When I came to the Gold Coast to teach, 10 years ago, I was very fortunate to have a number of mentors who guided me in my teaching and my ability to work with parents. These people also opened my eyes to the practical rather than theoretical applications of early childhood training. It was so exciting to find a new way of actually using all the ideas that I’d learned about at uni, and experimented with in my first 2 tentative years of teaching.
I think the single greatest concept presented to me in this time was one particular phrase, which has stuck in my mind ever since, and completely influenced the way I have since begun parenting my own children. It was a phrase offered as a summary of an activity presented in a parenting class at the school, run by one of my mentors. In answer to a question about appropriate times of life to introduce adult and abstract topics and behaviours, her reply was: “Waiting is a gift.”
When is the right time for girls to wear makeup and dress like women? Waiting is a gift
When is the right time to begin teaching focussed literacy? Waiting is a gift
How do I work with my young child’s impulses? Waiting is a gift
It seemed like the answer for everything and it totally transformed the way I approached my teaching. At the time I was working with 4 – 6 year olds, and there were quite a few children in the class who were used to having their own way … NOW! This was a behaviour that I detested, to be honest, although now I realise that this is partly part of a child’s development and partly due to social and environmental learning. I began applying my new motto in my classroom, and stopped responding to every request, every question, and every demand from the children.
Sounds rude doesn’t it? I didn’t do it rudely though, I would just wait for a while before responding to questions, pause for a moment before I would go to attend to a child, finish my current task before turning my attention to the child tugging on my clothes. Even I would not respond immediately if a child had tripped over, dropped something or accidentally hurt someone else (emergencies and serious accidents not included – you should see me move then!), definitely I would not respond straight away to tale-telling and complaining about others. It was challenging and confusing for the children at first but after a couple of weeks the children would begin answering their own questions … or asking a friend. They began to either wait quietly for me to come to them, or try to solve their own problem in their own creative ways.
There were of course many children of temperaments not suited to this treatment – those who were naturally impulsive, spontaneous, excitable, demanding, or not used to being ‘ignored’. These children were about to embark on a long journey exploring the ‘practice of patience’ with their teacher – and it ended up being one that bonded us very closely together over the two years I was their teacher.
When our baby son arrived, I continued to encourage him to wait. By not responding straight away to his cries or his falls, he developed a relationship of trust with my husband and I: of course we are here for you, we know when you need us and we will keep you safe, will not let you become distressed, hurt or afraid, but at the same time it is important for you to learn about the world yourself. This is not to say we ignored him, but as I described earlier, I would pause before responding and not rush to console him. Both our children pick themselves up when they fall over, they cry when they need to, and know we are always watching out for them, but also have become prepared to take a risk in their play. A few scratches, a trip over, a bump, these are everyday things.
Over the years, the phrase ‘Waiting is a gift’ has popped into my head when in the supermarket I see my own children walk past the sweets and lollies without asking for something (But instead longingly suggesting that it would be nice to have a special treat today!!). I saw it when they stopped asking me constantly if they could watch a dvd (we watch one once a week), and when I heard my son tell my daughter: “Mummy will come in a moment, she just wants to finish her job first” and “I could help you instead!”, and “after you have had lunch, then you can have a cookie”. I have by no means cured my children of impatience though!! But I am so pleased when I notice these little developments.
My son wanted a play sword, but I didn’t feel that his level of play was ready for a sword yet. I told him that he had to be five years old before he could be knighted and earn his sword: knights have to learn how to use swords properly after all! While he waited to turn five, every now and then he would ask about knights and we would talk about what they would do: good deeds, go on quests, help others, and fight dragons. We talked about how knights behaved: with courteous ‘golden’ manners, beautiful speech and caring for their appearance and their possessions (you can’t use a rusty sword!). He turned five, his Dad made him a wooden sword, we painted it silver, talked about how it could be used, and then knighted him with it. I have no issues about sword play now, because in the waiting he learned that the privilege of having a sword comes with responsible use. At all times when he uses his sword he must remember how knights behave. His knighthood has been withdrawn a couple of times, but never without the opportunity for it to be bestowed once more! In this case, the gift was worth waiting for.
More than that though, the whole idea of waiting implies that there is a time for everything. We are used, as a society, to having our needs met NOW. All advertising is designed around this idea. Why wait, when you can have it faster/cheaper/brighter/better … NOW! Advertising has really zoned in on what children like: colourful, cheerful images with lots of colour and movement. This grabs children’s attention, then it suggests that there is something that they NEED to have, and so, due to the nature of young children, needs become physical desires. They HAVE to have, and children have begun to get used to having their parents jump to it and supply their wants: food, toys, clothing, entertainment, social activities … and this has had its impact on childhood in so many ways!
In the 12 years or so that I have been working with children and families I have noticed a distinct lack of boundaries in children, and also a lack of manners. Yes, I am generalising here – I have noticed it as a trend amongst my own community, and noticed it as a common topic of discussion among my colleagues. Children are so used to having things, that it is nothing for them to accept things without the need for thanks, or to throw things away without any thought except that it will be replaced. Children are also losing the ability to play with their own imagination. Many a child came through our classrooms that we had to teach how to play, because they were so used to watching tv, playing electronic games, going to the movies, and being shuffled to three or four different types of after school activities each week. When could they possibly have the TIME to use their imagination or exercise their own stagnating creativity?
Little children dress like adults now. Mini-me outfits for kids are cute – occasionally – but I don’t want my daughter wearing a pair of knee-high boots with a mini skirt when she is two years old. I want her in overalls and gumboots! Make-up parties for 6 year olds? Sure, if it is a bit of fun at home with mum and some friends, but a full-on make-over at a salon, driven to and from in a limousine? I kid you not, these parties exist! Kids acting like grown-ups because grown-ups think it is cute.
I’m not suggesting these activities are not ok – I’m saying there is a TIME to do them. Teenage activities and concepts are for teenagers. Adult activities and concepts are for adults. Childhood is a time that is too precious to rush away by responding to our children’s desires for better / faster / older / more … they are only children for at the most a tenth of their life! And these are the years that we are the major focus in their lives. Why hand these years over to adulthood?
I think it is time to re-instate rites of passage in our communities. Knighting our five year old son was a rite of passage, it was a beautiful way for him to feel good about having to wait, about having to show us that he had learned and therefore earned something. Little moments like this should not be wasted! The things we gain for ourselves through time and patience and our own effort are not taken for granted. Waiting is a gift not to be wasted.
Thank you, Nansi, for teaching me this wisdom.