Breaking News: The Monkey House Smells Terrible

We love going to zoo. Even as an adult in his late 30’s, my husband used to go to the zoo with his father. Anyone who has ever been to any zoo worth its peanuts knows the monkey house is a must. The monkey house is a magical place: it has the ability to trick your senses within minutes. The monkey house smells awful! In the first 5 minutes, you are overwhelmed by the smell, nearly to the point where you can taste it. But, zoo magic takes effect, and the smell seems to disappear.

It’s amazing what we can get used to or accept as normal. It’s common knowledge that we are being tracked with every click on our smart phones, scan of our rewards cards, and search on our laptops. The grocery store knows which coupons to give me the same way Facebook introduces me to a dozen pages that are close enough to the irreverent, 80s nostalgic, underdog, and teacher-focused other pages I have liked. Technology is designed to make life easier by bringing us all of our likes faster. But, it is so effective in keeping contrary opinions and points of view so out of reach that we stop growing.

Facebook is the easiest way to illustrate my point. My friends and I share similar values. So, when they post interesting stories or articles, of course I “like” them. GAME ON. I am automatically able to “like” the source. That clearly gets another thumbs up. After a very brief period of time (imagine sun cycles, not lunar cycles), feeds I have never heard of are banners between every 3rd post. My cultural ADD clicks in causing me to dole out more “likes.” My global village is now just a cul-du-sac of like-minded people. Sounds good, right? Too good. The problem is we have limited our capacity to develop to our full potential without any exposure to contrary opinions.

Growing Up is a Lifelong Journey

Developmental psychology has many different theories and models. Like the delicious cheese counter, theorists come from different countries and emphasize different aspects of aging. What they all agree on is growing up isn’t limited to children and requires HEALTHY CONFLICT.

  • Cognitive development: In order to increase intelligence, we need to adapt. Our physical bodies know this when our blood thins when we move to Florida to retire from the cruel winters of our New Jersey childhood. Our minds adapt by creating categories, challenging the criteria for the categories, and broadening the category. As a toddler, my son called everything with 4 legs a puppy. Great job, Jacob! You were creating a category of animals. As he went to the zoo, all of the puppies transformed into lions, giraffes, rhinos so each DIFFERENCE made the animal category expand.
  • Social development: Experts, the Most Knowledgeable Other (MKO), is essential for social development. My best friend was my pregnancy sherpa, my MKO, who guided me through the unique experience she survived one year prior. How else would I know about the best cream to use on my parts sore from nursing and my son’s parts red from diapers? It takes time out of your bubble, and maybe your comfort zone, to find your MKO.
  • Attachment: As parents, we know the bond between us and our children is vital to making our children feel safe. Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms are notorious for not letting their children develop INDEPENDENCE because the children are too sheltered and unexposed to different people and experiences. Data tracking through rewards programs and social media are the Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms for adults. Inappropriately attaching to strangers without the process of developing a relationship is as big as a problem as not bonding to anyone. (You all know where this is going…) Collecting followers on social media closes you off to growing and developing relationships that have a healthy GIVE AND TAKE.
  • Moral development: Ask any of my students from my 15 years in the classroom…they were educated in the benevolent dictatorship of Mrs. Slutzky in which I owned the air they breathed. Kids rely on consistent rules from authority figures. Their decisions are based on avoidance of consequences from breaking those rules. But, even at a young age, children progress to the next stage of moral development. Interacting with peers in different social settings cause HEALTHY CHALLENGES to the “rules”. It becomes okay that absolute rights and wrongs don’t exist. Grammy is allowed to give Jacob a cupcake for lunch despite the rule that “sweets come second”. Learning how to adapt when there are new interpretations of right and wrong, shoes off when you go into a house, eating burgers with a fork, is a proud sign that our children are using their own compass to navigate new situations. Why, as adults, have we gone backward?

