Head of School’s Blog

When should my child be allowed to have a smartphone?

While some families have already crossed this threshold, the majority of parents will face an important decision in the years ahead: when should my child be allowed to have a smartphone? Plenty has been written about this topic, but I recommend that you read one piece in particular before making this purchase.

In “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, an article appearing earlier this fall in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge synthesizes current data with her own research on the “iGen” (those born between 1995 and 2012), noting an abrupt shift in teen behaviors and emotional states since 2012. At first glance, teens appear to have made progress. They are physically safer than they were a few years ago. They drink less, and they get into fewer car accidents. They also seem less concerned with proclaiming their independence – less likely to date, even less interested in getting a license – which certainly might appeal to many parents hoping to hold on to the innocence and safety of childhood.

Accompanying this physical safety, however, is a meteoric rise in psychological vulnerability that Twenge labels a mental health crisis. Today’s tweens and teens have grown up with the iPhone – Apple’s creation was first introduced in 2007 – and the device’s ubiquity is impacting a generation in ways that go much deeper than simple concerns over screen time. Teens might be staying home more often, but they aren’t doing more homework or hanging out with their families. Instead, they are “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” In fact, for teens today, time on these devices strongly correlates with unhappiness, depressive symptoms, sleep deprivation, and even suicidal ideations. Why? Twenge posits that social media “exacerbates the age-old teen concern about being left out.” Studies suggest that, for girls in particular, these feelings have spiked in the past 5-7 years.

As engrossed as I was with Twenge’s article, statistics are only so persuasive. Many of us likely feel that our kids and families are different. We impose rules – no devices at the dinner table, social media is monitored, phones must be charging in parents’ bedrooms by a certain hour – and we trust our children to make good decisions. This last point might fly in the face of research on adolescent brain development, or even what we did as kids, but to me, this isn’t really about trust. Having spent the past 23 years working with Middle Schoolers, I can tell you, without hesitation, that they are actively developing social skills. Adolescence is awkward and messy. They need practice speaking to each other, navigating issues, working out conflicts, learning from mistakes, and developing empathy. More broadly, they need to find their voice, advocate for themselves, and develop their communication skills. All of this requires face-to-face interactions. Smartphones don’t just take time away from this, they interfere with it.

Exasperated by the trend toward putting phones in kids’ hands at younger and younger ages, a group of parents banded together, and the Wait Until 8th movement was born. The mission of this grassroots organization? “Let kids be kids a little longer” by “empower[ing] parents to say yes to waiting for a smartphone.” If your children have begun to beat the ‘everyone else has one’ drum, or if you’re interested in reading more about the effects of these devices, I encourage you to take a look.


Douglas E. Norry
Head of School

Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World by Dr. Mitch Prinstein

Last night, Mitch Prinstein spoke to parents and teachers about his book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. Dr. Prinstein shared his lifelong interest in the causes and effects of popularity, which has led him to extensive research as Director of Clinical Psychology at UNC – Chapel Hill.

Rooted in the development of language several thousand years ago, humans are a social species, and popularity has long been recognized as a trait possessed in large quantities by some, but not others. More recently, scientists have come to understand the importance of popularity (or lack thereof) in determining quality of life, health, and even life expectancy. Popularity matters, perhaps more than it should, or more than we’d like to believe, when it comes to predicting success in life.

Dr. Prinstein explained that there are two types of popularity – each associated with starkly different outcomes – and we are increasingly preoccupied with the wrong type. Likability is a trait which shows stability across different social situations. What makes people likable? Not surprisingly, making others feel as though they are valued members of the group. Those regarded as more likable are included more, have more learning experiences, and thus cultivate these social skills even further. Research suggests that likability is positively correlated with good grades, healthy relationships, happier marriages, and longer lives. To be sure, it’s good to be likable.

In introducing the second type of popularity, Dr. Prinstein highlighted changes associated with puberty. The activation of our limbic system spurs an interest in rewards which, alongside a heightened importance of peers and a lack of impulse control, causes a fixation on status: the domain of power, prestige, and influence. The aggressive behavior exhibited by many teens increases status while simultaneously making them less likable. [Insert flashback to awkward high school experience here!] While status might confer short-term rewards, studies suggest that the narrative of ‘cool kids peaking in high school’ is not a myth. The ‘high status / not so likable’ cohort is more prone to addiction, relationship trouble, and a host of other negative outcomes in life.

