As a classroom teacher, especially in the area of literacy, we threw around the phrase “explicit instruction” a lot. Mostly, it meant we could no longer rely on the often mis-understood definition of Whole Reading and let kids just immerse themselves in text and hope the somehow caught the rules and regulations of the English Language. That wasn’t the way Whole Language was meant to go, but that’s the way it was going in many classrooms so Reading Specialists of my generation were taught to go back to explicit instruction, meaning (simply put) teach phonics rules and grammar concepts in black and white again.
I keep thinking of this concept with parenting. I spent a good many years explicitly instructing my kids in certain areas. For instance, I sat in a restaurant yesterday with my six-year-old, and with the exception of some breaks where he went and ran around in the kid-approved courtyard, he was good as gold.
The table behind us however was not. The kids were “just being kids” like mine are oft to do in our dining room. They looked around the same age as mine. They were screaming (loudly!) and teasing each other and occasionally whacking each other on the head. All good fun… for your own dining room, but quite annoying in a public restaurant. As I sat there trying to enjoy my meal and not be That Woman, who gives the evil eye to the poor mom just trying to get through dinner, I started thinking about what we did differently.
Now, let me be clear, we are not perfect parents. We screw up a lot of stuff. But, our kids are pretty well-behaved right now and a lot of that has to do with the instruction we provided. We taught them early on that their behavior effects other people and thus they needed to learn the difference in what was acceptable in all kinds of locales. We didn’t eat out when they were very little because the expectations were impossible to meet and I was exhausted from trying. When they got a bit older we did our part to pick the right places, provide distractions and set realistic expectations. However, we also began to demand of them certain behaviors. If they didn’t practice them, we left. Yes, we left restaurants once or twice. It only took once or twice for a stern warning to soon be enough to cease behavior.
Now, they’re mostly pretty good when we go out to eat, because they know how they are meant to behave in public places where food is served and conversation is expected. (Come to think of it, this may explain the youngest child’s cafeteria-phobia.) This is so because we taught them these things. We didn’t just expect them to catch them or learn from our example or understand why we were yelling at them when the did it wrong. We also did no allow them to figure it out on their own to the detriment of other diners.
My kids are older now. I have some of the good fortune of looking back on those early years where everything seemed instructional and being able to look objectively at what we did and didn’t do well. I get that it is hard, really hard, so I won’t judge that mom in the restaurant. Perhaps she was just having an off day and had nothing left to teach. I remember those days too. You get to a place that you think will be a relief and your kids prove you totally wrong but you’re so far in you don’t know how to get out. Yeah, I remember that well. I hope she got them to bed early.
The place we are now with our kids and their ages is where we start to pull back from the explicit instruction and enter the guided parenting phase. This is particularly hard because I have to know when to butt in or stay out. Even more difficult, it is now imperative that I divorce that piece of my self-image that used to be intertwined from the actions of my kids. They can make their own decisions and how they act is no longer a total reflection of me and my parenting.
Let me be clear, I’m still in charge. It’s just that my job requires a lot more finesse now than it used to and my promotions are no longer based solely on my kids and how they act. It’s tricky here in this land of older kids. I mess up more often than I’d like to admit. I hope there is no one in a restaurant judging my foibles when I do.
This post was inspired by the book Mother, Mother: A Novel by Koren Zailckas, which is about a missing kid and a mom who literally can not divorce her sense of self from the way not just her children, but everyone around her acts. I was given the book as a member of the From Left to Write Book Club. Check out their site for other inspired posts. Then check out the book because it’s freaking awesome.
P.S. Looking for more parenting guidance and tips for self-care? Check out From Chaos to Calm a guided training to help you feel better in this tough season.