The right kind of parenting
[The President] declared that securing the gains of civil rights leaders “requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
“Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails,” Obama said. “It requires vigilance.”
Those were President Obama’s words on Wednesday as he addressed the crowd gathered for the MLK50 Jubilee in Washington. This is one of the many issues we face as a nation. Are we going to provide free, equal, high quality public education to every child in this country? Or are we going to allow a handful of ignorant people who are caving in to special interests to close long-standing public schools or replace them by privatized Charter schools that use the taxpayer’s money to funnel profits to corporations.
Periodically over the past few months, I have enjoyed seeing and listening to Asean Johnson, the nine year old Chicago student who has become famous as the youngest activist to fight for public education. His poise, articulate expression, passion for his school, Marcus Garvey Elementary, and unselfconscious outspoken pleas to Mayor Emanuels’ office to save it from the chopping block, put him in a rare category of children who are not only highly intelligent but emotionally evolved.
Asean was on MSNBC over the weekend, with his mother Shoneice Reynolds — herself an articulate advocate for Asean’s school, which was also her school and her mother’s before her — talking to Ed Schulz about the vital role public schools play in our communities. Randi Weingarten (AFT) was with them enthusiastically lauding Asean for his brave attempts to persuade the Mayor’s office to reintroduce music and tutoring, as well as adding public speaking and debating into all elementary schools in Chicago. Imagine how many kids you know that would have the wit to even conceive of these latter two. We only had debating starting in high school and most of the debaters were juniors and seniors.
What most impresses me about Asean is his calmness and presence of mind. Obviously these are personal traits that come from whatever genetic mandate he was fortunate to have been born with. However, there were surely some very healthy environmental influences that benefitted Asean growing up under his mother’s care.
What makes a good parent and how important is that to our future emotional health and life course?
To me those are the most important questions we can have as citizens because when we nurture children properly, we launch a productive caring human being into society later on. Nothing is more determinative of future success in life than how your primary caregiver treated you, for the most part, during your baby- and childhood.
While I was thinking about this vital issue, I was reminded of a couple of anecdotes. One took place a few years ago when we were at a rock yard looking for flagstones to patch some bare spots on our side lawn. The place was pretty crowded on that particular Saturday. While we were studying all the different shapes and sizes of stepping stones, a family was nearby, mother, father and two little boys about 4 and 6. The older child started picking up large pieces of gravel and pelting his brother with them.
A few times he missed and they bounced off various objects in the stone yard, coming fairly close to hitting some of the other shoppers. The younger child started to cry and the father growled at the older one, who simply ignored him and went on pitching rocks everywhere. Finally, his father went over, grabbed him and said, “Stop it, or I’ll kill you!”. The boy wriggled away and kept right on going. His parents then turned and walked off to continue shopping.
I could not help myself, I marched right over to that father and told him that threatening any child, let alone his own little boy that way was unconscionable, but almost as bad was making a threat and not following through on it. Obviously, I was not suggesting that he carry out his promise to harm that six year old! A far more effective disincentive would be to warn him that he would withdraw some privilege or there would be another suitable consequence for continuing an undesirable activity. Ideally, he would have first explained why he wanted the child to stop and then seen to it that the behavior ceased, with a promise of an appropriate penalty if it did not. A child who knows from experience that his parents keep their commitments and promises to him, will feel more secure and will inculcate his parents values more readily.
I went on to tell that man that it may seem harmless when children are this young, to let them defy you and continue on with destructive behavior, but that same child will be an adolescent in no time and then the very behaviors that so many parents swear they don’t understand in their teenagers are the harvest of bitter fruit whose seeds were sown in early childhood.
Similarly, I often see children trailing after their mothers in supermarkets, begging the mother to stop and pay attention to something, the child asking the mother repeatedly to look or listen to something he or she has to say, tugging at her. How often have I been pained to see the mother totally ignore the child and keep on moving. What makes these women think that when the child gets older, he or she will listen to anything that she has to say? Our children reflect us! The effective parent always stops to listen and respond to a child’s inquiries and requests, not that they all be granted, but that respect for the child be shown in the parents taking time for them, taking them seriously.
Another incident was a parent who was explaining to me how he dealt with his five year old son who liked to take a stick and smack people and objects wherever he went. He proudly told me that he would not allow it! How? By hitting the child with his belt to teach him a lesson. He obviously failed to see that the belt he used was mimicked in the stick. It was interesting to observe his recognition that they were one and the same.
The subject of proper parenting is vast and beyond a personal blog post, but I think if we want to see good, instinctive parenting we can look to Shoneice and Asean. I know nothing about that mother, her background, or philosophy, except as they are obviously reflected in this articulate, poised, thoughtful little boy who was not just parroting phrases she had taught him, but was answering questions from Ed Schulz, some that surprised him as one could tell from his reaction. He sat on national television and answered everything he was asked with as much candor and mature thought as any adult would do in that same circumstance.
Asean is likely to succeed in life because at 9, he has already passed a critical development point in his mental and emotional maturation (7) and is clearly equipped with the tools to go through life open to new ideas and experiences, calm in the face of challenges, and energized to succeed. As he spoke, his mother watched him with the look of an admirer; she listened to him intently and did not interrupt him or supply him with words when he hesitated as Ed or Randi asked him a novel question.
Every parent, and in fact every educator, could study this example and be encouraged to emulate it.
Images: Wikimedia Creative Commons