April 14, 2024
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The Blessings of a Birthday Interview

In our school, as in most, birthdays are always celebrated. The way we celebrate varies depending on the grade, but the message is the same: Today is the day Hashem decided the world could not exist without you, so let’s celebrate your special day. For the birthday interview, I invite the child to my office and together we fill out an interview questionnaire, take a picture for the Birthday Wall, and then back to class the child goes, paper in hand. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, and what a wonderful 10 minutes they are. You see, in those few minutes I am able to connect with the children in a way that I would not otherwise be able to, and hopefully we’re preserving a tiny piece of their childhood on that page. I started doing these interviews on the suggestion of a colleague, and I just can’t thank her enough for gifting me with such a simple and meaningful way to connect with the children.

It’s funny, but sometimes the questions that you’d think are the easiest are actually the most difficult. Some children are completely stumped when asked to choose a favorite color or food but can easily identify something they’re good at or tell me all about their favorite book. For others, they can quickly name a favorite sport, but ask them to identify something they’re curious about and they need time to think. As the year has progressed I’ve watched closely as children think about their answers and the weight they are putting into the decisions. Of course, nobody is holding the children to these answers, and likely many will change as the children get older, but this activity has gotten me thinking about how we teach children decision-making skills and the impact those decisions make.

Children, like adults, make decisions all the time. They start simple: choosing a bedtime story, who to invite for a playdate or what toy to play with. As they get older those decisions become bigger and involve school, friends and family. They learn through observation and interaction, particularly by watching the adults closest to them. They are also constantly receiving feedback, which usually comes in the form of approval or disapproval from adults and peers.

An important aspect of decision-making is seeing what happens when the decision made is not the best choice. How do we respond to those poor decisions? Do we use them as opportunities for conversation about what can be learned or do we simply state our adult perception of what went wrong? Are we ensuring that the children are resilient enough to rise again after a negative experience? Are we sending the message that mistakes are part of the learning process or something to be avoided? Perhaps most importantly, are we providing children with opportunities to flex their decision-making muscles and see what happens? What happens when a decision results in a negative response from adults but a positive one from peers?

A key factor is the development of logical thinking and problem-solving skills, both of which help us make decisions that are thoughtful and result in a positive outcome. Modeling and thinking aloud are key. When we talk about how we came to a particular decision, using cause and effect language that children can understand, we are helping children learn to differentiate between what is and is not a good idea, and that different situations call for different decisions. We need to be able to identify when a decision needs to be made, consider options, have a logical reason for the choices we make, and then review the outcome. With children, even if the logic doesn’t make sense to us, the fact that he or she can articulate the “why” is an important component for it allows the opportunity to debrief, to talk about what did or did not work later on.

Having well-developed thinking skills doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good decision, though it does increase the likelihood. There are many factors that compete with a child’s decision-making ability. Temperament is a major one. If a child is anxious or a worrier, they often avoid decision-making for fear of what might happen or who they might upset. They also tend to be “over-thinkers,” which can present as either indecisive or quickly handing over the decision-making baton to someone else. Children who are impulsive and struggle with attention and organization find thinking through a situation particularly challenging. When a child is feeling angry, scared or overwhelmed, those feelings also cloud their ability to think clearly. Children who struggle socially are also at risk for making poor decisions, particularly as it relates to what they say and do.

In their bestselling book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish provide practical strategies and ideas for helping all of us provide opportunities for decision-making and choice. While the focus of their work involves situations where we as adults have the final say but want to provide children with an element of control, their strategies are relevant to good decision-making across the board. Suppose your third grader just won’t sit down to do homework, and you’re ready to pull your hair out. Rather than getting into a battle of wills, they suggest having a conversation that helps the child understand that you acknowledge that they resent homework and why, but remind them that the doing of the homework is the non-negotiable part. What is negotiable is the when, where and with whom. If your child can decide that they will do their homework after a snack and some down time at home (when), at the kitchen table (where) while Mom is preparing dinner (with whom), they are exerting some control and learning that avoiding isn’t making the thing go away.

Regardless of the situation, we need to keep a number of factors in mind as we support the learning of decision-making skills. We need to provide real opportunities to practice and remember that their ability to do so will change as they grow and mature. At times we need to give them the autonomy, or at least the illusion of autonomy, so they can feel a sense of accomplishment for making the choice and experiencing the results, whether positive or negative, of that decision. We need to give them responsibility in their decisions: teach children that others are depending on them and explain how their decision impacts others. Finally, share your values: explain how your own decision making is powered by what you believe and value, your sense of right and wrong and the fact that others depend on you.

So back to our birthday interviews. While I have different versions for different age groups, the last line is always to complete this sentence: “This year, I hope to…” I get the most wonderful answers, anything from losing a tooth to getting a puppy, to one recent and particularly deep-thinking second grader who said, “I hope that every day is a good one.” How would I answer this for my students? I would answer in the words of the author Neil Gaiman, and while I believe it was originally made as a wish for the new year, it is absolutely fitting as a birthday blessing and puts decisions and mistakes in such a powerful light:

I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

By Stacy Katzwer


Stacy Katzwer is the elementary school principal at Tenafly Chabad Academy. Mrs. Katzwer has been in the field of education, both in the classroom and as an administrator, for over 20 years. Mrs. Katzwer has extensive experience and training in working with children with learning challenges, has presented at professional development workshops, and been involved in teacher training and mentoring of new teachers. She can be reached at [email protected].

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