5 Things Children Really Need

Friday, August 16, 2019

First of all, I'll be the first to say that I'm no expert, and I've only been at this gig for nine years. There are days when I look around stunned into silence because one of our kids did exactly the thing we've been talking about and I think 'holy crap, I'm amazing.' and then there are most days that I feel like I'm totally screwing our kids up and wonder when in the world I am ever going to figure this parenting thing out.

Kortni from one of my favorite instagram accounts (@born.from.my.heart ) explained how I feel about every day of parenting best this week when she wrote
"There were days when my heart was so full I thought I might explode, and there were other moments when my senses were under such intense assault that I was certain I'd lose it....It was too much and not enough. It was loud and silent. It was brutal and beautiful. I was at my very best...and then...at my very worst."
This is hard work; raising kids - it always has been in the history of the world. There are limitless kinds of ways to be a great parent, and each child comes with their own unique and individual needs. Parenting requires a daily (sometimes hourly) ability to make changes to the game plan. Because, friends, this thing is hard but also...like....the literal most important job of our lives.

I am a mother of four (ages 9-3) and a teacher of about 120 high school students in a small, rural town for three years, and a former teacher of about 70 elementary school aged English Language Learner students in Brooklyn, New York. I'm a flag cheerleading coach of two years, an AYSO soccer coach for 4-7 year olds for two years, and a Sunday school teacher for fourth and fifth grade students for 6 years. In other words, I have some experience with children of all ages and demographics.

And in my limited and humble experience, I have observed that there are five things that kids really need to grow and flourish. All the other stuff is great and important, but also it's all just extra.

Our kids need these five things every day for all the days.

1. Conversation
This can start from the very beginning. Children want and need communication. You've all seen this video of the dad and his baby, this is real engagement and communication. That sweet babe already understands that he has a voice that matters. The advice that I read when I was becoming a mother was that you should respond to your baby's coos and goos; engage with them - look them in the eye and encourage more sounds. Baby sign language was such a blessing to me because the hardest part of those beginning years is not knowing what your baby wants when they cry.

The important thing about conversations are that they are two-way. Each person involved gets to talk and gets to listen. Questions, answers, memories, inside jokes, understanding, empathy, being vulnerable, finishing each other's thoughts, laughing, and crying - these are all things that come out of real conversations. The kid gets to both talk and listen; as does the parent. The insight into feelings and behaviors is invaluable when we let our kids do the talking.

This can be practiced with parents and family members, but should also be played out in real life. We have our kids order their own meals at restaurants as early as they can speak (sometimes toddler language needs translated, but they try first!), kids can call and order the pizza, they should be able to speak with their bus driver, the maintenance staff at school, the resource officer, and their teachers; these are all adults that help get them through their days. We constantly remind the kids that when an adult asks you a question - you look into their face, answer clearly and loud enough, you should practice attentive listening (nodding your head, maintain eye contact, etc).

Cellphones/social media have added a layer of murkiness to conversations. I was fascinated to listen to this TED Talk Connected, but Alone by Sherry Turkle and I have read multiple articles that say that texting, emailing, and social media captions are breaking down the ability to have face to face conversations. Kids (and adults) are becoming dependent on the crutch of filtering and editing themselves. There is a different flow in the way we speak, listen, and respond when you have to do it on the spot in a face-to-face conversation; a vulnerability, and our young people are not getting regular practice at this.

My high school students have a visible need to be looked at and engaged with. They are obsessed with being seen on social media and maintaining their Snapchat streaks with their 'friends' but that can flip within a class period if someone posts something about them. Kids becoming distracted with constantly refreshing if they believe that another student's vague, cryptic (or worse, blatantly obvious) post was targeted at them. I loved this article called Middle School Misfortunes Then and Now and how it illustrates the loneliness that our kids are experiencing today from a lack of meaningful connections and conversations.

Kids today get to live a more 'connected' life than we ever did but that connection is almost all surface; there's no deeper roots that can form without the relationship building of face-to-face conversation. I make a heartfelt attempt to look into the face of every student and say their name each day. The way my students respond when I stop by their seat and quietly whisper, 'hey, you okay?' when I notice that they seem off, is shocking - as though they can't believe someone noticed them and looked them in the face. We aren't going to get rid of the technology at this point (obviously) but we can still carve out spaces for face-to-face conversation. Our family's no-screen zones include: meal times, games/practices, the car, and bedtime. Our policy is to be with the people who are there.

