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Accidental Parenting and Accidental Teaching

From http://bit.ly/o0iYCv

The first 9 months of raising twin girls has been some of the most challenging and rewarding moments of my life.  During these months, my wife and I have been such learners as we try to figure out what works for our girls.  We have read a number of books and talked to many people about strategies, philosophies and ideas that will help us as parents.  One book that has stuck out and provided us with tons of great ideas (and much more sleep) is The Baby Whisperer by the late Tracy Hogg.  Her philosophy aligns well with ours (we are not the ‘cry-it-out, Ferberizing’ style of parents) as we try to listen to what our children are telling us – why are they crying? What cues can we look for? What is that facial expression or body language tell us?  It is truly amazing what happens when you actually understand what your kids are telling you!

One of the ideas that Hogg writes about is what she calls “Accidental Parenting” and describes it as:

Start as you mean to go on.  Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment parents sometimes do anything to make their baby stop crying or to get the toddler to calm down.  Often the “anything” turns into a bad habit that they later have to break – and that’s accidental parenting”.

Hogg goes on to give a number of examples such as taking your baby for a drive to get him/her to sleep.  She explains that this WILL work… but unfortunately it will teach the child that he/she needs motion to fall asleep and will struggle to fall asleep on his/her own.  Another one is when an infant wakes up in the middle of the night and parents put the child back to sleep with a bottle.  Again, this works but teaches the child that he/she needs a bottle to go back to sleep.

At times, having twins has placed us in survival mode and we have had to resort to types of accidental parenting at times and although it has worked short term, it has definitely caused problems in the following days.

As my wife and I were doing our best to avoid accidental parenting, I could not help but see the obvious link to what we do in schools.  How many strategies do we use that work in the short term but accidentally cause problems later on?

Here are some examples of “accidental teaching” that I have used in my career as an educator:

  • Rewards, bribes, prizes – if you do this (or do as I say), you will get this shiny prize.  Kids figured out very quickly that it was all about the prize and not so much about the task.
  • Yelling – I yelled at kids and then they became quiet.  Guess what happened after this… they knew that they could be loud UNTIL I yelled!
  • Punishments – I used my power as an educator to give consequences strictly on my terms… because I could.  I was not concerned for the reasons for the behaviour but more about the statement I needed to make.  Kids learned to just misbehave when I was not looking and avoid getting caught.
  • Worksheets – kids were quiet and seemed content to do endless worksheets and busy work.  If the goal was busyness and silence, then this would have been a great success – unfortunately, the goal was learning so I kind of missed the boat.
  • Focus on grades – if you do this, you will get a good grade.  Students crammed, copied homework, memorized… and forgot to learn.
  • Focus on the result – as a young coach, it was all about the score.  When my players faced a tough opponent or were in a big game, they crumbled because they were focused on the scoreboard.  Once we began to focus on process rather than result… we, ironically, started to do better on the scoreboard.
  • Awards – I have given awards and been part of a number of selection committees.  When the focus of players and students moved to the award rather than the process, I realized we had a problem.

In our current system with large class size and challenging class composition issues, teachers often see no other option than to resort to rewards, punishments and other forms of accidental teaching.  I continue to catch myself in a stressful situation resorting to actions that do not align with my philosophies.  The key for me is that I am catching myself and reflecting upon my actions.  I still have a long way to go as I continue to make errors in judgment but I do see myself continuing to grow as an educator  and parent; each year I gain tools in my toolbox that help me deal with stressful situations much differently more effectively.

As stated, I realize that parenting and teaching are often very stressful and majority of decisions are done with the best intentions.  I encourage you, as parents and educators, to reflect upon the decisions we make with our kids.  Are we parenting and teaching for the long term or are we teaching some lessons by accident to help us get through the day?

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, assessment, and human motivation.

7 Comments

  1. A brilliant post Chris…you have so clearly expressed why things we do with the best of intentions can have not so great results. Your post has given me lots to think about as a grandparent. Thanks!

  2. Your post brought back many memories,, Chris. I too am a father of twin girls –4 years old though. And, yes, survival mode was a term used frequently in our home (and still is, just less often). Your connection between new parenting and teaching is spot on in many ways:

    1) The number of books that try to help parents parent–and there are certainly many!–filled our bookshelf. Some new parents are often left confused, and guilt-ridden, worried that they are damaging their child’s future (“will I destroy my child’s trust in me, will I create bonding issues, if I let her cry it out”) That was our world for the first six months at least.

