Risky Business

By Teacher Kerry

If you ask any parent or teacher to name the most important element of our jobs, there’s a good chance that we will say, “keeping children safe.”  This statement, while inarguable, also oversimplifies a really important aspect of helping young children grow to be healthy and confident adults.  Over the past decade or two, American children have been increasingly hedged around with restrictions, limitations, and a general “dumbing down” of the activities they are allowed, let alone encouraged, to try.  As Dr. Christine Gross-Loh  remarks in Parenting Without Borders (Avery, 2013)

Nothing in life is without risk, of course.  But the mentality that seems to prevail in the United States is that no level of risk should ever be acceptable, that’s it’s our job to make sure nothing ever happens (and our fault if anything does).  …Trying to eliminate all possible risk isn’t just stifling; without the right sense of proportion and reasonableness, an environment filled with rules gives a false sense of control. (p. 132)

We have systematically made our parks and playgrounds “safer,” by reducing the challenges and increasing the age and supervision requirements; we’ve surrounded children around with restrictions on where they may go, at what age and with whom, and we hover desperately over children to prevent any chance of failure, disappointment, or social rejection.  In this furious pursuit of perfect safety, we’re increasingly losing track of our ultimate goal, which is an adult who can assess a situation with confidence, shows a strong and informed understanding of his/her own abilities and skills, and competently balance risk and reward.  Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a psychologist at Queen Maud University College in central Norway, has been conducting research in Norwegian, Australian and English playgrounds and schools for thirteen years, observing and interviewing parents, teachers, and children.  She points out that what is truly dangerous is the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old who, far from having incrementally practiced these skills over the years, has instead been surrounded by adults who directed him or constantly reminded her of what was or was not safe.  “That’s when kids really are at risk,” Sandseter warned.  “Allowing children to handle risks on their own with their own bodies, their own minds and through their own assessment and courage, is the most important safety protection you can give a child.

In the last couple of years, there has been something of a movement to go back to a more “free-range” idea of childhood, allowing children greater autonomy and independence.  I think this is far overdue.  As a four-year-old in the 1960’s, I walked to and from kindergarten alone every day after the first week of school.  When my daughter was four, I didn’t allow her so much as to walk around the block alone, let alone cross streets.  The amount of free, unsupervised outdoor play children get has decreased sharply, and the very real risks of obesity, impaired judgment, reduced autonomy and inadequate self-reliance have gone up.  The less children play independently, the more their self-regulation has decreased—according to Gross-Loh, an American five-year-old today is only as self-regulated as a three-year-old child in the 1940’s.  

As a teacher, I struggle with my own urge to over-protect and over-restrict children, especially outdoors.  I cringe at how frequently I hear myself saying, “That scares me…slow down…be careful…don’t do that.”  I know that if I really want to do the best thing for the little students in my care, I need to step back and trust them more, encourage them to make their own assessments of risk and reward.  I take Teacher Tom as my role model.  When a child is contemplating a potentially risky activity, Tom will say "I'm going to watch to see who gets hurt so I know who I'm going to take care of while they're crying." To which the reply is, "Neither of us is going to get hurt because we're being careful."  He says,

In the real world, young children are capable of assessing many of their own risks, but only if they've had the chance to practice; only if they're well versed in the art of critical thinking and not the habits of mere obedience. An adult who commands, "Don't slide down that banister!" might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is also, at the same time, robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do. Better to state the facts ("If you slide down that banister you might get hurt.") and let him practice thinking things through for himself, to consider the possible consequences of his actions, to assess his own risks, to ask himself, "Is this a risk worth taking?"

I think that all of us, teachers and parents and school administrators alike, need to take a step back from our liability-conscious, safety-first positions, and consider the longer-term goals we have for the children with whom we’ve been entrusted.  As founder of The Tinkering School and author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) Gever Tully says in his fantastic TED presentation, "When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not made of round plastic they hurt themselves with it."

