A Different Carrot: Cultivating agency in the age of abundance

  • 2021
  • Community
  • Leadership
J. Christine Greenberg, Primary Principal
Thoughts on the choices our children make at the table and in life

One of the first ways we express autonomy and assert control is over what we eat. You can tell that two or 12-year old how you expect them to behave and some of the time it’ll take (especially if ice cream, screen time or an allowance is involved), but getting them to eat what you want is for many parents, our Waterloo. The troops retreat marginally within our linesight only to rally back with guerilla tactics at a friend’s house, 7-11 or in their first dorm room or flat. 

My oldest son once had a friend who wanted a play date every Monday. His mother was slightly embarrassed and mystified, but we knew why. At nine years old, he’d memorised our family schedule. If he showed up early in the week, there’d be left-over cupcakes or cookies from the Saturday bake-a-thon and the snack cupboard would be fully stocked from the Sunday family grocery outing. Come Monday afternoon, he’d barrel through whoever answered the door and make a beeline for the cupboard or cake stand. I found it endearing because my grandmother instilled in me the joy of feeding people but I have to admit, it wasn’t long before I began revisiting my own values as a parent about sugar. Maybe his family was right to ban sugar in their household. By having it in my cupboard I was its accomplice, developing my family’s taste for it, pairing it with bonding moments like birthdays and baking weekends. But then...by banning its existence, I might unwittingly be fanning the embers of a future rebellion. I had visions of our Monday visitor’s future dorm room once he was on his own, knowing it would be filled with crumbs rather than kale. Neither choice was friction-less, so which problems did I want to take on? In the end, I decided to keep sugar and baking as part of our household. We enjoyed it and I decided it worked better for us and it made more sense for me to make other choices in life (like working out or forgoing other carbs) to make up for the fact that I like dessert.

Choices and the way we make them are a funny thing. One would assume that choice-making, a condition which can only exist when there is more than one outcome, would be easier with even more alternatives. Instead, research suggests that more isn’t always better. Not only is there a threshold on the number of options for optimal decision-making, but more choices can actually have detrimental effects: choice-paralysis and lower satisfaction about the choice you do finally make, even if it’s a good one. That last bit resonated with me deeply. Parenting and schooling in an age of abundance, we would be absolutely remiss not modeling, teaching and celebrating choice-making, but what was it all for if our children didn’t even feel good about the choices they make simply because they were born during a time with too many choices, something that couldn’t be helped?

Or could it? When parameters for food, entertainment and clothing exceed optimal breadth, what should we consider in helping kids to begin to be discerning about their goal posts, especially as their prefrontal cortexes (the part of the brain that regulates impulse) haven’t yet matured? Raising kids to be “click and consume” savvy, given the whole spectrum of options on everything from ice cream to ethics at the touch of a button, we’ve been exploring ways to create that foundation for not only making the right decisions, but enjoying the good feeling that comes from owning your decisions, rather than being overwhelmed by them.

Come to terms with who you are, is a start. When you have a community that values diversity, it’s committed to creating pathways with equal representation of strengths and areas to develop. Teachers, students and colleagues have matter of fact conversations about neurodiversity which provide the foundation for realistic self-assessment, a prerequisite for effective goal-setting. Seth Godin candidly discusses the nuanced reality of having ADHD, including a susceptibility to novelty and distractions, which compelled him early on to set self-imposed blinders whenever “trivial” options like car, clothing or meal selection are on the table. He speaks about needing to “develop the willpower to wall off certain areas of choice” and cites his decision to be vegetarian since the 1980s as helping him not only to focus his attention and efforts more fruitfully, but in developing the satisfaction of mapping out the resilience required to stick to his decision too: “And I have no yearnings, cravings whatsoever. I'm just done. And by walling off areas of what I do and don't do and how I do it, I've narrowed the frame of the decisions that I need to consider. And then within that frame, I try to use this math of how do I build resilience into the process, how do I see the dip that lies ahead with any given path?” When we stigmatise a section of the ability spectrum, we create the conditions for others to deny how they need to tweak what they have to work with. In other words, to teach kids (and teachers!) to unlock their own bests, we need to cultivate an environment that helps them to accept and be confident in who they are and leverage their strengths to make decisions to optimize what they need.

Be ruthlessly disciplined about your essentials/non-essentials, is another. It’s not a coincidence that in this age of abundance, the Marie Kondo Method has gone from niche to Netflix. We even have political icons and scions of industry who’ve opted for the most stringent limits on their non-essentials when in fact their options veer towards limitless- Barack Obama (dark suit), Mark Zuckerberg (gray t-shirt) and Steve Jobs (black turtleneck) at one point or another had access to the world’s most renowned designers yet imposed uniforms for their daily wear because taking a strict stand on what they viewed was less-essential helped them to focus on the essential. Eliud Kipchoge takes this in the other direction by being ruthless about his essentials. He makes a simple training rule: Run every day, no matter what. It’s certainly not a rule everyone can live by, but he’s legendary amongst elite runners for running while ill, in inclement weather or despite a family emergency. In all examples, determining your essentials and sticking to it develops agency, discipline and resilience in the process.

We’ll be working on this idea of “sticktoitiveness” through some of our homeroom TIDE prompts by having students commit to their own thoughts on essentials/non-essentials for a period of time. Whether it’s something as simple as wear only black shoes, or spend five minutes being mindful every day, we hope it will be an introspective process that students can reflect on when they evaluate their own changes and choices and determine what they learned about themselves in the process.

And finally, act for the future you want. Our children are growing up inundated with information on climate change and ailing ecosystems, which can feel incredibly daunting at times. We assume that hope is often a prerequisite for action but what we don’t always realise is that action actually cultivates hope. We’ve always encouraged social impact at our school and it is ingrained in our values, but this year, we’re taking it a step further with our new Social Impact and Sustainability Projects which had its humble beginnings from Project Hope, our little volunteer group of students and teachers who did what they could just to be helpful to others. 

One initiative we’re launching this year is especially close to my heart because it’s about food, which I love, and also because it allows kids to exercise their agency as consumers. I also love it because one of our fifth graders mentioned it at her Global Issues Conference last year and as the goodwill of great ideas  goes at our school, she was tickled we’d definitely roll with it. On Monday September 20, we invite everyone to join Meatless Mondays. This is a purely voluntary effort where any kid, parent, relative, household or staff member can exercise their consumer decision-making power three times a week to make a huge difference in the lives of others. 

My new colleague, High School co-Principal Kyle King, was good enough to compute these figures to show just how much of a difference one consumer decision a child as young as four can make: 

​​And if somehow we got our whole community to do it- or most of us anyway... this is the type of impact we can have just by exercising our consumer decision-making powers:

Kyle and his high school math students will help us to keep a running tally as they manage the numbers we have and the scale of our impact, information we will pass on to all of our students in homeroom and advisory and to our community via the bulletin and social media.

At the end of the documentary, Food Inc. the narrator says “you can vote to change the system three times a day.” How powerful to be able to show kids as young as four, they have that type of reach just from a decision they make about what they eat, three meals a week.

Look out for SISPs Meatless Monday form pledge via the bulletin next week. 

More fun facts from Kyle:  “Meatless Monday as a campaign started in WW 1 to conserve rations for the troops abroad. 2003 Meatless Monday was brought back by Sid Learner, an advertising executive that worked with John Hopkins to address this new problem with meat overproduction and consumption... Monday Campaigns is a public health initiative associated with Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Syracuse Universities that promotes sustainable behavior change by dedicating every Monday to health.”

Principal Christine Greenberg shows second graders how to make her favorite plant-based Ragu recipe during one of our Meatless Monday activities.

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