Billy's Blog

Archives - August 2018

To help kids develop, give them chores

August 31, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“The parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive.” Angela Duckworth

Although the joys of parenting are endless, there are moments when we have to grit our teeth, fight the same battle as yesterday, and stick to our guns. Outside, we may be calmly stressing that “yes, we are serious, the dishes need to be washed, the laundry needs to be folded”, while inside we may be thinking, “seriously, this discussion again?!” I say this as a parent preparing to send our youngest child to college and wondering how many things we could have done differently along the way.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Happy Children Do Chores, KJ Dell’Antonia points to research as well as common knowledge to explain the benefits of children doing household tasks. As Dell’Antonia points out, this is true even when our children are very busy with school work and extracurricular activities. Don’t get me wrong-homework, sports practice, dance rehearsal, music lessons, etc. are crucial and instrumental in our children’s growth and development as students and as well-rounded, interesting and interested people.

Nevertheless, doing chores also teaches them that they are part of something greater than solely themselves. Performing jobs around the house on a regular basis helps them learn that the functioning of a family unit depends on them doing their part. They learn that teams can only function when everyone fulfills her role, and that they have duties on which others rely. As Dell’Antonia says, “Being a part of the routine work of running a household helps children develop an awareness of the needs of others, while at the same time contributing to their emotional well-being. Children who consider themselves necessary to the family are less likely to feel adrift in a world where everyone wants to feel needed.”

There are a number of reasons for us to require our children to do chores. One is that it makes them feel better to accomplish something and realize that they do make a difference. They understand that what they do matters and they contribute to the well-being of the family. In a world where it is easy to feel anonymous, we want our children to understand their importance for their own self-esteem. One could argue that one of the best reasons for children to play team sports is to learn that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The pleasure of making an assist in basketball or soccer, a bunt in baseball to advance a runner, or a perfect set up in volleyball can as good as scoring the goal or point itself.

Another benefit of their doing chores is that they comprehend the interdependent nature of organizations and social structures. As the Harvard professor Robert Putnam described so eloquently in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a fundamental shift occurred in American society in the half-century after WWII as we became more isolated from one another and we invested less of ourselves in communal organizations. Whether it was the disintegration of bowling leagues, lower attendance at houses of worship, or decreasing attendance in neighborhood organizations, the institutions in American society that built and perpetuated social capital deteriorated. Consequently, more Americans felt alone and cut off from one another than ever before.

Perhaps I am overreaching here to say that if we want our children to feel they are part of a larger social fabric, they need to learn at home how successful institutions depend on people fulfilling their various roles. Maybe our houses function as microcosms of our larger society and the lessons we teach them at home they can then apply to our society as a whole. If we want to them to learn responsibility, we need to have them actually be responsible for something around the house.

As parents, we know this intuitively. In her article, Kell D’Antonio points to data supporting this point, “In a survey of 1,001 American adults, 75 percent said they believed regular chores made kids “more responsible” and 63 percent said chores teach kids “important life lessons.” However, as Kell D’Antonio also explains, only 56% of parents actually have their children doing chores. Why this discrepancy? Because haranguing our children to do their chores gets old. It’s tiresome having the same discussion around taking the garbage out or cleaning up the kitty litter. It’s all too easy to just say, “fine, I’ll do it.”

Nevertheless, as Dell’Antonio reminds us we need to “insist and persist.” We have to steel ourselves and just suck it up. It’s not fun, but we’re doing an essential duty for our children and our society in teaching them to be contributing citizens in their homes and that good things don’t just magically occur; they require hard work and people joining together in a common endeavor.

We should look at it this way. In requiring them to do chores, we’re teaching them three of Keystone’s core values-ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership. We’re investing in the well-being of our children and our country, and that’s an investment that will repay itself many times over!

Be Prepared

August 24, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“So prepare for a chance of a lifetime
Be prepared for sensational news
A shining new era
Is tiptoeing nearer”

If you’re a fellow fan of The Lion King, you may recognize these lyrics from the song “Be Prepared.” Although this catchy tune may refer to regicide and succession, it does have applicability to other areas of life.

I thought of these words this past Monday at morning drop-off as I greeted members of the Class of 2018, who had just returned from the Annual Senior Trip. From all reports, it was a great excursion.

According to Director of College Counseling Sara Christiansen, “Seniors spent the weekend camping and exploring in the mountains of West Texas. We toured the Caves of Sonora, a two-mile walk about 155 feet underground to view stalactites and stalagmites, and attended a star party at the McDonald Observatory, operated by the University of Texas at Austin, under the perfect West Texas night. Seniors enjoyed a sky constellation tour and viewed Saturn, Venus, the moon and more by telescope. We attempted to view the mysterious Marfa Lights; seniors are still deciding if they believe the lights to be real or not. We even made a stop at Prada Marfa, a famous art installation on the side of a desolate West Texas road. As part of a college counseling exercise, seniors read, discussed, and made admission decisions on actual applications to Harvard. We enjoyed meals together, hiked, went swimming in Balmorhea Lake, and had plenty of downtime for students to connect with one another before senior year begins.”

Like so much else in education and life, a large part of success in college stems from good preparation. However, many students wait until the summer before senior year to get serious about what they’re going to do and that may be too late. All too often, students go to college and fall apart or drop out because they’re unable to handle the responsibility of taking care of themselves.

According to the New York Times article, “How to Help A Teenager Be College-Ready,” by Mark McConville, preparing for college needs to begin in junior year, if not before. McConville states, “The most reliable signal that the transition to emerging adulthood has begun is evidence that the child has begun taking sole ownership of these responsibilities-independent of parental involvement-via personal initiative and follow through.”

McConville looks for signs of emerging adulthood in three specific areas: medical and behavioral health, academics, and administrative tasks. Are children taking their health and well-being into their own hands? Are they setting their own bedtimes and their personal wake-up times? Are they ready to be on their own without a parent to regulate their schedule?

Similarly, students by junior year should own their academic success. They need to manage their academic calendar, and they should be proactive in seeking help if they’re struggling. If the parents of juniors or seniors are still overseeing their children’s academic performance, the odds are high that students will struggle with their newfound independence, even if they are extremely bright.

The third area McConville proposes that may indicate whether children are ready for college is how they handle administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments, meeting a deadline, or taking care of paperwork. While these chores may not be exciting, they are necessary to success, and adolescents must learn how to do them to be successful. Parents are not going to be there to do them in college, and it’s these little things that may determine whether a child turns in a paper on time, makes it to a lab, shows up for an interview, or gets a job.

Whenever high school alumni regale me with stories about their college roommates, I tell them a little about what I experienced my freshman year. I was in a three-person room, and both of my roommates, who were extremely capable, flunked out. It wasn’t that they weren’t intellectually able to do the work--they were. However, neither one handled the freedom of college life well, and too many nights of partying and too many skipped classes led to bad grades and loss of scholarships. I had two new roommates second semester, and only one survived to move on to sophomore year. All of these people could do the work, but their inability to manage their academics, personal lives, and administrative tasks prevented them from meeting their potential.

So, as parents and as educators, let’s teach our children the wisdom in the words of General Colin Powell, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure,” and let’s start this process early so they can be well-positioned to be the best that they can be.

Good beginnings start with a growth mindset

August 17, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“Good seasons start with good beginnings.”  

--Sparky Anderson


I thought about these words from the legendary baseball manager as the Keystone faculty and staff spent the last week and a half preparing for the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. Whether it was the maintenance crew beautifying the campus, the administration creating rosters and finalizing class lists, or teachers decorating their rooms or planning units with colleagues, there was a buzz of anticipation around the school.  Together, we engaged in thought-provoking discussions as we considered how we wish the upcoming year to proceed.

Peering into upper school lockers filled with books or strolling through the Little School and enjoying the colorful and dynamic rooms gave me an anticipatory thrill for the promise of a new school year. While there can be some anxiety around the beginning of the year, this is natural as all of us--teachers, staff members, parents, and students -- enter a new phase that holds many unknowns. If we were not a little anxious, we would be ignoring the positive kind of stress that new beginnings inevitably bring.  Being nervous and excited simultaneously is a good thing, and we should let our children know that this is not only OK, it is healthy. We can heed the words of the author John Galsworthy who once said, “Beginnings are always messy.”

So how do we as parents and as educators help our children navigate this potential messiness? Author and educator Dr. Amy Eva offers suggestions in a blog post in Greater Good magazine, “Tips for Helping Kids Develop a Growth Mindset.” While Eva focuses on the social benefits of a growth mindset, versus a fixed mindset, this approach to living and learning for children and teens is just as applicable to their academic and extracurricular experiences.  

Eva explains some of the advantages of a growth mindset are improved peer relationships, empathy, and cooperation.  Believing that our brains are malleable and our abilities are not set also enables our children to take on greater challenges in their academic classes, the arts, and in athletics.  This kind of approach empowers our children to respond well to setbacks and to look at them as an inevitable component of the learning process. As a colleague once said, “A failure is an event not a person.”  

