Rita, 14, had struggled with depressive feelings, eating issues, self-doubt, self-cutting and insecurity around her friends. On a Monday morning she walks into her middle school, excited to wear her brand new, bright pink shoes. When the first girlfriend she meets says, "Ouch, those are the ugliest shoes I've ever seen," Rita calmly replies: "Well, I'm the one wearing them, so don't worry about it," and walks away maintaining her calm, coolness, and love of her shoes. How did this teenager go from being painfully insecure to so self-confident? Rita has experienced the power of Skill-Boosting Conversations (SBC), conversations that have deliberately increased her social and emotional skills using the latest scientific findings on the brain.
The last decade has seen an explosion of research in three fields: neuroscience, mindfulness, and positive psychology (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). We now know twice as much about the brain as we did twenty years ago because of the advent of revolutionary technologies such as MRI and fMRI, which allow us to see what's happening in people's brains. Scientists have made groundbreaking discoveries regarding the brain's ability to rewire (neuroplasticity) by demonstrating that training people to be fully aware of the present moment (mindfulness) can significantly change physiological structures of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, amygdala, and frontal lobes. What this means is that we can, literally, train our own and our children's brain to respond differently to life. These discoveries have led to a fantastic amount of writing on the biological correlates of emotions, memory, self-reflection, attachment and social interactions which have been integrated in the remarkable new science of interpersonal neurobiology (Siegel, 1999, 2007). At the same time, inspired by prominent psychologists such as White (1986, 2007), De Shazer (1991) and Seligman (2002), the field of psychology has finally shifted its century-old fascination with problems to an exploration of health, optimism, competency, and well-being.
Professionals in different fields have been grappling with the implications of these findings for parents, educators, and therapists. While some ideas have been put forth about how to enhance positive emotions, no one has yet proposed a conversational method applicable for parents, educators and therapists. The Skill-ionaire in Every Child offers a transformative conversational model I call "Skill-Boosting Conversations" (SBC), which draws directly on these exciting findings. The SBC approach was designed specifically to give parents, educators, and therapists, new tools for fostering a deep and lasting optimism, reflection, self-worth, empathy, and compassion in young people's lives. Far more than a new gimmick, the SBC approach actually rewires the brain.
The SBC approach is unique in several key aspects. Most current interventions, especially by parents and educators, involve a top-down process: adults teach young people what they should do. However this top-down approach has shown itself to be fraught with many problems, including children's difficulty remembering what to do at critical times; its over-generalized, one-size-fits-all approach; and the fact that kids often find it just plain boring. SBC do exactly the opposite: they build on children's own successes, which are thoroughly and collaboratively examined; they are tailored to suit everyone's unique life experiences; and they keep children interested by deliberately focusing on what has worked successfully for them thus far, as opposed to dwelling on problems. Such powerful combination allows for the most complex level of neural encoding (or wiring into the brain) known to be possible.
Young people make decisions and deal with social or emotional dilemmas all the time. Ironically, perhaps, the more successful their responses, the more invisible these are to observers, who are more likely to notice problems or behavioral issues. Often without being aware of it, young people regularly generate incredibly clever ideas during the process of responding to tricky situations, whether they resolve the problem entirely, partially, or not at all. The SBC map focuses on these child-generated strategies by: 1. extracting the ingredients of successfully solved problems; 2. bringing young people's awareness to the existence of their strategies; 3. building on the implications of their successes, and 4. integrating the newly noticed skills into a "skill-ionaire identity", i.e. a sense of having a wealth of skills.
The Skill-ionaire in Every Child brings to light the natural genius of young people at coping and thriving through adversities, and gives adults tools for strengthening these natural talents, whether their kids are struggling with anger, conflicts, insecurities, fears, anxiety, trauma, social problems, body image or peer pressure. With its clear and practical approach, and its roots deep in the neuroscience of happiness, it offers the possibility of helping our kids move forward through life with confidence, competence, and compassion.
This book is written for adults wishing to make a difference in children's and adolescents' lives. It is my hope that parents, educators, and therapists will all find something that will be useful in their relationship with a young person.
