Take time to reflect

February 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Living City

Take time to reflect
Relationships are more important than the expectations that society imposes on parents

Today, the expectations placed on parenting are so high that there’s no way to meet them. To avoid anxiety or the feeling of guilt, I have found a strategy that works for our family, adults and children alike.

When my eldest son, Mateo, was old enough to enter preschool, my husband and I visited a few schools to check for a good fit. One school we visited emphasized intense independent learning, where a child would spend many hours working on various structured activities, leaving little room for play. Children were quietly completing activities, rarely socializing. The administrator informed us that many of the children come from families who are concerned about making sure their children were competitive enough to enter a high ranking elementary school.

As a parent who wants the best for her child, I immediately became anxious, wanting my child to be competitive enough to make it into the best school. But I did not like this feeling.

As a psychologist, I noted and acknowledged this feeling. I then took a step back to think about this experience. I understand that competition has its place in a learning environment, challenging students to be better. But when subjected to too much of it, especially at an early age, competition may have the reverse effect. It’s a high information age, where children can become over-stimulated not only by the various technologies they encounter, but also by intense competition to learn more and faster at an earlier age. My husband and I were concerned that the anxiety I was feeling when we visited the school would be the kind of anxiety our child would feel throughout his education. Learning suddenly sounded stressful and overbearing. Learning sounded superficial, a continuous struggle to be better than the other rather than a challenge to improve oneself.

This was not the vision I had for my child. Learning, for us, was more than continuous and intense academic competition.


Focus on family

We chose to make family a center of our decision. We understood that whatever school we chose for Mateo, it would need to be, or come close to being, an extension of our family. Mateo would be attending much of his week at school, making his school responsible not only for his educational development, but also a significant amount of his emotional, psychological and spiritual development.

For example, when he falls on the playground, I won’t be there to soothe him. But, will the teachers and other staff be nurturing? So not only were we interested in developing Mateo’s academic skills, we wanted to also help him grow in other aspects of his life.

In talking with my husband, we came up with criteria that would help create a more well-rounded educational environment for our child.


Keep on playing

I am familiar with the importance of play for young children. In playing, children develop physical, social and cognitive skills. When playing, young children can express their emotions and work through difficult emotions. They can make mistakes and discover ways to solve them.

During structured play, such as soccer or a board game, children learn rules, and they learn which behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate.

Although structured play has its place, unstructured play is an equally important part of a child’s development. When interacting with others, children develop increased verbal skills, imagination that leads to higher levels of problem solving skills and innovation, and empathy or seeing something from someone else’s vantage point. Play is an important criterion we looked for in a preschool, to promote a love for learning.


The social and spiritual

In addition to play, we looked for an environment where educators fostered good relationships with their students. In an environment where adults respond in a more nurturing manner and educators develop positive child-teacher relationships, a child can focus more on academic learning and less on finding ways to improve their relationship with their teacher.

Last but not least, in order to meet our goal for a well- rounded education, we wanted an environment that advanced our child’s spiritual growth. Mateo was curious about God and heaven, so when he asks questions related to his spirituality, would educators be able to respond in accordance with our beliefs? Would educators be able to nurture his relationship with God?


Making family the focus

When discussing these criteria with my husband, the anxiety I experienced slipped away. I recognized I was anxious because I was faced with meeting a societal expectation to rush my child into a competitive academic environment early. Making family the focus of our decisions helped us steer away from an environment aimed solely on competition and being the best.

There was no doubt about it. We wanted an environment that was able to foster the love of learning through play, positive relationships and role models, and through developing our son’s spiritual education.


Great expectations

My experience in choosing a school for Mateo is similar to how my husband and I navigate the plethora of other parenting expectations.

For instance, we felt the expectation to have a nice Christmas picture on our Christmas cards. I would love to have a picture of the family, where all three of our children are smiling and looking straight at the camera.

For a couple years we attempted the perfect picture like the ones photographers take. This feat proved to be too difficult for three young and high-energy children, and it ended up being an experience of anxiety and stress instead of giving the joy of Christmas to others.

Then I was asking myself, do I want to have the perfect picture, or do I think society expects it? My husband and I decided that the anxiety was not worth it. Since then, our Christmas pictures throughout the years have been . . . original. To a certain extent we try our best, but we realize that to love our children is to put aside our own expectations of them when those expectations prove to be too high.


Emotions and empathy

Instead of meeting expectations, we try to emphasize and face the challenge of “putting yourself in the other’s shoes,” in order to help our children become capable of empathy.

For instance, my daughter Adelle was having difficulty sharing a toy with her friend. I took her aside and talked to her about how she felt when her friend shared a toy with her. She said she felt “nice.” I then asked her how her friend would feel if she shared her toy. She also responded with “nice.” At this point, Adelle gave the toy to her friend. By helping my daughter recognize her emotion, she was able to empathize with her friend and understand why it is important to share.

By taking a step back to consciously reflect on our emotions, I can put the self aside to reflect on whether my feeling is leading to a behavior that is constructive or destructive to the family. I hope my children will also be able to develop a similar strategy so that they too can love their neighbor.

— Maya Dulay


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