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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On Getting Dirty

Playing outside was one of my absolute favorite things. At the first hint of warm weather, I’d be out in the backyard, digging up the plants (weeds, mostly)  that were already starting to grow. Warm sunshine on my back and cold, frozen ground at my feet. It was always so disappointing to realize that since it’s Colorado, we weren’t out of snow-season yet.

Even now, on the warm days in March that signal a hint of spring, I run outside barefoot to feel the grass against my toes. I still forget that the ground hasn’t completely thawed, so I’m often left with cold, muddy feet. Happy feet.

Even though we never we able to get our mud pools to hold water (who’d have thought?), they were good for something after all!

By the way, I’m totally letting my kids get dirty. (We’ll see how I feel about that when I’m trying to get all the grass stains out of their clothes and keep the mud out of my house. But for now, it sounds wonderful.)

Why Getting Grimy As A Child Can Make For A Healthier Life

by NANCY SHUTE

04:53 pm

March 23, 2012

Maybe the kids would be healthier if Mom skipped this sometimes.

EnlargeiStockphoto.com [side note: stock photos are sooo creepy, but it must be so fun to try and imagine all of the stock photos that people will need.]
Maybe the kids would be healthier if Mom skipped this sometimes.

We’ve known for a while that people who grow up on farms are less likely to have ailments related to the immune system than people who grow up in cities. Those include asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.

Exposure to germs as a kid seems to be helpful, while living in an environment that’s squeaky clean seems to pose risks for some illnesses. Still, nobody knew precisely why. But now some scientists say they think they’ve figured out the details of the “hygiene hypothesis.”

They found that microbes in the gut keep a rare part of the immune system reined in. No microbes, and the immune cells go crazy in the lungs and intestines, increasing the risk of asthma and colitis. Add in the microbes, and cells in question, invariant natural killer T cells, retreat.

The discovery was one of those lovely “aha” moments in science. Or as says Richard Blumberg, the chief of gastroenterology at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston, and co-author of the study says: “We made the serendipitous observation that these cells were dramatically enriched in the lung and colon in mice that lacked any microbes.”

These are mice raised in totally germ-free environments in the lab. What really piqued the scientists’ interest was that the immune response in the super-clean mouse innards looked very similar to what happens in diseases like asthma.

But they were still missing the connection with exposure to bacteria in early childhood. So Blumberg and his colleagues took pregnant germ-free mice and exposed them to microbes the day before they gave birth. The baby mice had fewer iNKT cells in their guts, even after they grew up.

The researchers also found that genetically altered mice without the iNKT cells don’t get colitis, even if they were raised in a germ-free environment.

It’s unclear which microbes help regulate the immune cells, according to Dennis Kasper, director of the Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s, and a co-author of the study, which was published online in Science. Figuring that out is very important, he says. “You can’t just put any piece of dirt into a baby and direct the control of the immune system,” he says.

He thinks there are a very few special molecules in the 500 to 1,000 species in the intestine that control the immune cells, but it’s going to take a lot more work to figure that out.

Of course, this study was done in mice, but it gets at some fundamental questions that would be impossible ask in humans. No germ-free cages for us.

And their findings square with 20 years of epidemiological research showing that exposure to microbes and parasites in childhood reduces the risk of autoimmune disease.

There’s evidence that children who are given antibiotics early in life are more likely to have immune-based problems like asthma and food allergies. There’s even someevidence that women might have more autoimmune diseases than men because they’re kept cleaner than boys as children.

These disorders are more common in developed countries, and in people who move from the developing world into tidier lands.

So parents may someday emulate the germy mouse world, rather than a scrubbed and sterile environment, to ensure the health of their offspring.

Source: NPR