Although my hours are long, my body is fatter and less healthy and my mind is weary of worry, it has become increasingly clear to me that I have improved as a parent since becoming a teacher. You would think I’d get worse, given that teaching is practically consuming my soul and I oscillate between self doubt and misery and trying to convince myself that I am doing a good job. However, being with many children and seeing for my own eyes how no skill or acquisition of knowledge comes ‘naturally’, this has made me question some of my own previously held assumptions about how children develop, especially with regards to social skills.
As you know, I believe that nothing comes naturally and everything is in fact taught in some way, even if the teacher (parent) is unaware that they are teaching. Take language development: if we let a toddler grow up without any adult input at all he/she would not ‘spontaneously’ learn to speak, or even do anything remotely civilised really. So why do we insist with pushing this middle class view of childhood, that parents (and teachers) should be daintily following the children and letting them delay their own essential milestones such as learning how to use a knife and fork, knowing what is right and wrong, being able to be still and wait their turn to speak and, of course, learning how to read?
I had this massive realisation that even social skills don’t come naturally. You’d think I would have ‘got it’ a while ago, but even I had been sucked into the fallacy that children will just spontaneously programme their own neural circuitry and become excellent orators and listeners with the lightest of adult input (and that we should just let them play all day long). In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this whole ‘everything comes naturally so let them play’ thinking is some kind of conspiracy to further disadvantage the disadvantaged and just as progressive education condemns the disadvantaged to lower achievement because it pushes the whole ‘they’ll learn to read when they’re ready’ thing, progressive parenting condemns the children of disadvantaged parents to poorer social outcomes because their parents never knew their own power to teach their children how to be decent people by making an effort to talk to them, discipline them and get them into good habits through routines.
So, I made a mental note to ‘teach’ my own children how to listen and take turns, how to take an interest in other people, by making sure that every single day we had our dinner at the dining table and that I deliberately modeled a script that began with ‘So, how was your day?’ I have been very committed to this and have rebutted any sly inference from fellow teachers that my insistence on spending time with my children, by leaving work at a decent time, makes me a lazy or selfish teacher and colleague. Fast forward a few years and my deliberate attempt to do something that was the parenting norm 50 years ago has paid off: my children now reciprocate and they have much better social skills than I ever did at their age and I genuinely look forward to spending that precious time with my children, engaging in intellectual, interesting and heart-warming conversation with them.
This contrasts severely with my own childhood experience. I grew up in a single parent family and ate dinner on my own or with a sibling. There were no other adults around the home and I only ever saw grandparents infrequently. Despite having a wonderful but poor childhood, my social skills were (and still are, to some extent) dire because, looking back, I didn’t have much in the way of instruction on how to talk to people. I was also very shy, quiet and preferred books. As I got older, my own social inadequacy led me to sort of hide away and I comforted myself with books and study, thus further ‘programming’ myself to be almost on the spectrum in terms of my ability to empathise, read between the lines, understand people’s emotions/feelings (there is a lot of autism in my family too). I secretly struggle constantly with feelings of inadequacy in this regard and frequently feel frustrated that I just don’t seem to be like other ‘normal’ women. I’m almost hard-wired now to be socially inadequate and I don’t want this for my children.
So, by deliberately modelling/teaching my children certain skills, I feel I have become a better parent. I also feel confident that doing other old-fashioned things like making them do chores around the house is also the best way to teach them to take care of their surroundings and to work hard, because even attitudes and work habits need to be taught. This has happened because I became a teacher.
Who’s with me?