Monday, December 14, 2009

Toward a New Definition of Real

A friend of mine in California recently decided to move her four year old son to a new preschool.  He was being bullied at his former school and the school staff did not intervene in a way that my friend found effective.  When she told the preschool director of her decision, the older woman told her: "Mrs. Jones, you might want to think about the good that this exposure to the Real World will do for Timothy."*

When she told me that story over the phone, I was horrified - and not only because the idea of little Timothy* being bullied broke my heart and made me consider homeschooling the preschool-bound Big Boy next fall and every year thereafter.  Mostly I was disturbed by this representation of the Real World - apparently one in which a young child should get used to being battered by a larger peer, one in which adults cannot adequately protect kids, one in which violence trumps communication.

I don't know about you, but that's not the Real World I want to live in, nor the one in which I want my children to grow up.

Here in the blogosphere, we speak often about the Real World and Real Life.  Writers routinely refer to their Real Friends, their Real Jobs.  But then they go on to say that they don't feel like themselves with these friends, don't feel fulfilled in these jobs.

And that makes me wonder: if you are not You in your Real Life, if your Real World isn't one in which You want to live, then isn't it time to redefine Real, maybe expand its borders a bit?

Instead of focusing solely on the empirical - that which can be seen, touched, and measured - perhaps we should consider a version of Real that includes anything that to us feels genuine, true, and unfeigned.  Anything that makes your gut clench with its wisdom or your heart skip with its sincerity.  Anyone whose words make you nod with knowing and being known.  Any place that envelops you with security, comfort, and a sense of home.

Yes, this new Real might be an Ideal.  But why do we have to settle for a Real that isn't?  For a preschool that isn't safe?  Or relationships that don't move us?  Why can't the Real World, our Real Lives be worthy of aspiration?

* names changed to protect the innocent (i.e. those trying to get their kid enrolled in a new preschool in a competitive market)

What does your Real World look like?


  1. Oh such a good question ... and my instinct is "because that's LIFE" and then I feel a wave of despair at my own cynicism - the way I have capitulated - wash over me.
    So thank you for this reminder. We ought not settle for less than what we want Real to be.

  2. First of all, steam coming out my ears for your friend and her son. Yes, indeed, Timothy will learn some hard lessons about the world, and those lessons aren't always pretty or easy. But Timothy is freaking FOUR.

    He can learn how to deal with the ugliness in the world at another time (probably, dare I say, when he is 5).

    Miss D. lives inside her head. She really does. She's always off in some corner, acting out some movie she's creating in her mind. It used to worry me, but the older I get, the more charmed by it I am. How nice to be able to escape inside your head, to create a beautiful place for yourself.

    My Real World is too focused on mundane tasks. I think that's why I began blogging. So I could go somewhere to vent, to dream, to learn again who I am.

  3. " perhaps we should consider a version of Real that includes anything that to us feels genuine, true, and unfeigned. Anything that makes your gut clench with its wisdom or your heart skip with its sincerity. Anyone whose words make you nod with knowing and being known. Any place that envelops you with security, comfort, and a sense of home."

    Just had to include this piece because it is worthy of becoming a mission statement. I am constantly reminding myself that there is a difference between what is truth and what is reality. Many times the two overlap but not always. For example, my son has a diagnosed disability, that's a reality that I don't deny. But my son is an incredible soul with a future not to be determined based on test scores and evaluations, not to be predicated by the developmental pediatrician. There is Someone bigger than all others who knows the outcome of his life. That is a truth I cling to.

    Love to your friend. I have pulled a child from preschool because his teacher wouldn't look him in the eye. As parents, as mothers, we listen to that voice that says real world (whatever that is)later, today I am making my child's world better.

    BTW- there are plenty of wonderful, caring, peaceful children and adults in the "real world." The bully does not rule.

  4. What is Real? This is a huge, impossible question. But one we must ask, no? So thank you for asking it. I am horrified by the story you tell about your friend, but I also get it. The world (whether we deem it Real or not) is not always a nice place. We will not always be there to protect our kids. Things will happen. Hurt will happen. I think this cannot be avoided. But I do think that we can challenge ourselves to aspire to a "Real" that is more welcoming and good and where these things do not happen.

    Ultimately, where do we draw the line between accepting reality and trying (however futilely) to change it?

  5. Hmm. A strange synergy. I've been writing this morning to a second cousin of this issue - who we are, our sense of self and self awareness. The way we define ourselves.

    You attack the issue from several other sides (beautifully) - certainly as parents we are in the business of constantly refashioning the "real world," the view of the world, and ourselves, as we present all of those things to our children. And all are real to our children, so we must do so carefully.

    I bristle at the reference to the "real world" - as you did - as presented by the Preschool Director. Yet the reality is we need to teach our children some sort of defensive positioning in life, because there will always be those who attack. If not physically, in other ways. I believe part (but only part) of that involves giving our children a variety of tools, including a very strong sense of self, of competence, communication tools, people reading skills, and an awareness of their own gifts. (A partial list, and something that is achieved over time, with great variability.)

    And we're back to identity, to sense of self, to what is real and not real.