For parents: SBC offer tools for consciously fostering children's self-confidence and self-competence. It allows them to ever so gently maximize the blooming of their child's potential while respecting their developmental readiness. Even four-year-olds can develop some competency in dealing with nightmares, or avoiding tricky moments of sibling rivalry. Recent advances in neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology have demonstrated that the small child's brain waits for experiences to determine how neural connections will be made. Parents who engage in brief SBC with their young children provide them with positive experiences of themselves as capable, and therefore establish a stronger foundation for self-worth.
SBC provide parents of elementary-age children, with a powerful method of supporting the fireworks of their emerging abilities on many levels: emotional, physical, social, and intellectual. The brains of elementary school-age children are bustling with activity as they are rapidly increasing their information-processing, associative thinking, and reasoning capacities.
Since cognitive stimulation makes a critical difference in brain development, parents who can help their children organize their thoughts and notice how they best control their impulses are laying helpful neural foundations for life.
Parents of adolescents will find that SBC enable their teenagers to be articulate and confident about the kind of people they prefer to be, and better able to deal with peer pressure, bullying, and the common social dramas of their group. Teens raised with SBC will more readily think about consequences before they act, exercise better judgment about their safety, and use their newly developed abstract thinking and deductive skills in proactive ways.
Teenagers who have been consciously and consistently encouraged to a keen awareness of their skills are also less vulnerable to the mood swings, episodes of self-doubt, high-risk behaviors, and eating issues that plague so many.
Finally SBC provide parents of teenagers a style of talking that encourages the sharing of personal information, and creates a general home environment of trust and collaboration. This may sound too good to be true, given our predominant cultural assumption that rebellion and acting out are part of the teenage experience. Prepare to be surprised!
In sum, SBC allow parents to foster their children's mental development and experience rich, satisfying, and deeply intimate conversations with them.
For teachers: Teachers, principals, and educators, who have to cover a vast curriculum with a large group of youth while nurturing and helping each individual reach his/her potential, can easily become discouraged when relational or behavioral problems develop in their classrooms. Instead of trying to help teachers reduce problems, which can lead to further frustration, The Skill-ionaire in Every Child encourages the development of anti-problem skills. A teenager is far less likely to develop a bullying habit, for example, if the skills of empathy and compassion have been ingrained.
One of the advantages of the SBC approach is that it can be used with all students to foster sustained growth, whatever their developmental stage. For example, SBC can be used effectively in a classroom where a few students are starting to be disliked by their peers and maybe even falling into disrespectful behaviors. The SBC approach will make visible those times when these very students, as well as their classmates, refrain from mistreating others. Using real successes, each person can be invited into articulating all the reasons why they don't want to be hurtful, how they resist the temptation, what they tell themselves to contain their frustration and what they like about the outcome of their choice.
Such conversations can have many powerful effects. They make visible good intentions and efforts, which lead to an enhanced group appreciation; they actively expose all students to a number of youth-generated anger management ideas; they get students to know each other more intimately; and they provide the teacher an opportunity to model valuable, caring conversational skills.
For helping professionals: This book offers a conversational map which can assist therapists who meet weekly with young people, or counselors, nurses and tutors who may have a limited amount of interactions with a child. The beauty of SBC is that, at times, one conversation alone can leave behind glittering sparkles of competency in a young person's life. Experienced on a regular basis SBC have cumulative effects on the young person's sense of self-worth and confidence in many areas of life.
Therapists new to the field will appreciate having such an effective and respectful map which often leads to meaningful changes. Experienced practitioners will value the new skilled-based conversational possibilities presented by the book.
In sum, parents, teachers and helping professionals interested in supporting kids develop confidence, competence, and compassion, can enrich children's lives through Skill-Boosting Conversations (SBC). Discovering The Skill-ionaire in Every Child is life-transforming!
The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 invites readers to imagine how they would respond to the unexpected events in the lives of three different young people. Readers' typical responses are examined in terms of their intentions (usually well-meaning) and actual effects (often inadvertently negative). Some of the latest neuroscience findings on optimal learning context are then explained with their implications for alternative responses to problem situations. The concept of Skill-Boosting Conversations (SBC) is also introduced, with plenty of examples of real-life dialogues.