Teacher Tom concurs, “I’m convinced that every owie we help them avoid is really just an owie we’ve pushed off into the future.”  He continues,

Now, I would never intentionally allow a child, or any person for that matter, to hurt himself. If I see someone falling, I will always try to catch her. But at the same time, I understand that every injury we avoid today, by physically preventing the injury or forbidding an activity in which an injury might take place, we've merely pushed that injury off into the future. At some point, if a child is going to ever learn to drive a nail, he will hit his own thumb. That's how everyone learns to use a hammer and it's going to hurt no matter when we do it. One could argue, in fact, that young children with their low to the ground bodies, flexible bones, quicker healing times, and shorter memories are designed by nature to learn exactly these lessons now, rather than later when falls are from a greater height, bones are easier to break, wounds slower to mend, and emotional recovery time longer.

He maintains that this shouldn’t be limited to physical risk-taking, either—that children should be encouraged to practice speaking in front of a group, to learn about being accepted and rejected by friends, to deal with disappointment, fear, failure, and even death.  “Our job as adults is to not help children avoid these things, but rather to help them stop for a moment, assess the risks, plan for the potential consequences, eliminate the unnecessary risk, mitigate the inherent risk, and then pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and get on with their lives of doing.”

So, if we accept that we can best help our children by stepping down from our roles as the safety police and turning the responsibilities over to the children, how do we go about it?  Nancy Eppler-Wolff and Susan Davis, clinical psychologists and authors of Raising Children Who Soar:  A Guide to Healthy Risk-Taking in an Uncertain World (Teacher’s College Press, 2009) suggest we teach children the following four steps toward good risk taking.

  1. Identify the risk

  2. Stay aware of the potential dangers and benefits

  3. Think through one’s actions

  4. Evaluate one’s actions afterwards

Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, wrote in Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Scribner, 2001) “Keeping too close an eye on children is a stumbling block. …If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn.  And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up to be frightened of life’s simplest challenges.  …Every child is different.  Look at the particular person God has given you and use your best judgment, but never assume that any child is too fragile to fly.”  I think that as parents and teachers alike, we need to have more faith in the children under our care, greater courage to letting them face challenges, and the ability to trust that the child can and will cope successfully with bumps and bruises—physical and emotional—and emerge as a competent, strong and confident adult.

 

Giving Ourselves a Break

Accepting and embracing who we are as parents

By Teacher Autumn

I used to be addicted to parenting workshops and classes and lectures. And every time I went to one, I came home with renewed confidence and determination to be the Best Parent Ever. I planned to adopt the new strategies I discovered at the aforementioned events and prepared to be amazed at my newfound effectiveness as a parent.

After a few weeks, days, or in some cases, hours, my enthusiasm always began to wane. I quickly tired of being so present, so engaged, so responsive. Effective parenting was exhausting! I desperately wanted to curl up in a pile of blankets and eat cheesy popcorn while watching reruns of The Office on my laptop, with a Do Not Disturb sign hung on my bedroom door.

When my son, Justin, was in kindergarten, I remember listening to a particularly inspiring lecture on raising a resilient child. According to the speaker, we should let our children suffer more. We should welcome opportunities that require them to struggle, flounder, and fail. And we should never do anything for a child that he or she could do for themselves.

I remember coming home that evening with renewed vigor. I excitedly reported to my partner all of the strategies I could not wait to use. I was going to raise the most resilient child the world had ever seen! He nodded and smiled and then changed the subject and started talking about how great it is that I also know how to be balanced and moderate.

He overestimated me.

The next afternoon, my son asked me to make him a snack after school.  “Make it yourself,” I replied and continued folding laundry.

He later yelled for a towel while in the bathtub. “Get it yourself!” I hollered from the sofa while watching funny You Tube videos of cats climbing into vases.

“Mom, can you sign my permission slip?” He handed me a form one morning after breakfast.

“Sign it yourself,” I replied with a mouth full of toast.

Wait. Maybe I was taking this a bit too far….

I realized then that there was probably a middle ground between having my son raise himself and treating him like an invalid. And that maybe the next workshop I needed to look into was one about how to Give Up on Getting It Right. 

So, since that time, I have done my best to be mindful of two things; the first is giving him space and the second is giving myself a break. I’ve tried to give him space to make mistakes, figure things out, and offer up opportunities for him to step outside of his comfort zone. I’ve also tried to go easier on myself, to recognize that there is no perfect way to parent, no “right” way to do it all, and to even give myself permission to completely screw up along the way. And then, when I do, to dust myself off, apologize when necessary, and try again. This way, I am modeling for him that it’s okay to make mistakes, that we don’t have to let them define us or incapacitate us. So it kind of feels like even when I fail, I win!

