Held Back

“Well, to be honest, Chad, I don’t really know your son.” She turned her chair toward me, her hands in her lap, a smile on her face. She’d kept me waiting outside the office for an extra ten minutes while she’d helped a couple of ten-year old girls brush through their hair, the girls having dropped in at the start of the school day unannounced, giggling. She clearly adored her students.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. There are hundreds of students here.”

Amy kept her lips pulled back over her teeth as continued the perma-smile. “But let me restate what you asked me, to see if I got this right. Your son A, who is 6, has struggled emotionally somewhat in his first grade classroom, largely because he is one of the youngest students in the room, but he seems to be fine academically, right? His birthday is in late July? And now that the teacher is recommending holding him back to repeat the first grade for the next year, you are wondering if this recommendation is legitimate? And that’s why you wanted to meet with me, the school principal?”

I nodded, feeling strangely defensive despite the fact that she was kind and calm in her presentation. “Yes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and there are a lot of details behind all this, but, yes, that is basically my question.”

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“Well,” she leaned back in her chair, “given our education methods here as a Waldorf style school, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to recommend holding a child back. As you probably know, we focus our education on the individual children, and what might be best for them. If a child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, and they don’t seem to be on par with the rest of the students, then it is common to talk to the parents about the possibility of repeating a year so that the child can have a more consistent learning environment, one more suited to their individual needs.”

I furrowed my brown in frustration. “Wait, wait. ‘It wouldn’t be uncommon…’ Does that mean this is a regular recommendation? You are suggesting to many parents that they hold back their children to repeat a grade?”

Amy clicked her tongue and looked troubled. “Well, it isn’t as if we have a quota to fulfill. But in Wasatch learning environments, we focus on skill levels like integrating the five senses, handwork, hand-eye coordination, and–”

“Miss Lee, I’m sorry for interrupting, but I know about Waldorf learning. I enrolled my kids here. I don’t mean to be adversarial, but I feel as if sixty per cent of my conversations with professionals here are about the Waldorf learning method. I’m not here about that, I’m here about my son. I want to understand how holding him back would benefit him.”

The smile returned. “Well, let’s look at your terminology first of all. Listen to how negative it sounds. ‘Holding him back.’ Could I invite you to switch the words around to realize how much more positive you could make it sound? Let’s try this. Instead of using the words ‘holding him back’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of another year of childhood among his emotional peers, to provide the best and most effective learning method for his needs, rather than pushing him forward into an arena in which he is not equipped to handle?”

I glowered in frustration, and my tone took on a bit of sarcasm. “Let me turn that right back on you, regarding your terminology here. Can I invite you to switch your words? Instead of ‘pushing him forward’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of staying among his established peer group, in his ongoing classroom learning environment, rather than holding him back in an arena with a new peer group and covering material he has already effectively learned?”

Amy bit her lip, considering my unexpected words, and I kept talking.

“And honestly, I came in here to discuss concerns, and I feel like you are advocating for holding my child back when you began our conversation by admitting that you aren’t at all familiar with him! How do you know what he is ‘equipped to handle?” I noticed my voice had risen a bit, in both volume and passion, and I took a deep breath calming myself.

“I apologize.” Amy’s voice was soft, placating. “Let’s start again. Tell me your concerns.”

My words rushed out quickly. I explained how A had struggled emotionally in kindergarten the year before, being the youngest in the classroom, and how his teacher, though well-intentioned, had responded to his small outbursts by putting his name on the board and taking away privileges. “So his mom and I brought him here, to a new and more supportive learning environment, where he might thrive better. The learning environment here, with gardening, knitting, and story-telling in the classroom, is so much better suited to his personality. We love it here for him.” I talked about how A’s teacher was loving and supportive, but how she frequently provided behavioral reports on A that focused solely on his negative struggles and none of his strengths. “For the first two months of school, A wasn’t eating school lunches, and she never told us, so of course he was struggling with outbursts every day, he was super hungry. Since we have been packing his lunches, his behavioral struggles have dropped significantly.”

I saw Amy jotting notes on a pad of paper. “Besides,” I went on, “despite his struggle in the classroom with transitions, such as from recess back to classroom activities, and despite the fact that he picks up material slightly slower than the other, older, kids, he is thriving academically and making major strides. He learns on his level, at his speed. Five months ago, we had a parent/teacher meeting to discuss his concerns in the classroom, and every one of those concerns is no longer a factor. The teacher told us that herself, on the same day that she recommended holding him back.”

Amy nodded. “And why is it that you feel so strongly against having him repeat a grade?”

