By Ned Hallowell, M.D.
Making Human Connections: The more balanced and connected your life can be, the happier you will be and the healthier you will be. I have developed a schema with twelve different kinds of connections. If you develop connections in these twelve domains, I can guarantee you will find yourself happier and healthier. It is one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective steps you can take to create a better classroom, a better family, a better you, a better child.
So how can you help yourself, your children, and your students re-connect, re-stabilize, and gain a hold on life?
The first kind of connection I want to mention is family of origin:
1. Connection to family of origin – where you come from. As Robert Frost said, “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It is the place where your final, ultimate roots are. We all are ambivalently connected to that place. We all have our good feelings about it and our bad feelings about it. But, it is, probably, at least for very many people, the most passionate, deepest, richest source of connection that you have. Unfortunately, these days it’s all too easy to get away from it, so to get away from the bad part, people also get away from the good apart. The next thing you know, they have dissipated and attenuated their connection to their family of origin to the point where it’s no more than Christmas cards to Grandma or a family dinner every once in a blue moon, where nothing important is talked about and it’s all just chit-chat.
One concrete suggestion I would make to you to promote connection to your family of origin – forgive someone. Almost everybody that I know is mad at somebody in their family of origin: a brother, a sister, a parent, a stepparent, an uncle, an aunt, a grandparent – an ancestor. Pick someone out that you’re mad at and set about the process of forgiving him or her. However you have to do it, do it; don’t take no for an answer. If we could only learn how to use the process of forgiveness around the world, I think we’d all agree we’d have a better place. It takes some swallowing of pride, it takes some hat in hand activity, it takes some willingness to compromise, and it takes some willingness to say, “Yes, I was wrong, I was stupid.” It takes all those things that none of us likes to do. But, if you can do it, just think – you’re extending your life. Put it in selfish terms – if I forgive that jerk, I’ll live longer. I won’t have to carry around that negative energy with me anymore. So, I’m not going to let him make me die younger, I’m going to forgive that son-of-a-gun.
2. Connection to the family you create – this is the family that you choose, the family you bring into existence on your own. If you live alone, it is you and your set of friends or you and your pet. But, if you live with someone, it’s you and your live-in person, and whatever progeny you might have. There’s no one best kind of family. This is a notion that has to be put to rest. There is no perfect family, there is no one way to do family, there’s no best way, there’s no perfect way. What you want to do is create the feeling of connection, however you get there, whatever the structure of your family is; blended, separated, divorced, integrated, overlaid, overdone, underdone – whatever is there. You want to create the feeling of connection.
How do you get there? Simple tools – family dinner is one. And, again, this has been proven to be associated with kids learning better. Family dinner. Now, if you’re never at home together, have family midnight snack, have family popcorn at 11:00. It doesn’t have to be dinner, just family time around the table with food. Food is good because food is like love, and it brings people together. An old teacher of mine used to say food is love. So, a family congregation, a family meeting, or a family dinner is a good way to try to do it. In my family, thanks to my wife, Sue, we have family dinner. It is a circus; it is chaotic. Don’t think that you’re not doing your job right if people don’t sit there nicely and say, “Yes, and what do you think about the crisis in wherever?” No, that’s not what happens. Our kids are climbing on their chairs, throwing food. Sue is saying, “Sit with your face to the table, not back to the table.” A magazine writer came to watch our family dinner the other day and Sue practically died when she knew that I had invited this woman to come into our house. She said, “She’ll see the way we really are.” That’s the way all families really are, so have the chaos, have the family chaos, once a day – it’s good for you. There is also a thing called conversation. A lot of people don’t converse, they don’t ever interact, and they don’t have sentences. They have monosyllable grunts. Converse, read aloud – these are all family-building activities.
