When I began teaching, I wanted six children of my own.
Once I entered the classroom and noticed the pure insanity of the “system” — the way children were treated and expected to learn, and one awful teacher too many — I rethought my decision. I assumed that it was the educator’s job to educate no matter the obstacle or refusal by a parent, an administrator, or god forbid, the student. There is no way to teach in a risky, transformative way if school is considered a joke by adults who undermine all that committed teachers try to do.
Although I have taught and loved children now for a decade, writing this piece is still difficult. Whenever I write about children and what they need, I run the risk of being shut down by well-meaning parents. I have taught in schools, lived through the disaster known as ’70s and ’80s parenting skills, tutored, and watched hideous train wrecks that could have been avoided with some commitment to change, and the patience and intelligence to rethink children and their needs.
Great, productive adults don’t just appear. Great, productive, brave, and independent children aren’t just plopped out of a box. My vision of reform begins with changing the way we parent. Informed parents can turn things around if their parenting is transformed.
I believe there are seven things that can transform the way we all parent. These techniques work and can be tweaked and modified accordingly.
1. As a caregiver, address and emotionally handle your personal demons.
Seek professional help before having children. Many religious orders suggest six months or more of counseling prior to making a lifelong commitment. Watching children grow and develop, it is easy to see where they get emotionally stuck, which is typically where their parents remain stuck. My parents constantly struggled with finances. I have learned many money-handling techniques (good and bad) from watching them and listening to their tales of financial “gloom and doom.” My parents were, and continue to be, menaced by the “mean green.” I have had to master a proactive and healthy relationship with this most necessary and productive tool on my own.
2. Stop thinking of your children as property.
As a parent, you’ve been entrusted by the universe to guide, mentor, and love these young folks, not manipulate, dominate, and treat them as if they are your personal property to do with what you will. Has anybody ever felt great about being an object? It doesn’t sit well, and at some point will lead to a serious rebellion.
3. Stop policing the bodies of young people.
As our children grow and change, it is our job to understand and accept that we are now dealing with young people. Most adults never learn to interact or create spaces to be with other adults in the absence of sex and sexuality. As Americans, we both fear and obsess over sex. We learn to dread and attempt to control it. The body politic teaches us that some bodies are better than others. We take this warped thinking into our feeble attempts to raise children who feel good about their bodies. Many adults have never been taught to respect their bodies, which in turn means they will not respect the bodies of young people.
Bodies of all types frighten us. Bodies take up space and demand to be seen. Many of us fear that those we love and care for will be “seen,” and that it can get them hurt, abused, and exploited. Teaching our children how to see themselves is what’s most important. It will not guarantee that your loved ones will not be hurt. It will offer them the tools to make better and wiser decisions regarding their bodies.
Many of us learn and experience the brutality and soul-crushing that is body policing from our families. As young child, I was often teased and humiliated for not being the physical embodiment of what young males should be and do (participate in competitive sports, for instance). When that got old, there was always my weight to judge and critique. For many years, I had no understanding of what a healthy body or weight looked like. My confusion over bodies was complete as I watched my parents struggle with weight and reserved some severe judgments for my sisters. On several occasions, there were jokes about what the life of a fat girl would look like.
My parents have never addressed their angst and fear of the “body.” I have watched the confusion and cruelty of fathers who have no way of dealing with girls becoming women. It is imperative that we attack the confusion around budding sexuality and not our young people. To prepare for the inevitable, it would be wise for those of us who influence and care for young people to understand and accept a few things: They will change and look to us regarding how to accept and understand their changes. They will be given messages from the media that bodies are for sex and sharing only. It is our job to assist them in developing a critical awareness of their bodies and its limitations. We must teach them that their body belongs to them. We must show them the joy that comes from loving, respecting, and listening to their body.
When my youngest sister was transitioning into womanhood, she was not having my big brotherly let-me-take-care-of-you hugs. I had to learn (via the insight of a very wise female friend) that she was claiming her space, her body, and with it a new level of independence. She was no longer a “kid.” Childhood was now giving way to young adulthood. Rather than demand that she allow me to shame her back into childhood, she swift-kicked me into a new realm of our relationship. I relinquished the policing that I had been unaware of and decided to move into a more serious and respectful manner of interaction. When we allow it, our children can parents and guide us. We must allow it and usher in an understanding of the possibility for change and maturity this can allow.
