parent is well-rooted, loves their child unconditionally, and will provide the child with the nourishment (apples), supplies (wood/materials), and support (stump) that child needs to “unfold”.  Although this task is not an easy one, as a parent and a teacher, I believe we should strive to “unfold” the human and “help” by providing access to some basic needs and information.  I want to be a strong, fearless tree for my humans. They will always know where to find me, I will provide them with some of the basics, and the rest of the “unfolding” will be up to them.



Then I asked the kids.

They kicked around the idea of what they think it means for adults to “help” them and came up with this list:

Teach life skills and morals
Aid in making the right choices
Give enough freedom, yet still have an impact on our lives.
Encourage us to try new things.
Not telling us who we have to be.
Share wisdom and past experience
Let me be my own person and discover passions by myself.
Share mistakes and experiences so we don’t repeat them, but also give us a chance to make mistakes on our own and learn from them.
Expose us to diverse ideas and opinions
Teach how to think and make decisions for ourselves.
Push us out of our comfort zone.

I can hardly wait to start talking about the ideas in the book, and hearing what our school community has to say.

If you’re interested in joining us, we’ll meet from 6:00-7:30 pm in our Media Center on Monday, April 25th.


DSC03887.JPGTwo strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, a runner on third and nothing I can do but watch. Being a dad of a softball and a baseball player is teaching me, pitch by pitch, the truth of the advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult: “Develop a capacity to wince but not to pounce.”

I was the kid who once struck out in T-ball, back in an age when they let kids do such things; today’s T-ball is a gentler game, probably for the better, sensibly focusing on skills rather than competition. The memory of that strikeout has stayed with me for forty years, and I can still taste the tears when I see my own kids try and miss.

Still, I know how valuable those small formative failures can be. They are lessons that transcend games and, coupled with the successes that are also part of every game, these experiences provide kids a perspective that can help them when they face the more substantial challenges of school, relationships, and life.

I also know how tough it can be to see my own kids cry.

DSC03881Beyond the ballpark things only get more complicated, and I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I suggested that the dad in me didn’t feel more strongly than the principal I am thinks about situations involving my own kids. It’s in these moments that I know I should reflect on the practice of wincing I’m cultivating from my seat behind the backstop.

Would that it were easy.

And yet as an educator I understand Lythcott-Haims’ argument that an “inability to cope -to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision- can become a problem” for kids who haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.

The best schools are in the business of helping students learn the valuable skills  they’ll need to be successful beyond school. The experience of dissecting a frog or developing a Rube Goldberg machine isn’t valuable because we’re creating a generation of amphibian veterinarians or quirky tinkerers. Like learning how to take a photograph, compose a haiku, or balance an equation, the skills our students learn -often from the mistakes they make along the way- are meant to be transferable to the lives they’ll lead in a diverse and sometimes complicated world that changes dynamically every day.

Will they remember those strikeouts when they’re adults? I’m sure they will, though those early failures will not define who they will become as adults.

What will help them to define who they will become will be their responses to those challenges, their responses, not their parents’ responses. Our pouncing could help to define them too, but not in the way any of us would want them to be defined.

So I strive to wince and let my own kids learn. Two strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, and a runner on third? There’s a lesson there, for me and for my kids.

In Their Own Hands

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re about five weeks away from our first San Dieguito Book Club on April 25th. The book we’ll be talking about is How to Raise an Adult by Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising, Julie Lythcott-Haims. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from folks who are reading it, I’m anticipating an evening of terrific conversation.

I’m hopeful we’ll have a good mix of parents, teachers, and students. All three perspectives contribute to the discussion, an important one as we all do our best to navigate the uncertain waters of contemporary adolescence.

Decades ago, a wise child, Anne Frank wrote:

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

The gist of Lythcott-Haims insightful book is that as a society we’ve lost sight of this simple truth and that by our own choices we are interfering with the important experience of students shaping their lives with their own hands.

Part social commentary, part parenting book, How to Raise an Adult promises much to talk about when we meet. I know that I’m curious to see how people respond differently to passages like:

We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”

I know my thoughts on this, both as a parent and as a principal, but what will other parents think? How about teachers? Students?

Prompted by smart and passionate writing, our discussion is an opportunity for us to see different points of view, and to understand the complex and sometimes confounding issues we live with every day.

For those who may not have the book, or quite enough time to read it through, I wanted to provide links to some places that could provide a bit of the flavor of How to Raise an Adult.

An interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims

An excerpt from How to Raise an Adult

A TED talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims
I encourage any member of our San Dieguito High School Academy community who is interested in a thoughtful discussion to join us on April 25th from 6:00-7:30 pm in our media center.

Little Scraps of Wisdom

I’m a dad, and I’m doing my best to figure things out. Knowing that I don’t know all the answers, or even all of the questions, motivates me to learn everything I can to support my kids. In the back of my mind I hear the line from one of my favorite authors, Umberto Eco, a grandfather himself:

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

I’m conscious of my own shortcomings, and I’m always working to improve those “odd moments” I spend with my kids. I’m also trying to think about what they learn from me when I’m not teaching them, what they see when they see me interact with other adults, and what they hear when I speak to them, of them, or on their behalf.

Bookish myself, this leads me to read; an ever growing stack of books lives on my nightstand. As a high school principal, I know that the ideas I find in these volumes help me not only as a dad, but also in the work I do with students and families at my school.

I never presume that I know more than any other parent, nor that my opinions are the only right ones, though I do trust my experiences and what those experiences have taught me. I also trust in the value of honest conversations about parenthood and education. Knowing we aren’t alone as we help our students navigate this thing called life matters much. Adolescence can be a period of great pressure, both for kids and parents, and everything we can do to support each other really helps.

Along these lines, I saw some knowing nods when at a recent “Coffee with the Principal” our superintendent started talking about the importance of balance for our students today. After telling a funny and moving story about raising his own kids, he referenced some articles and books to a warm response from the parents. Drawing from an interview with Stanford University dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising Julie Lythcott-Haims and middle school teacher Jessica Lahey, he read:

[students become] anxious, depressed and risk averse because parents are focused on keeping kids safe, content and happy in the moment rather than parenting for competence.”

It got me thinking, and mulling it over during the Winter Break, it seemed to me that Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult, might make a great book club book.  This isn’t to say that everyone would agree with Lythcott-Haims, but so many would have opinions that discussion could be rich.

I read the book over the break, and came back even more convinced that this was the right choice to spark discussion amongst parents, teachers, and students too.

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Lythcott-Haims divides her book into four sections, each relevant to the lives of the folks I hope will come to our book club. In the section “What We’re Doing Now,” she adeptly highlights issues front and center in the world of contemporary adolescence, including safety, opportunity, and that bugbear of balance that she calls the “College Admissions Arms Race.” In my time as an administrator, I’ve seen more than a few parents concerned about where their sons and daughters will go to college.

Perhaps the example that resonated most as I read How to Raise an Adult was from my time as a middle school principal and the hour long discussion I had with the parent of a sixth grader concerned about the implications of her daughter’s elementary school math placement. As she left I remember thinking: nobody’s future is determined by the math class they take when they’re eleven. Even as I thought it, I knew I hadn’t convinced the mom that it was true.

In her second section, Lythcott-Haims outlines her argument for “Why We Must Stop Overparenting.” I won’t catalogue her points here; I see this as much of the content of our book club discussion, but her specific reasoning provides examples as concrete as they are compelling. They’re examples I’ve thought about as I’ve sat in the stands at my kids’ softball games and when I’ve gone in to my own kids’ parent-teacher conferences.

As important to the book as what seems to be broken about our current system is what Lythcott-Haims calls “Another Way.” In this third section, she lays out a series of common sense ideas about how to support kids on their way to adulthood.

I’m particularly interested in what the students have to say when we discuss this particular section. I know that as educators we’ve put much effort into some of these suggestions (with more critical thinking and student centered learning a part of what we do). Will they see this? What will parents think?

How to Raise an Adult ends with two short chapters directed right at parents, and the line that still resonates with me is as direct as the rest of the book. “Your kid needs a human parent,” Lythcott-Haims writes, “not super mom or super dad.”

I’ll suggest that it will be both super and human to join the discussion of these big issues with members of our school family.

I don’t know if we’ll have a crowd or a handful of folks when we meet in our school library in a few weeks, but great conversation isn’t dependent on numbers, and I anticipate a rich discussion between fellow adventurers. I’m looking forward to a night of opinions, stories, and the little scraps of wisdom we can share with each other.


The San Dieguito Book Club will meet on April 25, 2016 at 6:00 PM in the San Dieguito HS Academy Media Center. We’ll discuss How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.