    Compare this to teachers in the class. There are also numerous books advocating the most effective ways to teach: “iron fist? soft approach? group discussions? sage on stage? guide on side? rewards? personalized learning? direct instruction? projects / hands on? etc” No teacher with the right intentions wants to hinder a student’s potential; he or she wants to teach as effectively as possible. But you can imagine how the competing voices can be overwhelming. As well, the teacher’s style may not mesh with the parent’s style of parenting or expectations of school. I have never been a major proponent of homework, so I do remember when, as a new teacher, a well-intentioned parent strongly questioned my homework policy. Neither one of us was in the wrong; We both wanted the best for her child; We just had different expectations.

    2) Support systems are essential. As young parents, we relied heavily on the support of family and friends. I truly do not know how some parents can raise a child without a strong network of support–superhuman really. I rely on my wife; she relies on me. We are a team.

    Compare that to teaching. Too often new teachers are often left to ‘learn it the hard way’. Mentorship and support, a team approach, need to be provided or, when the stress occurs–and it will–, the teacher will likely either start throwing the work sheets at the students or throwing himself or herself into a different career. Survival mode kicks in! We need to make mentorship a given, not an option–enough of the trial by fire. The tough stuff starts once the practicum is over. Too many new teachers see mentorship as weakness or a sign of incompetence–that mindset must evolve. Experienced teachers, those who still love to enter the classroom everyday, have much to offer to new teachers (and vice versa, of course) . We need to draw on their experience.

    So, what to do? We know that people all parent slightly differently, different rules, different expectations, but more often than not the child becomes a hard working, caring, adult, one who raises another generation of hard working, caring, children.

    Are we perhaps putting too much stress on the education system, too much pressure on not just children but also teachers and parents to be perfect? Are we providing too many competing voices? Or are competing voices essential so that people can choose options, develop a style, that works for them? Do we, perhaps, need to listen, truly listen, to those who have travelled down some of these roads already?

    Thoughts?

    James
    High School Teacher –Canada

  3. A great post and I’m happy to report I have learned those and many other lessons in my 19 years of teacher. It takes a lot of strength to not do something just because everyone around you is doing it, when you know in your heart of hearts it’s something that shouldn’t be done. Thanks for keeping me thinking and questioning.

  4. Awesome post, Chris. I have always said that I became a much more effective educator after my wife and I had children. I started seeing the students at school as “someone’s baby” rather than just another student. I find that now, I try to make decisions for students as if I was their parent.
    I have to agree with you that The Baby Whisperer is a great book and it gave us many good tips that I was also able to apply to a school context as well as at home.
    All the best,
    Derek
    @hatcherelli

  5. Chris,

    Once again a home run! Thank you for posting relevant practical thoughts that cause reflection in our own behavior and the behavior of those around us. Too often, I see examples of “accidental parenting”…..and too often, I am the example. At the time it feels so right, but minutes later you know it was wrong. It hurts to catch myself acting in a way that I do not want to teach my children is the way to behave in stressful situations. It is important regardless of the situation to take a deep breath relax prior to speaking. I am finding out that there is normally nothing bad that is going to happen in the two seconds it takes to think of an action that is going to teach and reinforce behavior for the long-term. The correlation you describe between parenting and teaching, especially in an elementary school, is spot on.

    Thanks again for your insightful post and causing me to remember that reflection is critical in producing the behaviors that we want to teach.

  6. Chris,
    I read a great blog by a teacher is working as a peer coach this year in her high school. She is transitioning from a “teacher” mindset to a “coach” mindset in working with her peers. I have not doubt she will see that this works with students as well as she moves along and grows. What she did write that caught my attention was that she came across a video tape made during her teaching practicum and the one thing that jumped out at her was her need to carry a clipboard at all times. In her words, “to make sure I caught each mistake and transgression” that would need to be “corrected” at some point because that is what a good teacher does, correct. She was saddened by what she saw in the video and proud of how far she has come as a teacher. I dare say that each one of us has travelled a long road in our practice and made improvements as we recognize the things in our own practices that needed “correcting”. What your blog does, and so many others that I read, are provide things to think about, ways to improve, and resources to help us get better and strengthen both our own teaching as well as our students’ learning. Thanks for helping us all keep our eye on the ball.

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