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Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten!
by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, M.S.
 
I was enjoying the Kennedy Center Honors the other night. It was a wonderful show -- the lives of the honorees were reviewed and someone close to them shared personal stories and comments with the audience. Of course, I was not expecting to hear anything remotely related to education or homeschooling but, once again, I experienced that bits of wisdom or inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places or situations.

You see, Bill Cosby was one of the honorees. And, it seems, that Bill was somewhat of a behavior problem in school. One of his teachers complained that he seemed to think it was his job to entertain people inside and outside of the classroom. He had potential but…(!) Bill’s mom preserved his 6th grade report card (which hangs framed in his home) on which his teacher noted that he was a “disruptive force” in class. If this describes Bill Cosby I shudder to think what teachers wrote about Robin Williams!

This made me think again of all the great artists, musicians, entertainers, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, thinkers, philosophers, authors, Nobel Peace Prize winners, educators, inspirational speakers -- all the people who have made great contributions to our world, who have made a positive difference -- who did it in spite of their school experiences.

The term “school experiences” can mean more than the actual time spent in the classroom. Yes, that is a big chunk of time, but as if that were not enough, many students find themselves also dealing with the time outside of the classroom which involves homework, discussions with parents about school performance, and the general feeling which is with them 24 hours a day that several people are unhappy with them, or frustrated, or disappointed, or all of the above. It’s even worse when these significant adults think that the student is slow, below average in intelligence, or learning disabled in some way.

We laugh when we hear of the note written by Bill Cosby’s teacher, or the fact that Robin Williams was voted in high school as least likely to succeed; that Jay Leno’s 5th grade teacher said, “If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he’d be a big star”; that Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was too stupid to learn anything; that Albert Einstein was described as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams”; that Beethoven’s teacher called him hopeless as a composer. We laugh at the absurdity, because we can look back and see how ridiculous the statements are in light of what these people have accomplished.

What we don’t think about are the struggles most of these people had, how hard they had to work to accomplish their goals, the obstacles they had to work through -- it is not easy to get up enough determination and courage to go for your dream when you are continually facing adults who don’t recognize or encourage your talents, and it is even more difficult when they think that you have a problem or you are a problem!

What we especially don’t think about is the number of students who don’t make it to their dreams, whose talents are buried deep inside of them; those who didn’t get that little push from someone or something that enabled them to get beyond their negative experiences. It is a miracle that Les Brown, the incredible motivational speaker, became what he is today, when all of his school life he was labeled educable mentally retarded. One dose of Les Brown is enough to convince anyone of his brilliant intelligence, his depth and breadth of knowledge, his talent for speaking, his familiarity with great literature, and his ability to inspire.

That could never happen today, you say? No one would be mistakenly labeled EMR! And it certainly couldn’t happen to homeschoolers! Well, yes, it is possible, just as it is possible to be mislabeled ADD, ADHD, Learning Disabled, Dyslexic, or Hyperactive. Thousands of homeschooled children carry these labels. Thousands of others are learning that they are just average. Many homeschooled children are really caught in the same educational system as their friends who attend the local private or public school. The only difference is that they are home.

Being home has many advantages in itself, and I am not discounting important issues such as safety and teaching values. But I also believe that homeschoolers want the best academic education for their children -- it will not be the best, however, if it simply follows the “normal” school format. Since this is the way we were taught, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is what school should be. Just add more individual attention, drill, requirements, and high standards, and you now have the best -- or at least something much, much better than a regular school. Well, actually, it’s not much better, and it certainly will not be the best until it becomes the best program for a particular child’s needs.

Here’s a typical scenario (classroom or homeschool): Child A begins school eager to learn, meet new kids, play fun games, be acknowledged by the teacher/parent. This child loves to color (and does so within the lines!), can sit for long periods working quietly, organized books and papers, memorizes the rules, completes papers neatly to earn a star. This child must be smart, motivated, and destined for great things. This child ends the school day happy and confident.

Child B begins school eager to learn, meet new kids, play fun games, be acknowledged by the teacher/parent. This child loves to build with Legos, make things with clay, throw a ball, tell jokes, tap out rhythms. This child is probably uncooperative, disruptive, unmotivated and, maybe, hyperactive or ADHD. This child ends the school day angry and frustrated.

Child C begins school eager to learn, meet new kids, play fun games, be acknowledged by the teacher/parent. This child loves to look at pictures of animals, explore in the dirt, collect rocks, daydream about airplanes, draw up an invention. This child is often seen as slow, lazy, unmotivated or, maybe, ADD or learning disabled. This child ends the school day depressed and discouraged.

