Our children’s little brains are sponges, soaking up information from their very first day. As Dr Melanie Woodfield explains, we parents are therefore hugely influential first teachers.
Recently, while listening to music in the car, one of my sons and I had a conversation that got me thinking about how we teach our children.
Me: “Oooo, Spanish guitar music, how lovely”.
Him (after a long pause): “Have you met him?”
Him: “Spanish”. This precipitated a fascinating monologue about culture and musical genres that went in one of his wee ears and out the other. He remained adamant that Spanish is someone’s name.
And he is four, so he knows these things.
How we learn
Children are constantly learning, and we are constantly teaching – often when we’re not even aware. Sometimes the teaching is formal and structured. If you’re anything like most parents, you’ll try to make the things you do together at least a little educational –play dough sessions become opportunities to learn colours, and baking brownies is an early exercise in weighing and measuring. But the earliest learning and teaching doesn’t involve fractions and philosophy. Kids learn all they need to know in the relationship they have with their parents. They learn that they’re loved, they’re important, and that they have inherent worth and value. They learn that the world is safe and predictable; that the people who love them can be trusted to meet their needs. In other words, all the really important stuff. And none of this involves a parent explicitly teaching these things. The learning happens through the relationship. If baby cries, a parent picks him up and soothes him – teaching him that emotions can be regulated or managed, that the world is a safe place, and that he matters. Ideally, life is predictable and reasonably calm, and baby’s needs are met.
In cognitive psychology terms, there are two main kinds of knowledge. Procedural knowledge is implicit, or learned through doing or experiencing, and often learned without knowing you’re learning it. The learning through relationship (attachment, or bonding) falls into this category. On the other hand, declarative knowledge is explicitly taught and learned. As children grow and develop, some things are best taught explicitly, like tying shoelaces, downloading a new app, or formal table manners.
Trying to explicitly teach things like social skills or emotion regulation can be trickier. A good example is managing strong emotions like anger. You can tell a child what to do when they’re afraid till you’re blue in the face; practising taking deep breaths, explaining what happens inside their body and the importance of ‘talking back’ to the worries. All of this teaching can be undone though if you regularly struggle to manage your own anxiety, either about them, or in front of them. The point here is not to feel guilty if you stress out every so often –everyone does. The point is that your children will do what you do, not what you tell them to do.
I studied Latin for four years at school. Looking back, I’m not overly sure why. Perhaps it was the Latin teacher chanting and striding around the room that made me feel all Dead Poets Society. One thing that it did allow me to do was translate the (occasional) Latin word or phrase when it popped up in my undergraduate psychology courses. I distinctly remember the triumphant feeling of knowing that ‘tabula rasa’ meant ‘blank slate’ and referred to how the Romans used to heat their wax tablets and smooth them out, ready to write on again (an early version of the etch-a-sketch).
This concept of a blank slate is an important one. Some philosophers and other deep thinkers argue that a baby is born with one. In other words, all of who we become – our personality, knowledge, intelligence, social skills and emotions – is a product of our experiences. Others argue that we’re born with particular predispositions, temperament, and potential, and that these interact with the experiences we have to form who we are. The jury is still out in the nature/nurture discussion, but the role of our experiences is not under debate. It’s widely accepted that the environment we’re raised in has a big influence on us. And when children are young, their environment usually revolves around a couple of key adults in their lives – parents or caregivers, and close family members.
New Zealand’s next top (social) model
My youngest son is a big fan of Lego Superheroes. His favourite Saturday morning treat is to watch short video clips of these plastic creatures fighting each other. One day, after watching a clip, he came up behind me and pummelled me with his little fists and let loose with his wee feet too. My first thought? Bobo the inflatable doll. Let me explain.