I know now that even if my very specific and premeditated attempts to cultivate resilience in my son fall short, I am raising a strong kid. After all, having a mom who attends too many parenting workshops means that he is learning how to roll with the punches. 

Mindfulness: Beyond the Buzzword

What does mindfulness really look like when it comes to parenting? 

By Teacher Autumn

Sometimes I make green smoothies in the morning. I load the blender up with kale, coconut water, frozen mango, and other ridiculously healthy delights. My son, Justin, balks every time because no matter what I say to try to convince him (and myself) that they are crazy delicious, we both know that they taste like an odd mixture of grass and medicine with a hint of sweetness. And sometimes they are oddly chewy.


Anyway, one such morning, we were scrambling to get out the front door on time and I couldn’t find a clean tumbler with a lid, so I poured his share of my “torture smoothie”, as he so lovingly calls it, in a regular plastic cup with a straw. No lid.


I’m sure you can see where this story is headed.


I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I can vividly recall, as if in slow motion, the bright green smoothie bursting from the cup, exploding onto the walls, the rug, and the doorknob. I also recall that the smoothie had been in Justin’s hand just seconds before.


His face turned bright red and he froze in his tracks, staring at me with wide eyes. He scurried to grab paper towels from the kitchen and his voice crackled out, “I’m so sorry.”


I wanted so desperately to scream. But somewhere, somehow, a gap arose between the eruption of the green smoothie and my response to it. I knew I had a choice. I could freak out and yell and lecture or I could remain calm, do what needed to be done, and build connection and trust between me and my child. I took a deep breath. “It’s okay, honey. It was an accident.”


I watched his shoulders drop, and his body relax. I took another breath and closed my eyes and reminded myself that this was not an emergency. I knew I was on the right track, even though my belly was tingling with frustration and panic.


My eyes moved around the foyer, surveying the damage. It looked like someone had splatter painted the walls bright green. Chia seeds clung to our little white Ikea stool, our shoes, and the photo of my niece and nephew that hung in the hallway. Everywhere I looked the green oozed and dripped and streaked.
“I tripped,” he whispered.


One more breath. “Wow. This is like a wild art exhibit.” I smiled at my son. “Let’s just grab some towels and see what we can do in five minutes.”


We scooped and patted and wiped as best we could. Then I called it. “Okay, let’s go. We’ll finish up when we get home later this afternoon.” Justin scrambled to get a few more rags on the floor and wipe down one more spot on the wall.
And then we left the towels covering the mess, which would be there upon our return in a few hours, and I knew the spots we missed would be harder to clean up because they would be all dry and caked on. I thought of all of this as we walked down to the car, and I kept breathing.


We drove to science class mostly in silence, and I could feel Justin stealing glances at me every few minutes. I knew he was surprised that I hadn’t yelled at him, and he was probably trying to make sense of it. I just kept breathing. And I felt my shoulders drop and my body relax, too.


When we pulled into the parking lot of the science building, before Justin got out, he turned to me. “Thanks for not yelling at me, Mom.” He smiled at me and reached for my hand. “I promise I’ll be more careful.” He gave my hand a quick squeeze, I told him that it was okay and I loved him and that these things happen, or something to that effect, and he was gone.


I sat in my car for a few minutes, being still. Wow, I thought to myself, that could have gone totally different. It has gone totally different.


Smoothie Apocalypse was the first real tangible evidence I had that all of the work I had been doing to slow down and stay present was actually working. I was spending more time meditating, breathing deeper, noticing the world around me, doing one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking. I was exploring mindfulness by reading books about it, attending lectures on the subject, and paying closer attention to what was needed in each moment. Prior to the smoothie disaster, I knew I had been feeling different, but wasn’t sure if what was happening on the inside was translating to anything that could be recognized from the outside.
Now I knew. This was one of those bigger moments that I had read about in my mindfulness books. Whether I chose to lose my temper or keep breathing and stay calm, nothing was going to make the smoothie unspill. But my response to the spill had the power to make or break the connection between us.


Not forever, of course, but at least for the moment. And what is forever, if not a string of moment after moment after moment? This is what mindfulness has come to mean to me...creating more moments that deepen rather than damage connection.


And it also means knowing when it’s time to get a few more cups with lids.


