A Parent’s Work

Parenting is one of the most challenging tasks that a person will take on in life. It is not work for the faint of heart and it not for the person requiring unconditional acceptance and appreciation along the way. Love alone is not enough. However, it does guarantees your child a safe context to test the boundaries and unleash his or her frustrations. Even the most skilled and highly educated in child psychology can be tested beyond any previous limits.

With the advent of brain scanning technology, we have learned that our experiences continue to change our brains throughout our lives. We have learned that parents and educators can be instrumental in helping children to process new information. We have also learned how harsh and punitive discipline strategies of the past are not helpful in raising students that are best equipped to cope with changes or stresses in their lives. We have also learned that complete permissiveness does not either.

Daniel Siegel’s book, written with Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child, gives a nice synopsis of how the brain works to integrate new information and some strategies to ensure your child is learning appropriate boundaries alone the way. It provides a number of strategies to help parents support their child in “taming big emotions.” It also helps with the next steps of going back when your child has their emotions under control to revisit and redirect if necessary. The book provides scaffolding with refrigerator notes and scripted conversations to help parents.

I can speak to the power of encouraging children to tell their story.  I have used this extensively with my own children and my students over the years.  “The right side of our brain processes our emotions and autobiographical memories, but our left side is what makes sense of these feelings and recollections”( p. 28).  In fear inducting situations, it allows children (and adults) to name it and tame it.  In dealing with disappointment, it gives that child an understanding of wants, needs and resilience.  In dealing with conflict, it is the first step in learning empathy and conflict resolution strategies. 

Siegel and Payne Bryson also do a nice job in their discussion of nurturing relationships.  In my role as an educator, parents often want advice on how to navigate relationships between their children.  My kids are now grown and have a particularly good relationship.  Even their friends comment on it.  My conclusion was that three things contributed to this growing up.

  1.  There is an expectation that you will treat your sibling with respect and kindness.
  2. When you have a fight, you calm down first then take responsibility for your behaviour and agree on a pathway forward.
  3. Parents do not play favourites and have the same expectations for both kids.

However, Siegel and Payne Bryson brought up another factor that resonated with me.  “Recent studies have found that the best predictor for good relationships later in life is how much fun the kids have together when they’re young”(p. 133).  As a family, we had lots of beach time, park time, biking time, and ski / snowboard time.  We also regularly trekked down to California or Europe in summer to visit family.  My husband and I loved these times because sibling bickering slowed down to a minimum during the pursuit of adventure.  Our kids had lots of fun time together and they are the fabric of the revisited stories when we’re laughing together.  Makes sense.

COVID has added yet another layer of complexity. Kids are experiencing lots of big emotions and the role of parents is more important than ever. Now that my kids are grown, occasionally I even get to hear about the things I did well as a parent. It just may take a few decades to hear the appreciation for your efforts 🤗. Very best of luck in navigating these muddy waters.

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. (2011). The Whole Brian Child. 12 Revolutionary Strategies To Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam Books, New York.

Not Just 4Parents

Parenting is a tough gig.  There is no “perfect” set of directions to follow that work with every kid and every situation.  I started to teach before I had children and bemoaned that if only parents could be consistent with some basic rules in the household, all would be well. Having my own children brought a new level of humility to my perspective.  Sometimes we are able to follow our intuition and get it right.  Sometimes we’re just tired and want to avoid conflict.  Sometimes we are left in search of the magic answer to steer us in another direction that will solve all issues and reassure us that we’re doing the “right” thing.  There is no easy answer and parenting continues as one of THE most work intensive endeavours of my life.

My mother had her well-worn copy of Dr. Spock in her bedroom bookcase well into my teen years.  My parenting bible was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.  I read it repeatedly through the lucid moments, frustrations, phases and stages of bringing up my own two children.  For those parents bringing children up in the 21st Century, the “must read” is  The Dolphin Parent by Dr. Shimi K. Kang.  She is a Harvard-trained child and adult psychiatrist who provides advice in the form of prescriptions for parents who strive to raise children who have healthy relationships with the world and meet challenges with determination and hard work.

