Imperfections are such wonderful learning opportunities.
Last week Meryl, anxious that her twelve-year-old daughter (we’ll call her Allison) still hadn’t done her summer reading, lost her temper one morning at breakfast and said in a voice twice its normal size: “Your brain isn’t functioning. You’re just not thinking. School starts next week. Have you considered the consequences?”
Allison simply got up from the table and went to her room.
At the end of the day Allison found Meryl in the kitchen: “Mom, would this be an okay time to talk?”
“Sure, Dear, what’s up?”
“I know that this has been a really difficult time for you with the move and all,” said Allison, “but it has been hard for all of us, and the way you talked to me this morning is not okay. Transitions can be a difficult time for everybody, but parents should never talk to their children that way.”
“You know, I am not prefect,” replied Meryl, “but you have to understand that sometimes, when I am under stress I might say the wrong things, but I watched you procrastinate on your summer reading all summer long, and I know what a perfectionist you are and that if you don’t get your work done, the first day of school will come and you will be so anxious that you won’t even want to go to school.”
“But that is not the right way to talk to someone.”
“You’re right, but when a person gets anxious they might not do things the right way.”
“I understand. But, Mom, if you knew you were wrong, why didn’t you apologize? You just made excuses.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry I got mad,” said Meryl, finally.
Allison has clearly been the beneficiary of some good parenting—imperfections and all. Allison had even gone to her big brother, first, for advice on how to talk to her mother. No coincidence that Meryl, a parenting expert, focused her radio show this week on: How can we help our children make the transition from the summer pace to the routines of school?
The really good news in this conversation is the prospects for the human race.
Our species has the ability to learn, and luckily, not just from our parents. Children are not fated to be some combination of genetic make-up plus parenting. We humans have the ability to improve upon our parents’ lessons.
Yes, a child’s brain wires itself with a map of its social environment. Kids watch, listen, and copy their parents. By age five they are wired with their parents’ vocabulary, syntax, behaviors and values. However, that is only the beginning. There are three other factors making it likely that each generation will be an improvement over the one before.
First, they are hypersensitive to inconsistencies. “Mom, you say one thing, and do another.” “You behave differently with different people and in different situations.” “You and Dad do things differently.”
Secondly, there are other people in their lives: teachers, cousins, grandparents, and most importantly, peers. By the time they are twelve, they have selected their own assortment.
Thirdly, and most importantly, humans have an inner compass, and it is this inner compass that revealed itself most obviously in Allison.
If a parent has six cookies and gives five to one child and one to another saying, “This is fair,” a child knows it’s not. Fairness is on this human compass. Kindness, also, seems to be an innate standard. I have never had to explain to a kindergartner what they did wrong. The conversation goes something like: “What did you do?”
“I pushed Suzie on the slide.”
“Why was that bad?”
Forgiveness seems also to be built in. Everyone knows it’s not good to lose your temper. Asking for and giving forgiveness feels so good, that it doesn’t so much need to be taught as to be practiced. The relationship need is like magnetic north in our brains, guiding us and our children toward better behavior.
The more we are open about our own imperfections to our kids, the more we create a safe place to be ourselves and allow the inner compass to educate.
A SUMMER TO FORGET by Janet Lansbury
DEALING WITH ANXIETY AT THE START OF A NEW SCHOOL YEAR by Claire Marketos