Q&A with Michael Thompson

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If given the choice to have lunch with any man on the planet, whom would you choose? George Clooney? Kenny Chesney? Maybe Eddie George? For me, the choice would be between guys like Ross Green, Robert Brooks and Michael Thompson. Who are they you ask? Authors of some of my favorite books on the emotional health of children.

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And lucky for me, I got that opportunity recently when I caught up with Michael Thompson, Ph.D., school consultant and author, after one of his presentations for this year’s Edna Thomas Lecture Series. Organized by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the series brings nationally recognized authors and speakers to Nashville to speak on current issues in parenting and education.

Thompson travels the country speaking on issues affecting children and families, and has written several books, including The New York Times best seller Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Ballantine Books; $23.95). Although he has made numerous appearances on nationally televised shows including “Oprah” and “The Today Show,” he equally enjoys talking to relatively smaller audiences and answering individual parents’ questions about their children.

Thompson spoke for nearly two hours at his presentation that focused on his books The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life (Ballantine Books; $22.95) and Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems (Ballantine Books; $22.95). He then took the time to answer questions from audience members, so when he and I finally arrived at the restaurant for lunch, I half expected him to collapse into a heap in the booth and beg me to be brief. Instead, he answered my questions carefully, and even took the time to ask about my child and career.

I asked how he was able to be so responsive for such long periods, and Thompson admitted hes an extreme extrovert, so meeting and learning about different people is actually an energizing experience for him. I imagine he has plenty of opportunities to get energized, because he is the type of person who draws out more information than you plan on giving, then offers both insight and compassion in response:

Nashville Parent (NP): Are children really under more pressure today than they were a generation ago?
Michael Thompson (MT): What I hear in schools is that they are adding more things to the schedule, encouraging ambitious students to take more AP (advanced placement) courses and everyone in public schools is braced for Federally-mandated tests. But beyond that, this is a very competitive time in America, and with globalization, there are more and more pressures on children to do well. We just dont have the high-paying union jobs to give to indifferent students when they graduate from high school the way we once did. Yes, I think there is more pressure.

NP: What might surprise parents about their childrens school days?
MT: I believe that adults have repressed or romanticized their own school experience. What I think would surprise them would be how long and exhausting the days are, how tiring it is to make all those transitions, and how painful it is to be bored!

NP: What do you wish parents remembered about their own school experiences?
MT: That a lot of days were just trying to survive the day, master the social and academic challenges and feel good about themselves. And thats what their own children are doing in the modern school.

NP: How can we as parents help our children find success without applying too much pressure?
MT: If a family values education, if parents read to their children, if they play word games and board games, if they give their children as enriched an environment as they can afford, if they attend PTA meetings and if they dont overload them with extra-curricular activities and town sports, children are likely to do well in school.


NP: Can you prescribe any guidelines for the ratio of structured to unstructured time for children?
MT: I cant express it as a ratio. I just know that children need some downtime and some privacy, and too many parents are overloading their children.

NP: You mentioned the trend in schools to teach reading and other skills earlier presents a real problem for children who just arent ready. Any advice for the parents of these children?
MT: Dont panic! Some kids really just need time to mature.

NP: In your book, The Pressured Child, you say that kids falling behind in school hate to be repeatedly rescued by their parents because it confirms their worst fears about themselves. What are those fears?
MT: You [mother] are sending a message that you [child] are a victim and incompetent at caring for yourself.

NP: Does this apply to bullying also?
MT: Yes, your mother can’t jump in and rescue you from the bullies.

NP: Is there a difference between teasing and bullying?
MT: Yes, 80 percent of American children say they have been teased in the past month, but a much smaller percentage have been truly bullied. Bullying is chronic, repeated humiliation of a physical or psychological kind. All kids tease one another in school; it is part of what allows them to get through a long day. Much of teasing is light and bearable; some of it gets to the edge of bullying. Repeated too much, it breaks a child down.

NP: So it seems like there’s a fine line between the two. How can parents and teachers tell the difference?
MT: If there is fear and suffering on the part of the child being attacked, or if the crowd around the kid suggests that he needs help. Is it chronic and relentless? Educators make two types of errors here: not intervening enough or zero tolerance that creates too much rigidity.

NP: You use the phrase “culture of cruelty” in Raising Cain. What does that mean?
MT: Dan Kindlon and I talked about the “culture of cruelty” among middle school and early high school boys. There is a strong undercurrent of dominance behavior and status struggles among boys from age 11 – 15, but it is tinged with a cruel edge because the boys attack each other’s masculinity – All boys fear these attacks and some are really destroyed by them.

NP: Is there a different standard with regard to the culture of cruelty for boys and girls?
MT: Boys use direct aggression while girls engage in indirect or relational aggression. Teachers tell me that girls are more subtle and more cruel than boys, and I believe that is true in fifth, sixth, seventh and early eighth grades. Boys really start to work on one another in eighth and ninth grade. Teachers who say that girls are crueler tend to be women who remember that type of cruelty in their own lives. They have never been in a boys’ locker room, however, or suffered those particular kinds of humiliations.

NP: What can you suggest for kids who fight/bully physically at school because that’s what they do at home?
MT: It’s necessary to run the school as a utopian environment; to talk to them about what should be and could be, but you never succeed at it – but you keep holding a standard for them, and say “We understand why you do this in your neighborhood, and sometimes you’re in a tough situation and you’ve got to fight, but we can’t permit it in school.” You need to help kids understand the consequences of going by neighborhood rules in school, or at work.

NP: What do you feel are two or three of the most important social competencies that children need to develop?
MT: The capacity to engage in reciprocal, mutually satisfying play or conversation. Empathy for others.

NP: At what age do you think parents and educators should begin helping children to develop these social competencies?
MT: Adults are teaching these competencies by interacting with their own children in play and “work,” by modeling reciprocity and empathy, and by teaching it in a direct fashion. But for the most part, children teach each other these skills in their peer friendships.

Nancy Nolan serves on the faculty of Vanderbilt University and is an educational consultant and child advocate. She lives in Nashville with her husband, son and Amos the dog.

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