Dr. Kang provides a basic frame that divides parenting into three categories:

1. Authoritarian or the “I know best” parent.   Dr. Kang includes both the overdirecting and the overprotecting parents who micromanage their children’s lives.  This is an easy trap to fall into because many of us have been parented ourselves in this way.  She asserts that when parents micromanage their children’s lives, they are underparenting and thereby robbing children of a sense of control of their own lives.

The authoritarian parents include all of the types of parents with the familiar tags applied these days:

  •  “Tiger” parents ferocious in their dedication to pushing their children to achieve the competitive edge
  •  “Helicopter” parents waiting to swoop down to intercede on their child’s behalf
  • “Lawn mower or snowblower” who are always one step ahead of their child removing obstacles
  • “Bubble wrappers” – who see their role to protect children from even the slightest disappointment

She uses the metaphor of the butterfly to explain the problematic aspect of helping too much.  In his efforts to help, the little boy pulls off the cocoon that the butterfly is struggling to get free of.  To the little boy’s surprise, the butterfly doesn’t spread his wings and fly away.  The butterfly needed the time and struggle to develop the muscles and coordination to fly.

2.  Passive or “Jellyfish” parents  Dr. Kang frames these parents as those who avoid confrontation and underparent by failing to establish appropriate boundaries.  They fail to define socially appropriate expectations around respect, social etiquette or personal values.  These are parents who are overwhelmed with the demands of their own lives or strive to be best friends with their children.  They hand over control without providing guidance.  They struggle with saying “no” and will even resort to “turning a blind eye” or buying alcohol for their underage children to party with their friends.   Dr. Kant provides specific examples from her practice where these children end up irresponsible, impulsive, with poor relationships, a lack of respect for authority and an increased likelihood to engage in riskier behaviour.

3.  Authoritative parents establish clear rules and guidelines to support children in experiencing and coping with reasonable stress to develop the mental strength and resilience they need for independence.  This is where the metaphor of the dolphin comes in as a model of ideal for parenting.bottlenosedolphinmombabychinslapping-1

Dolphins are highly social animals and the bonding process is important.  Their young are provided with guidance and an opportunity to learn through play.  They experience natural consequences from mistakes through this playful exploration with the group.  Dr. Kang  is a big proponent of play to help students develop intelligence, emotional regulation, creativity and people skills.  Dr. Kang cites Albert Einstein’s quote “Play is the highest form of research” to emphasize the importance of play in a child’s life.  Overscheduling, memory drills, and repetitive practice puts the focus on demonstrating a specific skill set and kids don’t have the time to wonder.  They stop asking questions and will not risk an incorrect answer.  Apparently Edison failed 9,000 times before he eventually invented the lightbulb.  He had the benefit of experiencing the learning that comes from what is too often framed as “failure” rather than “learning”.   In the 21st Century, information is at our finger tips, but asking good questions is what generates innovation.

People have become very familiar with IQ or intelligent quotient as a standard measure of intelligence since the test was first widely applied to sort which soldiers would be sent to the front and which ones would be trained as officers in the U.S. Army prior to World War I.  However rote learning and regurgitation of information has not resulted in “smarter” students.  At the university level, The Faculty of Medicine, has needed to change requirements for entrance due to the fact that high achieving applicants do not demonstrate the problem solving ability or people skills to cope with the demands of a career in medicine.  We are learning that IQ is not the best measure of gauging how well a child will fair in life.

The 4 essential 21st Century Skills for success  have now been defined as CQ or Complete Quotient.  It has been determined by The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, an organization at the University of Melbourne that includes more than 250 researchers from sixty different institutions worldwide.  These skills have been incorporated in educational institutions and workplace environments everywhere.  The higher the CQ of your child, the more adaptable, healthier, happier and more successful you child.  These skills include:

  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • communication
  • collaboration

As an educator and as a parent, I have come into contact with many parents and many styles of parenting.  In most cases, all of these parents love their children intensely and have grand aspirations for their happiness and success in their futures.  This book is an excellent way for parents to take a step back and consider what they really want to accomplish with raising their children.   We still want to develop the intellectual skills of our children, but also the ability to problem solve, self regulate, form meaningful human relationships and the resilience to cope with failure and keep on learning.  It also gives us the permission to bond with our children through joyful play and shared interests.