In chapter 2, I review the positive repercussions of SBC on four aspects of young people's development and relationships: 1. experience of conversations about a particular event (emotions and brain research involved, who's in the position of knowing, etc.); 2. sense of self (self-worth, self-confidence, logical thinking, responsibility and response-ability); 3. attitude towards others (empathy, awareness of others' intentions and goals, awareness of context, helpfulness); and 4. relationships with adults (power, intimacy, appreciation, and trust).
In chapter 3, six different types of responses to problems are presented. I explain how to extract the thinking strategies involved in the three problems that were successfully solved and look at the partially helpful ideas generated in the three unsolved problem scenarios. Different methods to engage in SBC for each of these situations are provided with examples and lively transcripts of conversations.
Chapter 4 discusses the existence of unnoticed treasures. Successes occur all the time, but it is simply impossible for any observer to see all of another person's successes, youth or adult, because we do not see the thinking inside their brain and do not oversee all of their activities. Getting young people to identify and share successes, especially those which occurred in our absence, can be very fruitful and exciting for parents, educators, and therapists. It is like searching a starry sky for a special galaxy or digging the earth for a precious treasure. You know there's probably something there, but the trick is to find it. Discovering unnoticed successes can be particularly difficult because they are encoded with a neutral or slightly positive emotion, which makes them less discernible.
Discovering these treasures requires artful questioning because young people forget and sometimes do not recognize a success as a success. Information gleaned from neuroscience and studies of memory are particularly useful for helping us extract forgotten or unnoticed successes. In this chapter, I point to some of the most useful data and current brain research on reactivating experiences that are embedded in neutral emotions. Examples of different conversations adults have had with children are used to illustrate the process. The chapter ends with an organized map to guide readers' explorations of successes.
In chapter 5, each small detail of information about an event is discussed as being like a building block, like an "experiential lego". You can leave experiential blocks scattered on the "floor of the mind", use them to build a cage by focusing on the problematic aspects of the event, or use them to progressively build a museum of valuable treasures. In this chapter, readers are offered concrete practices that allow them to use "experiential legos" to enhance young people's emotional and social intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is enriched when young people are invited to notice that they are capable of solving problems, while social intelligence requires consideration of a more complex set of factors. The particular factors examined in the SBC of this chapter are: initial thinking, the dual consideration of self and others, and the resulting implications. The metaphor of an airplane flying over a conflict rather than plunging into it, is used to illustrate these concepts. The goal is to associate a detailed awareness of the helpful thoughts and actions with an awareness of the multiple positive ramifications. This chapter is especially full of information on how to facilitate these conversations respectfully and what to avoid. The entertaining story of a very athletic teenager being required to attend a lengthy poetry reading with his mother and sister provides an example of the conversational process extracting the social and emotional skills used. Once identified, these skills become more meaningful and usable for this young man.
Chapter 6 is the living heart of the book. It describes how to move a young person from having a collection of various skills to becoming a calm, confident, optimistic, and compassionate person. These characteristics are developed by the repetitive focus on particular aspects of successful problem solving. Specifically, young people progressively become trained to: 1. be aware of and detached from their own thinking ("meta-awareness"); and 2. develop a broader perspective of themselves, the situation, and other people ("invisibles").
Young people are trained to develop meta-awareness by becoming increasingly aware of the complex and contradictory thoughts that cross their minds in difficult situations. While discussing successes, they are encouraged to recognize how experience is usually multifaceted, and learn to identify the contradictory ideas that simultaneously exist in their minds. These contradictions are metaphorically discussed as arising from different parts of their brain, for example one which helps you stay patient, while another gets you to react with annoyance.
As the awareness of their thought process increases, so does their sense of competency and the recognition that they have choices when faced with a tricky situation. If a young person becomes aware of a preference for calm, for example, she will discover that she can search for her "calm part" when responding to events. In other words, the awareness allows her to activate her own brain's firing for calm.
Readers are then introduced to the idea of "invisibles", those important contextual factors that influence people's behaviors, often without their notice. Someone's "invisibles" may include being hungry, having a bad day, being worried about a karate test, being sick, having forgotten their lunch, etc... They include all the personal experiences that may inadvertently render a person more impatient or more prone to being unpleasant. Recognizing the presence of "invisibles" increases young people's ability to experience empathy and compassion. For example, it is difficult to get upset at a peer's impatience when you know his beloved dog passed away yesterday.
