Erynn Brook’s Mum Taught Her She’s Allowed to Leave

A Twitter thread @ErynnBrook.

“I want to tell you a story about how my mum taught me that I’m allowed to leave an uncomfortable situation.
I was maybe 7, I think it was my first sleepover at someone else’s house. I don’t remember the girl’s name. But before I left Mum told me that if I was uncomfortable at any point, for any reason, even if it was in the middle of the night, I could call her.
She was very clear. She said even if her parents have gone to bed I want you to knock on their bedroom door and ask to use the phone. I could call her even if it was late. And if her parents didn’t answer the door to just go find the phone and call her anyway.
She said it doesn’t matter what time it is, you won’t be in trouble and I’ll come get you.
I think I was being teased about something. It definitely wasn’t just I can’t sleep, there was something social going on. But that’s what I did.
The girl’s mom tried to discourage me. She said it was late, I said my mum didn’t care. She said I could sleep on the couch. I said I wanted to go home. She said I was upsetting her daughter, I said she was mean to me.
I remember holding the phone and my mum answered. I said “hi Mum.” She said “you want me to come get you?” I said “yes please.” She said “ask her Mum to help you pack up your things and get your coat on. I’ll be right there.”
And my mum showed up on her doorstep in pajama pants and a coat. The girl’s mum kept apologizing for me calling, my mum put up a hand and said “don’t apologize for my daughter. I want her to know she’s allowed to leave and I’ll be there for her at any time.”
I remember the little crowd of sleepover girls huddled in the far doorway that led to the bedrooms, watching all of this confused and silent. And I remember that mom apologizing. She didn’t seem to know what to say after my mum asked her to stop.
I had more incidents like that as I grew up. My mum did a lot around boundaries with me. I remember her marching me down the street to another girl’s house to ask for an apology in front of her parents.
I remember her telling 3 friends to sit in the front room with their bags packed while they waited for their parents to come get them, after I had told them all to “get out of my house” for teasing me and bullying me.
I remember her coaching me through a speech on how to resign and leave from a hostile work environment when I was in the middle of nowhere at a camp for the summer, and she offered money to get a cab to pick me and my friends up.
I can’t say I’ve always followed my gut on boundaries and discomfort. I can’t say I’ve never swallowed it in order to make others comfortable. But I can say what she taught me was important. It was and still is radical.
It’s radical to have boundaries. And to exercise them. Three things I think were really really important in what she did:
1. She always explicitly said ‘you can leave if you want to.’
2. She never questioned why, or whether I was overreacting.
3. She showed up.
But I think a lot about the girl’s mum apologizing and how… that’s the norm, actually.
What my mum taught me was radical, what that girl’s mum was teaching was the norm. ‘Just deal with it, don’t trouble anyone, go back to sleep, it’ll be over soon, don’t ruin it.’
And I still get that message from a lot of places. But my mum taught me that I’m allowed to leave.

I see what a privilege that is as an adult. For some people, for some situations, there is no way out. But sometimes, also, we don’t leave because we think we’re not allowed.

So, just in case no one ever told you (or you need a reminder): YOU ARE ALLOWED TO LEAVE.

You can leave a date, a party, a job, a meeting, a commitment. You are allowed. If you’re worried about keeping your word remember that your boundaries are also your word, your integrity.

I wanted to tell this story because the message to stay to make others comfortable is so pervasive, that without actively teaching me that I’m allowed to leave, that’s what I would’ve absorbed.
Hell, I absorbed a lot of it anyway. As an adult, at that camp job, I remember her on the phone saying ‘what do you want to do?’ And not knowing, until she said ‘do you want to leave?’ And I said ‘can I?’ She said ‘You can always leave. What do you need so you can leave?’
So, if you’re a person like me, who was taught that you’re allowed to leave, keep an eye out for those who weren’t. They may need the reminder. They may need to hear that it’s okay. They may need help. And keep telling yourself that you are allowed. You’re allowed to leave. 💜
Wow this is really taking off! Before it goes too far I wanted to say: I’m seeing this being gendered and while I am a woman and my mother is a woman there’s no gender on this message. I understand the impulse to teach your daughters this but please teach all children.
When you know that you are allowed to leave, when you exercise that boundary, the idea that others are allowed to leave also comes up. Boys stay in uncomfortable situations to fit in as well, they also deserve this lesson.
Trans, non binary and gender non conforming folks often shrink themselves for the comfort of those around them. They deserve this lesson too. Everyone is allowed to leave. No one is obliged to be uncomfortable for others’ comfort or enjoyment. 💜”

Friday Assorted Links

1. How we talk to our kids about race, racism and identity. After the discussion, one of the participants communicated an important insight that is often lost on people who do not have much experience with people different than them.