4. Encourage your children to take risks and stop thinking of them as helpless.
In the brilliant and paradigm-shifting Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Taylor Gatto states: “Don’t think of them as kids. Childhood exists, but it’s over long before we allow it to be. I’d start to worry if my kid were noticeably childish past the age of 7, and if by 12 you aren’t dealing with young men and women anxious to take their turn, disgusted with training wheels on anything, able to walk about London, do hundred-mile bike trips, and add enough value to the neighborhood that they have an independent income, if you don’t see this, you’re doing something seriously wrong.”
While this may sound harsh, I concur. I am often shocked at the level of maturity that young people fail to exhibit, not to mention the lack of trust they and those who love them fail to provide in their direction. When I was 15 and 16, my parents sent me to a pre-med program in Atlanta, miles away from my Detroit hometown. I was able to take college courses, deal with demanding professors, learn a public transit system, and interact with several people I had never met. Years later, at 27, I used this skill set and moved to Japan for the summer and worked in an organic tea garden.
5. Teach them to fail early, often, and big.
We have now moved into an era where failure is not okay. Resiliency is a skill that never gets old and will keep your children from becoming spoiled, entitled adults who become irate when they hear the word “no” or things don’t go according to their plans. Learning to bounce back from failure and public humiliation is something that is difficult to watch, and yet our global economy demands it. Mistakes are now highly welcomed. We have left factory and group thinking behind us in favor of reinvention, on-the-spot problem-solving, and a constant level of change that has forced us to toss out manuals of what and how to do anything.
Mistakes and failures are good experiences and great teachers. Often, we hover like psychotic, over-caffeinated vultures wringing our hands, waiting for our moment to pounce to make sure no one is upset, disappointed, or uncomfortable. Parents who don’t suck allow the discomfort of uncertainty and waiting. Win or lose, their loved ones will learn from feedback, not from unasked for help or panicked concerns regarding what people will surmise from their parenting skills if their child fails.
6. Stop lying about money.
Insist that they know the household income and what they can and cannot afford. If your child is at least 6 and is asking for money because they understand what it can do (purchase toys, food, and things that bring them pleasure), it is time for them to start working and contributing to the household. One of my students started working at 6. As a result, when she recently divorced, she had a serious nest egg and was not in a panic regarding her survival.
I think getting kids involved in financial matters early and often, is a great way to teach financial planning, budgeting, and the grave difference between wants and needs. Until I was in my 30s, I was completely ignorant about how much my parents earned. It has taken me several years to change my financial habits as a result. To be a parent who doesn’t suck, you must have your kids working. I don’t agree with paying for grades.
I do agree with performing odd jobs around the house and earning their keep. Teaching them to bask in a job well done is a lesson that will allow them to self-assess and self-correct. I’ve met 20-year-olds who have never worked. It is time to get our young people to work and assist them in the building of self-esteem that this will engender. Salt mines and shucking oysters may not be available, but everyone I know who started working early (preteen years) is a money genius. They understand and dictate to their money; it does not dictate to them. So the next time one of your bundles of joy approaches you with an open palm and a set of sad, puppy dog eyes, do yourself a favor and shove a “want” ad into those paws and redirect him to Craigslist and a job board.
7. Don’t treat them as friends.
Our job as parents is not to pal around with them. They will make mistakes. It is our job to assist them when and if they need it and only if they have exhausted every other option. Mom and Dad or Grampa and Grampa should not be the first and only solution when things begin going south. Ask questions and offer insight, but don’t swoop in with 100 solutions and reasons why they are going about it all wrong. There is no substitute for allowing a young person you love to figure crap out. They never forget two things: 1) they solved a problem, and 2) you let them. We may know certain things as a result of having lived longer. Friends don’t let friends make dumb mistakes, and yet ridiculous mistakes that provide scraped, bloody knees and simple cause-effect results teach young people lifelong lessons
I am co-raising nine grandchildren and no one technique works for them all the time. I am constantly adjusting, reinventing, and re-launching.