Monday, August 25, 2008

YOU Are Their First Teacher

With everyone going back to school, I want to share my parenting philosophy with regard to education. Bear in mind that my kids are still small (3 and 1.5), but I went to school to be a teacher. I've worked in the schools. I've been a tutor. I've seen what works and what doesn't.

The most important things that you need to know about your kids and their education are:

1) It starts at birth, not when they go to school.
2) YOU should be your kids' primary teacher, and you should see school as a supplement to what you teach them, not the other way around.

I remember when MG was about 4 weeks old, I realized that I'd had her for a whole month and I hadn't taught her anything! I felt so guilty. So I took her in the kitchen and I said, "Look at this spoon, Mary Grace, it's metal. It's shiny. Do you see the baby in the spoon?" as I held it close to her face. Then I took her to the freezer, opened the door and said, "Do you feel the cold? This is cold. This is an ice cube. It's frozen water. It's cold, and it's hard..." and she started to cry.

Clearly I was pushing her too hard.

Even though that was a bit of post-partum depression induced craziness, the philosophy still holds. You only get about 18 years (13 of which that they're actually paying attention, if you're lucky) to teach your kids everything they need to know to survive in this big, complicated world on their own. There's no time to lose! Read them books. Let them make a mess. Narrate everything you do ("Let's buy some apples, should we get green ones or red ones? Do you see any blue apples? Noooo...") Speak to them in a "grown up" voice. Baby talk is for kids who are going to get 160 on the SAT, instead of 1600.

I get a lot of interesting reactions from people, particularly other parents, when I talk about traveling with my kids. We took MG to France when she was 14 months old. We've been to Washington DC twice, we go to museums and art shows and free concerts at the university and lots of other things that most people with small kids don't do. Believe it or not, my kids are generally very well behaved in these settings. They have a little trouble distinguishing between a "touching museum" (like the Children's Museum) and a "no-touching museum" (like the Smithsonian), but generally the stuff you're really not supposed to touch is behind glass, anyway. They're figuring it out.

In general, people think I'm a little nuts for taking my kids to this sort of thing. I get, "They're not going to remember..." a lot. But I think that it's important to give my kids a foundation of lots of varied experiences, so that, for example, when they talk about dinosaurs in first grade, my kids have seen dinosaur bones and they know from experience how big they were, when they lived, etc. I also think that it's important to teach my kids, while they're still small and listen to me, occasionally, how to behave in these settings. When we went to the (free) concert at the university, they both sat still and listened (actually, they both fell asleep!). They were 2 and <1 at the time. I was prepared to leave early, and actually, we did, because no matter how well behaved they are, the attention span of a toddler isn't equal to the attention span of an adult. But I left before we melted down, and we had a great time. They got to see and hear a lot of different instruments that they'd never seen and heard before.

Think of your kids' education as a building. The stuff you do before they reach school is the foundation. Every experience, every activity, every exposure to something new strengthens that foundation and makes their success in "real" school much more attainable.

So, hooray! Your kids are in school, your work is done, right? Sorry. It's just starting.

The average teacher has 25 to 30 students in his or her classroom. And with school budgets strained, music programs being cut, gas prices high, athletic programs being cut, short academic years, art programs being cut, and the very unfortunate practice of "teaching to the test," your kids are going to need a lot more instruction than any human teacher can provide in 12 years, 180 days per year, 7 hours per day if your kids going to succeed and be happy, well-rounded adults.

Rather than thinking of school as the primary place of learning, and your home and family life as a supplement, what would change if you saw yourself as your kids' primary teacher, and the school as the supplement? Think of all the things they're NOT going to learn in school - how to garden, how to be a cordon bleu chef, how to spell cordon bleu, how to appreciate modern art, how to build model rockets, how to play an instrument, how to do just about everything fun in life! They can't teach that in American Public Schools - at least, not the way they're structured now. There are practical things they're not going to learn at school, too... How to clip coupons and plan menus and go grocery shopping, how to balance the checkbook, how to buy a car, how to get a loan, how to plan for retirement...

