Wednesday, July 15, 2015

You Are Your Child's First Teacher

Earlier this spring, I was asked to speak to our local MOPS group (Mothers of Preschoolers)  about being your child's first teacher.  In today's world of "experts" for everything, I think we often forget that we are all teachers in one way or another.

If I was to make a list of nouns to describe myself, some words I would use would be mother, wife, Christian, artist, baker, introvert, optimist, listener, and teacher.  Teacher is on that list even though I don't have a degree in education or a teaching certificate.  I have been a home educator for 21 years, but I have been a mother for longer than that, and a teacher for as long as I can remember.  As a sister, I remember "teaching" my younger siblings  how to play chopsticks on the piano.   As a teenager, I taught swim lessons at the local town beach in the summers. As a college student, I taught preschoolers at the campus child care center, and I taught my boyfriend how to make a meatloaf. ( a skill he promptly forgot once we got married. )

Merriam -Webster defines the word "teach" as  "to cause to know something; to impart knowledge; to instruct by precept;  to make known"; and a "teacher" is someone who does those things. Becoming a parent automatically thrusts you into the role of teacher, as you become responsible for the welfare and training of your precious child.  A young mother first teaches her baby to soothe to the sound of her voice or to her touch, to feel secure and safe in her care. Parents teach their children language, hygiene, manners, social skills, safe habits - how to eat with utensils and tie shoes and ride a bike and put away toys and be gentle with the cat.   The are no lesson plans or instruction manual provided for these things!  Moms quickly learn that it works better to SHOW and INVOLVE children, rather than just TELL them, and that patient REPETITION is important in the learning process as well.  These are important teaching concepts that we learn from experience, from the other parents around us, and also in the child development articles and books that we sometimes read. 

As parents, we are motivated by love to teach our children well.

Think about some of the things you want to teach your children. Hopefully, your list will include things like:
You are LOVED.
You are SMART.
You are NEEDED.
Let's talk about ways we can teach this to our children.

You are LOVED.
The are many, many studies that document the emotional and physical benefits of loving touch - hugging, kissing, snuggling,  holding hands, stroking the hair, rubbing a back.  According to a May 2010 article in "Scientific American", children placed in orphanages, who experienced touch deprivation early in life, had altered levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones important for social bonding, even three years after being placed with a family.  So physical affection is one important way to show our children that they are loved.

As important as touch is attention! While sometimes our attention is negative, to correct or discipline a child, we want to make sure we are also giving ample good attention!  Making eye contact and smiling, listening to their stories, patiently answering questions, taking the time to play with them, daily read-aloud time while snuggled on the couch or bed - these are all opportunities to shower our children with positive attention. It might mean choosing storytime over mopping the floor, or putting away the phone or iPad  to engage in a tea party.

Finally, words are powerful and can either build up a child or tear them down.  Proverbs 16:24  says "Pleasant words are a honeycomb; sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.", and Proverbs 12:18 says "The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." What words do your children hear coming from your mouth?  "You give me a headache."  "What's wrong with you? Are you stupid?"  "You make me crazy.  Get out of my sight."   OR   "Great job. You are so smart."  "You are such a great helper! Thank you."  "I love you soooo much, and God loves you even more than that!".

I heard a story once about legendary NC State Men's Basketball Coach, Jim Valvano. From his very first day on the job in November 1980, he told his team that he was going to win a National Championship. They even spent one whole practice each year cutting down the net, so the players would know what it felt like, and start to SEE themselves as champions.  And in 1983, they did exactly that, winning he NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. Valvano often related how his father was his biggest cheerleader, telling him year after year "You can do it!! My bags are already packed, and when you make it to the Championship game, I will be there!!"  Speak positive things to your children ,believe in them, and be their biggest cheerleader.

This is tied closely to making sure your child feels loved. When you take time away from yourself and give it to them, your children will feel important, like they matter!  It is possible to get out of balance in both directions, either spending all of your time and attention on your kids, or not enough of it.   But since raising your children is the most important job you have right now, more important than any other job or activity because of the generational consequences, then suffice to say the time you spend with your children should be SIGNIFICANT.  And it is not the same if you delegate this task to others, thinking that some "expert" or someone with a "degree"  will do a better job. The love and attention of a parent is unique and irreplaceable in the life of a child.

Declare a "No TV/Electronics" night or weekend or month, when you will go for walks, bake cookies, play games, read stories, go on scavenger hunts, and just be together as a family. Surprise your kids with special gifts or treats from time to time.  Surprise, let's stop for ice cream!  Surprise, I bought you a new hat!  Surprise, we are going to the movies this afternoon!  Make your child's favorite meal on his birthday.  Make a family policy of "No Phones" at the dinner table (adults included), either at home or at a restaurant.  Be careful with teasing!