3. Connection to friends and community – Remember the lady at the bus stop? It took her 4 years to get to her neighbor’s house. This is one of the “I’ll do it later” issues. How many friends do you have where you’d say, “Oh yes, Joe is a great guy.” When did you last see him? “Well, jeez, seven years ago.” You remember him, you have a great memory of him, but you don’t know him anymore. You don’t have a connection there. Try to keep up with friends, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, for your children, for your neighborhood. My suggestion here is just to pick a friend you haven’t seen in a long time and call him or her up. And, when you call him or her up, say, “I’m just calling to say hello; I haven’t seen you in a long time. How are you?” Just that will make a difference and will make you live longer. There are any number of other ways you can think of creating community yourself, like Cindy Saunders with her block party. I like to think of smiling as a way of creating community, just smiling. You don’t have to smile at everyone, just smile now and then. You might get a smile back to make you feel good. Have what I call the human moment.
I just wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review and the title was “The Human Moment at Work”. Have a human moment. My thesis was that everything has become so electronic that the human moment is disappearing; the moment where people actually talk to each other face to face is disappearing. It’s all done on e-mail, voicemail – we don’t actually sit down in person, face to face, and talk. You get so much more face-to-face than you get on e-mail or voicemail. You get so much more just by laying eyes on someone – just the phrase, laying eyes, me looking at you, you looking at me. We get so much more body language, tone of voice – I think people have an energy that we haven’t yet defined, which you just can’t get in any other way. And, it’s positive. We get afraid of each other in the imagination – you need a human moment to dispel that.
4. Connection to work, mission or hobby – For kids in school, their connection to work is their connection to school, and the connection they feel to school is of tremendous importance. Not their grades – that study said nothing about grades. It said the connection they feel being there. So, as a teacher, say hello to the kids. At my kid’s school, Shady Hill that goes to 8th grade, they have a tradition, even in the 8th grade. The teacher shakes hand with each student at the end of the day and says goodbye. The 8th graders say, “Oh, this is stupid.” It’s a fast handshake, but the school insists on it. That’s just a marvelous example of how to celebrate connection with a ritual. Can you imagine if at IBM the boss shook hands with each employee at the end of the day?
5. Connection to beauty – Again, that may make it sound like it’s just for poets and aesthetics, but this is not true at all. Beauty is available in everyday life, free of charge. Kids need to be introduced to beauty. Teachers need to make time for doing this. It’s terrible how our art and music are thought of as frills; they’re not frills, they’re central. They’re as important as reading. I think classrooms ought to have Mozart playing in the background. You can introduce kids to art, you can have a few posters of classic paintings in the classroom, or you can just say to kids, “What do you think of that?”
I have a friend who works as a curator at the Frick Collection in New York and she has a program where the intercity kids come into the museum every day. She takes them around and shows them Rembrandts and paintings they have never seen. She asks them, “What do you see there?” The next thing you know, the kids are talking about what they see in that painting, what they liked about it, and what they don’t like about it; they’re making a connection to the world of beauty. That can be sustaining in a very powerful way. I have poetry that I still carry in me from my days as an English major that is just stuck in my mind. Every now and then I say it to myself, like a mantra, when I’m feeling the need for some poetry. “These lulled by nightingales embrace and slept.” I won’t go on, but that’s Milton, and there are a lot of them wandering around in my brain. Kids can get introduced to poetry, the earlier the better. They will form this connection and it will last a lifetime.
6. Connection to pets and animals – Every child, if it’s at all possible, ought to have a pet. If it’s not possible because of allergies or whatever, then so be it. Classrooms ought to have pets, if you’re allowed to. It’s really good for kids to have a fish tank or a birdcage or a rabbit in a cage, and to take the responsibility for caring for the animal and the pleasure of the shared ownership of the pet. All this can, again, create the feeling of connection that I’ve been talking about.
