A Little Happier: An Answer from Childhood Expert Michael Thompson Reminds Me of the Value of Considering a Different Perspective.

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I love the work of Michael Thompson. Michael Thompson is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families who has worked with hundreds of schools.

He’s written many books. My favorite is Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children (Amazon, Bookshop), which is one of the books that I recommend most often to other people, and also Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems (Amazon, Bookshop). But he’s also well known for Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Amazon, Bookshop), The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Achieve Success in School and in Life (Amazon, Bookshop), and Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow (Amazon, Bookshop).

I’ve seen him speak in person a few times, and side note: it turns out that as a child, for a while, he went to the school that my husband Jamie attended—and, I learned, he was kicked out for being too disruptive! He was the class clown.

On his site, he has a section called “Advice,” where he posts questions from parents and writes his answers. Years ago, I happened to read this question-and-answer exchange, and for some reason, I’ve returned to re-read it several times.

I’ll read a lightly edited version of the parents’ question and Thompson’s answer. I’ll note that as you’ll see from this exchange, they’re discussing applying to college in a context where most children do apply to college, and of course, that’s not the case everywhere:

Question: Our senior in high school shows no interest in moving on, applying to college, or even getting a job. We have made it clear that no plans for further education means he is making a choice to get a job and support himself without the benefits of a college degree. No value judgment added there. In theory this should be fine but it seems to be leading nowhere and soon to booting him out, and conflict that doesn’t seem healthy either. He has been tested at an extremely high IQ…and has always had a challenging education. Why is it so hard for boys today to "launch"?

Take a moment to reflect on that question. What might you say to those parents? I thought about that, myself.

From their question, we get a sense of the parents and their perspective on the situation. They see their son’s behavior as part of a society-wide issue of “failure to launch” and ask why that might be. They see themselves, it seems to me, as parents who have high expectations that their son will be a productive member of society, but pride themselves on the fact that they’re willing to let him make his own choices. But what they don’t want to see is this floundering, aimless behavior.

So that’s their perspective on their son’s behavior and on the issues involved, and they ask the question that seem important to them. What has been unforgettable to me is how Michael Thompson asks different questions, and sees an entirely different set of issues at play.

Answer: I’ll have to ask you a lot of questions…to figure out what’s going on with your son. You describe him as a senior in high school. I presume that this would be the spring of his senior year, yet he hasn’t yet applied to college. Did he not have a college counselor? Did he ignore her? Did he willfully refuse to apply to college when all his classmates were filling out their forms? If so, that’s unusual and makes me wonder whether he is depressed. Usually, seniors apply to college even when they are uncertain about what they want to do simply because all their classmates are doing it. The peer pressure for going to college is pretty strong and hard to resist.

Is your son tired, irritable, abrasive, or full of despair? Does he express feelings of futility or worthlessness?...Do you having trouble communicating? If so, you might need to see a family therapist to sort out some issues before he can go off into the world.

Sometimes very gifted students…are completely bored by school. You haven’t told me whether your son has been a good student…He may have experienced himself as being smarter than most of his classmates and many of his teachers. Perhaps he doesn’t look forward to college because school has been a huge disappointment to him.

I have other questions. Is he in love and afraid to leave a girlfriend? Has he been an anxious boy? Has he ever spent much time away from home? Does he like to travel? If not, do you think he is afraid of being homesick?

I want to ask questions about his friendships, whether he has trusting relationships with adults outside the family, whether there are tensions at home, like an impending divorce, that might cause him to want to stay home to keep an eye on things. All I can say in conclusion is that it doesn’t sound to me as if your son is simply having trouble launching. There is something going on in his mind, and it is serious.

I find this question-and-answer exchange sobering, and humbling. It reminds me of how easy it is to get locked into a single perspective and not see bigger issues, and questions, that are outside the frame through which I’m viewing a situation.

Sometimes a situation may seem to present one challenge, but it’s actually something very different from what I assume.

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