Finding Common Ground

I hope that all of our Archmere families enjoyed time together over the Christmas holidays. It is a wonderful time to reconnect with family and friends that we do not see as often as we would like.

My wife and I enjoy gathering the family together in our home to make sure that we stay in touch. But with a large Italian family, we need to limit gatherings to our brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews, and first cousins, and we need to break the group into different gatherings over the holidays to be able to enjoy visiting with everyone.

At each gathering, conversation always seems to include our “family tree,” and relatives who have passed away. Whether it is sparked by a question from a niece or nephew about someone they know who claims to be a relative, or a request from a cousin for my mother’s Christmas/wedding/anniversary or other special occasion cookie recipes, or a comment about how much a great niece or nephew shares family resemblances with older relatives, a part of our conversation always seems to be about finding “common ground” that links us and holds us together.

This has become more apparent since my wife and I began these get-togethers, as our parents and the relatives of their generation have passed away (with the exception of one lovely aunt, who, approaching 88, is delightful company, but cannot remember today’s visit tomorrow.) In addition, our conversations this year included reports and updates on some serious health challenges of relatives in my generation.

In these instances, it seems that we find hope and strength in talking about how our parents and their generation managed through these difficulties with determination, grace, and a strong faith. Their lives, complete with failings and triumphs, continue to be role models for us, and it seems that those of us who are parents or grandparents only wish that our children and grandchildren live with the same values and perspective. But I heard a thread of anxiety in my cousins’ conversations about being sure that their grandchildren “find their way” in a world that is changing at a fast pace and that seems less and less to embrace common values and morals.

Over the Christmas break, I read, “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development,” by Dr. Richard Weissbourd. Dr. Weissbourd was one of the faculty members at the Independent Schools Institute that I attended at Harvard last October.
finding common ground
His book is based on his research in the field of child and adolescent development. As a psychologist and a parent, he draws on his research and personal experiences to frame moral and values-based issues as described by young people today.

He states in Chapter 6, entitled, “The Real Moral Power of Schools,” that:

“The American public schools were conceived not solely as an engine of academic success. They were intended chiefly to cultivate in children a certain ideal of character. . . . Today the expectation that schools will cultivate character is again widespread and deep. The American public, deeply concerned about the failure of children to absorb key values from their parents, sees schools as the next best hope. Polls show that about 70 percent of public school parents want schools to teach ‘strict standards of right and wrong,’ and 85 percent want schools to teach values.” (p. 116)

As I read Dr. Weissbourd’s book, I realized how fortunate I am to have had the support and guidance of a large, close-knit family, still felt today when we gather, even if only once a year. I am doubly fortunate because that same sense of connectedness was present at Archmere when I attended as a student, and is still, I believe, very present today. I believe that our school community supports the values that we, as parents, want for our children.

The most recently adopted strategic plan is shaped around a revised, carefully crafted mission statement, that captures the rich Catholic, Norbertine traditions of community and prayer, combined with the ambitious demand for high academic standards.

We use words like “community,” “respect,” “zeal,” “reverence,” and “wisdom” to describe ourselves. But it is not the words that teach. As Weissbound concludes, it is the actions of mentors –parents, teachers, coaches – which animate the words that shape the minds of our students and the next generation of adults.

Weissbourd, in his concluding remarks about developing moral communities, believes that our American culture needs to address three challenges: expect more of America’s fathers, create stronger ties among parents, and give each other (as parents) feedback.

Of course, just like my own family, our school community is diverse in thought – some being more conservative and some more liberal. There is always room for conversation, evaluation, and learning from one another. The important point is to continue to arrive at “common ground” and to present cohesive and consistent models of action for our children.

Easier said than done.

Even Weissbourd discusses how he teaches one concept in class with his students and then “falls into the trap” of making opposite, usually emotionally charged decisions with his own children. As a parent, I know that I am constantly “replaying the tapes of the day” of the interactions with my children, and discussing them with my wife.

As we begin this New Year, my hope and prayer is that each day we work together to provide a positive formative experience for our students. While there will be challenges and setbacks for all of us at times, together, we can learn from them and celebrate our successes.

May you and your family be blessed in this New Year with the things that matter – good health and the support and collective wisdom of family and friends.