I have consistently failed at parenting. By the time they were 6 months old, all three of my babies had rolled off the bed and bonked their heads. FAIL.
They all got diaper rash, ate French fries and cookies that had fallen on the floor and watched bad TV. FIZZLE.
As a toddler, my older daughter yelled “F&$K OFF!” from the back seat of my car to a driver who had cut me off. At the age of three, my younger daughter stopped in her tracks and pointed at a man smoking a cigarette on a New York City street while bellowing with a scowl “He’s gonna die!” FLOUNDER.
When my youngest was a year old, I had to gingerly remove an instrument from his hand that he was loudly and rhythmically clanging on the wall like a marching band drum major as he paraded down our long NYC apartment hallway. The instrument was a very large chef’s knife. FOLD!
Yeah. We are gonna screw this up. But we also all possess the potential to be amazing at it.
When I was a kid, I spent countless hours in our family room listening to my dad’s vinyl collection, alternating between “guest conductor” and secretly choreographing solo ballets. I became obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathetique”), a dark, tumultuous four-movement work jammed with angst and melodrama. Awkwardly passionate eight-year-old that I was, I couldn’t get enough of it. It was not until college that I learned the composition is about death. In spite of its dark and fiery passages, I found much of the piece to be hopeful and optimistic.
About four-and-a-half minutes into the Pathetique’s second movement, a scratch in Dad’s record created a three-second ascending passage that repeatedly hiccupped and caught my conducting baton/pirouette in mid-pulse/spin. The flinching error looped until I could run to the phonograph and nudge the needle. I must have listened to that recording a thousand times. Every time I have listened to a performance of that symphony since, the absence of the scratch has thrown me. While my childhood antics are fun memories, this particular memory is also a disruption in my enjoyment of the piece. It is a mistake that can’t really be fixed. The damaged passage has gouged my brain.
It was around that time that my piano teacher often sent me home from lessons with the nearly impossible task of correcting wrong notes. Notes I had already spent hours practicing toward a performance-worthy result. Those wrong notes had become etched in my memory and fixing those mistakes required an exponentially larger chunk of time than if I had just done it right the first time. I only created more work for myself.
These things affect us and this is what happens when we make mistakes with our children. We etch things into their little heads and we create problems that are much harder to solve later on. We are human, so we are going to make mistakes, but there are things that are important to try and get right the very first time.
- Pay Attention and Celebrate Individuality
Every kid is different. If we are open to their diverse dispositions, temperaments, desired methods of communication and required levels of attention, they will learn effective communication skills. My girls expressed themselves in very different ways. My older daughter is passionate, very vocal and directly communicative about her thoughts and feelings. If something is wrong, every member of the family is immediately informed. My younger daughter is an observer who is also very passionate, but is more soft-spoken and less likely to show signs of anger. My son falls somewhere in between. I learned to celebrate their strengths and understand the areas that were more difficult for them. They learned from the beginning that their thoughts and feelings mattered and that they would always be seen and heard. That has resulted in good listeners and communicators.
- Honesty and Respect
I’ve never uttered phrases to my kids like, “You need to learn to show me respect,” or “You’d better not be lying.” Demanding truth and respect does not work. We can’t force others to trust or respect us. It is simple. They learn to trust and respect us because we trust and respect them. We do so by listening, acknowledging their feelings and explaining rules and decisions until they fully understand. Showing my kids the same trust and respect I hoped for from them has resulted in exactly that.
- Praise Without Judgment
When a child hands us a “work of art,” we have a tendency to critique it. We either tell them everything that is wrong with it, or we go on and on about how wonderful it is. It sets the bar for everything they create from that point forward. I found it more effective to ask them questions about their creations. For visual pieces, I asked things like, “What kind of tree is that?” or “What color are you going to use there?” When they were making music, we talked about their choices of style, instrumentation and rhythm, and for writing, dance and dramatic play, we discussed their costume ideas and story development. That approach nurtured their natural learning processes and steered them away from hindering judgments.
- Spanking is a Euphemism for Hitting
Don’t do it. Not ever. If my life partner were to ever hit me, it would forever change the way I viewed him. It would diminish my levels of trust and respect and would seriously damage the relationship. It does the same to children and it never actually teaches them anything other than how to avoid getting hit again. There is always an alternative. Whenever I got frustrated with my children, I had to remind myself that I was the adult and they were acting out for a reason. There are those who defend the practice of spanking their children in instances of possible danger. It is possible to prevent those dangers if we make sure we do not put our children in the position of encountering them in the first place.
- Help Them Learn Through Doing
Caroline Pratt was the inventor of unit blocks and the founder of City and Country School in New York City. My girls were lucky enough to have attended City and Country during the few short years we lived there. Caroline had an enormous amount of respect for children and their individual creative processes. The school’s environment was so creative and uninhabited by the countless toys and preconceived games we see in so many pre-schools. The results of the students’ use of just four basic materials that were provided (plain wooden blocks, earth colored clay, the three primary colors of paint and water) both in and out of the classroom were astounding. When my oldest was in the sevens (second grade), her class created a section of 6th Avenue out of blocks. They took field trips to the myriad of businesses and interviewed shopkeepers about their work, how they made money, how they interacted with their customers, where they lived and how they commuted. They also measured that block of 6th Avenue with yardsticks. They then went back to their classroom and re-created, to scale, the stores, which included electricity and the creation of representative little shop owners and workers so that they could socially interact through dramatic play. What they were not told was that in their building and social collaborations, they were learning skills that included algebra, science and social studies. They were not “taught.” They were learning by living and doing.
- Hug Them
Hug them when they laugh. Hug them when they cry. Hug them when you’re reading a story or talking about your day, and hug them when you’re angry and they’re frustrating the hell out of you. Physical contact, especially when they are very young, is as important as breathing. It offers love, understanding and security like nothing else and it is often the one thing that will help them calm down. There may be times it is the last thing we want to do, but sometimes it is the only thing.
Fixing mistakes is like using a band-aid to cover a scar, removing a blood stain from a t-shirt with nothing but water, or applying duct tape to a broken bone. Those things will never completely go away. It’s one thing for kids to scrape their knees, bonk their heads, eat occasional junk food or pick up a sharp object when we weren’t paying close enough attention. Those things, and more, are bound to happen. But raising empathetic, compassionate, honest and successful children with high self-esteem comes from our healthy, respectful, communicative and affectionate relationships with them.