Heffner column: Parents are teachers already
Parents are among those on the front line during this pandemic crisis. The role they play may not be as noted or heralded as the medical professionals and other caretakers now called to duty, but is no less significant.
Stressed themselves by new economic pressures and by providing food and care for family and household, they are now tasked with filling in for teachers, recreational leaders and usual outdoor activities for children. The meaning of “shelter in place” is all too familiar for anyone who has cared for a sick child missing school. I have been thinking about all the things that are part of a parent’s job description. The physical care of children may be the easy part.
A child’s development, which may seem just to happen, is actually the result of a teaching and learning process. Parents themselves sometimes don’t seem to realize when they are teaching and how much they are teaching. They teach children to drink from a cup, to eat with a spoon and fork, to dress themselves, to use the toilet, to put away their toys, to share, not to hit or bite, to respect the rights of others. They help children develop the skills they need, and teach them acceptable behavior.
This teaching and learning take place in many different ways - some that we don’t even think about. Children learn a lot by watching us - which we often don’t even realize until we see them imitating our behavior, or hear our words coming back to us. They learn through repetition - how many times have you had to read the same story? They learn through trial and error. They learn by watching, listening, doing. They learn through experiences that are pleasurable (at times not so pleasurable), and not beyond their capabilities.
How do parents learn how to do this? Largely they learn from their observation and understanding of their own children, but at times they get stuck in this process. Why do they get stuck? At times this happens when children behave in ways that you don’t expect. Or in ways that you don’t like.
But they also get stuck by their own unrealistic expectations of themselves - and at times, perhaps, of their children. Because we are aware of how much our children do learn from us, we tend to attribute whatever they do to something we have done. All the articles that tell you how you are supposed to behave don’t really help either.
The fact is that children are telling us about their feelings through their behavior. We do the same at times, and then feel guilty about having expressed our stress and upset through a loss of patience when responding to our children. At times the stress we feel overcomes our ability to be thoughtful in our responses. But that, too, is something our children can learn from us.
If we share with our children the reality that sometimes our feelings are expressed in behavior we regret, they get the message that we understand that about them, too. If we can forgive ourselves that means we also will forgive them, and they in turn can forgive themselves.
In addition to everything else, we help children develop feelings of empathy. I have seen children in groups reach out to other children who are missing their parents. In the same way, children can be responsive to the feelings of parents and often show concern when a parent seems upset.
We will not be burdening our children with our own stressed feelings but rather demonstrating empathic feelings toward ourselves and them.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.