Belonging vs Fitting In Resilience Perseverance Problem Solving Responsible Decision-Making
Realistic Contemporary Fiction Biography Historical Fiction Graphic Novels
Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Recently, I was listening to some talks and interviews with Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies, courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Most people are aware that humans are social animals who are wired to connect. Connection is important because it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Brown takes the understanding about connection farther. Her research indicates that not all connections achieve this goal. There is a major difference between connections based on fitting in and those based on belonging.
The distinction between these two types of connection are essential for all of us to understand, but especially children who are in the process of discovering who they are, what they like, what they dislike, what they want, and what they need. When children and adolescents opt to fit in, they assess situations and people, then acclimate. They learn to say and do and dress according to what others expect and accept while simultaneously avoiding saying, doing, and dressing according to who they are, what they want, and what they need. Fitting in, then, is a type of connection that requires a child to shift and change, to become what others want, instead of who they really are. It often results in feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require the child to shift and change to be like everyone else to be accepted. As such it doesn’t cut off the constant trying on of different styles and different suits of clothes so essential to developing a solid sense of identity. More important, it results in the deepest and most meaningful connections.
Granted there are some social rules and norms everyone needs to master to fit in with others. And children and adolescents do need to learn to modulate their likes, dislikes, needs, and wants in different situations. But to go beyond superficial connections that result in simply fitting in to deeper, more meaningful connections that enable them to belong, they will need to learn how to think about relationships. They will need to understand when relationships support who they are and when relationships require them to sacrifice too much of their authentic self.
In January, I will showcase three books that enable children to think about their relationships and begin to consider the line between fitting in and belonging. In the following months I will explore historical fiction and biographies that facilitate discussions about problem solving, perseverance, persistence, and other skills and strengths associated with overcoming internal and external obstacles.
Granny Torrelli Makes Soup
Harper Collins; Reprint Edition, 2012
Interest Level: Grades 4-8
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech is an engaging story about friendship and how relationships change over time. It is a great story to read aloud because it invites discussions about perspective taking, coping with strong feelings, and resolving interpersonal conflicts. The story is told from the point of view of twelve-year old Rosie. At the beginning of the book we learn that she is angry at her best friend Bailey:
Bailey, who is usually so nice, Bailey, my neighbor, my friend, my buddy, my pal for my whole life, knowing me better than anybody, that Bailey, that Bailey I am so mad at right now, that Bailey, I hate him today…Why does he say Rosie, get over yourself! And why does he say that in that cold voice and slam the door in my face as if I am nobody?
This question takes center stage as Rosie and Granny Torrelli make soup. Rosie recounts past and present experiences with Bailey and Granny Torrelli shares parallel stories about her childhood relationship with Pardo.
As the reader moves between these different stories, they learn that Bailey has had a visual impairment since toddlerhood. He sees the world through a hazy, gauzy veil. When Rosie was quite young, she began helping Bailey. She wanted to make things easier for him.
Over the years their relationship changed. Inseparable as infants and preschool children, they went to different elementary schools. Bailey attended a school for children with visual impairments and learned to read Braille. Wanting to share everything with Bailey, Rosie asked him to teach her Braille, but she could not make sense of the dots on the paper.
She did not give up. Over the course of a year with the help of a teacher at her school, she secretly learned Braille at lunchtime. Rosie was certain that Bailey would be happy and proud when she read to him from one of his Braille books. But that is not what happened. Instead he told her to get over herself in that cold voice and slammed the door in her face. This scene is a great place to stop to ask students what Bailey might be feeling and why he reacted in this way.
As adults we understand Bailey’s need to feel capable, competent, and even a bit superior to Rosie sometimes. What Granny Torrelli labels as Rosie’s take-charge ways doesn’t leave space for Bailey to be an equal much less have talents and strengths separate from her.
Because of Granny Torrelli’s stories about her relationship with Pardo, Rosie is able to see how she is like her take-charge grandmother and how that causes problems in her relationship with Bailey. She has an epiphany: Until she read to Bailey from his Braille books, he had something he could do that she could not do. And that was something he wanted and needed. Now that Rosie understands the cause of Bailey’s reaction she can decide what to do next. But before reading what Rosie decides to do, students might want to generate ideas about how they might repair the relationship.
After the discussion, students can compare their thoughts with Rosie’s decision. She decided to take the soup to Bailey and his mother who live next door to say that she is sorry—something Granny Torrelli’s stubbornness prevented her from doing before she came to America and lost her best friend Pardo, forever. Bailey responds with a Braille rendering of “I’m sorry” and the two move on to enjoy the soup.
