A teacher gets frustrated because she gives Child A a direction one, two, three, four and more times and Child A seems to ignore it.
Child B has a meltdown and sobs uncontrollably because s/he was tagged during a recess game, refused to go “out,” and then heard several kids yell, “Hey! You are out! Go out!” The classmates report it to the teacher and now the tagged child feels even worse.
These kinds of behavior moments are everyday occurrences in schools. And… (I’ll give you the educator’s inside scoop: both Child A and Child B completely understand cognitively that they should listen to the teacher’s directions or play fair and be out when they are tagged out. I’m sure of this because I ask kids and they tell me).
When parents hear about these tough moments (sometimes they generate an email or a conversation), or experience a version of it at home, they can become upset. As educators, we tend to notice a few different parent reactions: defensiveness (my child did nothing wrong); or anger/shame (my child needs a punishment!); or exhaustion (I don’t know what to do!). It is indeed hard to know what to do.
I have some advice to offer gleaned from many readings on the subject by various parenting experts and child psychologists. To understand these situations better, and to respond less reactively, we have to look at the deeper root of the origin of the struggle: a decrease in opportunities for today’s children to develop both resilience and a sense of responsibility to the community.
One source of change is that children have less time to work on conflicts and challenges before adults intervene. Play was less supervised a generation ago and children worked out differences on their own much more frequently. During my own childhood, I can tell you I roamed the streets of northern New Jersey on a bike each day in the company of neighborhood children til dinner time. Grown-ups were not around, for the most part, to help us avoid the tough-looking group of kids down the street or hinder us from making creatively risky forts in the “woods.” We learned a lot about how to handle ourselves, our friendships, our conflicts, without adult advice or intervention. How many of our children are having similar experiences as we did growing up?
Second, opportunities for our children to contribute to their communities have decreased as chores and community service fall out of fashion or can’t be fit into our pace of life. Contributing in genuine ways to your household or local charity builds the deep and true sense of efficacy that no amount of praise can create. This is why a PreK student announced to me so proudly this morning when I visited her class that she was the Snack Helper. She wanted to be sure that as an extra adult in the classroom I wouldn’t usurp her responsibilities in an effort to be helpful. (And frankly, she was right, because I might have!). This is why our sixth graders meet with me annually to discuss how they can help educate our school community on the proper way to sort recycling. Recycling is their job at the Co-op and they rightly see themselves as experts. What jobs does your child have at home that they are trusted and expected to do independently? Don’t underestimate the value of sorting laundry regularly when it comes out of the dryer or setting the table for young kids. Don’t miss the opportunity to enlist your older child to take out trash and recycling weekly or help rake leaves each fall.
Another change is the general climate of hypervigilance about safety and avoiding risks. We all want our kids to be safe, and I share that impulse as a parent. However, the book Blessings of a Skinned Knee was a best seller for good reason. Sometimes our own adult anxiety creates pressure for our kids to achieve but without disappointments along the way or without the proverbials skinned knees. If we want our children to develop resilience, bumps along the way are going to be necessary and instructive. Smoothing their pathways too much, I believe, creates children who crumple at the first sign of difficulty by middle school if an assignment is complex or a friendship flounders.
I encourage you to read more (and reflect) at How to Help Teens Weather Their Emotional Storms from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/well/family/how-to-help-teens-weather-their-emotional-storms.html) and Why Children Aren’t Behaving, And What You Can Do About It from KQED’s Mindshift (https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/51329/why-children-arent-behaving-and-what-you-can-do-about-it).
As we understand our children better, we can react to their sometimes less than logical misbehavior more mindfully and less reactively. We can affirm their feelings, which may be different from what they know about the rule, the expected behavior, the sportsmanlike response. We can give them time, space, and tools to collect themselves better in moments of upset. We can be thoughtful about creating genuine opportunities to develop resilience and a sense of efficacy. Parenting, after all, is a journey of learning and endless opportunity!