I breathed deep again, slowing my words. “That just feels like it should be a last resort, not a common recommendation. I’m a clinical social worker, and I regularly meet with kids who are behaviorally or emotionally disturbed. I’ve done this for over a decade. And in all my time, when I see a kid struggling in the classroom, I’ve never recommended that they be held back. Instead, I see help the teachers and parents come up with a learning strategy that helps the kids succeed where they are. An individualized education plan, with strategies in place during times of trouble. I also talked about this with my mom. She was an award-winning first-grade teacher for over twenty years. She had kids in her classroom who didn’t speak English, who were in extreme poverty, who had major anger issues, who had developmental disabilities, and who had extreme difficulties with hygiene.  She couldn’t recount cases where she recommended holding a child back as a first line of strategy, particularly a kid like A who is already doing so well academically, and who has so much support at home.”

Amy looked up from the page where she’d taken a few notes. “To be honest, when we have kids who have long-term struggles, perhaps an Autism diagnosis or a significant developmental struggle, we wouldn’t recommend they be held back. Those are cases where an individualized education plan would be more actively recommended.”

I felt my frustration boil over again. “So kids who are actively struggling stay where they are, but kids who have minor struggles are recommended to repeat a grade! I am sorry, but that is infuriating!”

There was silence as Amy considered my words. She nodded, jotting another note. “Okay, the key difference here is that the teacher feels a certain way and you have reservations. That is fine. It is only a recommendation. Normally if a parent disagrees, we would simply advance the child forward. But in this case, your kid’s child’s mother, who has primary custody, feels like holding A back is the best plan for him. And in cases where one parent disagrees from the other, we have to follow the primary custodial parent.”

I nodded several times, ignoring the anguish in my gut over all of this. “I will work out co-parenting concerns directly on my own. But I do want to have a clear understanding of why this recommendation has been made for my son. Was protocol followed? Did he get the help he needed this year? What are the costs and benefits of holding him back versus having him move forward?”

Amy reasoned with me. “I’m a mom, too. And I  can see how much you love our son. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you don’t get a say, or that you aren’t being considered.”

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” I told her. “I pictured taking my sons to the first day of school this coming year. They were in their new clothes, with new backpacks full of new supplies, with fresh haircuts and huge smiles on their faces. We take J, my older son, to his class in fourth grade and wish him well for a new year. And then we take A back to the first grade class, and he turns to us, tears in his eyes, and asks why we are having him do first grade over again.” I paused, clearing the image from my head. “In reality, he’ll likely be fine no matter what. But I also worry about years down the line, when he explains to others that he was held back as a kid. This becomes a permanent part of his story from here forward. If it is right for him, then I’m all for it. But I just can’t understand the pressure I feel to hold him back when it doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand why we are even having this conversation. I see him as succeeding right where he is. He’s beautiful, smart, creative, compassionate, and a leader. He’s already a huge success.”

The teacher shook my hand and showed me out. I walked through the school with a nervous feeling in my heart, to the sounds of children playing in classrooms all around me. And, with the thought of all of the parents out there advocating for their children to succeed, I felt my love for my children expand within me, occupying a larger space than ever before, something I never thought possible.

What to do with a Furrowed Brow

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I recently taught a college class on Anger, to a group of social work students all learning the skills they will need to interface with others in emotional situations.

I left several colors of markers standing near the white dry erase board: black, light blue, dark blue, red, pink, yellow, purple, orange, green. On the board, I wrote simple instructions, to write out all the different synonyms of MAD they could think of.

The students started with a few easy words. Underneath MAD appeared ANGRY and FRUSTRATED and PISSED OFF. Soon the list expanded to IRATE and ENRAGED and INCENSED and INDIGNANT and IRRITATED.

I kept the class silent after the words stopped, silently encouraging them to continue, and then words related to MAD started showing up, without a direct connection. HURT and EMBARRASSED and HEARTBROKEN and RESENTFUL.

By the end, nearly 50 words showed up on the board. I then had the students write down a 1 to 10 scale on their paper, and write words under each number to demonstrate escalating anger. They looked up at the board, selecting words from the list, perhaps placing UNCOMFORTABLE under number 1, PEEVED under number 3, FURIOUS under number 6, and FOAMING AT THE MOUTH under number 10.

I asked students to remember the last time they hit a 10 level of anger, and many of them couldn’t think of one. I asked the students to list things that made them angry at a 7 level, and I asked them to describe how they handled that anger.

We talked about anger being a full body emotion, one that dwells in your ears, in your teeth, in your stomach, in your fists, in your brow, in your feet, in your fingertips, and perhaps most of all, right on your tongue. We talked about anger coming in different colors, from mild yellow to sheer red to darkest black. We talked about anger being a secondary emotion, how it generally stems from, or is directly connected to, feeling hurt or jealous or betrayed or disappointed first.

