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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: 'My sister's gift' column raises question of how best to 'reach' kids

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2012

A number of readers have responded positively to my column in the Weekly of Sept. 7 about a "gift" of good advice my older sister Marilyn gave me more than a half century ago when I was in a blue teenage funk for a week or so.
It was that I was important because how I presented myself affected everyone around me in positive or negative ways, some barely perceptible but others significant. The broader message is that we all of us -- young, old and in between -- are important.
I concluded the column (see www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=17592) by saying that it would be nice if that gift could be passed along to today's young persons, and outlined a program I and others developed in the early 1980s that might help accomplish that.
Among the responses were some relevant and thoughtful comments, in addition to basic thanks.
The thoughts of one resident in particular may be worth sharing, and thinking about.
"I just read your article about your sister's gift to you, and was very moved by your personal story and how well you told it. Thank you," she began.
"My take on what follows in your article is, however, different from yours.
"Consider: Would that same 13-year-old boy have responded the same way if being told what to do by a committee? If instead of one close and trusted person sitting on his bed and sharing her wisdom with him, he'd been the recipient of pages and pages of psychological materials explaining how he should think and feel and how his family should behave, would that have had the same salubrious effect?
"Sometimes in our zeal to do good, we may overdo."
Great question, well put. And as a teenager I doubt that I would have appreciated a committee coming into my room and sitting on the end of my bed. And official programs and materials and conferences may be something akin to that.
She continues:
"When I was in high school, we had nary a suicide, and plenty of families were doubtless what today has been categorized as dysfunctional.
"What was so different?
"No one came at us with psychological counseling, making us self-conscious about our attitudes or feelings. No one insisted we take drugs to change our moods, attention span, or behavior.
"Teenagers are already self-conscious enough. And shouldn't those who are closest to them and love them be the ones to speak wisdom to them? Shouldn't they be allowed, as we were, to find their way within the context of their own private worlds?
"Shouldn't school be about accumulating knowledge, learning math, history, literature and science, as well as how to think logically and critically, and to write cohesive, intelligent essays? After all, the lessons of history and of classic literature are replete with wisdom very likely surpassing anything psychologists may compile.
"Shouldn't the focus of attention be on that -- on education in the classic sense -- and off of the students' private thoughts and feelings? Mightn't that feel invasive to a child? "Parents typically know if and when their child needs special help. Why don't we trust each family to deal with its own private issues, as yours did."
I replied with a thanks for her thoughtful email and some thoughts:
"I do agree with the 'committee' not being an effective way to communicate with young persons at pivotal times in their lives." I invited her to look over the Family LifeSkills materials that a group of us developed in the early 1980s following a couple of teen suicides at Palo Alto High School, in response to a request from then Principal Jim Shroyer for help with an "anti-suicide" program.
Instead, we decided to do a series of informational mailings to each student covering ways families could communicate better and provide a stronger base of support for young persons feeling effective and their general well-being. The students were encouraged to share their ideas with their parents, even by leaving the four-page pieces lying around -- a kind of "trickle-up theory" of starting dialogue.
Several local family therapists have told me they used articles from the materials as homework assignments for teens and families they were counseling -- one therapist said she used them for more than 25 years. (They are still online at http://www.pamf.org/teen/parents/emotions/lifeskills/ -- check the Acrobat versions on the left column for the actual mailers).
I continued my reply: "In developing those materials, we were acutely conscious about the 'committee' type approach, but there was virtually no intervention effort underway at the time, back in the early 1980s -- when there were a couple of teen suicides of Palo Alto High School students. This does not include the 'slow suicides' of self-destructive behavior that resulted in auto accidents or other means of risking (and sometimes ending) one's life."
"The repeated message in the LifeSkills materials is 'Take time to listen!' Take time to be a family, not just people who share a house in a frenetically busy culture.
In the early 1980s, the emphasis on academic achievement was just beginning its upward trajectory of emphasis on grades and advanced-placement classes.
In the 1970s each of the then-three high schools in Palo Alto had a 'special problems counselor,' and I knew each of them. Those were eliminated along the way for budget reasons. One of them, the late Phil Bliss, founded Midpeninsula High School in Palo Alto as a "safety net" for bright kids who didn't fit the academic mold of the primary high schools.
Today's interventions are often done through the Adolescent Counseling Service (ACS).
There is a continuing dialogue about the role of "school counselors" in Palo Alto -- namely whether their job is just to provide academic counseling on grades and target colleges/universities vs. dealing with emotional issues and family crises or negative patterns.
In terms of academic focus vs. private thoughts or emotions, clearly the family should be deeply involved in the latter (both, actually). Yet in reality not all families are well equipped to do that, and some are even toxic. Studies indicate a large percentage of young persons -- some say up to one in ten -- are subjected to some form of physical or emotional abuse by they time they reach high school.
Can a student's academic performance truly be separated from his or her emotional sense of well-being and effectiveness -- that feeling that if there's something they don't like they can do something a bout it?
It would be ideal if every family were equipped with the knowledge and understanding to be able to deal with serious situations or emotional crises of family members. But there's a real world to consider, and all too many families -- even without the seriously abusive elements -- just don't have the knowledge or capacity to provide that kind of safe environment.
Sometimes a committee is needed to help create a cultural environment where it's OK to ask for help, or find a supportive coach or guide to help them through some of the thorny thickets of life in today's world.
As for academics vs. emotional states, a physician once told me that he believed in dealing with the whole person rather than specific organs when diagnosing illness. He said when a group of organs come into his office and sit down he might reconsider that approach.
Similarly, it might be really difficult to separate a student's academic performance from his or her personal life and emotional state of being.
Note: I would be most interested in hearing more thoughtful ideas about the nature of life for young persons and their families in today's world in comments below.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).