Preserving Creativity and Play at Home with Maeghan Sulham

“Sometimes we’re asking kids to do things before they’re ready, everyone is putting a lot of pressure on that. I’ve noticed as my 7 year olds have gotten older, sometimes it’s just time. They might need a couple months or half a year to grow into something.  The way school is structured these days, they can have kids in their class that are a whole year older than them. That’s 1/7th of their life. When you keep putting that in perspective, a lot of it comes down to time. I also think we as adults put a lot of pressure on our kids because we feel like we’ve made it. I don’t know if it really matters, everyones going to chart their own course for what they want to do.”

Hey there. Want to introduce yourself to folks?

Hi. Sure, I’m Maeghan Sulham. I am the Chief People Officer at Putnam Associates. I’m a lifelong consultant having previously worked at Deloitte. I have 3 little kids. Seven year boy/girl old twins first graders and a four year old little boy. Our family lives in the Greater Boston Area. 

Wonderful, I’m so glad to be in touch. Tell me Maeghan, when you were in early elementary school, how did you see yourself and how did others see you in terms of your school ability and learning in general?

Very good question. I have a terrible memory so I had to go back and ask my parents. So a little bit of context, I was one of those kids that started kindergarten at four. I was always the youngest in my class. I have a late in the calendar year birthday. I was little, I was young, my parents described me as scrappy and always getting my way.  I was a very mediocre student at first. My kindergarten report card was pretty average. Mom mom saved it, it said I could do better playing with others. But I was the oldest of my family, I had a younger brother who was eighteen months younger than me. I was used to breaking the rules and setting the games and controlling the play. 

Sure, sure. Same I also have a late in the year birthday and I’m also the oldest. I hear that. Did that continue on later during middle school and high school?

From talking to my parents, it sounds like it continued until about middle school but then I started to take off. Being the youngest I was always playing catchup at school. I wasn’t the first to learn to read, I wasn’t the first to get the math concepts. I went to public school in an average community in the North East. I would say middle class-ish. I came from a family of teachers, my dad was a teacher, my grandparents were teachers so education was really important to my family. I was not the class clown, I was not getting into trouble, but I was a solid B+ student for elementary school, whatever the equivalent of what grades were at the time. I definitely struggled a little bit to read. I don’t know what grade I mastered it but I eventually became a bookworm.

What was that shift like for you internally to go from struggling to read to realizing that this is actually something you could do? 

I don’t remember the shift, but I do remember all of a sudden having a deep interest in certain book series, like the Beverly Clearys, the Roald Dahls, and the babysitters club. Being a child of the 80’s, I was deep into whatever was popular to read at that time. The literature for kids was so great. It was probably around third or fourth grade, you finally get the concepts to read to learn. I think that probably was where the switch flipped for me. I caught up to where my peers were and I caught up to where I should have been and ultimately found a lot of joy in reading. It also helped that my parents made sure I was also bored a lot. We didn’t have cable TV, we didn’t have video games, so books, crafts, toys and playing outside were our only options. 

Sweet. What a nice way to latch on to reading, just by finding books that you like later on. It’s wonderful. Tell me about your work now. When you’re going from knowing how to do something to then knowing how to do it, which is how I define learning for the purpose of this conversation. What was that process like for you when something felt hard in school? When something felt tricky and you weren’t getting it at all. 

I don’t know at the elementary school level, I remember a bit of it at the high school level, things like chemistry and physics. I think sometimes you can check out and say  “I’m just not going to learn this.” But it’s when you double down and decide to learn it and something clicks. Physics is a great example of that for me in highschool. It was so hard at first and I recall my amazing physics teacher taking the time to work through things with me. That 1:1 attention really helped something click. If I were to have a better memory in my elementary school years, it likely goes back to applying your brain to be open to learning and someone investing their time in you to help you understand it.   

Totally. How did that translate to your work now?

Such a good question. I just joined a new firm after being at my old firm for almost fifteen years. I empathize with my kids more than ever because for the first four months I was constantly learning things. I was learning about a new organization, their business, and their clients. I was learning this whole new world that I never worked in before. The industry is a little different from my previous industry. I was exhausted. Your brain is just processing so much all the time. It gave me great appreciation for what my kids were going through sitting in an eight hour school room, going from subject to subject, I felt that way in meetings. Going from subject to subject just trying to get all of them and be that sponge on new concepts. 

What a nice way to empathize with your kids. It’s a beautiful experience to have while your kids are in school. 

We are all exhausted. Just processing too much. 

Totally. What helped you now? What’s helped you in your first few months at work in getting the lay of the land and figuring out what’s what?

I think repetition and time to process. In the professional world we talk a lot about boundaries. Setting time for meetings, for work, and for thinking. I’ve had to get better about that because in the leadership role I’m in, my calendar can easily fill up talking to people all day long. Being mindful about setting time aside to think on something or work on something to evolve. 

Yeah. Do you see your kids having similar experiences? Is there time for them to pause, think and absorb?

I wish. I don’t know. If you want to pivot to the kids for a little bit, they go to school at 7:30. School ends at 2:45 and they stay after school because the kids of working parent kids have to extend the day somehow. They are there until about 4:00, they have a really full day. I think they have a pretty intense schedule while they’re there for first graders and kindergarteners, and then they go home with homework. They’ve got spelling words every night. They have ten minutes of reading assigned, and they have math worksheets. I don’t know that they have time to process this stuff. I see them coming back from a school vacation, where they just had two weeks off and it’s a really hard week because their brains have had a break for a few weeks and now they are back in it. Getting them to do their homework after school is really hard. They were reading at bedtime and just so wiped out. It probably ebbs and flows back to the original question, do they have time to process. I don’t know and I’m really curious what other parents and teachers would say to this.  Something seemed to shift the American education system that is driving the intensity of academic pressure. There’s definitely less play and more work than when I went to school. 

