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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moving house with children

Have you ever had one of those crazy nightmares where you found yourself in a strange place that was full of people and items you recognised, but thrown together in a peculiar way or weirdly altered by your subconscious?  Or perhaps in your dream you started out in a room that you recognised, but then stepped outside the door and discovered a completely alien environment.

If you have had one of those dreams, I'm sure you'd agree that the effect is horribly unsettling. Yet that's what parents often inflict on their children in real life.  It's called 'moving house'.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Anger management for young children

A few years ago I had a four-year-old in my room- let's call him Bailey- who had a pretty woeful family background.  His mum and dad fought violently and constantly, splitting up and reuniting on an almost weekly basis.

Bailey could be the most affectionate and delightful child, but he could also be a holy terror.  His parents had modelled a very clear example of how to deal with problems: shout, scream, and then hit. In his experience, violence was a first-resort coping mechanism which had few down-sides, because after a short while all would be forgiven.

Naturally, this caused a few problems in the preschool domain, because oddly enough the other children didn't react the same way to being hit.  They tended to hit back, complain to the teacher (which resulted in truly annoying time-out, which Bailey didn't really understand- that wasn't what happened at home!!) or cry and hold grudges against him.  Bailey would cheerfully say sorry- he saw that all the time at his house, and it had always worked- but of course he never changed his ways.  Controlling his anger wasn't something that had ever been modelled to him.

By the time I left that job, I had made Bailey aware of the problem in his dispute resolution process and he was, with prompting, able to restrain himself from hitting the other children and deal with his anger in a more socially acceptable way.  Here's the method I used.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Teaching children to think for themselves: subject choice in the secondary school

When I was teaching high school I worked in an extremely selective and highly academic environment.  I found there were two kinds of students in my highly 'subjective' humanities field of Music.

There were the ones who wanted be given appropriate tools and stimulated to explore their own capacity for thought, then draw their own conclusions about a question and work out a way to support their argument with facts. 

And then there were the ones who wanted you to give them the answer, so they could learn it off by heart and regurgitate it in the exam. Invariably, the latter students had parents who had decided that paying private school fees gave them a right to their children being spoon-fed the correct answers for everything, which would (in their minds) inevitably lead to the high-ranking pass in the final exams which they had paid for.

No prizes for guessing which learning strategy results in the more productive member of a workplace, not to mention the most likely citizen of Planet Earth to help us solve our very real problems.  The reluctance and inability of some people to work with joy and self-belief within a grey area is, I find, extremely worrying.

What is your feeling on this?  If you enrol your child in an expensive school, do you think you've purchased a pass mark at day one?  Do you value subjects with clear right-and-wrong answers, like  maths, above subjects which involve some degree of informed choice in the response?  Do you actively steer your teenager away from subject choices which involve original thought?

Or do you look at secondary schooling as an opportunity for your child to learn to think for themselves, in the hope that this will lead to success? 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The power of a child's home language

Way back when I was learning to be a high school music teacher, I remember feeling incredibly irritated by having to learn songs in foreign languages (including one Aboriginal song which was never even translated for us by the tutor).  I honestly couldn't see the point of the exercise.  It wasn't that I was bad at languages- in fact I was brought up with a French-speaking grandmother, and I studied three languages at high school. I just couldn't see that singing in other languages was meaningful or useful as a teaching tool- it seemed to detract from the study and enjoyment of the music itself.

Back then, the likelihood of striking a genuinely multicultural classroom was much lower.  We were taught ethnomusicology (the study of other cultures' music) as an academic discipline, not as anything that related to our ability to connect with the children.

Come to think of it, I don't think connecting with the children got a look in at all- teaching was an intellectual process for my lecturers, and the idea of trying to touch the children's hearts with music as a learning tool was a radical concept.  Their view, I think, was that we needed to sing in other languages in order to nurture the future opera singers we met in our classrooms.  (As if.)