2. Touch
This one is fairly easy for families with little kids, because what is more huggable than a little squishmiester toddler? But this becomes increasingly more difficult as children grow into bigger kids who go through that awkward puberty stage and drive you crazy and say you're embarrassing them. When our babies are little, I ask aloud, "But how many kisses is too many kisses?" as I nearly suffocate myself in their neckfolds (oh Lord, how I love those loose skinned baby necks!) So much touch all day - hugs, snuggles, kisses, 'hold me's.' It is nearly non-stop touching when they are little. But then it slowly tapers off as kids get bigger and move faster and gain more independence.

Recently when I asked Grey (9yrs) the best part of his day his answer was, "When you pet my hair on the couch while we were watching tv." My Grey said that! Who most wants to run, jump, and tackle. My Grey, who the last thing he does anymore is initiate a hug and who slips his hand out of mine when we are crossing the street with, "I'll walk right next to you, Mom." Touch can be as simple as sitting next to each other on the couch, or a twirl through the parking lot as you hold hands, or rubbing their back on your way past their seat at the breakfast table.

I see what lack of touch does to my high school students- the students who most desperately need it will come up to me and ask for a hug (high school students!) but for those that aren't as forthcoming with their need for human contact, I sneak it in (it's the momma in me) and as I walk through the room and put my hand on a shoulder, or twirl a ponytail - it's a visible reaction; how they lean into the gesture like a flower pointing towards the sun. I often silently wonder, 'How long has it been since someone has held your hand, or tucked you in, or pushed your hair out of your eyes?'

They are big (most of them taller than me) but they are still little kids inside and they are so starved for human touch. I have a weird theory that teenage male students are better behaved in class if they have a girl/boyfriend. Sometimes I think it's because they have bigger things to think about in class than causing behavior issues, sometimes it's because they realize that what they do is now reflective of someone they care about, but lots of times... I think it's because they are getting the hugs they needed so badly.

Bottomline mommas and daddas- we need to keep hugging our kids even as they grow taller than us.

3. Outdoors
There is something about being outside that reminds us all that we are connected to all living things; that we are just a small part of a great big world made up of other people, but also all the animals and insects and trees and plants. To feel the ground beneath your barefeet and the wind in your hair and the sun on your face is to remember that you are alive and brings gratitude deep into your veins.

There is a strange calmness that comes over children when they are let loose outdoors, you can almost see them turn into a different child. They become curious, inquisitive, relaxed, and filled with wonder. No need for toys, because imagination turns every stick, dirt mound, and flower into something magical. The creativity and problem solving that comes from boredom and wide open space will astound you. Throw an animal into the mix and you see gentleness and tenderness shine through little hands. There is no greater advice than "Just add Water" if you have a cranky child who needs only a creek or a sprinkler to start to smile. Muscles strengthen from climbing trees and jumping off of rocks, dreams can grow bigger when they have the space all the way up to the clouds to imagine, impossibles turn into possibles when they watch an ant carry something four times their size. A freedom of worry and a sense of gratitude comes from laying in the shade of a tree and listening to the songbirds. Energy is burned, imagination slows and steadies the mind; I love the phrase, "Children can't bounce off the walls if you take the walls away." There is a peace that settles in their little hearts, not to mention the sleep that comes to them easily and soundly after a day outside.

I have done a lot of research and I am weirdly passionate about fiercely protecting, encouraging, and promoting childhoods outdoors. I believe they get this one sacred childhood and it should be spent exploring and muddy and beneath the shade of a tree with wind and sun on their cheeks. If you are a normal reader here, you know this; it's like I'm a broken record (haha, I will die on this mountain!). If you aren't quite there yet in understanding the incredible and vastly important connection between children and nature, please check out some of these:

1000 Hours Outside (facebook group/website)
Many Children aren't physically ready to start school (article)
What's the best STEM toy for kids? Playing Outside (article)
The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (book)
There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akeson McGurk (book)

4. Freedom
Freedom to try on their own, to take risks, and to make decisions. We need to give them the skills, the space and patience, and the tools to be able to do it for themselves. It's so much easier to just do the thing for them; you know it will be done correctly and quickly - but that strips away the opportunity for our kids to practice the action and build the confidence in doing it themselves. Our job as parents is not to remove obstacles from our child's path, but to give them the practice and support to first believe in themselves and then be able to overcome those obstacles on their own.