    If some of us (those comfortable writing, especially) are more ourselves here than our so-called Real World, I think that's with good reason. And can even coexist with the Real World. We are able to let down barriers through writing and discussing because we are stripped of annoying behaviors, we can communicate around strange (parental) schedules, and we also edit. (Sometimes very little.)

    In "Real Life" we don't get to edit. There are no do-overs when the words escape your mouth or you roll your eyes before you let a concept sink in, and unintentionally hurt someone's feelings. This reality is an editable and malleable one - our truest selves in some regard - and also our best selves - something that real time, real life can never provide in a consistent way.

    Is that not part of why we who are writers write? To get it right? To refashion our realities as we wish, as often as we wish?

    (On that note - rushing - and not going back to edit... she smiles...)

  6. Kristen, I read this post this morning. I was so shocked and apalled by the preschool teacher's suggestion, that I could not articulate what I wanted to say. I even read the account out loud to my husband.

    For one thing, it is not the teacher's responsibility to teach the child about the "real world." He will learn soon enough. Too soon, I think.

    And, the "real world" doesn't exist. Perhaps she was referring to the harsh realities that confront us in life. Lies, deceptions, hurt, and other negative aspects that accompany living. Yet, even these can't wholly account for the "real world." What about those positive things? The selfless service? The giving? The love?

    I think my "real world" is a mixture of good and bad. It consists of a baby with colic, a busy husband, and a busy toddler. It also includes a daughter who hugs and kisses me when I most need it. A baby that snuggles up to me at night and during the day. Those blessed newborn smiles when I am feeling tired and worn. The giggles and luaghter from silly games. The warm embraces from a caring husband. Delicious dinners served by Mr. B.

    Sure, I have the bad. I will gladly take the bad because it helps me remember and bask in the good.

    That is my "real world."

  7. As everyone else here has expressed I am saddened by the teacher's response to your friend. And we were criticized when we decided to homeschool our daughter (for different reasons) and people would try to tell us we were keeping her from the "real world." I would always respond with, "She IS in the real world. Every. Single. Day." But if our "real world" includes bullies, cruelty and acceptance of this negative aggression towards others isn't it our duty to CHANGE the real world? Instead of throwing up our hands and saying, "What are ya gonna do?" maybe we need more people like your friend who say, "I don't have to take this! And neither (most of all!) does my child!"

  8. This issue of kids "needing" to be seasoned, so to speak, by the "real world" is one that hits very close to home. My kids have gone to a Jewish day school their whole lives mostly and now that my son will be heading off to high school everyone keeps talking about how he needs to be exposed to the real world. Of what, hassles and harassments? That's what I remember. As a matter of fact, the way people treated me in high school, where being smart was bad, where people would insult you to your face, is something I've never encountered again in my life. He needs that? If we could skip over the "real world" on our way to his world, a loving home of his own, I'd be very happy.

  9. It shocks me that your friends concerns weren't taken more seriously, and maybe that is the route of the bigger problem with the rise of bullying in schools right now. People are so bitter with their own lives that they can't look outside of that and think that people, children, should respect each other. Ugh! I'm getting all fired up. I was actually homeschooled through 8th grade, and I've said that I would never homeschool my own children because I just didn't know if I had it in me, but honestly - the bullying factors aren't giving me the warm and fuzzies about any school.

    But yes, I think you're right in that we need to reevaluate our real lives, and make some much needed changes.

  10. Oy! I just posted the longest comment and it got deleted (maybe it was a sign)... so, much shorter this time, I believe that it's my job as a mom to let my kids believe that the "real world" is safe and trustworthy. One where they can turn and see love and compassion in their corner. Even if there are shadows lurking and scary streets, they don't need to see them at this age. They can know there's ugliness and I need to know I've given them the tools to deal with the ugliness but I've got their back. And the school should have mine. Shame on Timothy's school for not allowing him (and his parents) to believe that he was protected while in their care.

  11. Consulting with special needs kids, system kids and private school kids, I've come to see bullying as a complex issue that challenges us all to do a bit of Shadow work (i.e. to deal with the bully within). The teacher who was so unconscious could be understood as acting out her own aggression by possibly projecting her inner victim onto the targeted child and colluding with violence against him.

    This also raises sex and gender issues where boys are devalued for being sensitive, and at the same time less sensitive boys (and girls) are either labeled as "bad" or unconsciously empowered to act out parental/teacher aggression.

    Some recent thoughts about this topic from a systemic viewpoint might be of interest (

    A final thought, kids younger than six or seven are largely "pre-empathy" (i.e. do not truly understand the feelings, hurt or otherwise, of others). However, there is evidence that empathy can be cultivated in younger kids. Schools, and our reality-shaping world need to set boundaries, create a compassionate expectation that kids will not bully, and help BOTH victim kids and bullies.

    Another ethic that I encourage kids (and grown-ups) to trust is that people who feel good about themselves are generally kind, therefore teachers who lack compassion most likely have been wounded and suffer low self-esteem. Explaining is not excusing, but sometimes it's worth it to have a meeting with the school and explain why one is leaving (offering a teachable moment to the teachers)... but then one still has to go if you can't trust the teachers to create a safe and compassionate learning environment.


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