We talked about anger being a gut-level emotion, a programmed response that we learn as children to protect us from the pain of the emotions that lie underneath. We talked about anger’s connection to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to pain.

And then we talked about anger being a healthy emotion, one that is important to survival. Every human gets angry. It’s what we decide to do with our anger that matters most. We talked about recognizing anger at number 4 or 5 rather than waiting for it to boil over to 8 or 10, and we talked about how the negative consequences of anger tend to increase when the numbers climb and we, in the moment, care less about the results of our actions; at least until the anger dissipates and we are left with the wounds it has inflicted.

We talked about all of the anger in the world today. Righteous primal anger, directed inward and outward. We see it in furious Facebook posts about political parties who didn’t vote the right way, in criticism of elected leaders and in those criticizing the critics. We see it in ignored text messages, in clenched fists and tight breaths, in blaring horns on the freeway, in tear-soaked pillowcases, in consumed bags of potato chips, in unheard wails to a God who doesn’t seem to be listening.

We talked about anger being directed toward the past or toward the future, yet how anger is always an in the moment emotion, happening right now. We talked about anger being like a fire, one that can burn brightly but never maintain the flame and smoke without fuel.

And then we talked about participating with anger, deciding what to do with it. We talked about having angry, healthy workouts instead of passive aggressive social media posts. We talked about being inspired into social activism instead of ignoring the phone calls of family members with different opinions. We talked about constructive conversations with loved ones that result in compromise and change instead of furious words and unsightly sneers. We talked about listening to the pain behind the anger and charting a course forward instead of feeling helpless and despairing and retreating into the shadows.

Lastly, we talked about anger being a part of us, an unchanging and consistent emotion, something at the very essence of being human. We talked about getting healthy and fit, emotionally, and how anger will still be there, along with the other emotions we perceive as negative. We talked about anger being a primal force, something beautiful and constructive. We talked about anger’s connection to trust, and love, and family, and faith, and justice, and humanity itself.

Then we, all of us, left the class angry. And we each got to decide what to do with it.

the Problem with Monogamy

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The truth is, most humans are boiling pots of unmet needs.

As a therapist, I constantly see people come in whose lives are out of balance. I help them list and recognize their needs by using a Medicine Wheel, a Native American spiritual construct that divides Needs into four areas: Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

Physical represents sleep, fitness, nutrition, hydration, and health.

Mental represents being challenged, achieving things, and making progress (including areas related to work and money).

Emotional represents basic human feelings and complex human relationships.

Spiritual represents purpose, inner connection, and involvement that brings balance and peace internally. (Spirituality is separate from religion).

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When all the needs are met, the four quadrants of the wheel are in perfect balance and all the same size. When one is out of balance, it negatively skews the capacity of the other three. Picture four balloons tied at the center that share a limited supply of air; they are only balanced when the air is perfectly and evenly distributed, yet the air is always shifting as needs are met and then unmet.

For example, if you have a poor night’s sleep (Physical), you are at less capacity to do work tasks (Mental). If you are feeling dissatisfied with yourself (Spiritual), you may find yourself withdrawing from your best friend (Emotional).

Small needs are relatively easy to meet and amend. Feeling stiff and sore, then stretch and work out: Physical balance restored. Feeling bored and uninteresting, then select a simple task and achieve it, something easy like washing the dishes or reading a chapter of a book: Mental balance restored. Feeling lonely on a Saturday afternoon, invite a friend to go on a walk: Emotional balance restored. Feeling conflict and confusion within yourself, go outside and soak in the sunlight: Spiritual balance restored.

Moderate needs take more time to meet and lengthier amounts of amendments and self-care. Losing 15 pounds (Physical), surviving a difficult semester at college (Mental), working through some coping mechanisms that have stopped you from recognizing your anger (Emotional), or realizing that your prayers have felt empty lately and you feel far from God (Spiritual).

And Major needs require much longer as we do our best to maintain balance during those times of major difficulty. Recovering from a surgery (Physical), trying to reduce $50,000 in credit card debt (Mental), learning a spouse has been unfaithful (Emotional), or realizing that you no longer believe in the religion you were raised with (Spiritual).

The greatest lesson I have ever learned in my lifetime, after doing therapy for others for over a decade, is that I have to take care of my own needs, and I can’t expect any other person, situation, job, status, or religion to do it for me.

Most humans (particularly Americans) began using “If… then” statements regarding their own happiness and balance.

IF I could fall in love, THEN I would be happy.

IF my spouse would pay more attention to me, THEN I would feel like he loves me.

IF my boss would show me more appreciation, THEN I would start to like my job.

IF I pray every day, THEN I will feel God’s love more readily in my life.

IF I could get pregnant, THEN I would find purpose.

