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?