I am not bagging on teachers, here. A large percentage of my friends and relatives are teachers, and they're dedicated, committed, compassionate, professional, capable people. They do a hard job, and they don't make enough money doing it. What I'm saying is this: There is no way for a teacher, who is human, who has 29 other students, who has only 7 hours a day 180 days a year, who has a tight budget, who has a bad kid who disrupts class constantly, and so on... to teach your kids the GOOD stuff, the things they really need to know, the things that make the difference between smart kids and successful kids. It's just not physically possible. That's why kids have parents.

You don't have to lose your mind, either. Start with the things that you're interested in. BJ takes the kids to air shows, rocket launches, model airplane flying events, the Air and Space Museum. Their interests will grow out of your own. As they get older and bigger, let them choose activities.

Jenny was telling me about her babysitter, and how one morning the kids were flipping out because there was a spider in the bathroom. Rather than squishing the spider and moving on (which is exactly what I would have done) they went to the library and got books about spiders, they sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider," they made spider snacks out of marshmallows, pretzel sticks, and raisins, and they made the whole day about spiders. How cool is that? I aspire to be that mom!

When we were kids, my mom would do "food on the floor" - we'd sit around the big coffee table, and eat ethnic food. She would decorate the table to match the theme of the food, she'd play ethnic music... So on Mexican night we ate tacos, wore sombreros, listened to the Spanish language channel on the radio, and she put a colorful tablecloth on the table. Some of my best memories of my childhood are from "food on the floor" nights.

I can make Kool-Aid all by myself, and I can do it quickly. But if I take the time and let MG pour in the powder, measure the sugar, and stir, she has learned something. It doesn't have to always be a trip to France - just involving your kids in the day-to-day stuff that makes up a life will help them learn and grow. I know it's easier and faster to put on a movie (and believe me, I put on a movie for them every day!) but try to balance the zoning-out-in-front-of-a-movie time with time spent making Kool-Aid (what happens if you mix blue raspberry with strawberry, anyway?). Try to balance the flat "no, I'm not buying that" with an occasional discussion about budgeting and being financially responsible. Try to balance the frozen chicken nuggets and fries for dinner one night with "food on the floor" the next.

Oh, one of these days I'm going to have to do a whole post about food.

I promise that if you do these things, not only will your kids do better in school, be smarter, and more well rounded, they'll actually become more interesting, and you'll want to spend more time with them. After all, wouldn't it be more interesting to talk to them about the great book you read about bats the other night than to have yet another conversation about Bratz dolls or Spongebob Squarepants?

Push yourself out of your comfort zone this week, and do something extraordinary with your kids, and then come back and tell me all about it!


Anonymous said...

Awesome - you are so right about we as parents being the primary teachers.


Rob Monroe said...

Good post, Amy. It's so true! We did a big trip early, and we are sure to talk through the things that we do.

Maybe it helps that we're both child-oriented to begin with. I dunno. But I do know that next Saturday Abby will make her 5th trip to touch the ocean!

Mimi said...

Another very important thing is to make sure that you leave them with other caretakers frequently so that they don't develop school anxiety disorder.
Never, ever let your child argue with you. Simply state, I am the adult and you are the child. Period. That's it.
These two tips will surely save your child's teacher a lot of grief.

Have the T-Shirt said...

Great post Amy and exactly my parenting philosophy too.

Take em everywhere, show them everything and talk, talk, talk.

Both my kids loved taking classes at the zoo and Chilren's Museum as toddlers too, they have great programs...and parent's get to join in!

Denna said...

Just to reiterate, food on the floor was not something that involved spending a lot to do it. At the time I was a single mom on a tight budget. We went to the library and got most of the stuff we needed, books, audiotapes, sometimes a video. I bought 30 cent a yard fabric at the fabric store for the "table runner" or "tablecloth". We also used paper and crayons to make the flag of the country. We had to eat dinner anyway, so the food wasn't really anything additional. It was cheap to do, but I am forever astounded by the impression it made on my kids. It only goes to prove that you never know what will be the thing that sticks in your child's mind forever.