Wednesday, November 24, 2021

How To Raise Children Who Feel At Home With Who They Are

Sofia Minson

When it was time for our daughter to go to kindergarten, my wife and I were in a position to consider alternatives to our neighborhood public school. I was an involved parent, to say the least. Having been enrolled in a cooperative preschool for the preceding three years, I'd been attending school alongside our child, serving, as did all the parents at our school, as an assistant teacher. I'd also, by that point, decided to pursue my own course as a professional educator, so I made it a kind of hobby to tour the multitude of kindergarten options in Seattle, educating myself about models and theories while looking for the "right fit."

My number one priority was "fit." My earliest mentor, Chris David, a veteran preschool teacher, advised me, "Look for a place where your whole family feels comfortable." Her rationale was that most kindergartens came attached to elementary schools, so it wasn't really a decision of a single school year, but rather one that required us to look forward, in most cases, six years. Parent involvement, she reminded me, was the single most decisive factor in whether or not a child thrived in any school, so she suggested that I prioritize a place that encouraged parent involvement. Chris said, "Make sure to talk to the parents of the children already enrolled. Get to know some of them if you can. If you can imagine yourself socializing with them then you're probably in the right place."

It was genius piece of advice, one that I've paid forward again and again over the past couple decades as parents have asked me for counsel. 

I opted out of the one-on-one school tours, choosing instead to fill my schedule with open houses where I made a point of being social with any parent volunteer I could find. As we chatted, I would imagine myself having coffee with this person as the kids played in the garden, or trading child-minding with that person. My focus was on what kind of community this school fostered rather than what kind of curriculum they followed. 

Of course, every school gave lip service to parent involvement. One well-regarded school in particular touted their active parent community, but when I got to talking to one of the actual parents I learned, to my horror, that the school policy was that parents weren't ever allowed to pass beyond the main entrance lobby during the school day. When I asked the head of the school about this, she replied, "We've found that having parents in the classroom is just too distracting." They were the most upfront about it, but I discovered that this was at least the unofficial policy of most of the schools I visited. For these schools, "parent involvement" meant supporting fundraising efforts and serving as chaperones on field trips. That's it. Some of them even sanctimoniously defended their exclusion of families by asserting, "This is the children's place" and "We seek to foster independence."

But children, especially very young ones, don't come to us as individuals, but rather as members of families. As co-author of the latest update of New Zealand's highly-regarded national early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Brenda Soutar says to me, "As Māori we enroll the family, not the child, and that child comes with their ancestors surrounding them." She speaks of school, not as an institution, but as a family, and she tells us that the smallest Māori family unit is 70-80 individuals, and that includes ancestors both past, present, and future. The goal, she says, is not independence, but rather to foster interdependence.

As an American, "independence," has been drilled into me, but the older I get, the longer I've worked with young children, and, frankly, the more divided our world has become, the more I find myself seeing the deeper wisdom of interdependence. At some point, Western society decided that the children were in the way until we arrive at our modern world in which the vast majority of our children spend their days isolated in their walled-off corner of the world that we call school. Our adults, in turn, spend their days in their own walled-off corner that we call work. Not only that, but our grandparents find themselves equally walled-off by geographic distance or simply being left alone outside the walled-off areas, until our "family units" are often as small as three or four individuals that are only really together for a couple rushed hours in the evenings or on holidays. That's not right.

Brenda tells us that a Māori family would be mortified by this. And, honestly, after talking with her, I find myself mortified as well. What would it be like if our preschools adopted the Māori approach of enrolling entire families, let alone making space for ancestors? What if we didn't hurry "independence," but rather allowed it to emerge from the richer, deeper soil of interdependence? What if we prioritized the lessons of connection, listening, and community?

I can think of nothing more transformative for our world than to bring children back into the center of our lives. What a difference it would make if our children grew up knowing that they were always surrounded by their great big interrelated family. What a difference it would make if all children could feel at home. As Brenda tells us, "Your ability to appreciate and open your heart to others comes from your feeling at home with who you are." And that, I think, is a world changing idea, one that can start with us.


To watch my entire interview with Brenda, as well as those with 26 other early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world, please join us for our reprise of Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these the presenters are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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