100% everybody says kindergarten is the new first grade. 

Yeah, it’s rough. They’re doing fractions and contractions in reading, decimal points in math. It’s a lot for their little brains. 

It is a lot.

I’m wondering to what end? We are all going to get to the same place at high school graduation (hopefully!). 

No it’s true, things have really shifted and we’re at an examination point but not quite through it. With that, what kinds of things do you see your kids saying to themselves or thinking about themselves when things feel hard?

That’s a really emotional subject. My daughter always says, “I’m not a good reader. I’m not good at this. Everyone’s better than me.” She says about her brother, “He’s better at this than me, I’m just going to give up, nobody cares.” That sort of thing. But she has turned into a great reader! On the flip side of it her brother is the same way about math, “I don’t understand this.” He does, he just doesn’t want to do it. I think they’re just tapped out by the end of the day. I

It is tough. Thank you for sharing that because so many folks go through that and its so hard to hear your kids say that. 

Especially in first grade. Their teachers are beyond lovely, they’re not getting the pressure from them. We’re all cheerleaders for everything that they’re doing, but there is something that they are internalizing that we aren’t fully seeing. And, it’s happening much earlier than I thought it would. 

Yeah. When that kind of thing happens and unfortunately it’s a very common experience for a lot of parents, has there been anything that you found that has worked in terms of something that you say to them, or how you reply or something you can go to get them out of that space? 

Sometimes it’s just time. I say, “You know what? We are just not going to do this right now.” Each kid is different on what makes them tick, for my son it’s letting him watch television. That’s all he wants to do when he gets home after school. For my daughter it’s one on one time or playing, or coloring. They just need to step away from whatever it is that’s frustrating them. I also think that allowing them to read or do things at their own pace is definitely helpful. It’s hard with this time box between 4:00 and 6:30 when you’re having dinner and it’s like, if you’re not going to get your homework done then, you’re not going to do it. So you’re very time boxed. When they have more freedom to explore books in their bed at night, they’re more apt to have a more positive experience about something. 

That’s so true for all of us. 

If you can control your own schedule you are happier in general. 

To your point, you carve out time in your own schedule on the job to just process, think, and work through, I think it’s important for kids too and it’s not something that they get. It’s great that you’re giving that to them. Are there other ways that your kids see themselves as learners outside of school? Do they play an instrument or figure out how to put together the backyard? Anything else that they have latched onto that doesn’t go with their schooling. 

I think when given the time and space for creative play, I’ve continued to be impressed by them. If you put aside the flashcards and spelling words and the ten minutes of reading a day, my daughter can create a magical world with her stuffed ducks upstairs. She’ll teach school, have a vet center, create a movie with them, etc… I wouldn’t think of it as learning in the academic sense but it’s definitely social-emotional learning. 

I love seeing them in the summer on the beach, we spend a lot of time there every weekend and just seeing them work out the mechanics together around building things in the sand is very cool. Building these complicated engineered castles and tunnels, thinking through what they want to do and how to do it. The impact the water and tide has on their creations and how it impacts their sand castles over the course of the day.  I see a lot of that with the three of them together. My older son I would say has an early engineering mind. My daughter is the project manager and my four year old does whatever they tell him (most of the time!).   

Yeah, and I think that 100% is learning. You don’t know how well the sand is going to stick together. It’s not knowing then doing, knowing and applying. During times like that, are there any things that you have done that have helped facilitate that?

We give them lots of unstructured time particularly in the summer and on the weekends to do those sorts of things. During the year, we don’t do a ton of sports or activities on weekends, just time and space for open ended play, family activities, etc..  As they get older it becomes harder to do, but I’m optimistic we can keeping giving them that. 

Yeah, absolutely. That’s wonderful. On that note, that’s a big takeaway for me and thanks for sharing all of these ideas of time to explore and space. Is there anything else that you want to add or share in terms of yourself in your own process of going from not knowing how to do something to knowing how to do it or something that’s worked well for you and your kids. 

I think it’s time. Sometimes we’re asking kids to do things before they’re ready, everyone is putting a lot of pressure on that. I’ve noticed as my 7 year olds have gotten older, sometimes it’s just time. They might need a few months or half a year to grow into something.  The way school is structured, they have kids in their class that are a whole year older than them. That’s 1/7th of their life. When you keep putting that in perspective, a lot of it comes down to time. I also think we as adults put a lot of pressure on our kids because we feel like we’ve made it. I don’t know if it really matters, everyones going to chart their own course for what they want to do. 

Beautiful, thanks so much for sharing that with me. 

Happy to chat. 

Maeghan Sulham is the Chief People Officer at Putnam Associates, global mid-sized life sciences strategy consulting firm, she is an alumni of Deloitte LLP where she was a consultant, talent strategist and the Chief of Staff to the Deloitte’s Chief Strategy Officer.  Most importantly she is a mom to three young children.  Maeghan is passionate about HR industry trends, well-being at work and at home and like many other working moms out there, strategies to get through the day and find joy.  Maeghan holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Suffolk University and a B.A. in Political Science from American University in Washington, D.C..  She lives in Wellesley, MA with her family. 

  1. […] Welcome to our series on Learning to Learn, where we interview parents about their experiences in school. Catch up by reading previous interviews here. […]

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