Teaching and counseling are interesting perspectives on children and their habits. In lots of ways, I think they’ve made me a better parent. Certainly there was a base level of familiarity with children and their idiosyncrasies, but there was also a greater tolerance (I’d like to think…) of the inherent chaos that is child-rearing. I’d love to say that I’m one of those parents who’s feathers never ruffle, voice never raises, and threats never cross my tongue. Boy, am I NOT that parent. I’ve been known to say, “I’m sick of you right now,” to my 3-year-old. Warm and fuzzy, right? I don’t really hear it when my kids cry anymore, and I considered locking my son in his room last week so I could go to the bathroom.
However, I do have a few teaching-tested-tenets by which I try to parent when I’m not plotting my great escape.
1. Dodge the “don’ts”. Don’t get me wrong (ha! see what I did there?), I’m absolutely in favor of limits/ boundaries/ rules; I think we need them, kids need them, society needs them. What I am saying, is that when children ONLY hear the things they can’t do, they tune out… they hear the ‘can’t’ and ears turn off. So when you say, “Raoul, don’t climb on the Louis XIV chaise,” Raoul just hears ‘don’t’ and not what follows- your chaise is still in danger. In most cases, there’s a way to phrase your rules/ limits/ restrictions in a positive, direct way. E.g. “Raoul, stay on the floor… Raoul, climb on your bed… Raoul, sit on that chaise please.” It gives the child a clear explicit goal rather than a laundry list of restrictions.
2. If they’re able, let them. In the classroom, this meant I didn’t do a lot of pre-cutting and assembling for my students… they could do these things, so I let them. This absolutely comes from a place of laziness, but I also think it’s great for the children as well. Win-win. If there’s something your child is physically able to do, let them; save yourself the trouble. It might not be neat and clean and fast, but it’s one less thing for you to deal with and man, does the child feel pleased with themselves. Choosing outfits has become the thing that I gave up the reins with and voila, here’s what we got:
3. Letting go. As long as they’re safe, let your children find their own solutions. Again, this is usually not the most time-sensitive approach, but it lets children reach their own conclusions, explore cause/ effect, and learn lessons on their own. As adults, we usually know when something is about to go very wrong, and it can be REALLY hard to bite our tongue and let things go awry. If children are never given a chance to fail, they’re never given a chance to rebound. And if the worst thing that happens is the bubbles get spilled all over the patio or their t-shirt gets marinara on it, then I say let it go. Obviously, we all have our comfort level and moods for this sort of stuff, but I’m always asking myself, what’s the worst that can happen? If it’s just that things are a little messy or one of the kids might fall on the grass, then I try to stop myself from interfering. Afterall, sometimes they come up with pretty amazing solutions!
4. Rewards aren’t for expectations. What I used to tell my first-graders was that if it’s something I expect you to be doing, then you won’t get a party for it. E.g. I expect my kids to stay seated at the table during meals, clear their plates, brush their teeth… so I’ll give them some positive reinforcement, but I’m not going to raise the roof or anything. It might sound harsh, but honestly… in life, we’re not given a ticker tape parade when we use our turn signals or refill the toilet paper roll.
5. A little benign neglect never hurt anyone. In the classroom, I made a conscious point of leaving my kids thoughtfully unattended whenever I could. What I mean by this is that they were never neglected or unsupervised, but they were allowed to be independent a great deal. As I write this, Eleanor and Oliver are on the patio with an array of containers playing around with water. I’m watching them through the window, but basically letting them figure things out on their own both socially with each other and physically with the spilled water, etc. (It was also my experience that in school environments that were more scheduled and calculated, unstructured times like recess and lunch were really rough because these children had never learned self-control or self-modulation… they were so accustomed to an adult telling them which way to go that they had no idea how to do things peacefully on their own when given the chance.)
6. Enjoy your kids. This seems a little Pollyanna, I know, but some of my favorite times teaching were the days that we would forgo the cafeteria (our students brought their own lunch) and sit outside together for a picnic. There weren’t lessons to teach or expectations to reign down, we could just be together. With a tantruming three-year-old and a caveman toddler in the house, I have to remind myself this a lot. Just try to enjoy these kids for the 30 seconds until they freak on you.
7. A box of junk can be the best money you never spent. The availability of classes, sports, activities for children is so prevalent nowadays that it’s more and more common for kids to have something structured every minute of the day. On a certain level, this is great. But on another level, it means that our children don’t have the chance to imagine and get lost in their own ideas nearly as often as we did and our parents did. (Don’t even get me started on the DS, the iPad, the Playstation, etc.) I’m all for technology and advancement and keeping our kids up with the times, but I think a little innocent creative make-believe is really the foundation for just about everything. Next time you go to throw away that old cardboard box, consider whether it could be used as a fort or a robot or a castle!
8. Remember your kids are people too. In the classroom, it was so easy to get fixated on my own teaching agenda that I could lose track of whether or not the class was even engaged. On numerous occasions, I’d come in armed with a lesson that I thought was the bees knees and the kids simply weren’t into it. I had to eat my pride and either bag the entire thing, or check in with the class about what would make it more fun. I try to remember this with my own children. When I can see Eleanor starting to draw her battle lines about something, I attempt to find out what the issue is. Sometimes there actually is a reason behind her stubbornness, and I just needed to ask. Again, this is not an endorsement for letting your kids’ opinions drive the bus, but it’s worth exploring whether there’s an explanation before digging in your heels. Oh, and it’s much easier than carrying a kicking child up a set of stairs to their room; I’m just sayin’.
9. Be genuine. As both a teacher and a counselor, I have found that the more like myself I am with kids, the more they trust in me and feel comfortable. Often we feel compelled to ‘play the part’ and sometimes just being genuine is the trick. Let your kids know how you’re feeling or why you’re angry… “It makes Mummy sad when you’re mean to your brother because I love him,” might actually resonate more than “Don’t hit your brother.” It might not, but it’s worth a try.
10. There’s always tomorrow. (And Sauvignon Blanc.) When I felt like the worst most disorganized teacher on the planet, I would go home, dust off my plan book and really channel my A-game for the next day. And there are MANY days as a parent when I go to bed thinking that tomorrow will hopefully be a better day. (Then I go on Expedia.com and see what a flight to Bali costs, just in case.)
p.s. What I DIDN’T learn in the classroom involved, weathering a temper tantrum, toddler mood swings, and changing a diaper when the child is kicking. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much my life these days!