But the best thing about high school is that it ends, right? All of us eventually figured it out. Or did we? Prinstein posited that social media has cemented our focus on status well into adulthood, causing a “perpetual adolescence” where the goal is to take the best selfie in order to collect as many “likes” as possible.

Facebook is here to stay, so what can we do to help our children navigate this status-obsessed world? Dr. Prinstein offered parents four tangible pieces of advice:

  1. Recognize that how we were treated years ago affects our parenting style today. Parents need to come to terms with their own biases and seek to understand what has caused them.
  2. Pay close attention to what messages we reinforce at home. Do your children witness you posting on Facebook and/or checking to see if your posts have been “liked?”
  3. Help kids decode social media. Let’s make sure our children are aware that many posts are curated, manicured, and far from reality.
  4. Teach listening and empathy. Truly understanding how others feel is not just the antidote to aggression and bullying, it makes us more likable.

Particularly with this last point, we at TDS seek to partner with you in pursuit of this long-term goal. Along those lines, please consider reading Popular. To purchase a copy, contact Deb Newlin.


Douglas E. Norry
Head of School

End of first grading period

With last Thursday marking the conclusion of the first quarter, teachers offer feedback on their students’ progress in the form of report cards. Please look for an e-mail tomorrow with instructions on how to access these.

In Lower School, while specific categories vary by grade level, students receive feedback in several major subjects or areas:

  • Approaches to Learning
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Social / Emotional Development
  • Social Studies
  • Science / Science Lab
  • Spelling / Vocabulary
  • Writing
  • Spanish
  • Art
  • Music
  • Physical Education

Each of these areas is divided into a group of skills (for example: “works neatly;” “uses a variety of strategies to solve problems”). For each of these skills, teachers assign a mark according to the following scale:

  • 4 – Exceeds expectations consistently and independently
  • 3 – Meets expectations consistently and independently
  • 2 – Meets expectations with support
  • 1 – Currently does not meet expectations. Additional support and practice needed.

In most cases, you will see a comment about overall performance in each subject. In addition, students in grades three through five receive letter grades in some of the subjects according to the following scale:

  • A – Excellent work
  • B – Good work
  • C – Average work
  • D – Below average work. Remediation needed.
  • F – Failing

In Middle School, students receive two grades in each of six subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Spanish, Math, Science, and Physical Education. One grade assesses performance and is expressed as a percentage (0 – 100). The second grade reflects class conduct and uses the following scale:

  • 5 – Exceeds expectations in demonstrating core values
  • 4 – Consistently demonstrates core values
  • 3 – Inconsistently demonstrates core values
  • 2 – Needs support to demonstrate core values
  • 1 – Infrequently demonstrates core values

Teachers will write narrative comments for all Middle School students at the conclusion of the second quarter.

These reports (along with the conferences next week) offer you a good sense of where your child is right now in each subject. These marks represent a starting point in a long process that continues until June. Please keep that perspective in mind as you engage your children in conversations about what they are most proud of, and how they think they can improve.

Along these lines, please pay close attention to the descriptions listed above. Whether it’s a seventh grader with an 83%, a fourth grader with a B, or a second grader who earns a “3,” these are all defined as “good” marks, which students have earned within a challenging program. Even amidst our zeal to pinpoint how our children can achieve more and score higher, let’s be sure to celebrate all that they have accomplished and ‘gotten right.’

“Truth and Lies” October 20, 2017

Immediately after college, I taught 7th grade Life Science at an independent school in St. Louis, MO. In our first lab, students grew bean plants to test the effects of different variables on plant growth and health. When the experiment concluded, some kids took their plants home, while others tossed them in the trash. Apparently, some had a different idea. That afternoon, one girl reported that a toilet in the bathroom was clogged with what appeared to be potting soil.

It didn’t take much detective work to determine the identities of the three culprits. I called them into my office one at a time. The first two had similar reactions: total denial and tears. The third offered a simpler response to the same question (and I remember her words as though I heard them yesterday): “We tried to flush the plant down the toilet.”

Jessica Lahey’s New York Times blog post is full of thoughtful reflections and sage advice about raising resilient, well-adjusted children in today’s world. As both a teacher and a parent, #3 caught my attention. “We promise not to believe everything your child says happens at home if you promise not to believe everything your child says happens in our classrooms.” This reminded me of a story from when my ninth grade daughter was in Pre-K. Informed by her mother that afternoon snack was contingent on finishing lunch at school, Emily shared that she had eaten four hotdogs before carpool. (It’s worth noting that, even to this day, Emily has never taken even one bite of a hotdog.)

