What I learned about parenting from fifteen years in teaching

A long time ago and in a previous life, I spent many years working in education as a dance (and occasional music) teacher. I worked with children and young people of almost every age: tiny tots aged 3-5 in early years settings; stroppy teenagers; fairly committed prevocational students and all the Key Stages in between. For this reason, although I still had no idea what to do with a newborn before my own arrived I felt quite confident about what to expect in the period following babyhood. And you know what? A lot of what I thought I knew a) stands the test of actually having a child and b) kicks in a bit sooner than I was expecting, in that a lot of what I learned about my 3-5s at nurseries and play settings across North London seems to apply quite well to my now 22-month old.

This is what, in 2009, I thought I had learned about children. And I stand by the following, I really do. Teachers! Parents! Feel free to add your own findings on the back of a used teaching career, or in the comments below:

1. Children do not break (easily). It’s a cliché about new parents that they panic about every cut, bruise and scratch that befalls their first-born, and are completely blasé about anything that happens to successive offspring up to and including severe head injuries and major surgery. The truth of the matter is that children are remarkably resilient to all manner of knocks, scrapes and bashes, and my general rule is that if the limb isn’t physically hanging off then the correct response is “Get up and carry on”. Actually, that lead me to point number 2 which is closely related:

2. Children won’t make a fuss unless you do. The thing to do if a four-year-old falls over is to stay calm, inspect any obvious injury, sprinkle fairy dust on it and say it’s all better now. The thing to do if a ten-year old falls over is to stay calm, inspect any obvious injury and observe that you don’t think it needs to be chopped off. If you’re not panicking, then the child is unlikely to panic. NB if the fairy dust trick doesn’t achieve the desired effect (a big toothy grin) then it’s possible there’s an actual injury involved – seek medical help. But if you start from the principle that everything’s OK, then chances are it will be.

3. Children are fascinated by weird shit. Stuff under their nails. Stuff their bodies do. Stuff on the floor. Stuff out the window. Stuff on their best friend’s nose. I really don’t know how children stay focussed long enough to learn basic skills, like walking and talking, let alone complex stuff like ABCs, multiplication and pas de bourreé, but somehow they do. I don’t really have a top tip for dealing with this one. Maybe it’s a good thing to be curious.

4. Very young children really don’t have any prejudices at all. I see this, and I see instances of adults drilling it into them (consciously or unconsciously) and it breaks my heart. Prejudices about race, about gender, about age; expectations about what you should and shouldn’t be doing, about what you should and shouldn’t enjoy. I say: lay off the poor little fuckers. They get precious few enough years of innocence as it is.

5. Children stay cute longer than you think. I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – children remain playful and affectionate and curious and – yes – innocent for longer than they’d have us believe. Teens front and declare themselves unbothered, and as human beings it’s sometimes all too easy to take their word at face value, but sometimes, if you squint at the right angle, you can see the child underneath who wants to play just as much as the nearest toddler. The fairy-dust trick works surprisingly well on 15-year-olds with bashed knees, too.

6. Children need help to become adults. Children don’t know how to do it yet. That’s why they’re children. Should be obvious – you’re all intelligent people and you all know this. Lots of parents don’t, ‘sall I’m saying.

7. Children enjoy stuff. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my work over the past (counts on finger – oh, my gosh) decade is that I’ve always felt energised and buoyed up by the energy and positivity that children bring to (almost) every class. There have been off days, of course, and there have been groups I’ve been less fond of than others, but without a doubt it’s much more fun teaching children (anything) than teaching adults (anything). They just give you so much more enjoyment back.

8. Children ask really weird questions. Or maybe they don’t, but then they probably think I give really weird answers.

9. Children respond well to structure. At all ages, making it clear what you expect in terms of behaviour and focus as well as the task in hand has positive benefits and – here’s the secret – it doesn’t make them hug you any less. I’ve seen kids be really affectionate with teachers much stricter than I am (and I’m pretty demanding). So I don’t know whether some people are afraid of being Victorian Parents, or just mistake their children for their mates down the pub (see 6 above), or just haven’t found their inner “big voice” yet, but giving clear instructions is actually the way to a happy and beneficial relationship, whereas being a sappy git who doesn’t say what they want clearly is the way to a frustrated child, believe me. I think the title of this book puts it well. And I think this is even more important with older children – don’t mistake your teenagers apparent insistence on independence for actual maturity, because I’ve witnessed the fallout from that more than once. And, in unguarded moments, I’ve even heard teens confess that they’d like more boundaries, not fewer (see 6 above again).

10. Children like hugs. Even the big ones. And I think that’s a good thing.

4 thoughts on “What I learned about parenting from fifteen years in teaching

  1. From Helen via LJ in 2009: Thank you – I shall try to remember all of this re your point about predudice, I love it that my little boy will grin happily at a heavily pierced teenager or a shambling tramp and has none of my social embarassment. I wish he could always stay that way.

  2. From Abi via LJ in 2009: Don’t forget ‘children know when you’re taking about them and understand more than you might think’. I spent most of my primary school years cringing at the things adults said in front of me thinking I somehow couldn’t hear/didn’t comprehend words, and I would get extremely angry when adults patronised me.

    I even de-coded the child-proof ‘language’ (cat latin) that my folks tried to use to get around the problem!

    Nice list, anyway.

  3. From Darien via LJ in 2009: “what a child desires before anything else is that the world in which he finds himself should make sense. It is not the commands and prohibitions, as such, which adults impose that he resents, but rather that he cannot perceive any law linking one command to another in a consistent pattern.” (W.H. Auden, “Today’s ‘Wonder-World’ Needs Alice,” New York Times Magazine 1 July 1962.) Which I always felt rang very true.

  4. Pingback: Read With Mother – the best books for raising toddlers | Baby plus two

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