Chapter One: Discovering Lesson One
"With the world spinning out of control, how does your life become your own?"
Jon Oliver asked me that question one day some years ago; it has resonated in my mind ever since. We live as members of a society and a culture, but we are individuals, with lives of our own making. Every day we face the challenges and the joys and the difficulties of living, working, studying, and playing with others. How do you deal with people filled with rage? How do you stop beating yourself up for failure when you know you've done your best? How do you handle the everyday pressures of work and home? How do you learn to believe in yourself and work out your problems with thinking, instead of turbulent raw emotion? How do you handle life's challenges and help children handle them as well?
Where do you find the answers to these questions? Schools teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but what about reality? What about life? If you don't learn about life's demands at home or at school, then how can your life become your own?
There's an answer to these questions: Lesson One. This unique program presents children and adults with a sequence of skills that change their lives and, someday, will change the world. These are skills, among them self-control, self-confidence, responsibility, thinking and problem solving, and cooperation, that we all need to be productive and happy. Most of us understand intuitively that we need these skills, but not all of us learn how to acquire and apply these skills.
In this book is the solution. Lesson One: The ABCs of Life is a practical, understandable, sequential guide for adults and kids that provides a time-tested program that has already changed the lives of thousands of children, teachers, and parents around the country.
I first discovered Jon's work at a time when the country was in turmoil over youth violence, shortly after the attacks at Columbine High School. The topic of conversation at watercoolers and coffee machines around the country was the same: What can we do about our kids? Most people thought there was no solution, that our nation's students were spiraling helplessly out of control. The prominent attorney Ty Cobb -- best known for his involvement in high-profile Washington cases -- wrote a poignant essay in the wake of the Columbine shootings, which asked, "How did we get so distracted and divided? Why are there so many guns and so few good public schools?" This book tries to address these issues and change our society for the better. As you read on, you will see that the lack of some basic skills can create enormous problems for individuals and for society. Without the ABCs of Life, our society's problems will only continue to grow.
One night, while listening to National Public Radio, I heard about Lesson One. I've heard a lot of explanations and prescriptions, but Lesson One seemed to be a unique voice, advocating a novel approach to address the underlying causes of the crisis in our culture. In his interview, Jon spoke about the need to begin teaching children about self-control early in life. Curious, I called him, and learned that there was far more to his program than even a thoughtful radio piece could cover. I decided to write a story about it.
In my research, I soon discovered that Lesson One was beginning to spread throughout our society. Dateline NBC and ABC's World News Tonight did major pieces about it. Jon Oliver presented Lesson One at the White House. Parents and teachers around the country were excited by the program as soon as they heard about it.
I've spent years visiting and writing about schools as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education and as a research assistant at the Harvard School of Education, but I have rarely seen a program that made an immediate impact on the socialization and attitudes of kids -- and never one as powerful as this.
At the Welch Elementary School in Peabody, Massachusetts, I first saw Lesson One in action. There was something magical about the classes that Jon taught. Children were happy and eager to participate, using their self-control and cooperating with each other. Principal Helen Apostolides later wrote me, "As a result of the program, teachers who once spent 80% of their time on classroom management and 20% on teaching, now spend 80% on teaching and 20% on classroom management. Before, we used to spend a lot of time on discipline; now we spend less time on that and more time on educating."
School by school, Lesson One changed the culture of every classroom it visited, creating climates based on mutual respect and cooperation.
I followed Jon and his staff around the country. Almost every time, school principals prepared Lesson One's staff for the worst, telling stories of bullying, playground violence, classroom disruption, and lack of cooperation. When Lesson One's staff went into the classroom, they connected with the students.
I saw its effect at schools, but I wanted to know more. I saw a satellite broadcast featuring Lesson One that was co-produced by the United States Department of Education, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the United States Department of Justice. Of the program, parent Elaine Metropolis says, "It has been very comforting for me personally as a parent to know that my daughter has those tools, these skills, her self-control and responsibility, and self-confidence. These aren't just terms that she learned that she's going to forget; they're tools that she's internalized. She can now can bring them with her. She'll have them when she goes off to college. They'll stay with her forever, just like the alphabet. You don't learn them one day and just forget them the next. You learn them and apply them to new situations." Lesson One's entertaining and sequential presentation of skills struck a chord with children and adults alike.
In the months that followed my visits, violence in our schools became an even more prominent national plague. Every time I picked up a newspaper, there seemed to be a new school shooting or a violent incident involving parents and kids at Little League or hockey games. After Parade magazine published an article about Lesson One, six thousand people, from every state in the country, called or wrote to learn more about what Lesson One does. The program had obviously touched a nerve. There were untold thousands of Americans out there who were eager to make a change in our society. They just needed to learn how to do it.
A basic premise of Jon's program is that most people are well-intentioned and they love and care for their children. If they treat children inconsiderately or cruelly, adults are usually just repeating behavior they learned when they were young. Because of what they grew up with, this is the perspective from which they deal with children and other adults.
It is simply human nature for us to see everything from our own perspective. However, if we limit ourselves to the perspective of our own upbringing and experiences, we risk repeating patterns because that is all we know. When we look at a very large and complex work of art, we must step back, away from our limited perspective, to see the broader picture. Once we see the big picture, we are able to move beyond the limits of our own experience. The skills help us do just that. With the skills, our viewpoints are broadened, so that we can examine each situation individually and respond in alternative ways, ways that move beyond some of the dysfunctional patterns that we are accustomed to. By using the skills, we can have the choice to stop harmful patterns and choose ones that are helpful to make our lives our own.