7. Connection we make to nature and to special places – Special places can be a place where you happen to like to study, a special chair in the library, or a special place where you go for coffee in the morning. The whole world of nature is special for me, although it’s the beach that moves me like nothing else, because I grew up on Cape Cod. For some, it’s the mountains; for some, it’s the Mississippi River; for others the hills – the land can speak to us in ways that should be celebrated. Talk about your connection to nature in very explicit terms to children. Again, I don’t think you have to take nature walks – you can introduce kids to this by simply calling their attention to it and doing an exercise saying, “What is your favorite place to be, and what do you love about that place?”
8. Connection we make to the past – This is disappearing from a lot of kids’ lives; they have no sense of the past. They have no sense of where they came from; they just have a sense that they are plopped down in the moment. I see this in kids with ADD all the time. In ADD, there are two times: there is now and there is not now. You say, “You’re having a test Friday, and they say, “Not now.” It’s a special problem in ADD where they really need to be taught a sense of the past, but a sense of the future as well. In all of our lives, if we don’t cultivate that connection to the past, we won’t benefit from it. If we do cultivate it, we will benefit from it; it’s there waiting to be cultivated. How can you do it? I’ll give you an example. I took my kids this past summer to my Dad’s grave – they had never met my Dad, they had never seen his grave. So, I took them. He’s buried in a beautiful cemetery, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, and I brought them to the gravesite and they started crawling all over his grave. I was about to say, “Don’t do that, you’re not supposed to step on graves,” and then I realized that’s as close as they were ever going to get to climb in his lap. So I sort of watched the climbing over his grave thinking, “They’re climbing in my Dad’s lap.” That was a very visceral feeling, for me; it was a very emotional moment. They were connecting to the past in doing that – they were making a connection to my Dad, their Grandfather, and then I took the chance to tell them something about him. I told them some stories and they remember that.
You can help kids connect with the past and it doesn’t have to be reading history books. It can be very gripping “in the moment” kind of experiences. Even a name can connect you to the past. My daughter is named Lucy, but she’s really Lucretia Mott. Lucretia Mott was an abolitionist in the Civil War years and she’s my great, great, great, great, great grandmother, and, so, Lucy is a direct descendent and Lucy is named Lucretia Mott Hallowell. When she first discovered that her name is Lucretia, she was a little bit annoyed, but now, in 4th grade, she tells her friends. One day she came home and one of her friends had heard of Lucretia Mott and didn’t believe she was Lucy’s relative, so she brought in proof and actually became very proud of this. Now she has a connection. She has a children’s book about Lucretia Mott, and it has become part of her identity through this name. All of us have families that have characters in the past that are very worth connecting with.
9. Connection to ideas and information – The world of ideas and information, for children in school, is the stated topic of the undertaking. We think of it often in terms of how much knowledge, ideas and information can we put into them; how much of this can we fold into their systems. I say that’s going at it backwards. We want to help them; we want to invite them to connect to the world of information and ideas, just as my first grade teacher Mrs. Eldridge did by putting her arm around me. The more you foster that connection, the more the child becomes a self-motivated learner. That’s why this notion of teaching as a one-way undertaking misses the point. What the teacher does is facilitate. Learning is necessarily a painful activity because you’re stretching. Learning necessarily creates friction; it creates heat. What the teacher is there to do is to provide the motor oil, the encouragement, the challenge, the structure, the guidance, and, above all, to facilitate the connection and to allow the child to connect. Once the child connects, it’s fun. The problem is, as Priscilla Vail says, these kids are not trying to find an easy way out; they’re looking for the right way in. And once they find the right way in, it’s fun; mastery is fun, learning how to do fractions, once you learn how to do fractions, is fun. What is un-fun is feeling that you’re disconnected from it, that it’s overpowering and intimidating and impossible. So, you want to help these kids connect to the world of information and ideas, and it’s more important now than it’s ever been before. We live in a knowledge-based economy. We live in a world where your ability to connect to the world of information and ideas defines in many ways how successful you’ll be.
