When did “parent” become a verb? Somehow I missed the moment. Everyone seems to be telling parents how to parent as if it were an unnatural act. That might be okay, except that much of the advice insults children.
Here is an example entitled: “10 SITUATIONS TO ROLE PLAY BEFORE YOUR KINDERGARTENER’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL” (caps not mine). The ten situations are:
- “Meeting New People,”
- “Saying Goodbye,”
- “Sharing Toys,”
- “Asking Questions Politely,”
- “Cooperating With Others,”
- “Raising Her Hand,”
- “Communicating a Need to Use the Restroom,”
- “Following Directions,”
- “Repeating His Personal Information.”
- “Cleaning Up After Himself,”
What’s wrong with this? The author doesn’t seem to be counting on the children for anything.
Meeting new people and saying goodbye? Most children have been practicing this since birth. Most parents will have been feeding their children the words to go along with these experiences for five years by the start of school.
A family is a social environment. Humans learn sharing, asking questions politely, and cooperating with others in the course of the normal rough and tumble of social interaction. Research shows that 18-month-olds have social responsibility built in. They naturally want to be helpful to others and to fit in socially, so they learn social behaviors by mapping the social environment onto their brain. Role playing a few skills at the last minute is likely to be too-little-too-late.
If Raising Her Hand, Communicating a Need to Use the Restroom, Following Directions, Repeating His Personal Information are requirements of the new social environment of kindergarten, five-year-olds should be allowed the challenge of learning them when the time comes.
Preparing kids for success is a fool’s errand. Children experience success by taking on the challenges of new situations themselves and by learning from mistakes. The success they achieve is a function of the sheer quantity of challenges they face on their own. A five-year-old brain has been preparing for school by solving social problems for 43,000 hours. The greatest contribution a parent can make is to exude trust that the child can handle it.
Role playing Cleaning up after themselves? Now, that may actually be a good idea for some children. If your child has not yet learned that cleaning up is an integral part of doing something, then a lesson the day before kindergarten just might work. Here’s a good opener:
“Kindergarten starts tomorrow. Would you like me to teach you something that might impress your teacher? Most teachers are really impressed with kids who can clean up after themselves without being asked. Would you like to practice that with me this evening before you go to bed? I could pretend to be the teacher. Would that be fun?”
Of course, it would have been better if “cleaning up” had been learned in the natural course of doing things between the ages of two and five. Building clean-up practices into home life is the simply best way to teach this habit, and if cleaning up is habitual for the adults it will be much easier to teach. “Cleaning up is just what we do around here,” wouldn’t even need to be said more than once. Thousands of Montessori classrooms in many cultures all over the world have been demonstrating this reality for a hundred years.
This example of over-parenting should not, however, drive us in the opposite direction. The opposite of something bad is often worse. “Backing-off” is not better parenting. There is a third way: build a relationship with the child.
In her new book, “Let’s Talk Kids: Becoming a Family” Claudia Quigg, points in this direction. Mixing anecdotes and research gracefully and entertainingly, Claudia shows how even newborns act as if they are at least as intent on making it in the world as their parents are for them to make it. They are as often leaders as they are creatures to be led.
If you are one of the many parents who feel torn by the over-vs-under-parenting debate, her essays and cameos point to the secret of bringing out the best in children, a secret that is instinctive. Here it is:
Don’t make them flourish. Don’t let them blossom. Build a relationship, and create a collaborative family. Kids might turn out better if “parent” were not a verb but a person learning how to build a relationship with a child.