“This experience concretized a familiar truth: black identity is not a monolith. Our experiences and stories are as vivid, varied, and complex as our culture and hues.”

2. Does implicit bias training work?

Researchers suggest:

“When companies get in hot water over bias, their initial reaction is often to do some kind of training because it’s something you can outsource and it’s relatively easy to do and has good optics. The studies that look out six months to a year tend to be equally likely to show increased bias after the training as they are to show decreased bias.”

All is not lost though:

“. . . companies can have better success decreasing bias by making sure their workforces are integrated so that people of different racial groups are regularly in contact with one another. “We know that what works best is for workers to be put side by side with people from other groups and have them work together collaboratively as equals. That seems to be the best way to change stereotypes in people’s heads because it causes people not to lump all members of a group together, but to start to individuate.”

3. Fixing Ethiopia Requires More Than a New Prime Minister.

Hilary Matfess describes the The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s  (EPRDF) political hegemony. It’s a blueprint of sorts for wannabe authoritarians the world over.

Her logical conclusion is disheartening:

“The current unrest in Ethiopia is not a phase that will fade with the pronouncement of a new prime minister, but rather a reflection of a system in which modest reform and dissent have been made nearly impossible. Until the government remedies the marginalization of ethnic groups and ceases to perpetrate gross human rights abuses, it will experience protests, potentially escalating beyond the low levels of violence that have characterized the clashes between Oromo protesters and the government thus far. Putting a new face to the leadership of this system will not be enough to stabilize the country—radical democratizing reforms are necessary. Failing this, the country (and its hand-wringing security partners) can expect continued resistance and instability.”

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.

 

Why are Parents Surveilling Their Young Adult Children?

How much Mario Batali, famous chef, and father of two college age sons, do you have in you? Batali in a national newspaper recently:

I still pay for my son’s phones, so they use the “Find My Friends” app, which allows me to track them no matter where they are. If they turn it off, I give them 15 minutes to turn it back on or I turn off their phones. ’Cause if you’re somewhere you don’t want me to know about, maybe you should pay for your own phone.

It’s amazing to me that Batali is not the least bit self conscious about surveilling his sons, meaning maybe you find my reaction more surprising. But before this phenomenon becomes the new normal, let’s “press pause” and think about it a bit.

Some questions for the Batali’s of the world. Why so little trust in your adult children? Was your parenting that bad? How would you have liked it if your parents had used global positioning satellites to keep track of your every move when a young adult? When a young adult, did you have ample freedom to make some important decisions by yourself, including where to go and when? And did you learn anything important from poor decisions? In the end, were you better off as a result of the pre-gps autonomy you enjoyed?

“But the world is a more dangerous place today,” the Batali’s will say, “then when we grew up.” But social science data strongly suggests otherwise. So rampant parental anxiety about their young adult children’s well-being isn’t rational, it’s emotional, which begs a few more questions for the Batali’s. What is your greatest fear? Is it, as I suspect, that your adult children are going to be physically harmed, maybe even die?

How will your technological tethers prevent random bad things from happening? My guess is, and tell me if I’m wrong, the Batali’s can’t quite accept the fragility of life, theirs, and especially their children’s. If we want to truly safeguard our young adult children, we have to ban them from getting driver’s licenses, not allow them to go away to college, and preclude them from being outdoors in public. In addition, we need to strengthen our technological tethers so that we can detect blood alcohol, THC, and nakedness from long distance.*

Last but not least, a suggestion for the Batali broheims and their watched over peers. Scrape together enough money for your own phones. Tell your parents to take their “Find My Friends” apps and shove them. Lovingly of course. Because life is fragile.

* I hope no one in Silicon Valley reads this.

Wisdom From a Life of Teaching Piano

Behold my favorite teaching essay of recent vintage from the unlikeliest of publications. Thank you Byron Janis for the perfectly timed reminders about what teaching excellence entails. If you teach, coach, or parent, this is a concise treasure trove of insight. He writes:

“To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented ‘self’ can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.”

And when to coach and when not to coach. And when to parent and when not to parent. It’s the very rare teacher, coach, or parent who avoids overpowering their students’, athletes’, or sons’ and daughters’ varied senses of self.

“During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. ‘You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.'”

“. . . talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined.”

Twenty to thirty years ago, schooling in the United States shifted focus to standardization of curriculum, teaching “best practices”, of most everything. Consequently, we don’t foster creativity very well. Not only do the arts suffer, but our culture. Janis’s radical musings point a way forward.

Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.