What does all this have to do with midlife crisis? This is the term we use to indicate that someone is experiencing a trauma in the middle years -- a trauma that usually has to do with the question, “What am I doing with my life?” There are those stories of extreme reactions that all of us have heard: Like the guy who is a doctor, quits one day, and goes to live in the woods; the woman who suddenly leaves her family so she can go back to school and be an engineer; and the less dramatic cases such as the actor who decides he should have been a teacher, the teacher who needs to be an artist, the financial consultant who enters the ministry.

There is nothing wrong, really, with changing careers. As a sign of growth and experience, it ought to be cause for celebration and joy. But we don’t say midlife celebration, we say midlife crisis! Crisis, because this time is more often associated with great unhappiness or depression; feelings of low self-esteem, emptiness, uselessness, confusion; and conflict with family and friends. Some people make very poor decisions at this time, including deserting their families. Basically, they choose to run away. Those who don’t run away continue in their situations, afraid to change anything, and feeling for the rest of their lives that they never got to do what they were meant to do. These are the people who say in later years, “if only…,” “I always wished…,” “I missed my chance to…”

And, so, we have countless books on the subject: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was by Barbara Sher; Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar; Do What You Are by Tieger and Barron-Tieger; The Three Boxes of Life and How To Find Your Mission In Life by Richard Bolles; Life Launch by Hudson and McLean . . . The theme being that if you know what you are meant to be and do in the world, you have a purpose, and purpose leads to fulfillment, happiness, good relationships -- all those great things we all want.

How do we figure out our purpose, our mission in life? A big clue is to look at our natural talents. Over and over, these books say, figure out what your talents and interests are, what you love. Many of theses books include self-assessments to help you figure out what you like and what you’re good at doing, just in case you don’t know anymore. We are told that people who have figured out what they are supposed to be doing are happy and confident (sounds like Child A); those who haven’t can easily become angry and frustrated (sounds like Child B); or discouraged and depressed (sounds like Child C).

When children start school they bring their natural talents, skills, and interests with them. Shouldn’t it be just as natural to encourage these talents, to help them unfold in uniqueness, to teach them how to integrate their interests and learning styles with the other things they need to learn? Doesn’t it make sense to develop their passions? Instead, the first thing we do is teach them to put their interests on hold. We begin early, the process of hiding the clues, the keys to our adult lives. Years later the potential scientists or artists or teachers have the seeds buried so deeply they can no longer remember what set them on fire. And they need a book or a therapist to help them rediscover who they really are deep inside.

Why wait until adulthood to go back to our foundations to discover what we were meant to do and be in the world? I have a sign in my office which reads, “It is better to build children than repair adults.”

We need to pay attention to the child who needs to drum on the desk, the one who memorizes better when shooting baskets, the one who is interested in rocks. We need to stop labeling our children with dysfunctional labels and start labeling the positives: “Keeps excellent rhythm.” “Very coordinated, a whiz at the computer, great rapport with animals.” “A natural comedian!” Children who grow up learning about their own talents, skills, interests, and styles of learning will not experience “school” crisis, nor “midlife” crisis. They will grow up to be confident adults who continue to set goals, achieve dreams, and be enthusiastic about lifelong learning. They will remain flexible and open to change, continually fine-tuning their interests and talents.

Homeschooling is the perfect setting for nurturing kids’ learning styles and talents. With homeschooling we can be respectful of each child’s interests and learning timetable. We can guide and mentor our children in the direction of their talents and passions. We can help them discover their purpose, their mission in life. When we expect all kids to learn the same content in the same way, we crush the spirits of many, and end up labeling them as behind, average, troublemakers, lazy, etc. When we respect the differences and unique characteristics which each child brings to the world, we encourage the development of future Picassos, Einsteins, Bill Cosbys and Emily Dickensons. This could mean assigning picture reports instead of written reports, teaching history through story telling, learning math through music, or putting reading on hold.

Remember the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Let’s give our children the right start by helping them to learning about what they love as they are growing up. This will help avert midlife crisis, as well as school crisis for kids and parents.

_____________________

Mariaemma is an Educational Therapist and Consultant in private practice. She and Victoria Kindle-Hodson own Reflective Educational Perspectives and have developed the A Self-Portrait TM Learning Styles System. They offer consultations, customized curriculum plans, and workshops on learning styles and teaching strategies at the office in Ventura, CA. For a catalog or other information, contact Mariaemma at 805/648-1739 or mepwl@aol.com.