Children need the freedom to grow into whoever it is they are going to be. This doesn't mean they don't need rules (!) but they need the opportunity to shine at the things that make them who they are. They need confidence built up in themselves not from trophies and medals, but because they learn to trust in themselves; in their abilities, capabilities, and own unique strengths. Sometimes who they are going to be looks a lot like who we are, and sometimes it looks nothing like who we are. Our job as parents is not to raise shinier, younger versions of ourselves - it is to support people who are kind, confident, and capable in their own ways.

They need so much practice! They need to get to watch you do it, then do it with you, then the chance to try it by themselves while you watch, and finally do it on their own and tell you how it went. Sometimes this means skinned knees, or burnt fingers, or enormous messes, or hurt egos - but even all of that results in opportunities for growth. Our children will never believe in themselves, if they don't experience us believing they can do it first. Oh, you can be panicking in your mind, "OMIGOSH, this is going to turn out to be a disaster!" but plant a smile on your face, give an encouraging head nod, and hold a hope in your heart that you'll work through the aftermath together.

One of the most frustrating parts of teaching today is that I have so many kids who are afraid to try. I say all day long, "Don't give up before you try - take a swing!" So many kids are afraid to make a mistake; they haven't had the practice of trying - messing it up- and getting back in there and trying again. (I have some theories on how standardized testing contributes to this too). Kids need lots (and lots and lots) of practice to see that mistakes are opportunities to grow and have the freedom to rely on themselves to succeed. That disappointment is a fleeting feeling and the more you sit with it, the easier it is to overcome next time.

This is some of the most heartbreaking part of parenthood; the truth that from that first moment, we are teaching our kids to need us a little less every single day. I've written before, "how hard and sad it is to know that the whole of parenthood is a slow goodbye after that first incredible, miraculous, hello." To do that properly, we need to give our kids freedom, no matter how much it breaks our hearts; we must let go of their hand and trust that they'll do everything we've practiced.

5. Accountability
Children should learn that they are responsible for themselves; that there is cause and effect to all situations. Kids not only learn from these opportunities, but get they pride in contributing in a meaningful way. Their self confidence and self worth improve in a way that is founded in something quantifiable and concrete.

There are lots of way to start building accountability - children as young as two and three can feel like they have a positive impact in their home by participating in chores. Our oldest son and daughter get so much pride from cooking for our family members. Taking care of pets, cleaning up their own messes, organizing their bedrooms, being responsible for their own backpacks and sports equipment - can all be small opportunities at accountability.

Children should get practice at speaking to adults that are part of their life; teachers, coaches, friends' parents, family members, and service personnel. It takes a lot of guts to go up to the grocery employee and ask them where the mac & cheese is located - but afterwards the smile of pride in themselves on their face will be enough to give them confidence to do it next time with less anxiety.

We also practice sibling accountability in our family; that brothers and sisters should watch out in the best interest for each other. Violet has tackled Rusty in the playground to stop him from getting to close to the road. Gemma has been changing diapers since she was three years old. Grey has piggy-backed his siblings home on long walks, Rusty has even come to get me in the kitchen when Gemma fell and had a bloody knee in the garage. This bleeds into friendships and schools too. We try to raise our kids with the confidence and practice that they can speak up for those who don't have a voice, or need help but are too afraid to ask for it themselves.

Children should be aware that they exist in a world with other people. Our famous family line is, "You are not the only person in this family." We, as a family, must work together and be patient, and sometimes do things that we don't want to do. In public spaces, we remind our kids of this awareness by whispering to them, "look around. all these people are trying to enjoy their day too - let's behave respectfully so that everyone can have a good time." We talk a lot about consent at age appropriate levels - right now that means understanding that when someone says No when you are playing; you stop immediately. You also stop even if they don't say No but they are crying. Learning to recognize other people's emotions and reacting in empathy. Learning to recognize that feeling in your belly that something is wrong and if you are uncomfortable you need to speak up!

Some young people today are struggling so much with accountability. I cannot begin to express the frustration that comes as a teacher/coach to receive a message from a parent with a question (or accusation) when it should come from the young adult. We live in a world of finger pointing and 'well, what about...' distractions. Our kids see and hear that and are quick to dodge the responsibility and truly reason that nothing is their fault. Rather, that things happen to them which also means that they truly believe that they have no control over their own life. If things always happen to you, you don't have any power to improve and make positive change in your own life. This is emotionally crippling and I often speak to kids who are honestly bewildered at connecting the dots between their actions lead to consequences.

This list is the culmination of all the mothers & fathers who have inspired me, of my own childhood, of the books I've read, the students who have changed me, of my own children and what they have taught me, and my reflections on all the things I love most about this world and all the things that scare me about our world.

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