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May 1, 1998
Vol. 55
No. 8

The Shelter of Each Other: A Conversation with Mary Pipher

    It is possible to revive our sense of community, to reconnect children to adults, and adults to children. And school is a promising place to start.

      There was a time when the word community suggested oppression," Mary Pipher remembers. But the connotation has changed. "Community is an abstract idea like the wilderness," she says. "It has become more desirable as it becomes more extinct."
      Mary Pipher, clinical psychologist and best-selling author, writes and speaks about our culture "that has fallen apart" and our communities "that no longer exist." Although ominous, her words resonate with parents, teachers, and young people alike, perhaps because her solutions are sane and simple and within our reach. In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, she describes how to rescue young women drowning in a culture that isolates and degrades them. In The Shelter of Each Other, she examines how to remedy the lack of community that is disorienting families.
      Speaking at the National Association of Independent Schools conference and then later in an interview with editors from Educational Leadership, she suggested ways to reconnect children to adults, and adults to children—and regain our moorings.
      Despite all the efforts to engage community in schools, families and schools often seem to be increasingly at odds with each other. What are the causes of the conflicts between school and family?
      The tension between families and schools is increasing partly because children in general aren't doing well in our country. This is especially true of our teenagers in terms of their intellectual, social, emotional, and moral development. I wrote about girls in Reviving Ophelia, but the issues also affect boys. What happens in any culture when things don't go well is that people look for someone to blame.
      My daughter and I had an experience a couple of years ago when she was looking at colleges back East. I rented a car and we went up from New York. Unfortunately our directions for getting there turned out not to be reversible. So we were coming back into the city in rush hour traffic with these directions that didn't work, and I took an exit that was a big mistake. There was a burned-out car on the road, a lot of bombed-out-looking buildings, no people around, and a very ominous feeling. And it was getting dark. We drove around in circles, and the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match between us. Afterward, when we finally got back on the interstate, I apologized to my daughter. I said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you. I was lost, confused, and scared—and when I feel that way, I just yell. I'm sorry." And I realized that's very much what's going on in this country. We're lost, confused, and scared and so we're yelling at one another.
      People seem both to expect more of the schools and to criticize them for the reform efforts they make. Are schools just an easy target for their anger?
      There's a distrust in all institutions that started back in Vietnam days and hasn't been helped by more recent politics. We have issues with authority in this country, and many of us don't make a distinction between benevolent and less benevolent authority.
      Our values have changed, too. The things parents in the early part of this century most wanted from their children were compliance and cooperation. It's the opposite now—people most want their children to be independent. There's been a total upending of what was considered a virtuous child.
      We also have a culture of narcissism. Advertisements and popular psychology create confusion about what we want from children. Schools are confused about accountability. Parents want the teachers to make the children responsible, yet not hold the children accountable. It's a difficult task.
      And there's been a real loss of community between families and schools. People spend more time with television sets and computers. Old people don't know children, so they won't vote for school bond issues.
      And there's less communal space for children. I heard this story from my nephew, who goes to school in Nebraska. The kids had a nice, big, empty lot behind a large store where they were playing after school. Nobody was getting in trouble, but at some point the owner of the store said it was off limits to all children. The kids got their parents to sign waivers, but they weren't successful. Insurance companies won the decision. These kinds of things change the whole sense of community for children, teachers, and everybody.
      We hear a great deal about dysfunctional families today. Are families worse off than they used to be?
      Freud labeled the family as the seat of all pathology, and to some extent we haven't recovered from his critique of middle-class values. I like to quote psychologist Frank Pittman who says it's true that families can drive you crazy, but they can also love you sane.
      The media portray families in unrealistic ways—either they are picture perfect or they're grossly dysfunctional. There's a great deal of interest in pathology and a great deal of skepticism about health. In fact if you say to people "I come from a family in which I was bruised and scarred," you are likely to be believed. But if you say, "I come from a happy and well-adjusted family," you will be met with skepticism.
      Psychologists tell us that we are moving away from communal values and toward autonomous ones. Is this the reason families are becoming more vulnerable?
      Families are becoming more vulnerable for many reasons. People do not live near their families. In Nebraska, the grandparents homesteaded, and the children had houses built around the homestead. And all the relatives lived along the road into town. Often now children live a long way from their grandparents. It's hard to realize how much the world has changed for the children. And it's very significant because when children are around adults who know their names and vice versa, they can be nurtured by those adults.