I've learned, through years of writing about education and family issues, that parents and other adults often think that they are preparing children for life when in fact, in some cases, they are disabling them, teaching fear and resentment instead of self-confidence, self-control, and the other skills all adults need. Pat Conroy, the author of the harrowing novel The Great Santini, perhaps our age's best account of how not to raise children, gave NPR's Terry Gross this impression he had as a child of his unforgiving and distant father: "I thought Dan Conroy would one day kill me."
As he looked back on how he became a college basketball star and a best-selling author, Conroy realized that he had picked up skills through the help and example of adults and others outside his family who helped foster his own tenacity and resilience. Like Jon Oliver, he found the skills he needed by observing and listening to many adults in his world. He was also emotionally intelligent enough to realize that his father's dismissal of his talent and his worth was not a realistic evaluation, but a product of his father's own unresolved problems.
Some people like Pat Conroy turn to teachers, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and other adults to learn the skills they need. But too many others don't. Our society must reach everyone and communicate these skills to kids and adults. We can't leave it up to chance. No matter their circumstance, all kids deserve the ABCs of Life.
Children and adults need Lesson One's critical skills to successfully and peacefully navigate their way through life. But expecting children to exercise self-control and take responsibility for their own actions without knowing basic life skills is like asking them to write a book report before they have learned how to read. For adults, it is the same as asking them to drive without understanding the rules of the road, or to swim in a pool if they have never been taught to float.
I urged Jon at the time to write a book about how Lesson One can serve as a powerful tool for helping both children and adults acquire skills that will make their lives fuller, richer, even safer. It's a tool that all people can incorporate into their lives, and I knew that Lesson One needed to do something to get the word out.
True, the world is awash in self-help books, self-improvement books, and books that claim to teach people how to live their lives, raise their children, and be happy. What makes Lesson One different?
It's a fair question, and there's a good answer to it. Lesson One: The ABCs of Life is not a self-help book. It is the culmination of a long and exciting scientific project. Like researchers who spend years learning how to prevent the spread of polio or smallpox, Jon Oliver has devoted his life to studying how people learn -- or don't learn -- the lessons that will equip them for the rest of their lives. Gradually, over many years of honing and changing, the ABCs of Life were born.
This book does not present you with an arbitrary set of five keys, or ten steps, or twelve secrets to the perfect life. It is not about slogans or instant cures. Instead, you will follow a sensible plan that has earned national recognition for its effectiveness. If you read the chapters sequentially, you see how each skill builds on the ones before it; more important, you see how each one addresses a real need that our children have and how it can help effect a real change in the lives of adults as well. If our kids grow up with the ABCs of Life, they will become caring, responsible, and aware members of a civil society.
There are no supernatural powers or magic potions. The ABCs of Life are a rational, well-thought-out program that identifies the most important life skills and teaches them logically and in sequence, each one building on the one before it. The program receives glowing reviews because it approaches the issue of teaching skills in a concise, intelligible manner. More to the point, it makes learning these skills fun. It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive; engaging, not pedantic; lively, rather than academic. Fun is the secret. This book captures the spirit of excitement that surrounds the program and puts it in a form anyone, adult or child, can use.
The ABCs of Life connect to every aspect of a child's existence and, in the process, connect to adults by teaching the skills of self-control, self-confidence, responsibility, problem solving, and cooperation in ways that are accessible to children and adults alike. These skills are as basic as the alphabet; they must be treated as equally important. Just as our children crave food to nourish their bodies, they too need these skills to enrich their lives.
Changing our culture has been the aspiration of humanity for as long as history has been recorded: Shakespeare, Emerson, and Tennyson all wrote about finding a better world. Lesson One is changing lives, one child at a time. This book can dramatically change our culture by expanding the program's reach and bringing its message to a nation in need.
As you will read, Jon took the lessons of his own life as a
template, then refined that model, using his experiences as a teacher, consultant, parent, and just plain human being. In his own life, as a bright, inquisitive, caring child, Jon had the same needs as any other kid -- to learn how to deal with life. The intellectual and emotional support that he needed for that process did not come from his parents, who were busy professionals, so he reached out to his extended family, his teachers, his Aunt Fran and his older brother Mark, and especially his beloved Effie Boone, who took this lonely kid from Brooklyn under her wing and into her heart.
Lesson One: The ABCs of Life defines skills simply and clearly, and makes what was intangible tangible. It will help adults teach the skills to children, and help kids experience them through unique activities and games that help them learn the skills in an upbeat and positive fashion. When grown-ups and kids collaborate on these activities, they naturally move on to discussions and stories that ground the skills in everyday life. You'll read in the following chapters about how Jon's own life experience shaped the ABCs of Life. Also, you will learn practical ways to help you and the children in your lives have fun and learn the ABCs of Life together.
Every year, at my house, a pair of small birds called phoebes builds a nest under the eaves of the porch. The structure they create is remarkable, because the pieces they make it from are so unremarkable -- a twig here, a feather there, bits of stems, dried grass clippings. I was watching them this summer and thinking that much of what they do resembles what Jon has pulled together. They know that no one source will give them all the materials they need to build the foundation for raising their offspring, so they fly about busily, finding whatever they need wherever they can, just as Jon found the elements of the ABCs of Life in many different places.
Just as Jon Oliver has done in his life and career, you should try to take your experiences, use this book in your life and the life of a child, build your own structure, and answer the most basic question that adults and children all must address:
"How does your life become your own?"
-- Michael Ryan
Copyright © 2004 by Jon Oliver