Billy's Blog

With teens, it's not just what you say but how you say it

October 11, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“She may not have raised her voice, but her tone yelled at me!”

I recalled these words from a former student in a conversation with fellow parents and Keystone’s two counselors, Allison Raymer and Dr. Erica Shapiro during a book talk last week. We gathered in the Lower School Library to discuss Dr. Wendy Mogel’s newest book, Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. I should say that I have been a fan of Dr. Mogel for a long time, and I have recommended her two previous books, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and The Blessings of B- to many, many people. Based in Los Angeles, Dr. Mogel is a practicing social-clinical psychologist who has an excellent handle on how to help children develop resilience and independence in today’s world. With humor, she offers sage and practical advice for parents and educators.

In her newest book Mogel explains how the way in which we speak to children at all stages of their lives can be so formative in their upbringing. We know this intuitively, but all too often, and in the heat of the moment, we may forget. There’s a wonderfully, cringe-worthy scene in last year’s hit movie, Ladybird, where the mother and her senior daughter are shopping for prom dresses. The mom does not intend to be condescending and patronizing, but her comments made many of us in the audience both laugh and squirm as her daughter experienced a combination of pain and frustration.

Mogel shows in chapter after chapter how from early on, we talk to our children in ways that can be either uplifting or overly critical, without even thinking about it. Mogel recalls anecdotes from her practice while offering concrete tips that can help us all improve. There’s so much to learn from this book, and Mogel teaches in a way that is both helpful and easy to access.

Perhaps one of my favorite sections is called “What Teenagers Wish Their Parents Knew.” She categorizes these comments from adolescents into three subsections called “What do your parents worry about that they don’t need to?”, “What’s one piece of advice you would like to give your parents?”, and “What are the sweetest things your parents do that they may not realize you appreciate?” Each of these units contain food for thought as we help our teens navigate these turbulent times.

For example, teens offered several comments regarding what they see as unnecessary worrying by their parents. Among them are:

  • “They expect me to be as smart as my brother.”
  • “They ask too many questions.”
  • “They think you have to save the entire country of Darfur to get into Yale.”

We may think that we’re showing our teens how much we care by posing many queries when they get home, but they may wish to relax and not feel like they’re being grilled. Similarly, we’re just trying to be helpful by letting them know what they’re facing in the college process, but they may be stressed out already and not want to discuss it yet again at the dinner table.

All too often, we may think we know what our kids are thinking, but we can be way off base. That’s why it’s helpful to hear the advice they offer to all parents. For example,

  • “There’s a difference between pressure and motivation.”
  • “Please listen instead of thinking up the next thing you’re going to say,”
  • “Ask about my life, not just my grades. Say, ‘How are you?’”

It can be extremely difficult having a teen in the house. (That may be one of my greatest understatements ever.) Their moodiness and seemingly ever-changing personalities can test the patience of a saint, and in our desire to keep open every door open for them or respond after they have said something particularly cutting, we can misstep. We’re constantly walking on eggshells, and sometimes a seemingly innocuous comment can catalyze an eruption. That’s why it’s crucial that we constantly show them we care even when we’re frustrated.

The final question in this section may be the most positively practical. Just as a seemingly innocent remark can cause a shockingly negative response, a small kind gesture can go a long way. Among the things parents do that may go a long way with our children are the following:

  • “When my favorite kind of ice cream just appears in the freezer.”
  • “My dad watches The Walking Dead AND Family Guy with me.
  • “She texts me before a test, Good luck, I love you, instead of texting after How did you do?

Sometimes, it really is the little things that can go a long way, and we may not even realize their import until later.

In our conversation at Keystone last week, we shared things that have worked in our own parenting and some things that we would not recommend. Dr. Mogel’s book provided a great jumping off point for our discussion, and I want to thank Ms. Raymer and Dr. Shapiro for convening the group and choosing the book. If we can all bear in mind what we so often say to our own children, “it’s not always what you say, but how you say it,” we may find navigating the years of adolescence a little easier and more pleasant.

Ninth-grade trip brings perspective and optimism

October 05, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

This might sound like a scene from a movie, but I promise you, it really happened. Fifteen Keystone 9th graders, an educator from the Nature Bridge program in Washington’s Olympic National Park, another Keystone chaperone, and I were perched on a boulder looking down on the roaring rapids of the Elwah River.  Our educator had asked us to close our eyes and imagine all of the people who had been in this beautiful place before us, and right as we were about to do so, a bald eagle slowly soared above us before heading on its way. We all sat in reverence and silence as the magnificent symbol of our country glided over us.  It was one of those moments when you feel lucky to be alive and in the company of others who you both like and respect.

This reverential moment was one of many emotional events I was fortunate to experience during last week’s freshmen Outdoor Education trip. This annual excursion offers Keystone students and teachers a chance to study the Elwah and Solduc River watersheds, observe the beauty of this national forest, and bond as a class.  Mr. Spedding, Keystone’s Upper School Head, called me during the summer and invited me to come along as a way to become more acquainted with the newest high school students; I eagerly accepted his invitation. I had high expectations going into last week’s trip, and I was not disappointed.