      There's been a shift in how people are grouping in this country. In the '90s we put all our 8-year-olds in one place, our 14-year-olds in another, our 80-year-olds someplace else. There's a certain kind of toxicity from age segregation.
      My mother-in-law was on a beach in Florida. She's a shell collector. She picked up this rare, beautiful shell and was admiring it. A little boy came along and got very interested. She was explaining to him why this shell was unique. All of a sudden he got this scared look on his face and ran off. He realized she was a stranger and he was not supposed to be talking to strangers. We're starting to have a culture in which adults are afraid of children and children are afraid of adults.
      Your next book, Another Country: The Emotional Terrain of the Elderly (Putnam 1999) , is going to be about the older generation. What kinds of intergenerational activities help older people understand the needs of younger ones, and vice versa?
      It's a deep human need for old people to have some connection with young, healthy, vibrant children. But what they like the most is children they know and who know them. I'm not so keen on programs that trot a class into a rest home to sing two Christmas carols. I like programs that have the kids actually getting to know people.
      It's really good to have work projects between kids and older people. A lot of children in the '90s don't know how to do simple things—either because their parents don't know how or because nobody's had time to teach them. They don't know how to plant seeds, catch a fish, polish shoes. I like the idea of having old people teach little classes to kids on practical skills—a little sewing, a little carpentry. Having kids show up and cooking a meal is nice. Or creating cookbooks together. Most old women have a family recipe or two. It's meaningful for them to know that their favorite way of making peach pie is in a cookbook other people might enjoy. Kids could really enjoy being part of a project like that.
      Another great program is one they do in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Old people who had lived in that town their whole lives agreed to pair up with elementary school kids and walk them around the town. They told them what the town was like when they were kids. They would say, "That's where Shady Creek ran and here's what we used to do there in the summer," or "Did you know we had the best football team in the state in 1935?" It gave the kids a sense of history of their community. And it gave the old people a realization that kids weren't bad.
      Often the only exposure to kids old people have is what they see on TV. And they think all kids are spoiled or rude because those are the kids they notice. Sometimes old people don't understand why kids can be in trouble today because kids have so many consumer goods. But if they walk about their town with kids, they realize these kids don't have what we had. We had safety; we had public space. The experience gives them a little more sympathy and understanding of the needs of kids.
      You say you don't like to simply describe problems without offering some ways to make things better. Can you give us more examples of everyday things that we can do to rebuild our sense of community?
      Community is people with whom you share your stories. When we stop having real people to share our stories with, we lose some of our mental health. Wherever I go, I collect stories about communities springing up in quirky ways. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, I met a woman who had been in a fender bender. She had two little kids in the back seat, she was rushing across town, and she crashed into the back of a car driven by an older lady. So she checked that her children were okay, then ran up to this older lady who was sitting in her car a little stunned. She asked, "Are you all right, are you all right?" This older lady said, "Oh, dear, I'm just fine." They exchanged names and realized they live within a couple of blocks from each other. By the time they were ready to go home, they were friends. The older woman said, "It looks as if you and the children could use some help. I'm going to start visiting you." And she ended up becoming a kind of grandparent to the children and a mother to this woman.
      I recently was talking to a mother who said that she and her husband decided that instead of watching sitcoms with their kids after dinner, they'd walk around their neighborhood and speak with neighbors who were out in their yards. One night her son had a buddy over and he went along with them. The next time when they came out, the friend was waiting and wanted to go again. Pretty soon they had about 10 children taking this walk around the block.
      Kids are unmoored from adults. There have been so many changes; parents are busier. I always ask families who are having trouble: "How often do you eat together?" The core curriculum in the school of civilized discourse is the family meal.
      You said that your own children went to a school with 2,000 students and that as a parent you were disheartened when the teacher admitted to not really knowing your child. Is it possible to have a one-to-one connection between adults and children in large schools?
      Ideally, we don't put 200—let alone 2,000—7th and 8th graders in a giant old warehousey building with eight periods a day. They spend about one- quarter of their time traveling from class to class. And teachers have contact with probably several hundred kids a day. I wouldn't presume to tell the person who was in charge of a building like that what to do. But as a therapist, one thing I know is that students that age need help with social relationships. Schools need to think about social and moral education, and teach kids to communicate, to be respectful, and to get along with the opposite sex.