The process of acknowledging "invisibles" is powerful because there are always more solutions to problems in a big picture understanding than in the narrow view of an event. The process of acknowledging "invisibles" is also powerful because it reduces the roller coaster of emotions and allows for a compassionate understanding of the needs of oneself and others. When young people see more of the problem in the context, they see more of the peer in the person.
In spite of their self-centeredness and developing brains, even young children can be empowered to develop meta-awareness and consider invisibles. What makes this possible is the fact that these conversations "bathe" the child in successes and positive emotions. Children eventually become who they practice to be, and the SBC method creates opportunities for reviewing and practicing their very best and skilled ways of being.
In chapter 7, I review the benefits of helping young people become competent, self-confident, calm, optimistic, and compassionate. This includes a number of health advantages, enhanced happiness, academic performance, satisfying relationships, and others. All young people can feel like skill-ionaires when regularly invited into an awareness of their own social and emotional intelligence.
Chapter 8 discusses the use of SBC when young people are struggling with a socio-emotional problem. Special considerations must be taken into account before engaging in SBC. Additional ways of engaging in helpful conversations are discussed and illustrated with a number of examples.
Finally the book concludes with a review of the SBC method and the end of Rita's story.
Three Basic Beliefs about Skills
Late afternoon, nine-year-old Mike and his friend were playing by the river while their parents set up the campsite. After a few moments the parents realized that the boys were gone! Apparently they had decided to go either up or downstream without asking or informing anyone. Their parents felt this was unsafe and were upset by their lack of consideration. After an hour and a half of worry, the boys returned, unaware of the distress they had caused.
In a 3rd grade class, students were supposed to write a comment on each other's planet project poster board. Sam refused to write any comment on the board of his well-known class enemy.
Shelly, 14, ran away for three days, the longest she'd ever done this. Everyone was worried about her safety and where she could possibly be. When she finally came back, everybody was very angry. Her parents took many privileges away and the school decided this was the last straw. She wouldn't be allowed to walk at graduation.
Immediately after hearing each of these true stories, most adults have some ideas about what they would like to say to the youth involved. It is assumed that if a young person engages in what is perceived as a problem-behavior, then he or she probably needs to learn something. Adults--whether parents, educators, or counselors--further assume that it is our job to teach the young person to think or behave differently than she or he does. We want to do our job, as responsible adults, of "coaching," "raising," "educating," "protecting," or "fostering the growth" of those under our care.
In fact, the more we care, the more we want young people to learn to think and act differently in the face of problems. We become compelled to make visible objectionable behaviors and what should have been done differently. While counselors may attempt to accomplish this goal by discussing the problem in depth, parents and educators tend to give some kind of consequence, such as the removal of a privilege, hoping that a little suffering will enhance learning.
Regardless of our varied roles, the ultimate goal behind most adults' responses is to teach young people to:
- Think about the effects of their choice next time
- Grow by examining their mistakes
- Develop skills to make better choices.
In many of these problem situations, adults' typical questions, talks, or consequences do not have the intended effects. Counselors' talking and asking questions about a problem may create a context where the young person shuts down, answers with a lot of "I don't know," or becomes defensive. Parents' and educators' consequence giving may lead to a build-up of resentment. Consequences that make sense to the young person and are given only occasionally, without damaging the adult-youth relationship, can be effective in fostering learning sometimes. Research shows, however, that consequences and punishments, especially the big ones, most often lead to resentment, hatred and a perception that adults are mean (Kohn, 1999).
During timeouts, young people aren't in their rooms thinking about what they could have done better. They are usually brooding resentment and anger.
In effect, our attempts at correcting the problem can end up inadvertently worsening it instead, since our disapproving reaction to the questionable behavior may engender defensiveness, which in turn may lead to an argument potentially damaging the actual relationship.
