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Parents are our first teachers

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A recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press (Dec. 5) reported on a study that claimed that preschool was better for kids than moms at home. This implies that stay-at-home moms are placing their preschoolers at a disadvantage to those attending preschool "centre-based care."

While this information is interesting, I would suggest that the research was narrowly focused and applying it with a broad brush is misleading. Assuming its accuracy, there are other factors to consider that may be even more important, such as emotional and social development. And, even if the study is absolutely errorless, does it have any reliability as a predictor for success in life as it is suggesting?

Not to diminish the significance of early education in a child's future, academic performance alone should not be considered in isolation from, or at the expense of, other developmental needs. Furthermore, it suggests that parents are unable to provide the equivalent quality of education through informal schooling.

Actually, an abundance of research indicates otherwise. According to Dr. Peter Cook in Mothering Matters, for example, "sensitive, responsive mothering through the early years was the best predictor of social competence at six years, which in turn predicts schooling success."

Another study in the American Educational Research Journal reported that although higher-quality child care was associated with better cognitive performance at age four and a half years, the more time during these years children had spent in any type of non-maternal child care, regardless of its quality, the more assertiveness, disobedience and aggression they showed with adults, both in kindergarten and at home.

As a social worker in schools for 20 years, this phenomenon concurs with my own observations and experience. Many of the kindergarten children who were referred with similar histories presented with just such symptoms. One highly verbal youngster stated that although he told his mother how he felt, she didn't care. Why? "Because," he said, "nothing changes." What a profound statement from a five-year-old.

As it happened, his mother was laid off from her job resulting in both spending more time together. The symptoms soon subsided.

I have seen many clever children who functioned poorly because of behavioural, emotional and psychological problems. One child, for example, whose IQ tested at 140 at the elementary level, ended up in jail as a young adult for stealing cars for organized crime. The school system taught him how. He was a quick learner.

Is academic achievement our ultimate goal or is it to raise a happy, healthy adult who is a contributing, compassionate and self-disciplined member of society?

Parents are the first teachers and a nurturing home is the classroom from which they will emerge from their cocoon into the world without stunted or broken wings. Just look around at the pervasiveness of aggression, violence, bullying, ADHD, childhood depression, crime and suicides. Yet we scratch our heads and ask why.

It begins with understanding that the first bond is the foundation for caring about others throughout life. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, in a historic study Attachment and Loss, emphasize the significance of our first relationships with parents. Attachment is essential in developing trust and empathy and establishing meaningful relationships with others. It is a necessary prerequisite to a successful learner and is learned within a safe, secure and stable home with a consistent caregiver. The Minnesota Longitudinal studies show that "children and teens with secure attachment histories excel in society and emotional health, leadership skills, morality, social behaviour, self-reliance, self-control and resiliency ..." (www.empathicparentingjournal.com).

In Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman tells us that it is our emotions that steer us in our day-to-day living. It is our fears, needs and wants that drive us and are often the reason for failed marriages, troubled families, poor health and painful lives in adulthood.

Preventive medicine is the most effective antidote and "we need to place as much importance on teaching our children the essential skills on emotional intelligence as we do on more traditional measures." And, he notes that emotional intelligence has proven a better predictor of future success. It profoundly affects all other abilities and is the most critical element in learning how to learn.

In his most recent book, Social Intelligence, Goleman also reminds us that humans are social animals and we need to be "socially aware," that is, able to connect with the people around us. We must also have "social facility," that is, be able to respond with empathy and compassion. It is the underpinning of relationships and comes from a neurobiological system that is set in childhood.

The recent explosion in neuroscience research can now show that these developmental changes are neurologically and biologically based. The Canadian Institute of Child Health in Ottawa, in The First Years Last Forever, reports that the brain at birth is highly underdeveloped. While billions of cells are built into the physical structure, the "wiring" between them will be laid out by environmental stimulation, which triggers a cascade of biochemicals that affects everything from emotions to movement to memory and learning.

Simple interactions like a mother's touch trigger the neurons to grow and connect into complex systems, and with repetition, become well defined. This wiring will become the foundation for functioning and set for life. It shows that our early connections actually change the physical structure of the brains and are the major source of development that includes not only the cognitive part of the brain, but the emotional and social as well.

David Elkind, in The Hurried Child, warns us that we are hurrying children to grow up too fast. Parents, schools and media are creating overwhelming stress and anxiety due to age-inappropriate expectations and responsibilities creating emotional overload.

In our rush for them to grow up, we subject them to too many changes in environments and in caregivers, for example. He also adds that too much pressure is placed on academics, even at the kindergarten and Grade 1 level.

Although I am aware there are many guilt-ridden, caring parents out there who may be confused by the contradictory barrage of information, given a limited allotted space, I am focusing on children's needs as the priority. Further information with links to world-renowned child experts can be found at the Canadian website www.empathicparenting.org.

Parents share more than their time. They share themselves in their thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and love. These are conveyed during the formative years through the parent-child relationship, both directly and indirectly. Development unfolds as nature dictates and no amount of hurrying will change it. The result is stress, which can become a permanent part of the brain structure and can impact all areas of development.

While this may seem like an ominous sense of responsibility, it also offers the opportunity for change. Instead of focusing on the three Rs -- reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic in the early years -- perhaps we should be emphasizing the three Ss -- safety, security and stability.

 

Libby Simon is a freelance writer and retired school social worker with the Child Guidance Clinic of Winnipeg.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2007

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