All of these statements set us up for failure, because as humans we fail to recognize that we will ALWAYS have needs. The second we find satisfaction, we have something else we are dissatisfied with. That’s the very nature of humanity: we eat, we get hungry; we have sex, we get horny; we feel connected to our Higher Power, we feel distant again; we learn something fascinating, we get bored.

And so we fall into situations where we stay desperately and painfully out of balance for years at a time. People stay in abusive or loveless relationships, desperately hoping day after day that something will change. People gain forty pounds, then fifty, then one hundred, and they wait for something that will inspire them to change. People continue the same faith practices they have found unfulfilling, feeling selfish and unworthy for even feeling dissatisfied, and hoping they will change. People go to the same job day after day, miserable every night they come home, feeling like there is no hope of change.

They get stuck… and they stay there.

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And this is the problem with Monogamy. Or, frankly, any system that we believe should be the ideal. People develop this idea that they will meet one single person that will rock their world, charge their system, take away all their pain and struggle and that it will last forever. Wanting to be in a monogamous relationship is no problem; expecting a monogamous relationship to meet your every need is a big problem. (Replace “monogamous relationship” with any system in the previous sentence and apply it to you. Example: Wanting to be in shape is no problem; expecting being in shape to meet your every need is a big problem.)

I recognize that choosing Monogamy as the title topic here is controversial, but it’s meant to grab your attention. Did it work?

So Janie meets Charlie when they turn 25 and they have a whirlwind romance. The first year is wonderful. But she finds that sometimes, she wants to go out with friends and Charlie doesn’t like that, and she feels selfish for wanting time for herself with other people. And then Janie has a baby and she is a bundle of nerves and exhaustion for several months, so she and Charlie aren’t connecting and aren’t having sex, and she doesn’t feel beautiful. And a few years later, Charlie starts hating his job and Janie realizes there isn’t a lot she can do to help. And Janie is sometimes attracted to other people and feels terrible about herself, even though she has never cheated. And on and on.

People change over time, and their needs change over time. And the simple idea that one person (or job or religion or status or relationship) can meet every need a person has and can or will restore and maintain permanent balance does an extreme amount of damage, and it hurts all four of the medicine wheel areas.

Individuals who believe solely in a system (like monogamy or religion) tend to see these systems as ideal and the only paths for happiness. They develop the mindset that not achieving that status, within themselves or within others, means a person can’t be happy.

I grew up in a very religious household in the Mormon faith. I grew up believing that there was only one path to happiness: a man married to a woman, active in the Mormon faith, with children. And I grew up believing that wanting or needing anything else was selfish and against God’s will. I was permanently out of balance and I didn’t even see it, but constantly feeling dissatisfied.

And so it is that I share two great lessons with you here.

One: No one person, or system, or belief structure can bring you ultimate fulfillment and balance. You are a complicated universe of needs that require careful balancing and negotiation, day by day and moment by moment.

Two: You have to take care of you.

Maya Angelou once said, profoundly: “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying, which is Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

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And so, it is up to each of us to draw out our own Medicine Wheels and to, bravely and courageously, determine what it is we are missing from our lives. Are we out of balance in small, moderate, or major ways, and what will it take to restore balance and peace? Do you need more hopes and dreams? More friend connections? More sex and intimacy? More excitement and adventure? More achievement? And are you at peace with the recognition that what you need today will not be what you need tomorrow?

You are not selfish, or shameful, or broken, or unworthy, or damaged, or hopeless, or evil for wanting or needing more from your life than what you currently have in it. You are a complicated human with complicated needs. The alternative to recognizing and addressing needs is remaining out of balance and dissatisfied in life.

The best kinds of relationships are those in which two healthy balanced individuals who take care of themselves choose to be together. Whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, single or married, surrounded by friends or relatively isolated, Christian or athieist… you can be happy so long as you are taking care of you. And if these two healthy people want to be Monogamous, then they work on it and the relationship can be healthy. Systems can only work when they are carefully chosen, in line with values, and worked toward as beings change over time.

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And yet, all that said, cheating, on yourself or someone else, is never okay. Needs must be met that are in accordance to our personal values, morals, and agreements. Lying to your partner about having sex with someone else is cheating. Convincing yourself you aren’t angry, then lashing out at another person with mean words and excusing your behavior is cheating. Setting physical goals for yourself, then shutting your brain down while you eat an entire pizza later is cheating. Judging others for “sinning” and then excusing your own “sins” is cheating.

Inner balance comes from careful, consistent negotiations and measurements. It is a difficult, and worthy quest. And the alternative is a steady and consistent unhappiness that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. And life is too short to be unhappy.

I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it. But then, you have to decide that for you.

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