When I was about fourteen years old, it seemed as if I was always annoying some adult. At home I was constantly being asked, “Why don’t you think?” My answer was, “Think about what?” I was always being told to “find something constructive to do,” or a variation on the theme was “Look around and see what needs doing!” I remember feeling exasperated and angry, “I don’t see anything that needs doing!” Once I remember saying “Just tell me what you want me to do, just say it and I’ll do it!”, but nobody ever did! Just thinking about it makes me feel frustrated. If they had told me to sweep the floor, I would have. If they had said I did a lousy job of sweeping I could have looked at the floor and seen what I had missed with my broom. But it felt cruel being criticized for failing to do when I didn’t know what I was meant to do. It also didn’t help much being big for my age.
It’s nearly impossible to look back objectively to be able to see what was actually going on then. All I know is that I wanted to comply but I didn’t see what they wanted. No family, no Mom, I am not standing here today to make little of your efforts. Can we agree that we can only do according to what we understand? These Letters From a Teacher are recipes of the successes I have had. If they work for you, good, If they don’t, then it’s wise to discard them, just throw them out and keep looking.
When I was in my late twenties and early thirties I read nearly everything I could find on self-development. I would get a short term “high” when I read an idea that made sense to me. The problem wasn’t the lack of hearing a good message; the problem was that the books did not tell me how to move from where I was to where I wanted to go. Glossed-over tools without much in the way of helping the reader to navigate proved to be useless at best and extremely frustrating. Unless we understand how to implement and incorporate these philosophies into our daily lives, neither we nor our children will benefit from them.
We don’t need ‘sound good, no substance’ verbal dribble. We don’t need more rhetoric. We don’t need people telling us it’s hopeless and that we are victims at the mercy of the media. We don’t need to be told that today’s child is born different and that’s why we can’t control them. We don’t need friends trying to make us feel better by telling us an even more horrible story of family life gone wrong. Reality television is designed to do just that. Do you feel better after a dose of reality television, watching out of control children as you cheer on the Nanny who comes in to set things right? Then does that television episode become the conversation at work the next day? Do you see the insanity here? We say “at least my children aren’t that bad!” The insanity is that you are probably watching these reality television shows right along with your children who are learning a few new tricks in the bargain! Geez!
We need to create little support groups with people we respect who are on the same page with us in terms of what we want for our children. It doesn’t matter what we call these parent groups. In these small parenting groups we need to share common family issues which we wrestle with every day. Each of us will benefit from the strategies which are shared as you trade recipes for correction. I hear you asking where you are supposed to go to find these people for your parenting group. If you are already spending time on Facebook, you can start there. You can advertise in your church bulletin, you can ask to put up a poster at school. You can do a lot of things if that is what you want.
We get very dramatic as we tell the world that “I would do anything for my child… I would lay down my life nah nah nah nah nah.” We will do everything except change some of the core issues, like seriously curtailing television viewing and resting down the pacifier (cell phone) long enough to see what’s going on…
If you care to know how I began in a conscious way to teach my daughter to think and reason, I am sharing it here and now with you at no charge.
I had my daughter when I was thirty-two years old and I admit to experimenting with her. I was always curious about how much she understood. By the time my daughter was three years old, I was hooked on story time. I would get all snuggly and begin the reading. I read a bit and stopped and asked questions, “What do you think will happen next? Anansi doesn’t want to work. What do you think about that?” When driving in the car, I would leave the radio off. I would present my three year old with simple age appropriate problems and listen to her thinking. “Oh gee Whitney I forgot to give the package to Mr. Jones, now what am I going to do? Any suggestions?” And you know she had a ton of suggestions. Learning to think is best done when we have a reason to think. The ability to reason is not something that happens automatically. It is a muscle that much be flexed and exercised regularly. Thinking happens best in quiet, not in noise and distraction. That is the reason we need to control the volume and the amount of television and music.
Sometimes the game was played with my posing a scenario and asking “What would you do if?” Age four for instance: “If we are in the department store and you can’t find me, what will you do? Pretend I am the lady at the counter what will you say to me? How can you help the police to find me? What can you tell them?” This was how I played with her all the time. But then again we didn’t watch television except on week-ends. Hey, I hear you saying “that’s unrealistic.”
Well here’s a revelation: Television “dumbs” us down. Just because they make Sesame Street for children, doesn’t mean we need to park our two year olds in front of it every day. McDonald’s makes Happy Meals for children and I can guarantee you, there isn’t much that’s healthy in them either. It’s business, and they have sold us on it. As a treat it’s fine, as a staple, it’s lethal.
We can argue till the cows come home about how great one or two programs are on the tube, but most of it is garbage. Even the commercials are a diet we can live without. But instead of curtailing how much we watch, we now have a television in nearly every room least we miss out on one single morsel.
I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of how we engage or talk to our children. One day I sent my daughter into the post office to do an errand for me. She was about ten years old. She came out of the post office upset and complaining about the way the postal clerk spoke to her. She said the lady was grumpy, acted as if she didn’t want to serve her and wouldn’t even look at her as she answered. I thought about that. I told my daughter that we were going to conduct an experiment. I told her that we were going back to the post office the next day but that this time she would see if she could change the outcome by what she did. I suggested that she speak up with a great smile and a big “Good afternoon.” I told her that she was to be sure to look the lady directly in the eye and smile. I told her to look for something that she could compliment the lady on perhaps her earrings. Next she was to say “I hope you can help me,” or “Please help me.” We rehearsed this at home.
Let me say she did not want to participate in this exercise. I told her that we were going to do it and that she should think about it as if she was an actress on a stage. I explained a little about the study of psychology. Everywhere there are people we find difficult to get along with. They are not going anywhere. We cannot erase them all or fire them all. Some will be your teachers; some will be your supervisor. We can choose many ways of dealing with them. I wanted my daughter see if a different approach would yield a different result. It was funny really because she told me that it was as if the lady still wanted to be grumpy but wasn’t quite able to be. Now I could have chosen to go in and have a word with the clerk myself, but I wanted to see if she could have the experience of controlling to some extent the outcome. When she came back to the car she was smiling, so was I.
As a parent, my mother did the best she could. I did the best I could. Dressing children and feeding them, sending them to ballet lessons or football soccer clubs are fine, but if we find that these extra curricular activities are not leaving time for the teaching which is essential to their later development then you must question the trade-off.
When I learn to think, I do need as many rules from my parents. The rules are intended to keep the child safe until his maturity kicks in and he becomes a problem solver. Failure on our part to begin this process early leads to a lot of avoidable misery later.
I told you that these letters might irritate you, but I promise you I am rooting for young parents from the sidelines. Parent from the perspective that we are preparing our children to meet the world; do the kind of job in your parenting in such a way that should anyone else have to step in and assume your role as parent due to your poor health or death, you have handed over the kind of child you would best like to inherit yourself. If you think enough to make a will which sets out your instructions with regards to your property, then surely you must think about whether or not you have trained your child in such a way that someone else can step in and complete the job.