Spark Note Summary

There are times when surrounding yourself with like-minded, cheerleaders who support you without exception is vital; low self-esteem days and tragic life events happen to us all. But, spending too much time in your bubble is similar to the NEXT 5 minutes in the monkey house; reality is suspended. The answer is not to avoid the monkey house or convince yourself there was no palpable stench. You CONFRONT the discomfort, readjust your expectations, and smile for surviving with a (now) bigger bubble.

Life is Not a Marathon, Highway, or Box of Chocolates

raining cats and dogsIf you ask any one of my students what it means to be “raining cats and dogs” or what exactly is the “rule of thumb,” they will proudly tell you the etymology of those clichés. (But, since my students’ identities are confidential, you can ask in the comments of this blog.) State level tests used to use clichés to assess whether or not students understood the theme of a passage. I had no choice but to teach them, and learn for myself, what it meant for a “stitch in time to save nine” in order for my students to save themselves from self-induced shame of a test score that tested nothing. (Can you pick up on my passion for the worthlessness of formal assessments?)

word choiceI have a long history of being fixated with word choice. In college, I wrote an extensive paper attacking feminists for trying to change the English language by taking “man” out of words like “woman” and replacing it with “womyn.” Or, changing the word “history” to “herstory.” First, take it up with Latin; there is an etymological reason “man” and “his” appear in a ton of words. Second, shouldn’t we have been devoting our energy to ACTUAL problems like equal pay, reproductive rights, or domestic violence. (I’m not picky; any one of those is worth fighting for.)

The meaning behind hackneyed phrases and proper word choice is not limited to standardized tests or creative activism. Neither is my deep passion for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. What is left out from that gem of a slogan is the option to say…nothing. Or, confess that you do not know what to say.

You Are Not Really Sorry 

If you remember my blog, Wife Points for Mrs. Smarty Pants, you know I am a fan of the Urban Dictionary. This resource contains all of the content to show your kids you are cool and often contains words that bully their way into traditional dictionaries. That’s where I learned about the sorry syndrome. The hallmarks of this disorder are using the words “I’m sorry” as filler in situations where you lack the true words to express your feelings. Here are some examples of what may be beneath your faux-pology:

  • “I don’t understand.”
  • “I accidentally made physical contact with you.”
  • “I’m trying to avoid an argument.”
  • “I am worried that I may be too assertive or passionate about a situation.” (I’m sorry but changing the English language to inaccurately reflect the Latin root of a word is a self-important, feckless task.”)
  • “I knew it was wrong but don’t like the consequences of being caught.”

I am adding to the list. There are times when “I’m sorry” is used as a filler. It’s meaning is no better than “um,” “uh,” or, the any other 80’s equivalent of “like.” Here are some of the situations the most authentic well-wisher fills the unknown space with “I’m sorry”:

  • To express condolences for the death of a loved one (including pets)
  • To express solidarity for a friend who has suffered an injustice
  • To express compassion for a physical, emotional, or psychological pain

Believe it or not, science has taken up the cause of trying to make the world a better place by studying apologies. There have been TED talks and studies that explain how to apologize and the significant positive psychological effects to both parties when that process is completed correctly.

In a (Apologetic) Nutshell

There are times when you need to provide an authentic apology. The first time I heard of the three parts to an apology was when I saw Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” on YouTube. I have expanded on his bullet points to be a little more specific.

  • Step 1: Tell them what you feel: Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry”. We have already shown how those words in isolation are ineffective. “I’m sorry” is more effective when for apologies when you express remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry AND sad that my comment caused you embarrassment.” Warning: stop there. You will ruin everything if you get defensive: “I’m sorry that you are overly sensitive about this topic and got embarrassed.”
  • Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had: This part is hard because it necessitates a few demerits to your ego. sorrypuppThe key to success is empathy. You need to connect with the feeling, not agree with why that feeling is present in the person to whom you are apologizing. Simply trying to understand their feelings, even confessing that you are struggling with that understanding, is the key. Warning: do not explain the reference for when you experienced those feelings; this is not about you and your hurt.
  • Step 3: Make the situation right: It’s no coincidence that governments make reparations to ethnic groups as an act of forgiveness for historical travesties. Authentic apologies include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Be creative: if you embarrassed someone, is there a way to help them regain some credibility? If not, can you help them restore some of the self-esteem lost by your mistake? Warning: don’t make stuff up if you don’t know; ask the person whose forgiveness you are seeking how to make it up to them. No negotiations here – just do it!