As the adults in our children’s lives, we have a crucial role to play in helping them see obstacles as opportunities.  If we share with them new tasks we have taken on that were outside of our comfort zone, they will understand that this is natural and even exciting. If we explain to them that, at times, we experience difficulties but we persevere and grow, they will see that their current stress is an inevitable part of changing and growing.  

Instead of saying when they get a low grade on a quiz, “I was bad in that subject also,” we should explain that “I struggled in this area, but after a lot of hard work, I really improved.”  When they earn a good grade on a paper, rather than applauding their success by stating “You’re really smart,” we should commend their hard work as the reason they prevailed. While these may seem like small differences, the impact can be large as our children learn that their effort, instead of their innate ability, may be a deciding, or even the determining, factor in their doing well.  

I also recommend watching the video below with your child to explain a growth versus a fixed mindset. It may help clarify the concept and show them the benefits of this approach to life and learning. This may also allow your child to understand that learning is a journey rather than an arrival at a finite point and that, like any good trip, there will be ups and downs along the way.  The ballerina and author Missy Copeland said it well, “Decide what you want. Declare it to the world. See yourself winning. And remember that if you are persistent as well as patient, you can get whatever you seek… I may not be there yet, but I am closer than I was yesterday.”

The Power of Habits

August 07, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“Sorry, it’s a habit.”  “Creature of habit.” “Force of habit.”  How many times in our lives as parents do we attribute something that either we or our children do to habit?  We act or say something with such ease, and with so little thought, that we may not even realize until later that it happened.  

As we know, habits by themselves can be value neutral. Some are good; we want our children to say “‘please” and “thank you” automatically or to do their homework or chores without our having to remind them.  However, we are equally aware that some habits are not beneficial; “please stop biting your nails,” or “please stop using the word ‘like’ in every sentence!”

As a bibliophile, I consider reading to be one of the most beneficial habits we can develop. Obviously, it expands our vocabulary, allows us to learn something new, or escape to another world, but some studies have shown that reading literary fiction can also make us more empathic human beings. A rationale for summer reading in particular is to ensure that students continue immersing themselves in good books when school is out of session so they don’t have to revive the habit of reading in mid-August when summer ends and the academic year begins.  

To help us begin the year with a shared mindset at Keystone, every member of the Keystone faculty and staff read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit  this summer. This highly readable study of habits, how they develop, and how they can be changed has applicability for all of us, no matter what role we play in the school. As part of our week of professional development this year, we gathered together on Monday evening, August 6.,  to discuss our habits at Keystone-both the ones we like and maybe some we wish we had. Just as we ask our students to reflect on themselves and continually seek to improve, we’re all looking at what we do well and what could be even better.

This habit of reflecting on one’s self and always striving to improve characterizes excellent school like Keystone and will inform the work we will do this year in our Independent Schools of the Southwest (ISAS) Accreditation Self-Study. In a spirit of what I call “healthy dissatisfaction,” we will analyze how and what we do, commend what we do well, and recommend how we could be even more effective.  Every self-study committee will have what we’re calling an “outsider,” someone from outside the usual group who asks the hard questions that force us to look deep and hard at why we do what we do and either reaffirm our rationale or seek to make change. This is exciting and invigorating work that will make Keystone an even stronger school than we are now, and we look forward to the work ahead of us.

For parents and students, one of the beautiful things about school is that every August, we have a chance to reinvent ourselves. We can shed or change bad habits and create new ones that will help us. I have linked below an article that may be beneficial as you ponder how to begin the year on the right foot.  In “15 Steps on How To Get Ready for School Quickly,” Laura Richards offers tips on the little things we can do the night before so the mornings aren’t quite as rushed.  Perhaps we should set that dreaded alarm fifteen minutes earlier to give ourselves a little more time in the morning or maybe students should set out their clothes the night before so they’re not panicking because they “have nothing to wear” while their ride is outside waiting. While each of these habits in isolation may seem small, taken together they can determine whether our day starts out well or we’re leaving the house already on edge and anxious.  I hope you find it helpful.

I’ve enjoyed seeing  so many of you around campus as we approach the beginning of school, and I look forward to connecting with even more of you in the days ahead.  We will have a great year as we celebrate Keystone’s 70th birthday and join together in the meaningful work of helping bright and motivated children pursue academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership.

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