Advances in neuroscience also clearly demonstrate that the higher cortical functions required for complex learning shut down when an individual is experiencing defensiveness, fear or anger (Siegel, 1999; Bluestein, 2008). This means that we fail over and over again at associating a problem behavior with reflection, understanding, and more appropriate responses. The young person's memory does not associate the behavior with the lesson. Such a deduction would involve the logic-oriented frontal cortex. Instead the more primitive limbic system is engaged and the adult becomes labeled as a cause of emotional discomfort.
Is there a more brain-compatible way of accomplishing the intended effect of cultivating socio-emotional skills?
Advances in neuroscience have demonstrated consistently (Damasio, 1994; LeDoux, 1996; Sousa, 2001) that the optimal learning environment is one where three experiences occur simultaneously:
- A positive emotion
- Exposure to personally relevant information
- Interest, excitement, or curiosity
In other words, the brain encodes its most complex and lasting knowledge when people experience a pleasant feeling coupled with a discussion of something that is both meaningful and gratifying. This is described by Daniel Siegel (2009, p.16):
"The experiences we provide as teachers--or as parents or therapists--focus students' (children's or patients') attention, activate their brain, and create the possibility of harnessing neural plasticity in those specific areas. Coupled with emotional engagement, a sense of novelty and optimal attentional arousal, teaching with reflection can utilize these prime conditions for building new connections in the brain."
Is it possible to help young people think better and talk about their mistakes in a way that would elicit such excitement, meaning, and interest? Is it possible to have a conversation about problems where the young person would not become defensive or shut down but rather engaged and interested in what adults have to say? Is it possible to have conversations in which young people are encouraged to cultivate social and emotional skills, they would be comfortable with and confident using when faced with problems again?
Skill Boosting Conversations (SBC) offer a method of investigating situations that elicit all three of the brain's optimal learning components. The very process of SBC reactivates neural connections of the areas associated with successful problem solving, in a way that can transform a possibly random and temporary state, into a long-term trait of the young person. Uncovering young people's very own productive thinking automatically provides them with experiences of competency, excitement, and interest.
Allow me to illustrate this process with the stories introduced above. While all of the problems described were of concern to caring adults, they were all, ironically, incredible stories of successes at thinking and problem solving. This thinking and solving occurred in a blurry, improvised way that was not fully articulated by the young people involved. The thinking was very brittle and was likely to be buried and forgotten under the weight of any anger or resentment generated by interactions with adults. Yet this reasoning was a treasure worth digging for, in the name of cultivating thinking skills. Let's look at how we might use Skill Boosting Conversations (SBC) in these situations and then discuss the three principles guiding the process.
1. A problem doesn't mean a lack of skills
Adults often think, that if a child makes a mistake, or has a problem, it implies a deficit in their thinking or their skills. Is that really true? If you find yourself being impatient at someone, is it because you do not know how to be patient? Problems with young people do not necessarily mean that they are lacking a skill or need our teaching. As the mother of Mike in story #1, I was tempted to lecture the boys about all the possible dangers of drowning in the deeper parts of the river, getting lost, the late time of the day, and not warning any adult of their departure. Instead I took a deep breath and engaged in the following conversation with my son:
MN: Mike, what do you think about you two going away like that?
Mike: It wasn't a good idea...
MN: What makes you think it wasn't a good idea?
Mike: Well, we hadn't told anyone where we were, and we hadn't really planned to go that far, but we really went too far. We were just looking for crawdads. We first went downriver and since it was really deep we decided it would be safer to turn around and go the other way where the water was only knee deep. So we came back and then went the other way a little. But then we tried catching some fish that were swimming away and that took us further.
MN: How did you decide to come back in the end?
Mike: Well, I could tell the light in the sky was changing and my feet were cold and it had been a long time since we were gone. I really wanted to turn around.
MN: Did Lance understand that?
Mike: Yes, but he wanted to come back by a trail in the forest. We had a discussion. I was afraid we would get lost. I, for sure, was coming back the way we came because I knew for sure it would take us to the campsite.
MN: So you thought that you could have gotten lost coming back a different way? What did you think about specifically?
Mike (thinking and getting increasingly emotional): Well, it was late...we really didn't have much time to try different ways, and if we had gotten lost in the forest we had no water, no food, there were coyotes ... and bears ...and ... mountain lions maybe...and you wouldn't know where to look for us! It would have been really scary. Wow, I'm so glad I insisted on coming back the river way.
