This fall brings about a sense of sweet anticipation and some expected nerves.
Our oldest, Ollie, is beginning Kindergarten at a new school as he embarks on his first school experience independent from the world of Garrison's (wonderfully amazing) Preschool.
As parents, we are excited about his upcoming journey. It is also a moment that helps bring about a lot of reflection for us, both the fun and challenging moments we shared with our first child as we have been learning how to be parents right along with him learning how to be a person in this great big world. I know that our learning curve as parents has been quite steep, especially mine as a father. When I think about Ollie's baby days, I chuckle to myself about a poignant moment that offered a lesson in early humility and hilarity.
When parents take their oldest child home from the hospital, there are undoubtedly so many moments that help define the challenging experience of first-time parents. Some of those moments are frustrating. Some of those moments are lonely. Other moments wash us over with a feeling of helplessness. And some of those moments made us wonder about what kind of personality our child would have based on their early behaviors and tendencies. Some of us were pros with terrific initial instincts, and others needed more time and practice. Some of us were blessed with babies who just did everything they were supposed to right on cue: sleep when tired, eat when hungry, coo and play when it was time, and sleep even more so that everyone in the house could get some reprieve from the daily grind. And then some of us were blessed with the other kind of baby. You know, the one who mixes up their days and nights, pulls Houdini-like feats in breaking every swaddle, spits out pacifiers as if it is the most horrible thing one could offer up, and struggles to get on a schedule for eating.
For our first, we kind of had the latter baby. In his first week in this world, Ollie wasn't nursing well, wouldn't sleep for more than 20-30 minutes at a time at night, and managed to bust his right arm out of every kind of swaddle as if it were a magic trick. I am fairly certain that if I tightly taped duct tape around his swaddle he would have found a way out (I promise that I did not do this, but it certainly crossed my mind).
All of my years working as a teacher and at summer campus never prepared me for any of this. I had never babysat a single child growing up; Ollie was the first baby I had ever held.
In my desperate need to fix Ollie's lack of sleep inertia, I went straight into problem-solving mode. This has to be simple, right? Something specific is preventing him from staying asleep, right? I just needed to figure it out.
We were gifted a little basket-bassinet type contraption for sleeping, and the basket simply rested on the ground. In my forever parenting wisdom (please note, this was MY wisdom; my wife is far smarter than this), I was utterly convinced that he was not staying asleep because the basket was on the ground. Because as an adult, you know if you are sleeping on the ground or if you are elevated. And it is always better to be off the ground. Right? Right. So I spent what little time I had while Ollie was sleeping (20-30 minutes, on the clock), concocting to position the basket-bassinet on top of a low bookshelf that would provide the much needed elevated surface, and then safeguarding and securing the bassinet by flanking it with chairs on all sides because it seemed plausible that a 1-week-old baby could roll the basket off the bookshelf.
And guess what, did it work? Of course not.
That. Was. Crazy.
I think about this often because family and friends don't let me forget about it, but I also think about this often because as babies, our children rely on us for everything. Their sole survival in this world depends on a caretaker to help provide them with food to eat, time to sleep, and opportunities to play and develop which all lead to creating the right supports for that baby to thrive. Everything about our children's survival during the first part of their lives depends on our ability to provide love, support and care around the clock. As I consider all of these initial expectations that are thrust upon us as parents, that we must do everything for our children, I then think about how our roles must eventually evolve and shift into the same expectation but how it looks is incredibly different. Our role as parents is to continue to help our children find ways to develop and thrive, but how we do it must look different as our children grow older. How many 12-year-olds are still being swaddled in order to sleep and asked to coo on command after a round of tummy time? Hopefully zero.
Essentially, if we continue to do everything for our children then we are not providing them with the opportunities to learn how to process, cope and manage challenging situations on their own. During early adolescence, there will always be plenty of opportunities to practice these skills, but only if the adults in their lives help them realize their ability to control both how they feel and how they choose to respond.
Fifteen years of working with Middle School students have provided me with 3 enduring understandings of these youngsters:
1) Nothing lasts forever,
2) They want and need support just as much as adults want and need to provide support, but don't always understand how to receive it, and
3) They make decisions based on what they know and feel, which is often incomplete.
Our teenagers are consumed by their own thoughts nearly every moment of the day. What can feel like trivial matters to adults are actually game-changers for them. As their realities get shaped by their experiences and interactions with people at each juncture of every day, they are creating their identities for themselves and their understanding of the world. Nothing in there is trivial to them, and we should never dismiss matters so quickly. So more often than not, adolescents are constantly choosing and deciding between things. What to do versus what not to do. What to say versus what not say. What to feel versus what not to feel. What to think versus what not to think. When we, as adults (myself very much included), remind our students to make good decisions, what on earth is a kid supposed to do with that loaded reminder? Now when our children do actually just make poor choices (of course they exist and they will make them), and there are some consequences in front of them, then what?
The approach that an adult takes in these situations is equally as critical, if not more so, than how our children respond. To over-simplify this, what truly matters is whether we as parents choose to support and help or intervene and take over. And yes, it is always a choice.
When we see our children struggle, the very children that we love dearly, it often catalyzes us to spring into action. How can we fix this? How can we make it better right now? How can we move forward as quickly as possible? These moments can revert us back to being the parents of 12-14-month-olds when we are really dealing with 12-14-year-olds. So when our 12-14-year-olds struggle, what do we need to prioritize and remember? We need to remember that we must help our children figure out how to process, cope and manage issues so they can understand how they can control them. We need to remember that they need to be the ones in the driver's seat to get the issue resolved if the situation actually needs a resolution.
There are two strategies that I think all of us as adults can employ to make the magic of the priorities above actually happen.
First, instead of going right into problem-solving mode, take a step back and go into problem-identifying mode. What is the difference? A big one. Problem-solving makes us do things before we fully think and understand a situation but with a problem-identifying mindset, we commit to taking the time to fully understand all of the facets and variables that make this problem a problem. It gives us the gift of time to better understand what actually happened.
Second, to better help empathize with your children, try not to assume that you can take on their perspective. Avoid thinking or saying, "When I was a teenager…" until much later. In the moment, walk yourself away from that soapbox. Trying to put yourself in their shoes only causes you to muddle it up with your own biases about the situation. Instead, approach the situation with a perspective-getting mindset to learn more about how your child thinks and feels that is independent of you. This is about them, not you.
Luckily, there is a simple way to ensure that you employ both strategies: ask questions.
That is the answer: to ask questions.
Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Keep asking so many questions that once you have asked all of your questions there are literally no more questions to ask. And then once that is done, ask yourself if you really have asked every question possible.
This will not only help build your own empathetic superhero skills, but it will also model it for your child while at the same time helping to provide the chance to practice how they will process, cope and manage the given situation. Understandably, this can be a big shift as parents but it is an important one. As a byproduct, this will also help to continue to foster a loving and trusting relationship as our babies grow into teenagers. Out of everything that matters in life, our children, more than ever, need these kinds of healthy relationships. How we empower and entrust our children to cope with challenges has to have an end game of developing these skills to use them independently as they grow up. So our takeaway together as parents, myself included, is how can we ask more questions and be better listeners, because more often than not these two practices can resolve most of our children's problems. Except maybe losing sleeping at too low of an elevation.
Tung Trinh joined the Garrison Forest community in 2011 as the Middle School Dean of Students and Sixth Grade Geography teacher. Prior to GFS, Mr. Trinh was a middle school social studies teacher and the department chair at Shore Country Day School in Beverly, Massachusetts. He and his wife Ashley have two children.