In the second section of the book Rosie and Bailey help Granny Torrelli make pasta and the reader is introduced to the problem of Janine. She has just moved into the neighborhood. Not only does she take an interest in Bailey, she asks him to teach her Braille. And Bailey agrees. Rosie soon becomes an ice queen and a tiger but works hard at controlling the intensity of her feelings. Readers can think about what feelings the ice queen and tiger relate to as well as share experiences in which they have experienced these feelings. They might also indicate how they controlled and coped with these intense feelings.
Again, Granny Torrelli shares parallel stories from her childhood experiences with Pardo. These stories about the time Pardo became enamored with Violetta, and Marcus became enchanted with Granny help the two understand the problem of jealousy. But Granny also tells another story. A story that initially seems unrelated to jealousy or anything else the three have discussed. She tells the story of the Gatozzi baby that was so sick there was concern that she would die. During visits to the family to bring food, Granny (as a girl) sat with the baby:
I sit all day long. She won’t let go of my fingers. Her parents let me hold her, and still she is clinging to my fingers, and all the time I am sitting there with that little sick baby, I am not thinking of Violetta or Pardo or Marco. I am only thinking the baby must get better, the baby must get better.
Granny is unsure if she should have told Rosie and Bailey this story. But it was the right story. Her understanding of life in its full complexity guided her in the selection of the story. On the day the baby shows signs of getting well, Granny has an epiphany:
And here is the thing, Bailey and Rosie, when I went home that day, I felt as if I was ten years older. I saw Violetta on her way to Pardo’s and I saw Marco down the lane looking for me, and I can’t explain it, but I felt as if my life was bigger.
Through the storytelling, through the chopping and stirring, the kneading and twisting of dough, Rosie comes to her own epiphany:
“…I am thinking that I cannot control who is going to come and who is going to go, and who will stay my buddy, my pal, and who will find me enchanting, and oddly I feel relieved.”
And it is this understanding and relief that enables Rosie to invite Janine, Bailey and the new family with two boys to a pasta party.
Marvin Redpost Super Fast, Out of Control
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Format: Paperback, 79 pages
Interest Level: Second and Third Grade, but great material for discussion for grades three to five
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Marvin Redpost, the main character in Louis Sachar’s Marvin Redpost Super Fast Out of Control, has a problem. And this problem is one that will promote rich discussions for readers in third, fourth, and fifth grade.
Readers will quickly realize that Marvin's problem is not one with a variety of good solutions with potentially good outcomes, No, It is a dilemma, one of those predicaments that no matter what he decides results in equally problematic outcomes.
Yet the dilemma began as a small, easily resolved problem: a new bike that Marvin was afraid to ride because it was bigger than his old bike and had hand brakes and gears he didn’t know how to work. As adults we know that the problem of not knowing how to ride the bike and its associated fear could easily have been resolved if he had asked for some help from his father or brother then practiced a bit. But it is hard for anyone at any age to acknowledge fear sometimes, but especially for a young boy in third grade.
So, he chose to solve the problem and to cope with his fear by avoidance. He simply did not ride the bike. This worked well for about ten days. Then on a Saturday when Marvin and his friends Nick and Stuart were having difficulty thinking of something to do, Nick suggested they ride their bikes down Suicide Hill and Stuart agreed.
Marvin, of course, did not want to ride his bike, especially not down Suicide Hill. To save face with his friends, he again decided to solve the problem and cope with his fear by avoidance. His sister, Linzy, had been pestering the boys to play unicorns with her. Marvin yelled at her and called her a stupid pest. When she told their mother, Marvin refused to apologize. He was grounded for a week. Problem solved—maybe.
Unfortunately, by the end of the school day on Monday, a rumor, initiated by Stuart, had spread throughout the school: Marvin would ride his bike down Suicide Hill on Saturday at noon. Marvin expecting everyone at his school to be at the hill is now faced with a dilemma: be labeled a chicken if he does not ride down the hill or the possibility of physical injury if he does ride down the hill.
Readers join Marvin as he agonizes about what to do. He asks his mother if he can ride down the hill hoping she will say no. Unfortunately, she grants permission. Two incidents during the week suggest solutions but ultimately result in confusion. When his sister becomes afraid of a thunderstorm, his father tells her that the thunder can’t hurt her. He tries to help her differentiate between the fear inside her head and the fear of the thunderstorm that is outside. She is safe in the house. He advises her to stand up to the storm by saying, " I’m not afraid of you."
Later in the week, Officer Watson comes to Marvin's school to talk about illegal drugs. She says that if your friends call you chicken when you won’t take drugs that’s not being scared like a chicken. It’s being smart and brave because it takes a lot of courage to say no to your friends. Putting these two incidents together, Marvin wonders whether he should look his fear in the eye and ride down the hill or say no to riding down the hill because it’s stupid like taking drugs.
In the end Marvin rides his bike to the hill. Only his family is there to meet him. He realizes that while he has spent the week agonizing about what everyone thought, no one really cared. Marvin chooses to ride down the hill because it is something he wants to do. Sachar makes the ride sufficiently scary to justify the misery of Marvin’s dilemma and the danger associated with the hill.