Whether we were hiking in what had been a lake until the Elwah River dams were demolished in a successful attempt to restore the river, canoeing across Lake Crescent, climbing to see a waterfall, or doing a night hike through the forest, the students were game to try new things and deeply appreciative of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  In addition to the reverence they felt about the world around them, they expressed a variety of other emotions.

Perhaps one of the most touching to witness was their awe.  Every night, they asked us chaperones to take them down to the dock so we could lie on our backs and stare at the stars.  They would point out constellations, compare the night sky of their native Texas to that of Washington, and sometimes just sit in silence and soak it all in. It was during one of these quiet times that several students suddenly squealed with glee and amazement as they observed a shooting star. For some, it was the first time they had watched a star make its way across the sky, and their excitement was still palpable the next morning when they described it for others.  For me, it was pure joy to see their enthusiasm, and I counted my lucky stars to be with them.

On our final night at Nature Bridge, we had a campfire down by the lake, and as one would expect, we sang songs, told silly stories, and reminisced about the previous five days.  While all of this was heartwarming, it was fairly standard for a closing activity.

The unusual part occured next.  Our educators passed out sprigs of cedar and asked anyone who wished to share something for which they were appreciative to come in front of the group, speak, and drop the cedar in the fire.  I followed Mr. Spedding and thanked him for inviting me on the trip, Mr. Jim Lindsey, former Keystone Director of Finance and Interim Head for helping develop the school’s Outdoor Ed program, and the 9th graders for being so kind and welcoming to me as I endeavored to get to know them.  

After I spoke, student after student came up to the fire and expressed gratitude to the school, their teachers, and their friends. They pointed out how much they appreciated the welcoming nature of the Keystone community and how grateful they were to the classmates for their support and care.  Their awareness was sincere and heartfelt, and it was beautiful to behold.

What I found as impressive as their gratitude was their courage.  Students discussed how alone they may have felt at other schools and how welcoming their fellow Cobras were. They shared their initial trepidation in coming to Keystone as a new 9th grader and how kind everyone was in making them feel right at home. Perhaps most touching was the student who had left Keystone for a couple of years to attend another independent school in San Antonio only to return this year. With a wisdom far beyond her years, she said, “sometimes the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.”  I told her afterward that I was moved by her bravery in acknowledging the lesson she had learned.

Reverence, awe, gratitude, and courage-four emotions that many grownups may not associate with today’s teens.  All too often, we hear that adolescents are addicted to their phones, they are self-centered, and they demonstrate little appreciation for what they have.  Yes, they may spend too much time looking down at a small screen, OK, their world views can be circumscribed, and sure, they sometimes forget to appreciate the wonders around them. (As if all of these same things cannot also be said about adults.) However, after this last week, I would sing a different tune. While I cannot pretend to speak for all adults about every teenager, I can tell you that if the thirty-seven young women and men I spent time with are any indication of today’s youth, we are in good hands indeed.  As we landed at the San Antonio airport at 2:15 in the morning, I felt grateful for the previous seven days and optimistic for what lies ahead.


Wise words to follow, even if they're from a Spurs rival

September 27, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“Be yourself. Be good, and try to be great-but always be yourself.”
- Ariel Johnson Lin, paraphrased by Stephen Curry

Ok, I am going out on a limb here with this week’s blog, and it’s not because the topic is particularly controversial. (At least, I hope it won’t be.) I know that I’m now a proud Spurs fan and join my fellow San Antonians in cheering for the Silver and Black, but I read a piece by Stephen Curry last week and I wanted to share it with you. That’s right- Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. We admire his skill in raining down threes and take some pride that his coach, Steve Kerr, is a former Spur, even though we want his team to lose.

Curry’s essay has nothing to do with basketball, so please follow the link and read it:

In this piece, Curry reflects on parenthood, and in particularly bringing up girls in a world where a pay gap still exists between men and women doing the same job. Curry begins by revelling in the fact that his daughter still looks up to her parents and wants to be like them. His words had me remembering when our children wanted to be like us before they began to individuate and figure out that there may be other things they wish to do and be. Like her dad, Curry’s daughter plays basketball and like her mom, she loves to cook. He knows that she will change as she grows older, but he’s going to enjoy this fleeting moment in time.

Nevertheless, Curry also realizes that in today’s world, no matter what his daughter does, she will make less than her male counterparts doing similar work. Curry declares this type of pay structure is not only wrong, but it’s also wrong-headed. As Curry says so eloquently, “You’re not world class, if you’re not actively about inclusion.” His words can also describe Keystone’s commitment to creating an inclusive community. When we don’t maximize the gifts of each personally individually, we lose out as a society collectively.

Curry goes on to describe the basketball camp he started this past summer for girls. The young women worked not only on their dribbling, passing, and shooting skills, but they also learned from successful women in sports and business. It was during one of these sessions that Ariel Johnson Lin, a VP at JP Morgan Chase and Co answered a girl’s query on how she operates in a male-dominated world by advising the girls to “Be yourself. Be good, and try to be great-but always be yourself.”

