Interview with Brenda published in the Times Herald

January 9th, 2019
Category: News

PLYMOUTH — Students of the 1950s and 1960s huddled under their desks during routine air raid drills and worried about Russian nuclear attacks. The big global conflicts continue. But these days, American kids are also surrounded by the free-floating anger and negativity that pervades contemporary politics — currently, troubling news about presidential “tantrums,” government shutdowns, people without paychecks and a careening stock market.

The list goes on. And thanks to extensive traditional and social media, the headlines are everywhere. How does that affect a 5-year-old? A 7-year-old? A 9-year-old? Do they worry about these issues? Can parents and teachers shield them from the ugliness? Should they?

An ongoing balancing act, says Brenda Crawley, newly appointed head of school at historic Plymouth Meeting Friends School in Plymouth Township.

“I look back three decades to my early days of teaching and see the ‘age of innocence,’” adds Crawley, scheduled to assume her PMFS post this July. “At that time, the influence of media, technology and popular culture had little to no impact on classroom instruction. Today, educators have to understand that students bring all of these factors to school with them each day. The influence of the media permeates their academic, social, emotional and behavioral development. Significantly, children gain a sense of what is correct, acceptable and exceptional from what they see and hear on the radio and television.”

The challenge for educators “lies in helping students to find a balance between utilizing the media and technology as tools and knowing when to set these tools aside to engage in face-to-face conversations with others.” Ideally, families and educators work together to achieve that end.

“Helping children to process the conflicting messages that are part of our social and political climate can be a daunting endeavor,” continues Crawley, who heads the lower school at Maryland’s Sandy Spring Friends School and was previously head of the lower school at the McLean School of Maryland. “Most parents and teachers want to offer children all of the answers. We find ourselves hoping to provide comfort and solutions to our young ones.

“When children try to process information, they tend to ask myriad questions, and adults feel like we need to have those answers. More important than having the answers is actually listening to the questions and providing just enough developmentally appropriate information for the child. It is fine to offer up bite-sized pieces. Less information is less overwhelming.”

And — sometimes — admitting you don’t know the answer is the best option, Crawley says.

“This is not a failure, and the child learns that some queries require more time, deeper thought and research,” she explains. “Experiment with being vulnerable, especially with the hard questions. Encourage [children] to wonder and voice their curiosity. Instead of attempting to explain the rationale behind war to a young child, recognize their concern and ask a focused question: ‘It sounds like you’re wondering why they are fighting. Can you think of another way they could work on their problems?’”

In short, “the most difficult task is to avoid filling in the blanks as we try to make sense of matters that young children cannot fully comprehend.”

“Engaging children in conversations about difference is critical to their healthy social, emotional and behavioral development,” says Crawley, who earned a bachelor of music at Manhattanville College in New York and a master’s degree in organizational development at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School in Baltimore. “Children notice difference at about the same time they are developing early vocabulary. As adults, we have a responsibility to seize these early opportunities to have the chats that might feel ‘raggedy’ and accept that children will ask difficult questions and challenge our responses.”

Know, too, that “to a child, fairness is a critical issue,” Crawley notes.

“Discussing the treatment of others through the lens of fairness offers a child the opportunity for perspective-taking,” she says. “They can readily understand inequity, imbalance and discrimination as they consider what fair looks like, and they will likely have strong suggestions for ways to solve the problems. Children also recognize the positive impact of kindness. When families and educators find themselves seeking the ‘right’ answers to those tough questions, using fairness and kindness as guideposts will certainly help children as they try to process the conflicting messages in our social ‘atmosphere.’”

Crawley speaks as an educator and mother. She and wife Ellen have two sons, Jonathan and William, and she’s the first to admit “raising two sons has completely shifted my sense of reality.”

“Even as a seasoned educator, I have found parenting a continuous learning process,” she says. “Early on, I learned that none of the parenting books truly had all of the answers and a storm always followed the calm. Having a sense of humor and reminding myself to stretch and be flexible remain my survival tactics. It took a while for me to realize that each of my sons has his own journey and I could not chart the course of those journeys.

“At some point, a parent has to stop preparing the path and focus more on preparing the child. That is, by far, one of the most important things that I have learned as a parent, and it has helped me to guide and advise numerous families who are parenting young children. It has also given me ‘permission’ to allow my children to realize that they can survive failure, correct course and move on.”

Crawley’s experience as a parent has also affected her approach as an educator.

“As a mom, I’ve learned that I have to relinquish some control in order to prepare my sons to be strong young men,” she says. “I have high expectations for each of them, and yet it is their own personal expectations that guide them. I am less concerned about grades than I am about their excitement for learning. I am more concerned about their genuine happiness and their sense of self.

“I remain focused on the fact that I am raising two men of color. I want them to be strong, safe and secure. I always want them to seek joy and to stay curious. I want them to laugh, love and respect others … to see, hear and affirm others. I want my sons to remain ever hopeful and to recognize that they can change the world. This parenting thing has built a fire inside of me. I find that as my own children grow, my desire to ‘raise’ my students in a similar way has become a lifelong passion.”