Situations Matter – Grown-Up Lessons To Teach Kids


As I mentioned in a previous blog, I noted at the end that I had another TED-related blog post coming, and that it may be parsed into a lesson plan … for life.

I’ve been reading this book by Sam Sommers, whose Twitter profile (@samsommers) reads: “Professor at Tufts University, expert on the psychology of everyday life, author of Situations Matter.”  If you want the abridged version on what his research entails, you can check out his 18-minute TED talk here.

I think there are some valuable lessons in his book from which kids can benefit.  The only conundrum is that parents need to learn them first.  For me, Situations Matter is about how context changes the nature in which interactions happen, be it relationships, crowd control, human behaviour – whatever.  The book was relatively inexpensive ( sells it for $17.24), and I bought it off Kobo ($13.99) as an e-book.

Here are the noteworthy lessons:

Be proactive.  Unless your safety is in jeopardy, don’t be afraid to be the kid to stand out for standing up.

Crowds will change individuals’ behaviour, but more so, they disperse responsibility.  It’s the reason why people suffer through a blurry film projection for what seems like ages, why a person on public transit can die while everyone else assumes s/he’s sleeping, and why webcam suicides go unreported for hours.  As Sommers writers, “In crowds, emergencies transform into ordinary affairs right before our eyes.”  (Chapter 2)  It’s not that people are unkind or lack compassion by nature, it’s that everyone else assumes that someone else will step in and take care of it.  Be the Someone.

When you need help, be direct.  Target specific individuals.  

Don’t send mass emails or post a general question.  You’re likely to get a better response from someone if you ask.  (Chapter 2)  Sometimes the secret is knowing who to ask.

If you know the pack is going in the wrong direction, stick to the right one.

We become different people when surrounded by others.  One research study showed that we’ll even give wrong answers to a simple question if enough of the crowd is doing it.  (Chapter 3)  The rate of conformity will drop even if just one person goes against the grain because it frees other people to do the same.  Alternately, secret ballots can be very effective since publicly, people tend to adhere to the group consensus.

You don’t have to be one of the cool kids, especially if you don’t like what they’re doing.

Researchers have found that there’s a “chameleon effect” in which people start mimicking others’ nonverbal behaviour, and that, ”the more someone adopts our mannerisms during conversation, the more we end up liking him/her.”  (Chapter 3)  Perhaps that’s why we go with the flow when the cool kids are all skipping school.

There’s a good chance that you won’t ever (or will seldom) speak to those kids after you graduate, so go to class.

Cultural experiences and priorities shape our default tendencies for how we see the world … and ourselves.  

This might be more of a lesson for educators, but North American culture will dictate that “we tend to think of ourselves in terms of that which makes us distinctive”, whereas many other cultures, particularly Asian, African and Latin American, will think of themselves “in terms of relationships with others and how one fits into the fabric of the larger society.”  (Chapter 4)  Immigrant kids might need a little more coaxing to speak out, and it’s not necessarily because they’re shy, it’s just a cultural thing.

Give people the benefit of the doubt.  Treat everyone as if there’s a story to find out.  

“Sometimes our affinity for us is just as problematic as our dislike of them.  Even when you’re convinced that you don’t have a hateful bone in your body, the way we see the world can fuel the fires of conflict and inequity.”  “(Chapter 7)

Sommers writes about how, when you approach interactions, expecting a positive outcome is more effective than worrying about negotiating a potential minefield or how the situation could go south.  Appreciate your differences.  Use those interactions to learn.  When they’re rushed for time, people cut “cognitive corners” and make generalizations on what they supposedly know (or actually don’t know) already.

The book overall is a great read.  While it may not be earth-shatteringly life-changing, Sommers makes some really logical conclusions which make his points more easily digestible.  And if you can’t get to the book, at least watch his TED Talk.

Deborah Chantson (@DebChantson) is a writer/producer for interactive digital media,television, and short films, specializing in preschool and educational projects.  She was the Writer/Researcher for seasons 2 and 3 of the Gemini Award-winning website, and the Writer/Producer/Voice of Dreampacker, a stop-motion short film which screened at the CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival, the largest short film festival in North America.

She can be contacted through

Image Source: Ryan