“Let’s build a fort!”
“Yeah! Let’s do it outside in the back yard.”
“No, let’s just stay in here and do with the chairs and pillows.”
“No, come on, let’s go outside and we can use the tree as a base.”
“No, I want to stay inside and we’ll just use pillows. And these blankets.”
“If we are not doing it outside, I’m not building a fort.”
“Fine, I’ll build it without you!”
“Fine, I’ll build my own fort.”
With a heavy dose of tears, yelling, and slamming doors, this is what a Saturday morning sounds like in my house. Not every Saturday morning, but enough to make it clear that we have work to do.
More curious and compassionate communication – asking questions, active listening, working in groups – are key skills for every aspect of our lives – and ever more so in an increasingly complicated, interconnected and diverse world.
They are the tools for living fulfilled lives, for developing lifelong relationships. Employers regularly report that effective communication skills are integral to the success of their organizations – the stuff that makes strong leaders, collaborators, and teams. As my colleague likes to say, “training people to have challenging conversations is really only useful for those of us who have to deal with other people.”
So along with math, science, and language arts, we need to teach our kids about relationships – to lead while including, to dissent with grace, and to work towards consensus without falling victim to groupthink.
Unlike their natural curiosity for how the world works, these communication skills aren’t necessarily innate for most kids. In fact there is much in our chemistry, our socialization, and group dynamics that lead us astray. All the more reason to focus on these issues as core to our education system, core to our parenting – vitally important to nurturing children’s resilience as teammates, partners, friends on the playground, and eventually parents and citizens – not to mention members of congress.
It is important to teach kids to count, for sure. But when they complete an equation, can they relay that information on to others in a way that supports their project getting done and the relationship growing? Can they navigate the many ways of working together? Do they have the skills to negotiate a solution when their conclusions differ?
Here are three reasons we need to ensure the topic of relationship/good communication its own focus in all our learning – as much as we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.
– Diversity: We ask our kids to do the tough work of diversity in our world. We can and often do construct our own lives into patterns where we are with people who are a great deal like us in many ways: socio-economic class, race, nationality, ethnic background, etc.
But our schools – quite rightly – are not always this way. Our schools often bring together kids who are very different from each other. Do we provide our kids with the skills to navigate these differences? Do we even really think of them as teachable skills? They are. Do we imagine that by just throwing them together they will find their own way?
They might, but we don’t leave good writing skills to “might” – nor should we with the skills of living in diversity. This is too important to our children’s lives and learning and to the health of our community – our country.
– Collaboration: I have never in my life held a job where I did not have to collaborate with someone. Nine-tenths of my life I have lived collaboratively with others. We spend each day of our lives moving from one collaboration – living in a family – to another – going to work.
And at the same time, we have become a world of experts with skills that are so specific and refined as to make them almost incomprehensible to others. This certainly has its upside: we now have uniquely skilled specialists who can perform surgery on children’s hearts before they are even born, weld the hulls of ships deep underwater, or map the migratory patterns of endangered species.
The potential impact of such amazing advancements is narrowed, however, if one specialist cannot speak to another, if groups cannot collaborate in larger endeavors, or if an expert cannot articulate new findings to the wider world in a way that moves us to action.
As we train our students to become more and more refined in their learning, we must match that learning with the ability to communicate and collaborate across disciplines. These lessons start in the home and the classroom, where we begin to see the relative strengths of children emerge, and we encourage them to pursue their interests.
We have to invest in the activities that teach people to relate. All too often it is these very collaborative activities that get eliminated from our curriculum – theater, sports, school newspapers. It’s hard to measure collaboration on a standardized test, but it might be the most valuable skill a student can acquire.
– Peace: Perhaps this is the most obvious, but it’s no less important. I mean peace at every level of our existence, from settling disputes with foreign governments to keeping peace in our own homes.
When a conflict erupts in our schools, do our kids know how to negotiate, mediate, and participate in a way that is constructive? When our kids go off to college, do they know how to relate to one another in intimate relationships? When they get a job, do they know how to deescalate a disagreement before it causes serious harm?
Might we have less violence in our schools and on our streets, if we taught students from a young age the value of listening to understand and speaking to be understood? Or that, more often than not, there is an alternative agreeable for everyone, rather finding solutions through naming a winner or loser? Peer mediation, bystander training, negotiation skills, interpersonal communication – if these skills were taught early and emphatically, maybe we will see peace as a real possibility in our time.
We want our children to excel – to learn what they need to know to succeed as friends and family members, in our communities and in our economy. We know they need to be able to read, to write, to calculate – but the skill that runs through every moment of their lives is relationship – when do we turn to that with same intention and care? It is needed now more than ever. Let’s commit to the fourth R – relationship – in our basic curriculum and in the heart of our homes. The fate of my Saturday mornings, and so much more, depends on it.