MN: Getting lost would have been scary! So you were able to think about the time of day, the dangers with wild animals, the lack of supplies, and the fact we wouldn't be able to find you?
Mike: Yeah! I also thought it would be safer for us to stay together so I convinced him to come my way.
MN: So you also thought of the importance of staying together?
Mike: Yeah...then we can help each other out if something happens.
MN: You thought of a lot of things! But you know we were also worried...Might you want to explore the river differently next time?
Mike: Oh yeah! ... I'd really prefer if a grown-up came with us. I was nervous. I don't want to do that again.
After this conversation, Mike most likely did a bit more thinking on his own. If instead I had peppered him with questions about the multiple facets of the problem, or delivered a lecture or punishment, that would likely have hijacked his attention towards either the consequence itself or the anger he would have experienced. The problem solving, which he actually did engage in, would have been stampeded not strengthened.
By the time the conversation was completed, Mike had thought about all the items of concern to adults and much more! I was left impressed and appreciative of his thinking. He was left feeling more determined not to do this again, proud of his problem-solving abilities, and most importantly, on the same team with his parents about his safety.
2. Important efforts and skills are often hidden: Examine the problem-solving process not just the outcome
There is so much we don't know about what happens in a young person's mind. Most of the time parents, counselors, and educators' inferences about children's thinking are biased by our own view of the world as adults, and consequently our solutions to problems do not match the intricacies of the young person's life. Asking gentle questions from a place of kind curiosity and interest will reveal fascinating information and complex thinking that is completely unpredictable (White, 2007). Respectful questions may even reveal that, what looked like a problem to the observing adult, was actually a successful attempt at avoiding a bigger issue.
In story #2, the third-grade student had been participating in a SBC classroom project and had gained some experience in noticing and articulating his successes.
Sam (coming to me): MN, I think I maybe had a success today but I'm not sure.
MN (interested): Really, tell me about it.
Sam: I'm so angry Eva wrote a mean comment about my planet project.
MN: What did she write?
Sam (resentful): She wrote "Whaaaat??" like she thought it was a crappy project.
MN: So you took that as a criticism?
Sam: Yeah, she hates me, everyone knows we're enemies.
MN: So what did you do?
Sam: I asked her why she wrote that, but she just shrugged and walked away.
MN: She shrugged and walked away? Was that upsetting?
Sam: Yeah, I thought of saying something mean but I didn't.
MN (curious): You didn't say anything mean?
Sam: No, and then I thought of writing something really, really mean on her project...but I didn't want to do that...
MN: You didn't want to do that? What kept you from doing that?
Sam (thinking): I don't know....Euh...I guess I didn't want to do that, because then I'd be just like her. I thought it would be more mature to not do that.
MN: So you thought it would be more mature. What did you do to avoid writing a mean comment?
Sam: I tried to stay away from her project and do all the other ones, slowly, hoping I would not have time to comment on hers. And it worked, I didn't have time for hers'!
MN: You stayed away and it worked! Was that hard to stay away from her project?
Sam: Oh yeah...
MN: Was there anything that you were thinking that helped you stay away from her project?
Sam: I'm not sure...
MN: What may have been going around in your mind while you stayed away from her project?
Sam (thinking): I thought everyone would think that I'm the one who's mean and then I might get in trouble. I didn't want that.
MN: You thought of what would happen after, like the consequences sort of?
Sam (slowly): Yeah, I thought I would be the strongest if I didn't write anything mean and not writing at all seemed like the lowest mean I could do.
MN: So if you actually had to write something it would have been hard to resist the temptation to write a mean comment while not writing at all was the safest way to stay at the lowest mean possible?
Sam (smiling): Yeah!
MN: How do you call that part of you that helped you think of the lowest mean strategy and the consequences?
Sam (proud): The mature part of me! I think I like to be mature!
No observing adult could have guessed this behavior represented a success rather than a problem! Sadly, in many schools, a refusal like Sam's would have lead to conflicts with the teacher. Fortunately for this student, the teacher was flexible, which made it safe for him to experiment with creative problem solving. Under the appearance of a problem, Sam's refusal to evaluate his peer was in reality an extraordinary success. Only gentle questions and an openness to hearing young people's experiences could make that visible and a trampoline for growth such as acknowledging that one can be, and likes to be, mature.