Surprisingly, this is a seventy-nine page beginning chapter book with a medium-sized font, short chapters and one or two black and white illustrations per chapter. In terms of reading level, it falls somewhere between the end of second grade and the middle of third grade. However, in terms of content, it is rich with discussion possibilities for fourth and fifth grade readers:
When should you stand up to fear and face it?
When is fear a sign that something is truly dangerous and an unnecessary or foolish risk even if others label you a chicken for not doing it?
When should you say you’re afraid of something?
How do you know who is safe to tell about your fears?
What happens when you avoid problems? What happens when you don’t ask for help?
The Fear Place
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Interest Level, Middle Grade, (4-6)
Publisher: Aladdin (paperback) 1996
Paperback: 128 pages
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
Sibling rivalry, an encounter with a cougar, a boy paralyzed with fear on a narrow ledge of a rock face with a six hundred foot drop to the gorge below, the same boy knowing he needs to navigate this rock ledge he calls the Fear Place to rescue a brother who may be injured. These are some of the plot elements in The Fear Place by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor that create the tension, conflict, and suspense that engage readers of adventure and survival books.
But the author of this book goes beyond these elements to bring readers into the experience of the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that we all recognize as part of the experience of facing our worst fears. More important, through the story, readers will be able to recognize six strategies to cope with that fear. These strategies are presented in the Section on Social Emotional Learning after a summary of the story.
The book begins with a family trip to Estes Park in Colorado where the parents will conduct research for their fifth and final year. On the flight to Denver and the trek to the campground, the reader is introduced to Doug and his older brother Gordon (referred to as Gordie). The story is Doug’s story. It is a story about two brothers who are competitive; it is a story about a younger brother who feels that his older brother always gets the best and the most of everything; it is about two boys who have said and done hurtful things to each other for so long, they interpret every gesture and every word as a preconceived plan to win, to hurt, to get even.
And it is this conflict between the brothers that causes Gordie to leave his brother at the base camp and climb the rock face with the narrow ledge in the Comanche Wilderness area when his parents are called away to an uncle’s funeral. On his own in the High Meadow, Doug encounters a cougar. From this moment to the end of the book, Doug will be engaged in a full time endeavor to manage fear—fear that the cougar will attack, fear that his parents who have not returned as scheduled have been in a plane crash, fear that his brother who has not returned to the base camp is injured.
On his first encounter with the cougar, Doug learns how quickly fear spirals out of control with one terrifying thought generating another and another and another:
“He would be killed—his body mangled and mauled right here on the path. His face half eaten, Then Gordie would come back and the cougar would kill him, too. Mom and Dad would return to find both of their sons dead.”
While climbing the rock face in search of his brother, Doug learns to manage the avalanche of terrifying thoughts that fear constantly sets in motion. Sometimes he uses distraction. He keeps his mind busy thinking about the elk and the snowshoe rabbit and the marten that he had seen in the High Meadow. Other times he focuses on the here and now. Climbing the rock face he gives full attention to where his feet are and what his hands can grasp to hold onto rather than obsessing about the narrow ledge he will inevitably need to climb.
He works hard to put his fear into perspective by remembering the harrowing stories his father told the family about his escape from Cuba. He repeatedly asks himself if what he is facing is as bad as that. Most of the time he concludes that it is not. He also compares the current climb to past climbs and knows that he has successfully climbed worse.
His mother had taught him to stay optimistic, to assume the best, and not to borrow trouble. She had taught him the difference between possibilities and probabilities-- anything was possible but not everything was probable. And he began to consider that it was more likely that Gordon was just fine.
Doug does successfully navigate the narrow ledge and rescue his brother who has a broken leg. The trip down the rock face is as filled with suspense as the encounter with the cougar and the climb up the rock face. Phyllis Naylor has created an engaging novel and one that is also rich in its depiction of fear and coping with fear.
Social Emotional Learning: Coping with Fear
So what do readers take away from this novel about fear and coping with fear?
Fear can be so consuming it paralyzes body and mind, preventing any constructive action.
The more someone allows their mind to focus on their terrifying thoughts, the more frightened they become and the more terrible scenarios their mind generates. As Doug states when he encountered the cougar: “Fear begat fear.”
Distraction, focusing on what you need to do, and focusing on what you are doing in the here and now prevents an avalanche of terrifying thoughts.
Putting events into perspective by comparing them to past experiences generates confidence by providing proof of past competence which can be relied on in the present difficulty.
Putting events into perspective by comparing them to the experiences of others who have successfully faced more difficult circumstances provides a sense that the current situation is manageable.
Don’t borrow trouble. Anything is possible, but not everything is probable. Our worst fears are always possible, but in most circumstances they are highly unlikely to happen.