You are SMART.
Why? How? Why? Where? Why? What?????  This is the world of a parent with small children. They are innately curious and eager to absorb a world full of information, and how you respond can easily ignite or dampen that spark of learning.  Patience is key.  If you are not by nature a patient person, then work on patience exercises to help develop that in yourself.   Okay, so when your children are full of questions, sometimes you will answer the questions and sometimes you will help them figure out the answers for themselves.  Turn the tables and ask THEM questions.  How many plates do we need to put on the table?  What do you think clouds are made of?  Where is North Carolina on this map? Fill your home with books, educational games and DVDs, art supplies, maps, measuring tools, magnifiers, musical instruments.  Encourage creativity and exploration and curiosity and imagination. Let them know that God gave each of them special talents and abilities, and each of us is different and wonderfully made!  Be an encourager.  "You can do it."  "Wow. You are getting so good at this!" "You are so smart!"

Not only are your children precious to you, but they are even more precious to God.  Teach your children about God by reading Bible stories, singing Bible songs together, memorizing short verses together. Talk about God as you go about your daily activities.  Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says, "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons [and daughters] and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up."  This tells me that God's Word and instruction should be part of our everyday life, and not just relegated to a couple of hours a week of church and Sunday School.

Don't use God just to scare your children into obedience or compliance, but teach your children about God's love, mercy, faithfulness and compassion. There is time when they are a little older, with more understanding,  to delve into God's justice, righteousness, and judgement.  Look at the night sky. "God's love for you is greater than the stars in the sky."  Look at the ocean.  "God's love for you is bigger than the ocean."  Look at skyscrapers or mountains.  "God's love  for you is bigger than those buildings or those mountains."  Teach your children that God created them, knows them, loves them.  Psalm 139:13-14  "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."


You are NEEDED.
We all want to feel needed.  You can teach your child he is needed by involving him in household chores and letting him help you do things, and also by involving him in community service.  There are many lists online of age-appropriate chores. Some families have their kids do much more, others less, but consider involving your children in household tasks as much as possible, instilling the idea of "all working together to help one another".
For example, 2-3 year olds can
  • put their dirty clothes in a laundry basket
  • pick up toys and put them in a bin or on a shelf
  • load dirty silverware into the dishwasher
  • use a wet rag to wipe off the table
  • carry in the mail or newspaper (with you) and put it in a special spot
  • help carry in the groceries - even if it is one box of cereal or loaf of bread at a time
For 4-5 year olds
  • dress themselves
  • make a bed
  • set the table
  • clear dirty plates and load them in the dishwasher
  • dry pots and pans with a dishtowel
  • feed pets
  • sweep 
Volunteer work is another great way to teach a child that they are needed by others.  For many years, I brought my children to a church food pantry twice a month to bag groceries. Even the toddler could work alongside mom, placing canned goods into the grocery bags.  Many elderly people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities love to have families with small children come to visit. Operation Christmas Child and Meals on Wheels are other great service opportunities that young children can be involved in.

Even young children get lots of messages about looks and beauty from our culture. Combat the media's standard by creating your own. Speak positively about your children and the way they look, not as something to focus on but as part of being a beautiful person, inside and out.  Be careful with your words.  Don't ever call someone ugly because of their looks - especially yourself!   Your child will start to compare their own appearance to others.  Talk about beauty of character as well as of the body.  Kindness, generosity, compassion, honesty, diligence, creativity - these are all beautiful things. We loved reading the The Children's Book of Virtues.    A smile is beautiful, even if the teeth are crooked.   A song is beautiful, even if the voice isn't always on pitch.  A gift is beautiful, even if it is smudged and imperfect.

Recommended Resources.
Maybe you didn't grow up in a home like this. You want to do better with your babies but you don't know where to start. 
  • MOPS, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is a great organization which supports mothers of preschoolers, and churches all over the country have MOPS programs as a community outreach.  If you aren't involved in a local church, that is also a way to meet not only other young mothers, but also older women who can be mentors.  
  • If you are interested in homeschooling, some local homeschool support groups, like Lighthouse, encourage families with young children to join and participate in activities like field trips, park days, picnics, and play groups. Support groups are a great source for mentors as well.  
  • There are a multitude of online resources, but that can also be overwhelming, and sometimes the worldview doesn't match your own. So you need to search carefully. I really like the advice given here, by Vicki Bentley, a homeschool mom of many and consultant with HSLDA. 
  • Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready by June Oberlander;  260 weekly activities for Birth thru age 5; takes 10 minutes, using household objects; include developmental checklists.


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