Can-do Ants

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I teach adolescents from families who are secure. The kids are healthy, own lots of toys, travel widely.

Yet, curiously, their parents try to shield them from hardship. Stress is a dirty word.

Parents introduce their students: My child has ---- fill in the blank ----dyslexia, hypotonia, difficulty writing. Testing proves it. Please don't push him to do what he can't. The parents are sincere.

It is a parent's job to nurture the child. But growth is stressful. Parents wince at the heroic struggle required to mature into a strong person. Their message is clear: my kid struggles. It's not fair. Tell him he's fine just as he is.

But the world will smack him in the face. A diagnosis is simply a sign -- "Road Work Ahead."   The world won't wait for a child who repeats, "I can't." It shrugs and moves on without him.
Yet there is power in believing, "I can."


When my children were little, struggling with every new skill, I dredged up a song my dad used to sing for me, "High Hopes," about an ant moving a rubber tree plant. Feeling foolish, I shared it with my own kids to encourage them when they were sobbing with frustration. To my amazement, it worked. Even today, if I say "can-do ant" to my 20-something kids, they smile and stop complaining, about tax forms or putting up shelves.

Teachers focus on "You can. You are learning how." If we don't encourage struggle, we will have created a generation of kids who are like the caterpillar that is cut free of his chrysalis. Without the struggle to emerge on his own, he won't strengthen his wings. The new butterfly will be too weak to fly, our kids too weak to thrive.

Teachers prod and inspire kids to face the strain. We chant, "You can do it! You're tough! Work harder! Don't fear the struggle!" We encourage high hopes. Practice, repeat, push. Step by step, pain subsides, muscles strengthen, mastery is acquired.

Summer -- a perfect time to practice "I can."
With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.