These days, though, I'd like to go back and bang my old lecturers' heads together, and ask them why on earth they didn't explain how important a working understanding of the language and music of other cultures could be in the classroom, on a human level. And last week I had cause to be rapt that I learnt that Aboriginal song- here's why.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Prejudice against gifted kids, pressure on carers: the dangers of dumbing down your communication

There are many moments when I despair for our children's welfare at the hands of carers who genuinely  think they're doing the right thing.

Carers who do actually care- rather than just turning up, taking their money and going home- tend to be passionate people.  Sadly, thanks to the appalling wages offered in child care, they're not always particularly well-educated or widely experienced people.  Passion and selective ignorance can be a volatile combination- a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.

I came across just such a combination this week, and I can see that I'm going to have a hard time explaining to at least one group of passionate (but narrowly experienced and educated) carers that they're about to do a grave disservice to the bright and gifted children in their room.  It's unintentional prejudice, but it's prejudice just the same.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Children who sue their parents: the dangers of over-permissive parenting

This morning over breakfast a friend told us a true story of the child of one of his acquaintances, who successfully sued his parents not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES to force them to pay for his university education. 

The parents refused on the first occasion because this very same child had defaulted on a car loan, for which the parents had stood as guarantors; understandably they were reluctant to fork out more cash to a child with no sense of responsibility.  The court decided otherwise, and out came the wallet to pay all the considerable up-front fees and set-up costs.

The child- not a child at all really, except in the eyes of the court- attended uni for only a few months before deciding it was all too hard and giving up.  (And no, there are no refunds.)

At 22, he ran the same scam again, won the case again, and again lasted only a few months at uni before defaulting.

At 28, he repeated the whole scenario, won the case for a third time, and yet again failed to last the distance- by which time the parents (financially speaking) had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin.

What outrages you most about this tale?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The myth of the perfect parent/carer

One of the easiest traps I could fall into when writing this blog is to make parenting sound easy.

I am NOT here to make you feel inadequate.  Ladies and gents, parenting is NOT easy.  And carers, looking after other people's kids is NOT easy.  It's full of split-second decisions that you have to make when you're tired, distracted and irritated, when your own relationship with your partner or your self-image or your financial situation might be imploding, when you're surrounded by conflicting 'good advice', ridiculous rules of the centre, myriad unrealistic expectations... it's sometimes like parenting in the jungle, with a hungry tiger in every tree.

Carers are usually trained in everything except what they really need to know- HOW to form a relationship with each member of a disparate group of kids- and parents are no better off.  Nobody offers you training in parenting your particular child BEFORE you take the plunge (how could they? -your child will be unique).  On the contrary, there's a myth out there that it'll all fall into place due to your natural instincts.  After all, we're all here on this planet to reproduce, aren't we?  It's natural!

Bollocks to that.  'Natural' my *rse.

Let me give you an example that has stuck in my brain for the last 26 years.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Physical challenge versus physical safety: the dangers of boring an active child to death

Yesterday I watched a 3-year-old indigenous boy- let's call him Jimmy- climb a tree in the preschool yard with the speed and skill of a cheeky little monkey.  He climbed far higher than any of the staff would have imagined a small child could, and put the staff into an unexpected dilemma.

We realised immediately that the tree was close enough to the fence to allow Jimmy to jump over and 'escape' if he chose, not to mention that he had a good chance of breaking a bone or two if he fell. It wasn't a danger we'd foreseen, because it simply hadn't occurred to us that any of the children (let alone a 3-year-old) could climb that high on a tree which appeared to have minimal footholds.  Before we could reach the tree and 'rescue' Jimmy, he made a decision and simply jumped back into the yard from a height of nearly two metres, landing safely with a slight roll like an expert.

He probably was an expert.  In my experience, most indigenous parents are still happy to let their children experience the highs and lows of 'normal' risky childhood behaviour like climbing trees, and the odd broken bone as a result doesn't phase them particularly.  There was a time when most parents felt like that.

Where do you stand? What's your reaction to that story, and what would you do if you were a carer or the parent of that child?