Indian Creek School was proud to kick off its first annual Week of Well-Being on Monday, January 26, with a full day of workshops with renowned author and psychologist, Dr. Michael Thompson. While Dr. Thompson, author of several New York Times best-selling books on child development including Raising Cain, The Pressured Child, and Best Friends/Worst Enemies, presented four different sessions during his day at ICS, each presentation emphasized the importance of independence and agency in the healthy development of children.
Middle School Workshop “Best Friends / Worst Enemies”
Dr. Thompson began his day at ICS speaking with students in grades 5-8 about friendship development, popularity, and social issues in Middle School. During this conversation, Dr. Thompson emphasized the importance of friendships and shared that having just one close friend can make all the difference for a child. He asked students to think about the dynamics of Middle School friendships.
Together, he and the students created a list of 10 important qualities of friendship:
- Friends share mutual kindness, encouragement, and respect.
- Friends motivate and encourage each other.
- Friends are there for you for the long haul.
- Friends are loyal and maintain confidentiality.
- Friends are there for your highs AND lows.
- Friendship is love.
- Friendship is walking with you in the halls, waiting for you in the bathroom, not letting you fall behind.
- A friend is someone you can relate to through shared interests and experiences.
- Friendship means sticking up for your friend when needed.
- Friendship is caring for each other.
After the students shared their list, Dr. Thompson affirmed that ICS middle schoolers possess a rock-solid idea of friendships. “Adults have nothing more to teach you about friendships,” he stated. This theme was reiterated as he then asked the students to share whether or not they feel comfortable talking to their parents about friendships. Middle Schoolers offered that they prefer not to discuss friendships with parents because “Sometimes if they know too much, they freak out unnecessarily,” “They will assume the worst because of their experiences,” “They will judge my friend even when we are past an issue,” or even worse, “They will involve themselves and call my friend’s parents.” Dr. Thompson once again supported the students’ desire for agency by sharing that research shows that by fourth grade every child knows what true friendship is and 85% of the time parents should not involve themselves in child friendship dynamics.
During this session, the Middle School student body also reflected on what makes a kid “popular” in most schools and at Indian Creek. Dr. Thompson shared that typical markers for popular boys included athletic prowess, height and build, and humor, and indicators for girls include looks, fashion sense, and confidence. In fact, he cited confidence as the most important factor in determining popularity in Middle School. He spoke with the students about the dangers of letting “popular” individuals determine one’s worth or interfere with other friendships. The entire audience was affirmed when a seventh-grade student shared that “Being cool at ICS comes from being kind to everyone.”
Upper School Session: “The Pressured Child”
Dr. Thompson next met with ICS Upper School students to talk about pressure and stress – particularly how these factors elevate during the college admission process. He opened this conversation by asking the ninth through twelfth grade students how much sleep they had gotten the previous night. Student answers ranged from the recommended duration of 8 hours (one student) to as little as 4 hours (several students). High schoolers identified factors including anxiety, homework and YouTube as interfering with their ability to sleep. Dr. Thompson explained the dangers of the cycle of being under slept leading to anxiety, which leads to under-sleeping.
He then shared some statistics to illustrate the rise of anxiety among young people in the U.S. He stated that over 25% of undergraduate students at Tufts University are in counseling for anxiety, and shared that this number is even higher at many other colleges. The group discussed how these numbers are sometimes seen as a “badge of honor” at schools that wish to be perceived as elite.
Dr. Thompson then surveyed the Upper School student body on whether they have had a conversation with their parents about getting into college in the past week. A significant number of 9th grade students, over 40% of 10th grade students, and almost all juniors and seniors acknowledged that this is a frequent and regular theme in their parent interactions. “The thought of going to a ‘good college’ is ingrained in my brain constantly,” shared Oluchi ’24.
He asked the students to imagine that they get rejected at their first and second-choice schools. Several ICS students volunteered that they would be “bummed, probably for months” about missed opportunities but felt that they would get over the disappointment once they have a new plan. Students cited their biggest worry as being the fear of disappointing their parents. Dr. Thompson shared that a student at another school once told him that not being accepted at his first choice school would be “a psychological wound from which I’d never recover.” He encouraged the ICS student body to keep their college choice in perspective, as often independent school communities provide a distorted view of post-high school options: “Only 36% of Americans hold a college degree, and of these, there are millions of successful people who did not attend an elite school.” He reminded the students that the decision of an admission committee does not determine who they are or who they will become.
Dr. Thomson then led a discussion about the heightened level of conflicts that often occur between students and parents during the senior year of high school. Students entertained each other with stories of the seemingly meaningless arguments they’ve had with their parents. While these conflicts may seem trivial, Dr. Thompson described that parents are experiencing a sense of loss. He shared that sending a child off into the world is one of the five universal turning points in life, in addition to leaving home themselves, marriage, having children, and experiencing the loss of a parent. He told the students that while it can seem like parents are “losing it,” they are reacting to the knowledge that their parenting is coming to an end soon.
There were many tears in the audience as he offered these words of wisdom to the students to help remind parents that they are becoming loving, moral, productive adults who will take strong values out into the world: It has meant everything to me to be raised in this family. I am grateful to you and I am going to be fine. I hope you will be fine too. I love you.
Faculty Presentation: “Hopes and Fears of Independent School Parents”
After the school day, Dr. Thompson met with the ICS faculty and staff to share practical, empathic advice about how to form effective partnerships with parents.
During this session, he addressed the most common question that teachers across the world have been asking him this year: “Are the kids all right?” He acknowledged that while the pandemic was not ideal, for the vast majority of students it was an annoyance – not a trauma. He warned teachers not to treat students like they are fragile. He then shared that even if it was a trauma, children typically take 18 months to recover.
He shared Four Keys to Helping Kids and assured the faculty that these components are prevalent at ICS:
- Competent and caring adults
- An atmosphere of warmth
- Structure and predictability
- Developmentally appropriate high expectations
Dr. Thompson shared that over his 25 year career in working with parents, anxiety has grown exponentially. He shared his belief that independent schools run on the hopes and fears of parents, and advocated for faculty training in how to partner with students AND their families.
Parent Session: “The Pressured Child”
For his evening session with ICS parents, Dr. Thompson described the psychological journey that children experience during their 13 years in school. He reminded parents that children are almost never judging themselves by grades: they are always monitoring their own development and constantly searching for connection, recognition and a sense of power. He illustrated how children find those in many different arenas of school life. During this talk, Dr. Thompson shared details from his work with students during the day and reiterated the points that parents should rarely become involved in student friendship dynamics, ease up on the college talk, and encourage students to get more sleep.
Indian Creek thanks Dr. Michael Thompson for an entertaining and informative day with the ICS community.