Expanding Possibilities For Kids

My son just presented his final project to showcase his skills (Bridge Fine Goods/ Nocturnal Workshop) at the 2015 Fashion Show at the River Rock Theatre in Richmond, B.C.  This is the culminating requirement for his degree in fashion design at Kwantlin Polytechnic University.  His line is impressive, even beyond the expectations of his very proud mother.  The questions I always get: “Was he always an artsy kid?”

What people are actually asking is…Was he a quietly creative, artistic child who spent hours drawing and sewing and traveling with the band.  “Well, no.”    Although I pushed the card with piano lessons, then school band and finally his choice of guitar, he was not a fan of practicing.  Once he was beyond middle school, there were a myriad of other things to fight about so I let them go.  He didn’t take great pride in his art portfolio or any of his academic work at school.  He did as little as he could and then achieved the required grades for university entrance by studying for high stakes final exams with considerable encouragement (oh, yeah…big pressure) from parents and teachers.

He was a rough and tumble little guy with a well developed vocabulary who wanted to play.  As a toddler he would run and jump off the end of the couch and expect you to catch him.  He did trials riding and jumped off rocks and cars and won the Jr. Test of Metal in Squamish.  He would build ramps in the yard until they were deemed unsafe by his parents.  Then they moved into Mundy Park so we could not easily witness and condemn their bike parks.  I finally broke down and bought him a cell phone that got reception in the middle of the park so he could dial 911 if necessary.  He morphed into downhill riding at Whistler and all I could do was insist on full body armour for him and his father.  YouTubes of him snowboarding stopped my heart.   Shovels disappeared from the shed and were left on the mountain during ramp building expeditions.    He swam with the Sharks and played soccer but preferred individual sports.

Now if you were to ask if he was creative, the answer is  yes.   He loved drawing, painting, clay, and drama programs at Place des Arts in Mallairdville and community rec programs.  When we traveled, he would sit down with his sister and draw Michelangelo’s David in Florence or the leaning tower in Pisa. He liked symphony presentations at the Burnaby Arts Centre and Disney on Ice.  He loved earning the project badges for Cubs and Scouts and Wednesday became his cooking night.  He loved mandatory explorations classes (cooking, sewing, woodwork) when he got to middle school.  In sewing classes with Mrs. Shanty Toolsie-Warsnup, she awarded him the coveted “Lead Foot Award’ and he would “sew a straight line for hire” until he got caught.  Routine visits to see family in California, included outlet shopping.  If his designer wear restricted his movement when biking, he’d pick apart the seams and resew it so it was more comfortable.   He loved thinking through the logistics of woodwork and got lots of support for his projects.  Construction after secondary school wasn’t unanticipated.  Taking his sewing machine when visiting his aunt in Rome was unanticipated.  So was the decision to study fashion design in Milan.

In our culture, it seems like we are so focused on looking for talent and feeding it.  “Being the best” or “A Winner” has become a mantra for even very young children.  Some of the best parenting advise I got when my kids were in school was from Chris Kelly, superintendent of VSB at the time.  I was bemoaning the cost of all the trips we were funding for our daughter:  Soccer in Vegas; School Leadership in Ottawa; Cheer in Florida.  He laughed and said, “You’ll never regret the opportunities you give your kids in helping them to figure out who they are going to be.”  I think that is the point.  It’s about the WHO you are going to be, not the WHAT.  As a school system and society in general, our goal needs should be to give our children opportunities in and out of school to open up the possibilities for who they will become.  That doesn’t mean just the jobs they will pursue, but the paths that will engender relationships and interests.   Broad exposure rather than limited opportunity allows for the possibilities to be endless…and in some cases far beyond what we had ever imagined 🙂