 Spark Notes Summary

Well-wishers are often not well-spoken.All relationships are hard work, like training for a marathon. There are going to be times when healing a relationship is necessary. There are other times when a relationship should be over because its season or reason have passed. Granting forgiveness is helpful for both parties, you know like what’s good for the goose…

Huck Finn, Beowulf, and Star Wars

student teachingI started my student teaching nearly 20 years ago. My assignment was split between an accelerated sophomore English class and a regular junior English class. I was twenty years old, smart, cocky, and completely unprepared for what being in the classroom actually meant.

My sophomores had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had designed fantastic lesson plans surrounding the use of the n-word and the allusions to Shakespeare all to disguise how much I detested the book. I was not impressed with Twain’s satire despite my self-proclaimed coronation of the Queen of Sarcasm. I was not a fan of the protagonist’s introspection on the river. (My own introspective years came much later.) This teaching assignment was going to be painful; I was all creativity and no content.

My junior class assignment was the opposite. I struggled to find ways to interpret a complex text like Beowulf (which I learned to pronounce BAY-AH-WULF three days before the end of the unit) for regular level juniors. My students had the same opinion of this unit as I did, a necessary evil for both of us to move on to the next step in our education. My cooperating teacher had the answer for years; compare Beowulf to Star Wars as examples of mythic heroes. That plan also gave me the chance to shamelessly enjoy one of my favorite movies AND complete a daunting teaching unit. star wars poster (First, don’t ask which Star Wars. This was twenty years ago; there was only one. Second, don’t worry about wasted time. There was a six page packet to fill out while watching to prove or disprove the monomyth’s applications.) The outcome of both of those experiences was a lesson learned that resulted in a blissful fifteen years as an educator and an insightful eight years as a therapist.

The Power of “And”

It was tricky to be a teacher and a student. That never changed. But, once I embraced that a teacher can remain a student AND learn from her students’ fresh approaches and reactions to material, I became an award-winning teacher. In therapy, the theory behind seeing how two seemingly polar opposites can be true is called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

An old woman AND a young lady.
An old woman AND a young lady.

DBT is a treatment model used for chronic mental illnesses such as addiction, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and anxiety. Unlike previous posts, these struggles cannot be helped without professional interventions. The modality was created to help balance the contradictions imbedded into lifelong mental illness. DBT allows for the harmful effects of the illness to be incurable while making them manageable.

Similar to my post on group therapy, I will attempt to summarize the basics of this treatment modality which works to keep patients in a steady mental state. (Still, no Spark Notes.):

  • Stage 1: The focus of this stage is stabilization. Therapy is centered on safety and crisis intervention. The goal of this stage is to help people achieve some control over themselves despite the recurring messages they give themselves that life is out of control.
  • Stage 2: Despite more overall stability, behaviors characteristic of mental health issues may still be prevalent. Now is the time to investigate the origin of the pain. The goal of this stage is to help people process an experience instead of silencing or burying it. start on road
  • Stage 3: This stage focuses on creating a new life under new terms; the individual is in charge of life, not the trauma. Optimistic exercises like goal-setting are the focus with the reminders that stability breeds happiness.
  • Stage 4: This stage is all about maintenance. The new “you” discovered is vulnerable to doubt. It is important to stay engaged in therapy even at this stage in order to have support when natural mistakes threaten to derail incredible progress.

Spark Note Summary

With the start of summer, adults want to be kids. Friction occurs when kids still need their role models to be adults. The answer is to live in a world of “and” by being both. Get dirty in the mud from summer rain AND be responsible enough not to trek it into the house. Show your kids who invented fun!