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Parenting Is Like Oxygen

Holding a baby feels powerful. We feel it, and at some level we know that the infant experiences it too. Our heart warms. Our belly fills with butterflies. Stress melts away. The skin tingles. We know something important is happening and that there are physical implications, for us and for the child. It feels healthy. For a parent, there may be no words for what is happening, though science is increasingly able to provide words for those who want them.

From a story on NPR, new evidence that a lack of parenting and attachment effects the growth of the brain. We know that a lack of attachment to a parent or parent-figure can lead to several problems, including under-functioning immune systems, emotional disorders, and difficulties with relationships. In the worst cases, neglected children can fail to thrive, experiencing severely inhibited growth, unable even to take advantage of calories when there is enough food. Now, researchers are discovering that the physical structure of the brain is effected by the level of care a child receives in the early years. While it is not irreversible, a child with no parent-figure to bond with may have significantly lower growth in several areas of the brain.

While the science is encouraging and provides for deeper understanding, most parents we know are way ahead of the game. The expert’s findings add little to what we know when we hold a baby in our hands: our children need us. We know this at a deep level, even though we don’t have the x-ray vision to track brain development. To hold a child is to know, for all the miraculous insight that technology provides, that scientists have probably only just begun to scratch the surface of what is made possible by a parent’s love.

“Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children’s brain development. Parenting … is a bit like oxygen. It’s easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn’t getting enough.” –Nim Tottenham, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Conflict-free classrooms?

 

“Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. Peace is the respectful resolution of conflict.”

Heather Shumaker’s excellent book, “It’s OK Not to Share, and Other Renegade Rules For Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids” (the source of the quotes herein), lays down a number of surprising rules, from the one in the title to other nuggets, like, “Kids don’t have to say I’m sorry”, “We’re not all friends here”, and “Kids need conflict”. That last one is all about the priceless opportunities kids have to learn about peace from their earliest days in school. Shumaker does a great job of putting conflict in its place. And, she says, the place for conflict is right in the middle of the school room.

“Many of us avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs”, Shumaker writes, describing what is really an epidemic attitude in the U.S. … the avoidance of pain. Nobody wants their kids to face the pain that comes from conflict …. But when we shelter our kids from conflict, we deny them the opportunity that pain presents to adapt and learn. Shumaker describes how conflicts and problems are the way to learn about true peace, the kind that comes from facing and overcoming difficulties. She argues that far from protecting our youngest from these hard lessons, we need to allow them to pass through them, trusting in a young child’s ability to discover and try solutions.

“Children learn about peace by having problems.”

When conflict arises in the classroom, we (mature!) adults help children mediate conflict, not by preventing it, but by educating young ones about their part in making conflict, and helping them discover their part of the solution. We identify the causes of conflict (“When you passed by, you knocked over something that she made.”; help a child think about how their actions can hurt another (“It sounds like she is sad and a little angry that her project is knocked over.”); and model, or guide a child in, identifying solutions for the benefit of all (“What can we do now?” … “Let’s offer to help her build it again!”).

There is no real way to avoid conflict. It’s part of how we adapt and grow. Conflict only becomes a crisis when one tries to silence or limit the freedom of another. That’s what makes war between us grown-ups. Let’s teach our kids how to face conflict with patience and grace. It could change the world.

“Talk of peace isn’t meaningful to young kids. Neither is ‘being nice.’ Kids need chances to navigate conflict firsthand and learn what’s appropriate. What do I do when conflict comes up? What do I say? How do I set a limit on another’s behavior? Once kids know these answers they can mediate their own conflicts in most amazing ways.”

[This post originally appeared on Parenting On The Peninsula’s Blog]

Failure has its benefits

Babies and parents form a perfect teaching and learning environment, one in which perfection is not required. After birth, the natural connectedness and comfort of the womb gives way to an environment where connection and comfort must be actively provided by a parent — it takes more effort. Usually the joy that attends the arrival of the child is enough to keep parents close and attentive, and that bond will grow with the healthy parent, who responds quickly and easily to the child’s cries. But this easy connection does not last.

Around the time that a mom and dad start to return ‘to the real world’ and begin to try to balance parenthood with their other adult responsibilities, everybody’s patience will be tested–especially baby. They’ll cry a little bit longer … and mom or dad will be a bit slower to respond. This will feel like failure. Yet, as long as these failures aren’t catastrophic or capricious, but come gradually as the child and parents acclimate to the developing family situation, then these failures have their purpose.

When we fail as parents, new perspectives are allowed to grow in the infant: trust, patience, self-confidence, and other self-sustaining strategies. And in a healthy rhythm of family life, these new perspectives will always be balanced with knowledge that one is cared for and loved, that connection and comfort will come. Imperfections in the family help a child learn important lessons about their own resources, and how to endure life outside of paradise.  The gradual but inevitable distancing, the inevitable testing separation, is a part of being human, and should not be feared. In fact, parents ought to get used to it, as this is the one constant in parenting. It ends only when your child becomes an adult.

Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t encouraging parents to quickly teach infants the cold, hard facts of a solitary life. Parents should respond appropriately to whatever needs their infant communicates: for holding, for feeding, for quiet solitude, for play. But given that most parents will do this to the best of their ability, we think it’s worth remembering that failure is normal, and the experience of it is an important part of a child’s development.

Parents In The Classroom

A teaching moment?

A teaching moment?