10. Connection to institutions and organizations – Today, unfortunately, this kind of connection is also breaking down. In a kind of cynical way people are feeling that they’re not loved or appreciated, and they’re not a member. Remember in that study it said it mattered that the kids felt a part of the school? If you feel a part of the school, if you feel a part of your workplace, you will contribute more. You will take responsibility for what’s going on, you’ll be a good citizen; not because you memorized the Ten Commandments, but because you’ll feel inclined so to do. This is where the connection to institutions and organizations has become so powerful. Thankfully, businesses and schools as well are aware of this now.
11. Connection to what is beyond knowledge – This is so important in children: to connect to whatever is out there, whatever is beyond what we know. Call it the cosmos, call it nature, or call it God – whatever your particular way of framing all of that happens to be. Don’t do with kids and with yourself what a lot of people do. Don’t say, “I can’t answer the questions, so I’m going to ignore them. I won’t think about them until I suddenly need to think about them.” Better to think about them every day, better to exercise that connection every day, even if it’s only as a question. What is out there? Speak to me – what is out there? Why don’t I know? Keep those questions alive in your life and in your children’s lives, and that connection will grow without your even knowing it. The next thing you’ll know, you’ll have a connection to what is beyond. You won’t exactly know what you believe, but you’ll feel supported by that connection. In my own family, we happen to be Episcopal, so the kids have been brought up in that particular tradition. I was coming out of the shower the other day and Tucker, our three-year-old, was in bed with his Mom, and I said, “Isn’t that cute, Tucker and Mom in bed together.” Tucker looked up at me and said, “Oh, no, God’s here, too.” It was just this wonderful statement of a connection to what is beyond; that he doesn’t have to feel alone, no matter what. Kids need that these days, tremendously. I’m not saying you have to teach them one religion or another, I am just saying to try to promote the development of a connection to whatever it is that is beyond knowledge.
12. Connection to self – The connection a child makes to him or herself; the connection you, as a teacher or parent, make to yourself; the connection all of us make to ourselves is a very important connection. We need to understand how we feel about ourselves. Are we okay within ourselves? That doesn’t mean that you have to think you’re the greatest person in the world, but just attend to your connection to yourself. Are you comfortable being who you are, or do you have to hide who you are? A lot of kids we are here to talk about today spend a lot of time hiding who they are, pretending they don’t have the challenges they have. That’s wrong. To give them a healthy connection to themselves, they have to be able to say, “I have what I have.” I go on national television and say I have dyslexia and ADD. Some of my patients say to me, “How do you dare to do that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be ridiculed?” Adult patients ask, “How do you dare do that, aren’t you afraid you won’t get any patients? Nobody will want to come to see you. They’ll think you’re crazy.” What I say is that we’re all challenged, and what we need to do now is break down stigma, break down these kind of silly prideful barriers we put between each other and come clean. We all have stuff that we’re not so good at, we all have stuff we wish we hadn’t done, and we all have stuff that we could hide if we wanted to. Better that we give each other permission not to do that. This begins within. Make the connection to yourself saying, “I am going to accept who I am, and I’m going to be who I am. I’m going to give myself, make myself, a good place to grow. Instead of stuffing into me shame and hiding bad feelings of self-recrimination and bad feelings of not being good enough, instead of pushing that into my soil, I’m going to open up the soil. I’m going to be who I am. I’m going to make myself a good place for me to grow. I’m not going to put any more stuff, toxic stuff, in there to hide my shame. I’m going to be who I am. And the people who like me will like me, and the people who don’t, won’t, and so be it.”
If you can give your kids that kind of an attitude, a powerfully okay connection, not a grandiose connection, but a sense of I’m okay, I’m loved by my parents, by my friends, by my God, by my teacher, by my school – that’s enough. I’m safe and I CAN BE WHO I AM. It’s okay that I can’t do the things that I can’t do, because none of us can do it all. If you can give that message to your kids and practice that message within your school, within your family – you will allow children to become the best they can become. Not just in terms of achievement, but in terms of development of the soul, in terms of being a hero in life, of being who they ought to be.