There is little in life that can be properly understood without context. Whether our first grader is learning to figure out the meaning of words based on what else is in the paragraph or our senior is grappling with a Shakespearian passage, they must look at what else is given to make sense of the whole.
As parents, we are continually looking at context to understand the behavior of our children: the meltdown before supper because the field trip forced a skipped naptime or a teen’s teary silence after a particularly bad performance in the last basketball game. Remembering the painful history of a friend can help us forgive the constant boasting that covers up a shattered self-image. Trying to understand context can help us overlook the obnoxious behavior of an acquaintance who is probably having a rough time a work due to an economic downturn or could be struggling with marital issues.
But, contextual wisdom does not come easily. For the student, it requires the discipline of sifting and sorting through words or documents. For an empathetic human being, it means we must be willing to hear another’s story or be content and extend grace when we are given no clue as to what lies under the surface of a person’s behavior. This willingness can help us be more patient in a world filled with hurt.
Likewise, context about ourselves is something that we can provide for others to make their jobs easier. I have just spent the last six months helping seniors explain the context of their lives for college admissions officers. If we don’t provide this important humanizing framework, a student is reduced to mere facts: standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank.
Context matters. While it can require the work of a lifetime to see clearly what is in front of us, the proper use of context is a skill that we can nurture in our children and one that we must continually practice for ourselves.
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