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Raising Awesome Kids between Home and School

April 30, 2017

It used to be that if a child misbehaved at school a note was sent home to the parents. The parents would then drag the child to the teacher and the child would have to apologize.. for something.

Not so these days.

These days if a child surfaces with a problem, teachers advise that the parent’s first instinct is to blame the teacher. The child apparently whines about mistreatment and the parent comes loaded for bear to extract and apology from the teacher.

Each then blames the other for the child’s behavior, there is little to no accountability by either and the child escapes the situation entirely by being provided a new teacher or going to a new school.

What is with this madness?

To appreciate what’s going on, one really has to have a deep understanding of social, economic and technological changes over the past 50 years and the impact of all that change on the family and child development.

Gone are the days of Leave It To Beaver and enter Modern Family.

Over the past 50 years family life has moved from an intact two-parent family with breadwinner and homemaker into a conglomeration of people where the heads are both working just to make ends meet (barely). The conglomeration can include children from one, both or neither parent biologically. The heads of the family can co-reside or be separated and if separated, each may be part of another family conglomeration.

The change in terms of the child’s experience of family and life generally has shifted way beyond most people’s awareness.

Instead of waking up and having a parent available throughout the day and being told to go and play outside until the streetlights come on, children nowadays are sequestered at home, frequently left to their own to ready themselves and take care of themselves in their parents’ absence. At times they do this under the supervision of an alternate adult and regardless of how wonderful the caregiver, the child may still miss the parent. To add, children these days are given the impression the world is a dangerous place and to play outside without supervision is akin to risking some unspecified harm – they learn to fear things unseen to themselves.

Underneath all that fear is parental guilt.

More and more parents these days, acknowledged or not feel the pang of their lack of availability to their very own kids. To acknowledge such is to then invoke shame. Shame at not being the available parents they long to be.

Within that guilt and shame, parents worry that if a child were to be hurt and they were not available they couldn’t live with themselves. Hence parent transfer that sense of danger onto the child. They have them sequestered at home or supervised in multiple programs and give them the electronic umbilicus (a smart phone) and tell them that the smart phone is only for emergencies and that by no means are they to spend their day on social media, surfing the Internet or playing video games.

As a result, kids today have internalized a generalized anxiety fearing they know not what. They are assuaging their parental loneliness with the company of like-minded children and are occupying their time through social media, the Internet and video games. Even those children who came from traditional families are now covered by the umbrella effect of those children whose lives have been altered by the trajectory of recent human and societal changes. Thus no child these days remains totally unaffected.

Did we not think all that social, economic and technological change wouldn’t impact the family and children’s experience within it?

As for that anxiety, whether it is social anxiety, test anxiety, school anxiety, etc., in many instances it is just generalized anxiety trying to make sense of itself – trying to pin that free-floating worry upon a likely issue.

The more likely suspect is the tremendous disconnect children experience and the lack of having internalized a sense of safety and security the result of  less parental availability on top of the parent’s instillation of fear of the outside and unknown.

Of course we see more children looking forlorn, frigidity and anxious.

In the absence of parental availability parents will seek surrogates. The parents then seek to hold the surrogates accountable to madly scramble to provide that which the current economy interferes with – our precious time.

Teachers are the front line for parental surrogacy. However, they never signed on for that job.

Teacher are trained to teach, not parent other people’s children and certainly not act as entertainers.

Teachers’ expectations are of children whose internal sense of safety and security equips them to concentrate, appreciate education and respect authority.

The belief of the teacher is in parents who have equipped their kids to behave and learn.

When the child surfaces with issues, it is the teacher’s expectation that the parent will address the issue forthrightly as one originating with the child, not themselves. However, parental guilt and shame doesn’t allow the parent to see themselves as complicit in the distress of the child. They cannot see their children as suffering at their own hand and hence the need to project issues upon the teacher.

What a magnificent set-up. And just to add, teachers are also parents. Just imagine their internal conflicts.

I speak with students. I speak with parents. I speak with educators.

Students are stressed out. When I address groups of high school students I learn that 90% of them sleep with a device (smart phone) within a foot of their heads. I learn that 80 – 90% suffer fatigue to a degree that it interferes with school work. I learn that some 20 to 40% suffer anxiety, a kind of free floating fear that also at times interferes with school work. They have no appreciation of the recent history of the family and the impact of social, economic and technological change upon them. They just live it.

Similarly when I talk with parent groups and educator groups, neither really realizes that neither must blame the other but that both have been impacted upon by the same changes yet beyond awareness.

After flying into Los Angeles many times and each time asking the car rental agent how he or she can stand the pollution and each time being looked at quizzically with them saying, “What pollution?”, we as a society fail to recognize the pollution of today’s stresses having come up us gradually over the past 50 years, albeit escalating ever more quickly in the past 10 years.

With the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and then the Android operating system in 2008, the sale of smart phones has risen exponentially with each successive year. Interestingly and although there has been a rise in childhood anxiety predating the smart phone revolution, those childhood disturbances have also taken off and escalated year after year inline with smart phone sales.

True, correlation doesn’t equal causation. In other words, just because we see a similar curve and relationship between smart phone sales and childhood anxiety, it doesn’t mean one causes the other. However, the connection is uncanny.