In “Learning to Lie,” an article appearing in New York Magazine, Po Bronson reviews the findings and conclusions of several researchers who have investigated why kids lie. If you doubt this issue’s relevance, consider the work of Dr. Nancy Darling, who interviewed scores of high school students. 98% of these students reported lying to their parents about a variety of topics. Interestingly, the same percentage agreed that lying is morally wrong.

According to Dr. Victoria Talwar, lying is a “developmental milestone,” in that it requires young kids to understand the truth and dream up an alternate reality. In some children, the behavior is “socialized out” by age 7 or 8, but in several others it becomes ingrained as a coping mechanism.  The most interesting aspect of Talwar’s research involved an experiment in which 6-year olds were enticed to cheat during a game. Afterwards, 95% lied about it. Talwar then introduced a variable – reading to the children beforehand. While hearing The Boy Who Cried Wolf (boy gets eaten because of his lies) did not affect the lying, listening to a generic version of George Washington and the Cherry Tree (boy confesses and shares a nice moment with dad) reduced lying by 43%. Talwar concludes that parents should stress the intrinsic worth of honesty rather threatening punishment, which has actually been correlated with increased lying in kids.

Bronson’s most provocative statement, which gave me pause in light of the hotdog incident and others like it, is that children learn to lie from their parents. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults lied at least once during a ten-minute conversation; it was reported in Scientific American that 90% of on-line daters lie on their profiles. This goes well beyond telling the telemarketer that you’re not home. Kids are taught to tell “white lies” in social situations; we are proud when our children react positively to a gift they don’t like. Over time, kids become comfortable with lying, and they come to understand that honesty creates conflict.

In my experience, parents typically have two reactions to learning Dr. Darling’s statistics regarding children lying. First, we assume that our children are in the 2% of total truth-tellers. Then, (and hopefully our knowledge of statistics helps move us past reaction #1), we wonder what we can do to facilitate a more open relationship with our children. Along these lines, after interviewing the students, Dr. Darling mailed comprehensive surveys to their parents. Her results suggest that permissive parents do not know more about their children’s lives. She concludes, “the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids….the kids of these parents lied the least.”  When asked why they told the truth in certain situations, teenagers responded that they hoped their parents might change their mind and give in. That ‘give and take’ – even if it takes the form of an argument – can keep open lines of communication and even strengthen your relationship with your children.

In light of this research, I’ve come to wonder about the parents of my incredibly honest, matter-of-fact student from 1994. Did they have an open relationship with this ‘gave and take?’ Thanks to Google, I have reached out to her this week. I’ll let you know what she says!


Digital Citizenship

All sixth graders at TDS take Technology with Ms. Cabrera. In addition to establishing proficiency with a number of programs, the class focuses on digital citizenship. Earlier this week, Ms. Cabrera utilized a current event to discuss cyber-bullying. Students were shown the photo below and instructed to write a comment as if they were commenting on a social media site.
Here are a few examples of their comments:
  • “Just wrong.”
  • “That lady isn’t taking care of her baby.”
  • “You shouldn’t be on your phone, lady.”
  • “She’s got her baby on the floor. That’s gross.”
After allowing the students to comment freely, Ms. Cabrera directed everyone to read the real story behind the photo. In a nutshell:
  • The photo was taken, without mom’s permission, in a Colorado airport in 2016.
  • It quickly went viral. Mom was mocked for preferring her phone to her infant.
  • In reality, this took place during the Delta Airlines computer shut-down. Mom and baby spent more than twenty hours in airports on their way home from visiting family.
  • Exhausted, mom needed a break, and she needed to communicate with her family.
Message received. In the words of Ms. Cabrera, “Students felt ashamed. I even saw a few cowering in their chairs, embarrassed by not considering how their comments might have affected the mom.” On this day, students took a giant leap toward digital citizenship, truly understanding the importance of empathy. Ms. Cabrera’s goal – that “students become upstanders, not bystanders, in this world, standing up for what is right and being active, empathic listeners” – extends far beyond the realm of Technology class.A few weeks ago, exhausted from refereeing one too many sibling disputes, I found myself imploring my children to consider two questions before speaking to each other: Is it necessary? Is it kind? Comments focused on judgment or blame typically fail both tests. Kudos to Ms. Cabrera for helping our students come to understand this by and for themselves.