Centering with "Junk Drafts"

In a previous post, we introduced the Five C’s for Happy Teens and since then have been suggesting ways to promote the five principles in concrete ways, beginning last month with clarity. This month, we turn to centering. We all have experienced how important it is to feel heard, whether in moments of happiness, fear, or anger. Sharing our latest triumph at work with a friend can be exhilarating if we’re met with mutual appreciation and pride but deflating if the friend doesn’t share our enthusiasm. Similarly, a small disagreement can turn into a full-blown argument if the individuals involved aren’t actually addressing each other’s concerns.

As parents and educators, the principle of centering reminds us to be present with children in such a way that they understand that their well-being is more important us than whatever long-term goals we have for them. This is not to say that we should ignore their future, but rather we can more effectively shepherd them toward adulthood by meeting them right where they are now.

Homework is one area where there is often a strong disconnect between what students are feeling in the moment and what their parents are communicating about the future. While it may be fair to point out that working diligently on homework is the only way to “get an A” or be admitted to a “top school” or be prepared for a demanding job, focusing on such long-term consequences might be ignoring the actual challenges that they are facing. 

Writing essays and reports is a task that many students find particularly difficult and, consequently, can easily get into struggles with parents over procrastination. Nevertheless, students often want to finish their assignments yet feel too overwhelmed or afraid to begin. Their sense of frustration can be made even worse if their parents or teachers ignore the actual struggles they’re facing. If, however, a parent or teacher centers their response on students’ present experiences, they are more likely to overcome and develop skills that will help them through similar challenges in the future.

A technique I’ve found useful when students are stuck at the outset of a writing assignment is what I call the “junk draft” (insert whatever adjective will get the message across to your child). Whenever students don’t know where to start, I tell them to write the worst version of the assignment they can imagine. One of two things happens: they either write objectively terrible versions of their assignment but feel unstuck and can draw from the material they wrote down; or, more often, they begin writing what they think will be terrible but actually end up writing the draft they originally were attempting. The key to the success of this exercise is that it addresses the real reasons students are procrastinating rather than assuming they “just don’t feel like it” or aren’t worried about their futures.

There are countless other situations in which children benefit when they are supported in their present experience rather than long-term consequences. While it isn’t always easy to get a child to open up about their feelings, it is always a good idea to communicate to them that those are what you’re most concerned about.