Not only are we seeing a rise in devices, but also implements to facilitate the use of those devises when we would be otherwise engaged in child-rearing.

You can now buy an implement that simultaneously holds the baby bottle and your smart phone so feeding doesn’t interfere with surfing or texting. No one asks how that implement interferes with the child’s experience of their parents availability and if available, the quality of it. Instead of the parent’s eye contact and approving smile during feeding, now the child may read the parent’s anger, upset or consternation for a troubling text message. How does that child internalize that experience?

You can also purchase an implement to hold a tablet in front of the child as the child goes potty. So instead of parental approval and cheer-leading in the process of toilet training, the parental involvement is quiet or absent, save for having placed a device smack dab center in that child’s line of vision. The parent is removed from view as is their influence.

So too with strollers by the way. So now instead of seeing real nature, the environment and the world, the child is enjoined to a narrow view of whatever is placed upon a screen attached to the stroller a mere 18 inches from their head.

Infants, toddlers are children are now cared for by the substitute device and our teenagers are disconnected from the more engaged and matured influence and input of their parents. Teens are left to the more limited and at times magical views of their peers.

It bears wondering  how today’s generation of children shall parent given their experience of parenting and how that will impact their little ones’ development on a go-forward basis. If there is trouble now, how will this extend into the next generation of family?

The real question though is, how do we escape the madness? How do we go forward?

How do we bridge the divide between parents and teachers and jointly care for children and students caught in our divide in our present social, economic and technological context?

The answer is as simple as it is complex. We recognize the paradigm shift.

We have moved from having relationships to being ever so disconnected between ourselves and our children. In the absence of a connection we have little relationship and thus no recognized authority and certainly no influence.

The result of this is that when we seek to advise, consequence or discipline, the disenfranchised child says who are we to tell them what to do. We are not recognized any more than their peers in their lives. Indeed our status may even be less, the result of unrecognized resentment for our communal lack of parental and adult engagement.

The paradigm shift requires us to take responsibility for our lack of connection and first seek to repair that connection above all else. No connection, no relationship. No relationship, no influence. Gone are the days of authority by virtue of adult role and position. Gone are the days of dictum leading behavior. Now it is all about influence and influence depends on relationships.

Parents are encouraged to turn off their devices upon entering the home. They are encouraged to seek out their child at first entry and give that child a kiss hello.

The child has to experience themselves as the parent’s emotional priority as evidenced by total direct and unmitigated attention, if only for the greeting kiss.

Invite them to the table, devices off and placed elsewhere.

Make islands of unmitigated connection in a day of disconnection.

This is not meant to overwhelm, but to let your children experience themselves as your emotional priority free from the distraction of your day, free from the distraction of making dinner and free from the distraction over worry about tonight’s extra-curricular activity.

Instead of play-dates with other kids, consider a play-date with your own child.

Engage the child in the activities of managing at home. Gone are chores in favor of joint responsibilities we can do together.

Making dinner can be fun even if eating is still a minute of shoving something down your gullet. The issue is some connection through a family task.

Don’t fret about attitude. Of course the child or teen will balk at first. Hold dear your plan to connect though.

Ignore the protest and express gratitude none-the-less for movement towards collaboration. Protest is the result of unresolved resentment. Resentment resolves with effort and re-connection. I hear what you are saying, but just want you to know I appreciate your company. Thanks for joining me.

In the classroom teachers are encouraged to worry not about discipline, but empathy, compassion and connection. As we sooth through connection, behavior settles.

To the child or teen who loses self-control, hold your own fear and anger and bring your calm. Recognize the student’s behavior is but an outward reflection of their inner turmoil.

The student is not calmed by by being met with more anger, consternation or demands, but rather our lead towards peace, calm and then problem solving, the result of our emotional stability and availability from which they can borrow.

It is scary for parents and teachers alike to consider the days of independent authority are over. It is scary to think we cannot just place a demand and expect compliance. It is scary to know that the new model of behavior management begins with us controlling our own behavior and the emotions that lay beneath. It is scary to know that responsibility still lies within us and not the other.

It is scary to know that we must endure although not accept blame while simultaneously seeking to be empathetic of each other. We, parents, teachers and students/children are all in the same boat.

We arrived on the the same boat. We have been taken to a new land and now with some degree of insight we can learn the tools of engagement which then defrays anxiety, ours and theirs.

This is the new collaboration; collaboration based on engagement and self-reflection. We must work together to clarify expectations and problems solve how to best meet the needs of children given our far more complex world.

Deep breath. Ours is a new world and the tools of the old world for managing children are less applicable as we come to rely on re-establishing connection and a sense of emotional safety between ourselves and with our young people.

We connect; we resist blame and shame; we manage our emotions; we bring our calm; and then behavior settles.

Raising kids cannot be left to their peers or devices or the Internet. It is still an adult responsibility. If society has so shifted that parents need increased support, then perhaps too shall shift the role of the teacher. However to manage the shift, we must talk together and provide resources for collaboration.

In the end we are all connected by wanting healthy responsible adults grown from childhood.

Kiss your child; thank a teacher; express support to a parent.

Anxiety dissipates; behavior settles. We can all be emotionally safe.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

One Comment
  1. This is great! I’m on the same mission as you, however I am just getting started. Looking forward to reading your thoughts and learning as well. Thank you

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