      Kids that age really need to be able to talk to adults they know. Even in a big school, all children ought to have a friend on the faculty who sees them every day, who knows their name, and who can observe them closely. If you have seven classes a day and 200 students, you're just not going to notice that some kid comes in with a bruise on his arm. But if it's your job to check on a child every day, eventually you're going to catch on to something like that and be able to intervene.
      Parents also need a personal relationship with school. How do you create a climate where parents feel at ease and can communicate openly with school people?
      Time is a major problem. Educators often bemoan the fact that when they hold meetings for parents, they won't come. And parents, on the other hand, always are saying to me, "How dare you suggest I join a parent group. I am so busy already." I tell both schools and parents that it doesn't take time to live in a community—it saves time. Because if other adults are connected to your children and helping you raise them, children are much easier to raise. You spend much less time on discipline, and you have much more support when you need it.
      Do you have suggestions on how to connect with over-burdened parents when they do come to school?
      If you're dealing with tired, poor, stressed parents, it's important to have parent support groups. And the more programs you can open to grandparents and cousins, the more you acknowledge the importance of extended family. We need to think how to make it easier for these parents, how we might give them a meal, or make the schedule more convenient.
      Recently, I saw a mother at one of my presentations. She had volunteered to sell my books for the PTA. Her toddler was holding on to her leg, and one of her little girls was trying to pull her away from her job. I went over to thank her for selling books. She said she really thought she should volunteer because she wanted to get to know the people in this school. She and her husband both worked different shifts, and they almost never saw each other. Her kids had not seen her for two days because she'd been working. She was apologetic: "My kids are crying now because they just want my attention. If they cloned me, there wouldn't be enough of me to go around." To appeal to those parents to be involved at the school, we've got to take their reality into consideration.
      In many communities today, teachers hear complaints that schools are not giving children the academics that they need. But you believe strongly that it is the school's role to be involved in community-building activities?
      Although I don't know much about curriculum and how to teach reading and other skills, there are a lot of things hurting children's ability to be academically successful that have nothing to do with school. For example, in our neighborhood, we have neighbors with small children. At any given time of the day, I can look into the windows of their homes and see the blue screens from my kitchen. TV is on all the time in many houses. Schools should not be absolved of responsibility, but a lot of things affect children's reading ability besides how skills are taught in schools.
      It concerns me when people say, "Let's not worry about children's social relationships or decision-making ability." If kids don't have a modicum of manners, an understanding of how to deal with conflict, communication skills, and ability to process their experiences and deal with stress, they can't learn anything. I see those kids in therapy. How do you sit in a class and learn something when you're worried about getting beaten up after school? Children must have safety before they can pay attention. Children will learn much better if they have basic coping skills.
      You don't have much good to say about the media culture that pervades our daily life, especially our children's lives. What is it that schools and parents can do to combat these influences?
      My general advice to families to survive in the world is that you need to make conscious choices about how you relate to the broader culture. You have to protect kids from the noxious and connect them to the good and beautiful. Now it's up to each family and school to decide what's good for you and what's harmful and noxious. Education is partly about teaching our children to find pleasure in the right things. It makes me sad when I go into our convenience shops and they are teaching kids how to play the lottery. It makes me happy when I see an adult teach children how to identify birds and prairie grasses. But those are my pleasures. It isn't that I think everybody should like prairie grasses, but we all need to think through what we stand for.
      I recently heard about this school that was helping the children raise money to go to New York City so they could spend the weekend at the Plaza Hotel. They were teaching 5th graders how to spend lots of money! One of the things schools can do is help children understand the power of money and technology. Advertisers are the main storytellers of the world. And the story is you need more objects. The cumulative effect is dissatisfaction and narcissism. Children need help sorting out that kind of world. Parents and teachers can help children siphon meaning from the glut of information. They can be the antidote to advertisers. They can tell children they are not the center of the universe and help them deal with frustration. They can let them know the really important things they value in their life.
      Finally, it's very important that children have a place to be children. It's hard to over-emphasize how much children need adults besides their parents to care about them. Children don't necessarily need clinical psychologists to pay attention to them, but they do need somebody at school who knows them well. Parents also need a personal relationship with school. I love the schools that invite the family to school in multilevel age groups to do projects or just to talk with one another. And it's not true that teenagers won't come. Serve them cappuccino, and they will come. Recreate a sense of community where adults care about them and they will be there.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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