For additional reading on mindful parenting, I recommend The Conscious Parent by Dr.Shefali Tsabary; Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid by Dr. Laura Markham; and Zen Parenting Radio; an audio podcast that keeps me company in my car quite often.

Potty Talk

TEACHER AUTUMN 

I always prefer the term toilet learning to toilet training, as it evokes a sense of a relaxed and interactive process. To my mind, the term “training” feels more militant and adult imposed. The word “learning” gives me the sense that we are all in this together and honors the process of discovery and change. It can certainly be argued that these are all just semantics and irrelevant to the potty process we are speaking of. But in my experience, the language we use affects our thoughts, which then shape our views about the world around us, which then directly influence our behavior. So I can think of no better place to start a conversation about toilet learning than by looking at how we think about toilet learning.

Supporting a child through toilet learning involves, most importantly, a positive and relaxed attitude. If a parent approaches the learning from a rigid place and is filled with anxiety about this process, they will pass this way of being onto their child. This can create embarrassment and shame within the child that can make the entire process much more charged and difficult. There is no room for shaming or blaming language when it comes to accidents, as they are a natural part of the process. Using a matter of fact approach, much like the one you might use when they spill something at the snack table could sound like, “Oops. Let’s clean up.” Then you could help them be a part of washing the soiled clothes and putting on dry ones. Approaching this learning process with the same ease in which you approach the process of learning to walk or eat solid foods will support your child’s positive sense of themselves and their body.

 

potty3.jpg

TEACHER KERRY 

The trend in the U.S. over the past decades has been to move toilet learning to a later and later age. In 1957, studies found that 92% of children were trained by 18 months, and in many parts of the world, children are still out of diapers much earlier than in the U.S. Following the guidance of T. Berry Brazelton, American physicians and parenting experts began counseling parents to hold off longer and longer, waiting for the child to lead the process. Diaper manufacturers happily responded by making more comfortable diapers in ever-larger sizes. (Brazelton was paid by Proctor and Gamble to consult and appear in Pampers commercials.) However, some recent research indicates that later isn’t always better. As long as parents are encouraging, positive, and avoid shaming a child, starting earlier can be very successful. Children who are trained between the ages of two and three seem to fall into the “sweet spot” in terms of speed of training, reduced “accidents,” and avoidance of later physical complications such as urinary tract infections, constipation, and incontinence. Children who wear cloth diapers, as opposed to disposables, seem to learn about a year earlier—probably because they get better feedback about the process. While deciding whether it's time to start potty training, parents can encourage their children by modeling how to use the toilet, explaining what children are feeling when you notice their “signals,” allowing a child to “play” using the potty even before you’ve removed the first diaper, and treating toilet-learning in the same confident, matter-of-fact way you treated your child’s first efforts at communicating or learning to crawl.

TEACHER JEAN

It may seem like forever, but your child will eventually be completely potty trained. Think of it not as a race to the finish line, but a meandering journey where there will be leaps forward and inevitable temporary regressions! It is important to not only recognize your child’s signals of readiness for potty learning, which can occur around 18 months of age, but to help your child recognize them him or herself. Once awareness has begun your child is really on the way to mastering this bodily function! Your attitude and feelings will be communicated to your child and play an important role in the ease of the process and the developing relationship in general between you and your child. A calm and accepting attitude without the extremes of rewards for success and disapproval / shame for accidents can make the process a natural part of acquiring a life skill as mentioned before, rather than some sort of game or contest that is to be won.

There is much information out there on potty training, with compelling choices and methods that will appeal to parents. From all of this, find what is comfortable for your child and family, shore up your patience, and never give up!! Once your child has crossed this frontier of development that seems to take forever, you will find it hard to remember what it was like in the previous diaper days. Believe me, as your child passes other milestones throughout the months and years ahead, you will marvel at how quickly time has really passed during these precious early years.

What is a Co-op All About?

By Teacher Kerry

In January, some of us spend time at the LAPP Open House, explaining LAPP to prospective members who want to know what a co-op preschool is all about. As we work our way systematically through a seemingly endless list of requirements and responsibilities, “…class work-parent days…monthly meetings…maintenance obligations…committees…board of directors…” you can’t help but wonder for a moment why anyone shows up at all!  Being a member of a parent-participation program is no piece of cake. As I have listened to the stories told by various alums over the years, though, the recurrent themes tell a more complex story. 

