The holiday season is upon us. There is only so much negativity you can handle at Christmas about our schools, teacher quality, overall educational decline across the nation that we still cannot wrap our heads around. But for me, this is always the season of hope, rebirth and new beginnings. It is never too late to improve any situation if we will try to do what we can to make things better. We can control our own actions, if not those of banks and money lenders, the job seekers and the job deniers around us. Being a good parent transcends money, class, ethnicity, gender and race. In is what we get called after having or adopting a baby, a noun that names us and the relationship we have to our child. It has also become verb-like: To Parent, an action word that describes the acts of nurturing and caring for your baby as it grows and matures. It is feeding and cuddling and cleaning and keeping safe and enriching and disciplining and establishing rules. It is being flexible while strict, straight-faced with a grin, listening to all talk- not just what we want to hear. It is shared play, private time, and respect for differences. It is instinctual. It is an art form. It is knowledge that we make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and try again. It is knowing that nobody is perfect. It is finding a balance between what we want and what we get. It is noncompetitive. It supports the creative spark each child has and finds a way to let it ignite. It is living in the now. It is accepting the responsibility of the gift of life and doing the best we can to unwrap it and figure out how it works. It is the rest of your life in support of another. For all of the faults we find in special education and the public school system across the board, we must also accept our personal role in educating our child in all of the manifold layers of knowledge, of spirit, and of personal health both emotionally and physically. Let’s spell it out.
Patience. This is the ability to endure life calmly- or as calmly as you can. It is not to be mistaken for Passive. The difference is that if you are passive you don’t react, as though you were drugged. Patience, though, is quite different. Inside you can be upset, screaming to yourself, ready to pound a wall or shout every swear word you know. But you keep it together and control what is seen on the outside. You control your voice level and your body actions. You can be funny, stern, angry, worried- but it is how you show it that matters to the child. You remember that your child is not you. If you have done something wrong, say you’re sorry. Try to balance pushing your child forward and going a tiny bit beyond their comfort zone, while also letting them rest in the place where they are. Your child’s memories of what you say and what you do will stay with them forever. You will forget. Your patience and constancy will form the bedrock of who they are, who they will seek out, and often, who they will marry. If they have problems in an academic area and you can’t figure out the reason, go to someone you trust to figure it out. Increasingly, teachers do not know the source of the problem. So whatever is needed to help with improvement is up to you. I’ve known and worked with a lot of economically poor people in horrific conditions. But when most learn what to do within their comfort zone, they do it. Patience lets you think, keeps you in control of yourself and the situation. Periodic explosions are to be expected. Chronic stress is in our bodies and well as our minds when we expend the energy needed to parent, particularly those with hyperactive children or those with developmental disabilities. But in the end, it is patience that wins the race.
Allot. Divide up the hours in the day and keep a schedule. Apportion the amount of time you spend at your job, on line, talking with friends, watching TV, taking care of your children, all of the chores that need to be done, and don’t forget your need to sleep. Look at the places where you spend too much time doing dumb things. Allot time to implement your child’s schedule so that you get everything done that needs to be done. Build in some downtime for yourself and for them. Some of us have at least one crisis a day to manage and get through because of the nature and needs of our child. Depending on your situation, write down how you spend your time on a 24 hour basis. There is almost always a time span that you can allot to something else. This takes a great deal of self-discipline but is worth the effort and can help you be a better parent. There will be times when nothing works and you are overwhelmed, often feeling depressed and defeated. It will pass. Know that it will pass. Get back to your schedule, adjust it as needed, make yourself go through the motions. Your child will learn to abide by a routine, which leads to improved study habits with extra time for those sports, art, or music activities your child loves. And don’t forget about friends. Build in time for socializing in whatever way is doable. You are the role model. Do and act in the way you want your child to grow. “So the tree is bent…” The Finnish people have an expression, “Only dead fish follow the stream.” You do not have to follow what somebody else does, even those parents you admire. You must do what works for you. But whatever that is, requires structure as a component.
Record. Write down important information. Find a safe place to keep it so that you always know where it is. Keep track of appointments, report cards, school documents. If something happens that you think is important for your child, write it down. Make it easy and short. You will soon discover that unless you have information in writing, or can name a date when something happened, school people will often ignore you. Think about recording everything you child does in one day if you see problems. It may help you to figure out the cause. Is the schedule too much? Not enough? Unless you record and list this information, you may miss the fact that the day is not balanced, that there is not enough down time, that there is too much down time. What does the child do when you are not there? How do you know? Write down your thoughts so you can refer to them later.
Education. Continue to teach yourself anything you want to know. Learn as much as you can about your child’s disability and the educational needs that go with it. Read to your child. Share a silent reading time when you are both reading silently. This is done less and less and the research shows it should be done more and more. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the subjects the child is studying. Do worry if they don’t understand it. Use the public library. This is as important as using a computer because it is both a social event where the child sees other people reading and working with books and related technology, as well as children studying and working together quietly. You are the child’s first and last teacher. Share your interests with your child. Show them how something works. Encourage them to talk about ideas as well as things. Enjoy the unending journey of learning new things, about new places, the limitless possibilities of the universe. Eat together as often as possible. Use this time to talk positively about anything you want. We used to start our dinner time with “Tell me the story of your day”, an idea I got from reading a parent magazine. It was the best thing we ever did. Each of us told about our day, while the others asked questions. It was no high powered Kennedy family debate about politics or historical figures, just a down home way to stay connected and know what was happening on a daily basis.
Nice. Be nice to your children. Have you every noticed that we are nice to strangers during the day, nice to those we work with, nice to the mailman. But we get home and unload on the kids. They seem to be fair game for us when we are angry, exhausted, frightened, embarrassed. It is much harder being nice than grouchy, sarcastic, or even nasty. Nice doesn’t mean being wimpy or weak. Nice doesn’t mean giving them everything they want or saying “Yes” each time. It means being respectful and knowing when to leave the room when you are about to loose it. It means accepting the disability or difference, not giving sympathy but understanding, and firmly implementing an action plan that will make life better. Nice is different than Love. Nice is a decision about the way you will interact with people. Love is a passion that defies reason. Mix it with Nice and you create a magic potion.
Talk with your children. Love vocabulary and the music of language. Discuss what you see on the street, in the park, get their opinions, encourage them to disagree with you, to expand on what you have said. Talk substitutes for actions and violence and teaches them to use language instead of their fists or guns. It is the very essence of being human. It is what we do not do when on a computer of iphone. Don’t be afraid of polysyllable words when they are young. Use vocabulary building for self-improvement and you will be amazed at how good you feel about yourself. There are places to use certain levels of language and not to use it. But in the 1-1 relationship of parent to child you have the ideal chemistry and opportunity to communicate with each other. You communicate in many nonverbal ways from the moment the child is born. But it is the verbal addition that makes an impact upon school success. A recent study found that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.” (How About Better Parents?, Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, 11/20/11.) Online education can never replace the personal, face to face relationship between parent and child, as well as child and teacher.
Have a Wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year.