From Angst to Thanks

There is no job that is more angst-ridden than being a parent. As much as you would like to cocoon your children from the hurts and disappointments and harsh realities of the world – it is simply not possible. Every day we are bombarded by the media with images that reflect all of our worst nightmares. Last week the internet was crowded with remembrances of that horrific day five years ago in Sandy Hook. There are no words that can express the sorrow and the outrage that consumes us all when we allow ourselves to reflect on this kind of violation of what should be one of the safest places on earth for our children.

It is often far too easy to dwell on the dark possibilities of life.  But, as parents, we can not, and should not, go there. Quite the contrary, this time of year should be a time of giving thanks. Thanks for our children and all of the joy that they bring to our lives. Thanks too, to all of the amazing people in their lives who care for them and support them; the people who make sure that they don’t “fall between the cracks”.

Many years ago, one of my older sons declared in the middle of Grade 12 that “school is irrelevant” and stopped attending. No amount of begging, lecturing or threatening would make him budge, and if it hadn’t been for a cadre of teachers who were determined to make sure that he didn’t throw everything away in the last weeks of high school, the end of the story might have been quite different. As it was, he graduated, and then took two years off to work as a short-order cook. More angst! Eventually however, he met a girl. She was interested in school and driven to succeed. Fast forward twenty years and they are both university professors in Winnipeg with two lovely daughters and very successful and satisfying personal and professional lives. And his father? I still remain full of angst –  transferred quite seamlessly to my two young sons (how will I ever get Morgan to sit down to his math homework rather than gravitating to his iPad? Or get Quinn to realize that there is more to life than watching hockey and baseball?) and to my grandchildren who are too far away for me to micro-manage in the way that I want to. That is the nature of parenthood. We want the best for our children and woe be to anything or anyone that gets in the way of it!

Sometimes however, we get so focused on the perceived barriers to our children’s future successes, that we forget to reflect and appreciate those circumstances and people who are not holding them back, but propelling them forward. As our children get older, and our direct influence wanes, those factors (the values, the work ethic, and strength of character that we have tried to instil in them) and those people (their teachers, coaches, friends and extended family members) play a greater and greater role in the path that they choose to follow.

As the term draws to a close, and we look forward to celebrating a holiday season that is more about family than about turkeys and presents, it is a great time to be thankful for all of those people who are helping our children along their way. No doubt, if we could be in a hundred places at once, we would try to do it all ourselves, but sometimes, we just have to let go, hope for the best, and trust that the foundation that we have built for our daughters and sons will carry them through just fine.

So, from me, this is a letter of thanks to my own children’s teachers, past and present, to their friends (and friends’ parents) and to the hosts of cousins, Aunts and Uncles, and Grandparents who have been such an important part of their lives. You don’t relieve my angst, but somehow you make it all come together for my kids.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Timing is everything!

I never miss an opportunity to read whatever Daniel Pink authors, or give up a chance to hear him speak on podcasts, or interviews, or in person. His books: A Whole New Mind; Drive; and, To Sell is Human are three of my favourites and rarely spend much time on my book shelf, as either I take one down to refresh my memory about an idea, or a staff member drops in to grab one of my copies.

Pink’s latest work – When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing hit the bookstores last week and once again he doesn’t disappoint. One of the central themes is his examination of the research studying the correlation between performance and time of day. Scientists have known for a long time that most living organisms have internal clocks or “circadian rhythms”. Pink’s research takes this one step further as he considers the impact of these rhythms on our day to day performance at work, school, or play.

“For most of us mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a recovery.” Most of us seem to peak in the morning, trough at midday, and recover in the later afternoon. But, as he notes, even casual observation reveals that not all of us experience this pattern in the same way, in fact, we’re all different “chromotypes.” About a quarter of us are “larks” that excel in the morning; others are “owls” that hit their peak in the wee hours, and still others — between 60 to 80 per cent of us — are “third birds,” somewhere in between. Knowing your chromotype is critical to avoid making dangerous mistakes or becoming the victim of other people’s time-sensitive errors. Pink points out that although most of us fall into that middle group, this is not a consistent pattern throughout our lives. Young children tend to be “larks”, up at ’em at the crack of dawn. After puberty there is a significant shift towards becoming an “owl”. Research shows that for most teenagers, 6-7 a.m. is the physical equivalent of the middle of the night. And, anyone who has tried to dynamite a teenager out of bed in the morning, or watched adolescent zombies walk the halls of a high school before lunch will understand that completely. Eventually, most young adults tend to gravitate to the middle ground in their 20s but will eventually become more and more “larkish” in their 60s and beyond.

So, what impact does all of this have on schooling? To begin with, for elementary students, it is a reminder – which all teachers and tutors know from experience – that the most challenging academic tasks are best performed before the early afternoon. Pink identifies the trough period for most people as hitting between 2 and 4 p.m. but for younger “larks” in the early elementary it may come as early as 11 or so. High School students are more productive if, either their day starts a bit later, or begins with less academically demanding courses such as phys-ed or one on one direct instruction, where they can be individually coached and encouraged, scheduled at the beginning of the day.

Can you break this rhythm, or are we doomed to wallow in the afternoon trough with declining focus and productivity? Well, in this case, Pink gives us a little hope to counter our own circadian rhythms. He suggests that the mid-afternoon is a good time to focus on mundane, administrative tasks. If morning is our peak analytical time, and later in the day is our most creative, then the mid-point might just be a time to grind it out! He also points out that research shows that taking a break (not an extended siesta, but rather a deliberate active change of scene) can also be rejuvenating. I heard Pink speak about this on Quirks and Quarks last week. He recommends a brief – 10-15 minutes – brisk walk, outdoors, ideally in the company of a friend or colleague. This tends to clean out the cobwebs, improve mood, and get you back on track. For elementary students this might mean a “body break” on the playground. For high school kids, a 10 minute afternoon opportunity to walk to the corner and grab a snack. These “time wasters” are actually a great investment in productivity.

So next time you have trouble getting your kids up in the morning, or getting them to focus on homework in the evening. Don’t blame them, blame it on their chromotype!

Timing is everything.