Later in the essay, Curry discusses the birth of his first son. He wrestles with how to bring up a boy in a world where he will have advantages merely by his gender, and how he can teach his son to leverage that power to help women achieve equality-not out of a sense of noblesse oblige or paternalism, but because that is what is right and what is good. He will encourage his son to not only learn about equality but actually do the heavy lifting to realize it for others. As with his daughters, he wants his son to “Be yourself. Be good and try to be great-but always be yourself.”

So, as we endeavor to teach our children Keystone’s core values of academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership, let’s make sure they learn to treat everyone equitably so we can all grow and develop together.


Spanning the Spectrum

September 21, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

There’s something wonderful about being in a PK-12 school, and a couple of days last week strongly reaffirmed this.  Over the course of a day, a week, a month, and a year, we have the opportunity to see children in every step of their pre-collegiate educational journey. No matter the division, the children and young adults come to Keystone with purpose and passion, and although this manifests itself differently depending on the age, their devotion to doing their best work and being their best selves is ever present.  It’s also a delight to see how Keystone’s commitment to academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership are borne out in developmentally appropriate ways for children from three years old to young adulthood.

Last Tuesday morning, as I made my way through the Little School, I observed youngsters fully engaged in a variety of learning activities. Some were creating a story with felt characters, others were learning how the number five can show itself in a variety of ways, some children were creating structures with blocks, and a few were constructing American flags in recognition of September 11th.  Whatever the task in front of them, they were absorbed in joyful learning guided by caring and compassionate teachers.

Later in the week, I had the good fortune to discuss a book with a particular 7th grader whose love for the novel was quickly apparent.  After I finished the young adult book The Hate You Give (THUG), by Angie Thomas, I returned it to English teacher Ms. Tyroff, who had so kindly lent it to me.  I had seen the previews for the movie version of the book about an African-American teenage girl who lives in an urban area, attends a private suburban school, and loses her friend to a police shooting. Our family’s connections to the St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri and the impact of the events there made me want to read this popular YA novel before the movie came out.  As Ms. Tyroff and I discussed the characters and the plot, a 7th grader enthusiastically asked me, “Oh, did you read that! I loved that book!” The three of us discussed THUG for a bit, and she then headed to her next class. Witnessing her joy for reading in general, and that book in particular, reminded me of the thrill of discovering a book that speaks to one’s adolescent self.  

After school that day as I made my through the children in aftercare in the cafeteria, a kindergartner ran up to me and yelled, “Mr. Handmaker, look what I made!” He proceeded to show me the finer points of his Lego mobile missile launcher and explained each part. Now, truth be told, I love Legos, and I have spent many an hour on the floor building structures or vehicles with our sons and their friends.  (I don’t love them quite so much when I step barefoot on a brick in the middle of the night.) We engaged in an animated conversation on his contraption, and eventually, the student, his friends, and I sat on the floor and dug through the tub of Legos to find the pieces that would make his missile launcher “even cooler!” Perhaps even more impressive than his new and improved military vehicle was the children’s joy, curiosity, and creativity.

At the other end of the spectrum that comprises the Keystone student body are the seniors who registered to vote last Friday.  There are few, if any, signs that give one more hope in these fractious times than watching young women and men sign up to vote for the first time. They are eager to play a role in the political process, and they are prepared to assume the responsibility of citizenship.  As they waited their turn, some of the students and I debated whether the U.S. should have a parliamentary system of voting rather than the one-party-take-all process we have now. It was a pleasure to hear their arguments, and the knowledge with which they supported their points.  At a time when cynicism runs rampant, their optimism both heartened and inspired me.

So, beyond the joy of spending time with children ranging in age from three years old to those who are less than a year away from graduating, why am I mentioning this?  Because part of Keystone’s magic is the way that our teachers and staff members meet children where they are and take them to the next step. They challenge and support them; consequently, youngsters grow up into admirable young women and men who are ready to take on whatever comes their way.

In addition, in a PK-12 school, younger students have the opportunity to learn from older students who can be their role models.  Children can see high school students excel in Science Fair, perform on stage, compete in athletics, and demonstrate good sportsmanship and citizenship.  As a result, they understand that ethical behaviour is not just something that adults say you need to do; rather it is a trait that they will work on and hone as they go through lower, middle and high school.  For the older students, the younger children provide a sense of perspective and remind them of where they were at one point in their lives. In some ways, having younger children around keeps everyone spry and energized.  

However, there are also personal reasons I wanted to share these experiences with you. It was not that long ago that my wife and I were dropping our children off at preschool, that our sons discovered the joy of reading and being read to in bed, and it seems like only yesterday that we spent hours on the floor building Lego towers.  Registering to vote and applying to colleges came faster than we ever imagined, and lo and behold, they’re gone and it’s just us at home now.

I will leave it to the physicists to explain how the passage of time shortens as our children, and we, get older, and what seemed at one point like something far off in the future is suddenly here.  As a brand new empty-nester, I urge you to soak up as much of this time with your children as you can, for like other pleasures in life, the time before they leave us is fleeting and short. As Harry Chapin sang,

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?
He shook his head, and he said with a smile
What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?

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