From the Director: So What Do You Want to Talk About?

by Vince Durnan, director

What we ask and how we manage talks with our children send all kinds of not very subtle signals to them about what matters to us and what we want for them.
Here comes our Winter Break, snow or no snow, and with it arrives a bounty of opportunity for conversation with our children. More time around the house, more time around friends and family, more time in cherished rituals, and more time for doing things that break from familiar routines. In each instance, good minds might wonder what topics we should target and how best to blend the chance to listen with the chance to steer things in the direction of our choice, in real time and screen-free.
Imagine for a moment what a child is expecting, imagine knowing that these moments are in store. Maybe you can even remember being that child, hearing comments about how much you’ve grown, or asked (no matter how young) about chosen lifetime career paths, or about romantic status, or preferred college destination—wondering if you were offering the right answer in response. It’s hard not to wince a little when those memories are invoked, however universal or predictable the experience may have been. Could there be an antidote or an alternative path?
Permit me to offer an alternative, riffing a little on a column from a few years ago that came as close to going viral as anything I ever generated on a keyboard. The takeaway back then was that rather than forcing the “what’s your college preference” interaction on seniors (or really on any child, alas), we let them decide whether the time is right for that chat, and we follow their lead. But let’s go beyond a single narrow instance and maybe frame things more openly.
How about if instead of performance-based interrogatives, we chose interest-based questions. To wit, “hey buddy, what are you really enjoying working on right now?” Or “just wondering, what are you finding especially engaging?” Or some more age-appropriate paraphrase thereof. And then we listen. That way we’re not judging kids on outcomes, whether of a game or a test or an application process or a social event. Instead, we're confirming our understanding that what predicts well for them as productive, engaged, grounded people is that they carry and can articulate a sense of purpose. Makes me wonder, btw, about the amount of time we are currently devoting to exam weeks—will leave that for another column.
If you gave me a polygraph, of course, I'd confess to wanting our students to know what winning feels like, to have had the experience of grabbing that brass ring. But increasingly it's clear that those accolades are the predictable byproduct of being motivated by something meaningful that carries the potential to benefit others (see Bill Damon’s book "Path to Purpose" for more). And it strikes me as entirely appropriate to expect our children to be developing interests, ideally following our example, thereby avoiding a transactional mindset and the sense of entitlement that often accompanies that way of thinking and being.
I know, easy to say, hard to do. But what we ask and how we manage talks with our children send all kinds of not very subtle signals to them about what matters to us and what we want for them. In a world so full of understandable worry and uncertainty, we can offer them the certainty of our belief that good things will follow if they do their part, if they care about other people, and if they put their abundant talents to work in a purposeful effort. Here ends the sermon, and here's hoping you enjoy these precious moments.
Grateful for you and for the season,

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