3. Broadening our scope from a problem to a skill focus: Meaningful learning can occur in the absence of problem talk
Problem behaviors can be so big and serious that they often blind adults to everything else. This was the case with Shelly's situation. Certainly the habit of running away when there was a conflict at home was serious and needed to be addressed. Tackling it head on however was not a wise idea. It is often preferable to start with a skill boosting conversation and then later, if needed, gently attempt to make strides about the problem. In this story, as in many others, the visible behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. The most important part of the solution is hidden and can only be revealed through respectful conversation.
Shelly: Everyone is so mean, I shouldn't have come back.
MN: What made you decide to come back?
Shelly: I didn't want to live like a runaway anymore.
MN: You didn't want to live like that anymore? How would you like to live?
Shelly: I'd like to have a real job, make money and have more freedom... not just run all the time.
MN: So you'd like to have a job, make money and have freedom. Do you have a specific dream?
Shelly: Yeah...I'd like to be a cook.
MN: To be a cook?
Shelly: Yeah, I've always liked to cook and I'm good at it too!
MN: Where did you learn to cook?
Shelly: My grandma used to cook with me before she died.
MN: What would your grandma say, if she could, about your dream of being a cook?
Shelly (smiling): She'd be real' pleased!
MN: Would she be pleased if you stopped running away too?
Shelly: Yeah, she'd want me to get my act together.
MN: Did thinking of your grandma also help you come back?
Shelly: Not really but now I think it would.
MN: What difference would it make?
Shelly: It would help me hang in there through the tough times ‘cause she was tough.
MN: So your grandma was tough. Did you have to be tough too to come back?
Shelly: Yeah, I knew everyone would be mad and I really hesitated. I could have gone somewhere really cool with some friends but in the end I decided not to...
MN: Was there anything other than your dream of being a cook and having a real job and freedom that helped you come back?
Shelly: Yeah, I thought of my little brother and how hard it would be on him if I didn't come back for good.
MN: So thinking of your little brother...do you care about him?
Shelly: Yeah...I do...and things are pretty hard for him too...
MN: Are there things you can teach him about being tough, having dreams and making life better for himself? (nods) How does one go about being tough?
The conversation goes on about her little brother, grandma, parents, her dream for herself and the other reasons she came back . The point of this example however is that the reasons she returned were much more important to emphasize than giving her consequences even though the problem was serious. While the adults involved were well intended, wanted her to learn and never run away anymore, their actions had just the opposite effect of making her doubt the decision of coming back. Our SB conversation strengthened, and further enriched, her desire to stop running away, left her with a positive feeling of competency, connection to her family and a sense that ...coming back was not such a bad decision after all!
Questions and answers
Question. Isn't focusing on successes and being appreciative of children's efforts, similar to praise and reinforcement?
Answer. I can see how they might seem similar, but there are major differences that will become more and more apparent as you read the book. In a nutshell, when you're praising:
- The adult takes most of the airtime emotionally and verbally
- The child is listening passively
- The content of the conversation is something that pleases the adult
In SBC, it is exactly the opposite:
- The adult refrains from being overly expressive and only asks gentle questions
- The young person is active: the brain is much more involved when one is thinking and answering questions
- The content of the conversation is something the youth is pleased with and interested in sharing
Question. Do Skill Boosting Conversations really make a significant difference?
Answer. Yes! SBC have many desirable effects, which we will begin to examine in the next chapter. A variety of SBC are also possible depending on the goal. It can take some time to figure out what questions to ask, and as you probably noticed in the above dialogues, I chose questions that were particularly relevant to their stories. In story #1, I extracted the child's ability to think of risks and solve problems. In story #2, I emphasized the child's success at thinking about consequences and the kind of person he wanted to be; and in story #3, I reconnected the teenager to a preferred identity which included her future dreams for herself and a sense of connection to family members.
The variety of possible SBC will be explained in more depth in chapters 3 and 4. For now, the complex ramifications of SBC will be discussed, so that you can become fully informed of what you are getting into.