When Things Get Messy

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When Things Get Messy

authored by Head of School Fran Bisselle

I will never forget the two sentences that changed my life as a parent. The first one came from Polly Young-Eisendrath’s parenting book The Self-Esteem Trap. She said, “You don’t raise them to keep them.” Reading that sentence took my breath away. At the time, my girls were eight and nine. I realized every skill I was teaching them would enable them to be strong women without me. I was working myself out of a job, and I was terrified.

The second sentence was from Mark McConville, HB’s consulting psychologist for over 30 years. In a speech he gave a few years ago, he said, “We should be less worried about what college my child gets into and more worried about what kind of 30-year-old she will be.” My children were in their early twenties at the time, and I thought to myself, I really wish someone articulated this to me earlier—not that I would have changed anything radically—but it would have been anchoring. HB has always professed character matters most, and certainly the development of character and one’s moral compass are soulful anchors that trump achievement.  

This year is my 32nd year in education, and I have yet to meet a “perfect” child. Good kids will make bad choices. This DOES NOT make them bad kids. No one learns to ride a bike without falling a few times (and if you have not read Wendy Mogel’s classic The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, you should– and I highly recommend our new podcast series, Unboxed, from HB Division Directors). I am a proud survivor of the tween and teen parenting years (I use the word survivor intentionally). My girls, Lucy (26) and Agnes (25) are extraordinary young women—but their tween and teen years were NOT extraordinary. In fact, they were downright messy. There were moments when they were mean to others or were dishonest. And yet today, they are better, kinder, and more thoughtful adults because of the wisdom they garnered at that formative time. We all need wisdom which, of course, comes from falling short.

I rarely give parenting advice, but after presiding over 16 graduations (seven at HB), and having seen 32 years of students graduate and go beyond, I find myself increasingly confident as to what makes girls successful over the long haul. Of course there are many things, but I want to highlight three as we begin this year together:

  1. If something happens— like a bad grade, making JV instead of varsity, or not getting the part they wanted in the play— coach your daughter to make an appointment with the teacher and ask why. Having difficult conversations when emotions are involved is a skill that takes practice and will make your child a better friend, a better professional, a better spouse, and a better parent. Of course parents can reach out as well—but parent outreach should not take the place of a child leaning into live conversations that are not easy with the adults around them.
  2. If you give your child a cell phone, be prepared for her to make a mistake. I have yet to meet a child that has perfectly executed cyber etiquette. When the mistake is made, it will be incumbent upon you to call the other parent to untangle the situation with grace and kindness. Do not text the other parent(s). Talk live and in person, if possible. Sit everyone down. Have tough, messy conversations and work through it. It is not easy, and it is critical to model this for your child.
  3. Build a team of truth-telling parents, teachers, and maybe even a counselor or therapist to fight perfectionism that seems inherent in our current world. I think of professional athletes who achieve at the highest levels. They are not told “you are amazing” by the people who truly care about their development and performance (The Positive Coaching Alliance, who did two talks with parents of athletes here at HB, mentioned developing growth mindsets– yes!). Professional athletes have a team who help them analyze their weaknesses to address them. They are empowered with positive initiatives such as nutrition plans, better training, and more practice to improve and achieve. We need multiple coaches for our children who empower them and help them develop confidence.

This I know: a parent’s job has never been more difficult, more complex, and more exhausting. We need each other’s support. We also need to reach out to each other when things are not going well. Life is messy. We are here for you.

As we begin this year together, my pledge to you is this: My team is on your team–we are in this together. I am forever grateful for our celebrated community at HB—who love, cherish and support the whole child—every beautiful and messy part of them.

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