In a classic experiment many years ago, Albert Bandura arranged for two groups of children to watch two different video clips. One group watched an adult treat Bobo (a large inflatable doll) gently and carefully. The other group watched Bobo getting a beating. The researchers then carefully observed whether watching violence had any effect on the children’s behaviour. Sure enough, the children who had watched an adult beating Bobo were more likely to beat Bobo themselves, and to use the same hitting and kicking techniques too. This experiment formed the basis of social learning theory, which suggests that humans learn through observing, imitating and modelling their behaviour on others. The experiment taught us several important things, including that kids are influenced by watching violence on screens. Much more importantly though, it taught us that they’re little sponges who learn not only through explicit teaching. They learn by watching others around them, especially the adults in their world.
I see this every day in my work. I’m involved in a clinic which coaches parents to provide descriptive praise to reward behaviour that they want to see more of. So, if a child passes a toy gently, we’d say “Thanks for handing me that so gently”. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the child starts to praise their parent in return. Kids start to say “Thanks for bringing me that, Mum” or “I like how you’re carefully opening that”.
You don’t need that expensive DVD
Often good-enough parents feel like they’re not good enough. Buying the latest baby DVD, attending the cutting edge sensory circle, or enrolling their baby in a second language class from infancy can help this anxiety for a little while. But it’s almost always unnecessary, and often very expensive too. These products and services are often marketed to target parents’ core fear that their child will be left behind cognitively or emotionally if they don’t sign up. Be very wary of the research that supports some of these products and services – most often it’s funded and carried out by the company selling the product, and isn’t impartial. The bottom line: for very young children, you (warts and all) are more than enough. Your child doesn’t need that expensive extra stuff.
And they also don’t need you to be writing to them in Sanskrit or chanting phrases in Mandarin all day (unless you’re Chinese, of course). Not only will you feel overwhelmed by the pressure, you’ll burn out fairly quickly.
Of course, if your child shows an interest in languages, music or art – foster this! And, if you have a passion for these things, surround your child with them. But don’t feel that you have to become someone you’re not. Just trust that by raising your child in a safe, calm, nurturing environment that’s responsive to their needs and interests, you’ll support them to be all they can be. A good-enough parent is most definitely good enough.
TOP TIPS FOR TEACHING KIDS WHAT MATTERS
■ It’s always best to teach when everyone’s calm. Learning won’t happen if they (or you) are angry, crying or scared. Ironically, this is often when we try to teach. Junior falls over after slipping in the puddle of milk we asked him to clean up and bursts into tears. The temptation is to bombard him with questions (“What happened? Are you hurt?”) or reminders of just how RIGHT we were (“See, I told you that puddle would make someone slip over!”). Instead, try some reflective statements like “Oww. It really hurts when you bang your knee”. Then, when things have calmed down a bit, a statement that provides information without criticism or judgement (“Floors get really slippery when they’re wet”). The difference might seem subtle, but it can be really powerful. Your child will feel like you really empathise with their situation, and they might even learn something.
■ Allow your child to experience natural and logical consequences from time to time. If he’s mucking around at dinner time, one option is a long (one-sided) discussion about how hungry tummies lead to difficulties learning and getting along with others. Another option is a simple statement like “Looks like you’re not hungry and you won’t have room for dessert”. This is a logical consequence of taking too long to eat. I’m not suggesting allowing your child to experience being run over in order to teach road safety, just that lots of learning happens in life when we don’t protect our children from everything.
■ Keeping children interested is key to helping them remember what’s been taught. Songs, rhymes and picture books can all help. And repetition of key concepts is essential.
■ Make sure what you’re teaching is developmentally appropriate, or adapt the concepts to fit your child’s stage. So, add in more detail when talking with older children, or link it to their existing knowledge and experiences. With younger children, it can be helpful to use metaphors: “Angry feelings are like a volcano bubbling in your tummy”, “Take a big deep breath and blow through your mouth like you’re blowing out candles”.
■ “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” is a Jesuit motto that’s a great reminder that the time and energy you put in now will pay dividends later. For example, teaching and modelling self-control: “You can have the chip after you eat three mushrooms” or “Count to five before you go and ask for your toy back”, at this stage will set the stage for a teenager who can better manage their urges and impulses.
Dr Melanie Woodfield (DClinPsy, BSc(hons), MNZCCP) is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist in Auckland. She’s also a mother of two boys, who have taught her so very much about what’s really important in life.