Good grades, gruesome fairy tales and brain development
I had a great conversation with my son last night. As with most of our conversations, there are a zillion tangents but a common thread to hold it all together. I don’t remember how the conversation started but at some point we started talking about school and then there was something about toddlers…now I remember: the concept of time. As I learned from a recent NPR report, if you say to a toddler “I’ll give you a cookie in five minutes” the child will have a breakdown because a toddler doesn’t understand the concept of time. They understand “yes, I’ll give you a cookie” or “no, I won’t give you a cookie” but “I’ll give you a cookie in five minutes” is torture. The same part of the brain that is under developed in a toddler’s brain for time is the same underdeveloped part of the brain for teenagers and results. I said to my son, “you’ve heard stories of teenagers doing stupid things?” and he said “yes, it’s common knowledge that teenagers do stupid things.” I said “you’ll do stupid things and it’s not entirely your fault because of your brain development.” He asked “did you do stupid things?” ”Oh yes, I did a lot of stupid things.” I went on to tell him about how the teenage brain makes a teenager believe that they’re invincible. He said “like jumping off of a roof onto a trampoline and dunking a basketball?” I said “yes but it doesn’t stop there. Not only do you think you’ll survive the jump and dunk the ball, you also believe that the person you like will like you even more because of this outrageous stunt.” So, my advice to him was to accept that crazy ideas will enter his mind but to make good decisions and to look out for his friends because they to will suffer from brain development.
At this point in the conversation, we were still talking about jumping off of roofs but some how school and grades entered the conversation. I had told him before about how poorly I did in school. He said “yeah, you told me your grades once.” I said “the only reason I got bad grades was because I didn’t do my homework.” He said “is that why you tell me to do my homework?” ”Yes, that is why I tell you to do your homework.” I went on to explain every year of school “I wouldn’t do my homework, I’d get bad grades and the fear of failing would make me do my homework.” ”Fear,” I told him “is a great teaching tool but not the best way to learn anything.” I then told him about a European Literature class I took in college. We started the semester by reading original versions of the common fairy tales. I told him how gruesome they were and how they were designed to scare children. He said “that’s not nice!” I said “they weren’t supposed to be nice. They were to scare children into making good decisions. They taught by fear.” We talked about Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood and the fear of being eaten. I then said “it’s because of that class that I say to you “Be smart” instead of “Be good.” I explained to him that it’s not about being a good little child, it’s about making good decisions. I said “you and I would agree that kicking someone isn’t good, right? But if someone were trying to steal your wallet, I wouldn’t disagree with you kicking them.” I then told him that it’s my wish that he never get in a fight but if he finds himself in one to get away from the situation and that if he can’t, to defend himself.
At this point, there was a brief discussion of bullies and how some bullies will provoke you to hit them knowing that a teacher is watching and that you would get in trouble. I told him that if he is ever bullied to tell someone and to get away from the bully. Then we started talking about good and bad. I said “some people will say that there are good people and bad people. I don’t believe that. I believe that there are people that make good and bad decisions.” This tied in everything we had been talking about from jumping off of roofs to grades to being safe. Every day my son gets older and every day I find something to worry about. I can’t wrap him in bubble wrap and protect him from every evil in the world. I can only share the highs and lows of my life and help him navigate his life.