Preschool program at The Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

Headlines with James Nelligan

Roald Dahl, famed conjurer of so many fantastic children’s tales, wrote “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” I suppose there is some truth here. However, given the chance, I might amend the quote as follows—grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of hurried and contradictory messages.  I cast no stones here, I am guilty of the same.  It’s hard to be consistently on message as a parent (or a teacher for that matter) given all the craziness that comes with raising kids; it’s harder still at the end of a work day. I’ll come back to this point.


Years ago, early in my teaching career, I had the great fortune of working alongside a master teacher in a wonderful seaside Montessori school in Hawai’i. It was the kind of place where magic lived; where laughter, love, and learning were had in equal measure. One day, Mrs. Jane, as she was known to the kids, asked me if I understood what it was to see as a child. Until that moment I had never considered the question, not really. I was once small and had my recollections, but between the then of childhood and the now of my early professional career, I had lost the ability to perceive adults and the world as would a child. Mrs. Jane sensed this, and asked me to play along. I was directed to drop down onto my knees, to look and move around, and then to think about the classroom, the curriculum, and our colleagues from this vantage.  Her point was profound, and she had more to share.  Mrs. Jane then asked me to conceive of language, all the subtleties of expression, of posture and tone, of denotation and connotation, of implicit and explicit meaning, as might a child.  She left me speechless, which you all know to be quite a feat!


We see the world from above, while our children see it from a few feet below. We look down while they look up, and this is no small difference. We use the same words, more and less, but children understand these words through their context, not ours. While children are trying to work things out for themselves, they have the additional complication of making sense of our competing truths and admonishments. We are casual with our strongest words, those that communicate feelings and authority and values, assuming that children will get our meaning as intended.  Often, this just isn’t the case. For children, concrete in their thinking well into their adolescence, contradictory messages, especially those that run afoul of our adult actions, are painfully hard to interpret.  “Do as I say” makes a lot more sense to a child when we adults do as we say.  Ahhh, and to my earlier point.


So just what are these messages that we mean to send to our children, and are they received as expected? If we tell our children that they must be respectful, then act in disrespectful ways, especially when they are there to see us undermine our own words in action and deed, we send an awfully problematic and potentially harmful message. If we say to them that they are accountable, then do not hold them to account, or worse, are visibly unaccountable before their very eyes, we risk undermining the values we intend to teach. Our children are always watching, always listening, always taking their cues from our words and behaviors.


Our children are indeed the living messages we send, those that outlive us, that they will teach to their children.  This is our legacy, and our responsibility.


See you around campus.