Families select participatory preschools for a multiplicity of reasons, but usually the desire to spend continued quality and quantity of time with their children is paramount. In addition, as one SCVC advertisement in the Bay Area Parent magazine stated, co-op parents don’t wonder what or how their children are doing in school, because they know. Even more importantly, they have the opportunity to help to shape the program with the donation of their skills, abilities and priorities. With a traditional preschool, once the family has taken the crucial step of choosing a program, their influence is strictly limited.

I have talked with many former co-op members who note that they still maintain friendships formed while their children attended preschool together. One related how she and other moms would meet after preschool at a park, to continue talking while the children played. Soon the meetings occurred after kindergarten—and then the children no longer came to the park, yet the moms continued to meet, walking together and continuing to receive the support they had come to count on. At a class I attended a while ago, a woman spoke with me about the difficulty she is experiencing as the mother of a young infant, her feelings of isolation, confusion and uncertainty about her role and whether she’s doing the right things. It reminded me of how fortunate I was, when my daughter was a baby, to have a warm circle of friends who had already experienced some of the challenges and could encourage me through my learning process. As children grow, our need for support and information and simple handholding doesn’t decrease. Each age brings its new challenges to us as parents, and stretches us to the very boundaries of our ability to understand, to lead, to listen, and to encourage. When we are part of a genuine community, we have a much better chance of accomplishing that stretch.

The word “community,” is in itself a challenge. Almost every program with which I’ve been associated has referred to itself as a community, if it hasn’t reached further to use the word “family”—and none of those schools, prior to my time at LAPP, included parent participation in the classroom. Many good non-participatory programs do, in fact, foster community amongst the families of their students, yet often it is a narrow community, united along a slender band of shared experience at school functions and fundraisers and little more. One of the most wonderful differences in the co-op experience, as I see it, is that parents truly know their children’s friends and classmates. When you talk with another member about your child’s current excitement or challenge, that person has observed, conversed with, and sometimes applied Band-Aids to the child you are discussing. He or she can discuss your son or daughter as an individual and can expect the same level of awareness from you. This is something which is to be expected from a teacher in the classroom, but there is a tremendous added richness to an environment in which an additional 20 adults are watching each new development. No single teacher, however dedicated, can see every moment of every student’s day. Cumulatively, however, in a setting with four or more interested adults, a majority of activities and interactions are observed and noted. A parent at a preschool information night a couple of years ago responded to this idea by pointing out that most of those observers aren’t trained professionals in early childhood development, which of course is true. However, they are practiced parents, and they are there because they are truly interested in children and their development. That interest and experience is an invaluable boon.

Obviously, no experience is limited to only positive moments, and parent-participation preschools are no exception. Keeping the program going requires a tremendous amount of creativity, dedication, flexibility and sheer hard work from each member. Sometimes even the most laboriously hammered-out compromise doesn’t feel right to everyone. Sometimes the idea of community seems hopelessly idealistic in the light of one more required meeting, one more tense discussion, one more difficulty to surmount. Yet it is genuinely true that through those joint struggles, as well as the shared joy of playing and singing and creating with the children, we create the bonds which can unite us. Our families can make a difference in the lives of other families, because we have worked together to reach common goals. Because our program is truly operated by  parents, we can be more responsive to the needs and desires of each group of families, year by year. As parents participate in the Board, choose and prepare curriculum projects and represent the program at community events, they become more informed and articulate advocates for educational opportunities not only for their own children, but for those in the larger community as well.

I believe that to truly experience the meaning of “community”, we have to speak as well as to listen; to ask for help as well as to offer it. There is sustenance in offering understanding to someone whose child is going through a difficult time, to listening to the problems concerned in a move, a birth, a job-change. Equally, when we share our difficulties, we are offering others the opportunity to reach out and give support. Parenting often seems like a delicate balance between adult and child, with roles and expectations shifting day by day. Perhaps this balance is also to be found in our relationship to our larger community, if we find the energy and commitment to continue to look for it. In joining a co-op, each of you has made a commitment to your child. Your time and dedication indicate more strongly than any words that your child is fundamental to you, and that education is a priority for your family. I hope that each of you will also take with you, when you leave LAPP, a network of people with similar goals and priorities, who can continue to help with the challenges that will arrive.