We think cooperative classrooms are the ideal. In co-opps, Parents participate in their child’s early education, observe their children in early social settings, and learn from people who’ve been working with children for years. In the cooperative setting, parents take on a unique role, one that might not occur to them at home. They have to follow the rules.

At home parents make the rules, and children follow the rules. Our kids may never get to see us as rule followers.

But when parents participate in their child’s early education, they follow the teacher and the plan and model the behaviors that are expected in the classroom – parents sit on chairs, not tables; sit quietly at circle time and pay attention to the teacher; eat their snacks at the table; and ride trikes with their shoes on!

Parents do these things because they happen to be what we ask our children to do (and we have a measure of grace for children who aren’t ready to be constrained … but parents are still expected to model good rule-following!). There may be different rules in your learning space–the key is consistency: we tell our parents, “If you can sit on a table and text with your friends, we aren’t able to tell children that they can’t sit on tables and have their electronic toy permanently in front of them.

Strategic Engagement

We’ve been thinking about how teachers and parents engage with children. While children do their thing, we see a spectrum of engagement, with active engagement on one end and detached observation on the other. Each are appropriate and have their benefits … the key for adults is being mindful of what kind of engagement is called for in a given moment.

When adults are well attuned to the children in their care, they know when to let a child be and when to step in to enhance or deepen the learning process.

There are times when we lead children and are fully engaged. Adult-directed play is an important part of learning, as we create scenarios for children to encounter classic problems and search out workable solutions. Adults provide safe boundaries for exploration and as much guidance as is necessary for kids to find unique (and practical) ways of overcoming obstacles. Too much distance at a time when children need guidance may lead to the kind of failures and disappointments that make a child wary of taking on challenges.

Children should also experience free exploration and play in an environment of non-directive, observational engagement. In this case, adults observe from a little distance, in order to avoid interrupting a child’s creative work. In addition to benefiting a child, from this distance adults can discover something about who our children are. When adults step back, children move at their own pace, create their own kind of order, furnish their own worlds. Too much involvement when children need freedom can lead a child to mistrust their own impulses, to incorrectly assume that they must only do what adults want them to, to shy away from thinking for themselves.

It takes some practice, and patience, to be mindful of where a child is, what their momentary needs are. It’s worth the effort. Ultimately we want to engage kids in a way that encourages them to risk new ventures, both creative and practical. When a child is learning how to create … they need a measure of freedom and a sense that their creativity has value in itself. When a child is learning how things work, they need a measure of guidance and support so that developmentally technical challenges don’t overwhelm them.

Learn these subtle skills and kids grow by measures more confident and free, able to tackle a variety of the challenges our world throws at them.

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

Really great story of a hero kindergarten teacher who tries an audacious experiment in kindness. Author and kindergarten teacher (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Vivian Paley’s story is told on This American Life in a recent re-broadcast.

A highlight: 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders being nostalgic about the kindness of their younger selves. Be sure to listen through to the end. So encouraging.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/27/the-cruelty-of-children?act=3

(11 minute long audio, available through the player on the radio show’s site)

Utility and Experience

In class yesterday, Anghelika introduced rhythm sticks to a group of five-year-olds. Rhythm sticks are foot-long wooden sticks for knocking together–these simple toys/tools are fun and noisy, so are an easy sell to kids. But they also offer a number of covert benefits for a growing mind. With some care on the part of the teacher, kids can smack away while “accidentally” learning rhythm and math, following a leader, and working together.

In the midst of the knocking and counting, Anghelika noticed a single student holding her sticks in the middle, while the majority held them by the ends. We thought about this and it occurred to us that for most of the kids, there was an understanding that the stick could be a tool or instrument. Tools and instruments are for doing something with, for making music: you hold tools by their ends. For this student, however, the stick was for holding, not so much using. The thing had not yet become for her a utilitarian object: she had a stick to hold, and holding means grabbing it in the middle. From her perspective, we imagine, holding on the end is a nuisance: it requires more strength, balance, and what’s the point anyways? She had something in her hand; it felt good!

Sure, this is on the one hand a simple opportunity to introduce the idea of utility to students along with different ways of interaction. She was open to instruction that day, and her particular relationship to the object was no cause for concern. She would have gotten it, no problem.

On the contrary, there is enough emphasis on utility in our education system … what’s wrong with relating to an object for the way it feels in your hand? We take notice of this outlier for the uniqueness of her interaction. Sure, there’s an opportunity to teach her about the tool and it’s usefulness, but there is also an opportunity for us to learn something about her perspective and what is important to her in the moment. Both are true, and rich opportunities for growth, in her, and in our community perspective.

The wrong approach to the situation would be to correct her grip and tell her the “right” way to hold a stick, to point out “how the other children are doing it”, and call attention to some failure on her part to align with the crowd. The right way would be to acknowledge and respect her way for what it is, letting her speak to her own reasons why. Then, together, teacher and student can work out the best way to hold a stick for different uses.

Anghelika’s Summer Reading

summerreadingHere’s a stack of books Anghelika is currently attacking. These titles were frequently mentioned at this years California Association for The Education of Young Children (CAEYC) conference and at the California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools (CCPPNS) conference. We think it’s a Pretty Cool Pile for Parental Perusal (PCPPP).

There is a lot of very interesting work being done in the neurological sciences these days. Science now has more to say to those who work with people in general, and children in particular. Maps are being drawn around the way the experience of children and their overall development is connected to the development and structure of their brains.

Stay tuned ….

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child The Heart of Parenting

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids