On Parenting and Educating, Symbiotically

I’m not a parent; I know that I have absolutely no ground to disparage parenting in any way. That being said, I’ve been a babysitter since I was twelve, and I’ve been around a number of very different parenting styles. While I understand the motivations behind each and every parenting choice that the parents I’ve worked for make, I really do question quite a few of them.

This article showcases an emerging trend in parenting psychology. It’s worth the read.

I babysit for one kid who struggles with social interaction and behavioral issues (I’ve babysat for many just like her), and I know that her mom struggles with “the problem” on a daily basis. Over the course of our time together, I’ve instituted a “no-nonsense” policy: if the kid is not going to do her homework, I calmly tell her that until we do the homework, we’re not going to do anything else. Then I sit down at the table and pull out the homework. I start doing it, slowly. (I realize this in itself is a problem.) I tell her that until she helps me with her homework, we’re not going to play, and I withhold the promise of dessert or playtime until she’s put in demonstrable effort. Lo and behold, it works. She ends up completing the homework, at which point, I give her double high-fives and tell her how proud of her I am.

If she’s going to say mean things to me, I’ll take a page from my mom’s book and tell that I find her speech to be inappropriate and hurtful and tell her that I’m not going to listen to her until she can speak to me in a more calm, polite manner. A few minutes of ignoring does a world of good – the kids want the attention, even negative attention, and so reminding them that they need to be respectful about it changes their approach immediately. Being ignored is the absolute worst, and when we continue to give the kids the negative reinforcement, we’re teaching them that attention can only be achieved through negative actions. Of course, this is a call to parents and caregivers to make sure that they are giving plenty of positive attention to children as well, so they don’t feel compelled to act out in order to get the attention that they crave.

On multiple occasions, I’ve pulled a kid aside, taken both of their hands into mine and looked into their eyes. I tell them that I know how hard it is to do things that we don’t want to do and how proud of them I am. I tell them that I appreciate their cooperation and compliment something in the homework that I think they’ve done fabulously, like counting or coloring or whatever. I want to reinforce the positives and applaud their choice to do the homework, not because I feel that they’ve done anything spectacular, but because I know that they’re not getting that reinforcement elsewhere and I want to at least entertain the idea that good work gets good results.

Sometimes, a child I’m babysitting for will get frustrated. Instead of trying to figure out a solution, they’ll dissolve into child-hysterics (duh, they’re children), crying and wailing without any real reason. I’ll calmly remind them that there’s another solution to their problem and I’ll ask them what they think will help solve it. We talk it out; we find a solution. If the jar won’t open or the toy won’t work, we look to see what might be done about it. (Personal note: only after exhausting most options are tears acceptable and sometimes encouraged. I get that. I’m all about a good cry-it-out session. Those sometimes are the best solutions.)

The same goes for diner. I have parents who cater to their children’s every demand when it comes to food, or alternately, completely ignore basic food groups and then wonder why their child is struggling with issues such as attention, energy, and general behavior. I have found that by limiting the choices but offering something that the kid will enjoy and eat (that’s simultaneously healthy or at the very least semi-nutritious) will go a long way towards obtaining the desired results.

I love children. I understand that each and every child has issues that need to be addressed individually.

At one of the adoption camps this summer, there was a little guy who was struggling on the second morning. He didn’t want to leave his dad, and it took me immense amounts of coaxing to get him to come with me. I promised him that I was not going to leave him until lunch (letting him know that he had someone that was going to be with him was important), and that if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to have ANY fun. I ended up getting him away from his dad (“dad’s got to go to boring parent stuff; he’s not going to have any fun either.”) and getting him to hold my hand and come with me. He was apprehensive about joining the group, so he and I took a walk around the building and I tried to find some common ground. I asked him if he had any siblings. He told me he had a dog sister. I asked about the dog’s name and what she liked to do, and then I told him that I used to have a dog named Acorn. The little guy looked up at me quizzically, and then giggled when I told him that we used to call him “Corn dog.”

By the next session, I had worked him into the group and helped him make a car out of recycled materials. After that, he did some art therapy. By lunch, I brought him back to his dad and asked him if he’d had any fun at all that morning. He broke into a huge grin and said, “No.” I was so pleased. That’s the feedback I need, the feedback that makes all of that time worthwhile.

At the end of the day, the dad came up to me and thanked me for helping his son feel more comfortable. I answered honestly that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. One of the parents who was standing next to us turned to the dad and said, “That’s why we call her the ‘child whisperer.'” I blushed, filled with pride and happiness. I absolutely adore little kids and I do feel as though I am able to connect with them, simply because I understand what they need. They’re full of all the fear and apprehension that I felt as a kid, and so I think that’s what allows me to be able to respond to their individual needs.

That being said, I think we’re in a time where we overindulge our children. My mom worked really hard to create resilient children, and she did so through consistency, unconditional love, and determination/patience. Recently, one of my friends who has a terrible mother was going through a rough time and I insisted that we call my mom. My friend was crying and was terrified that she was going to “screw it up.” I told her that that’s the thing about moms, you can’t “screw it up.” You can call them crying (oh god, a million times have I called my mom in tears only to have her tell me that she can’t understand me and I’m going to have to use my words…) and they’re still going to love you.

By creating a space where we allow children the freedom to evaluate their own emotions and create genuinely productive responses to them, we create not only stable children but functional adults. By establishing systems and routines for assessing emotions, we allow children to plumb the often-neglected depth of their own feelings and provide the opportunity for them to help create a response that’s going to be fruitful not just now but in the future.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is from when I was very young. We were part of a camp or after-school program or something and we were at the local YMCA doing swimming. I remember being absolutely terrified (my general state of being as a small child), and she recounts that she came to pick me up and I looked at her and asked, “Why do I cry?” She knew immediately that we needed a new plan for swimming lessons, as the group setting wasn’t going to do it for me. By tailoring her response to my emotional assessment (such that it was), she was able to set me up for swimming success by giving me a different learning setting and a more tailored lesson plan.

That’s good parenting. It wasn’t indulging in tantrums or ridiculous behavior; it was catering to a specifically outlined need as a result of my own communication of my feelings. It allowed both of us to feel comfortable, although one of us ended up lighter in the pocketbook for it. But to this day, when I swim, I think of my swim teacher and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn and grow at my own pace, rather than in a group setting that somehow made my child-self profoundly uncomfortable.

Schools and school staff are becoming increasingly more responsible for parenting. The integration of positive efforts to affect (and create the desire to effect, too) behavior and help regulate children’s emotions and reactions are more necessary than ever. I understand the frustration that a teacher might feel when they’re constantly obligated to single out a child for poor behavior in the classroom due to any number of factors, including learning disabilities, disorders, and home life, but I do believe that consistent application of tools – particularly emotion-based ones – can not only affect classroom stability, but the overall wellbeing of the child.

If we’re able to provide the resources, then why are we not implementing these programs as part of a well-rounded approach to learning? (We do waste enough money on ineffective programs, and I understand that there are budgetary constraints, but in order to create and maintain the results we desire, it’s imperative that we be proactive rather than reactive about our approach to educating the whole child….rather than teaching to test scores or attaining specific metrics. I firmly believe that we can attain the results we desire if we’re able to establish consistency, so let’s figure out how to allocate the funds for these programs….ugh, which is another issue, of course.)

Each child will face innumerable struggles between socialization, education, and personal growth, and it’s up to the parents as well as the school system to foster the links between all three. By endeavoring to create more awareness in our children, we’re allowing them to help be a part of the educational system and their own maturation, which is not only necessary, but entirely empowering.

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