The Two-Letter Word Many Kids Never Hear (and Need To)

I was a Kindergarten teacher for several years back in the 90’s and just this past September, after twelve years of other teaching assignments, I returned to the world of circle spots, paint easels, play kitchens, miniature chairs, and Lego’s. 

Small children are a joy and a delight. I’ve always enjoyed their energy, their inquisitiveness, their observations, and their unbridled enthusiasm. There is no other place in education where a teacher can witness such enormous growth from one end of the year to the next as in Kindergarten. They come in as virtual babies, and many of them move on, knowing how to read and print their names and other words, how to log into computers and navigate through programs, how to count to a hundred, how to make and continue a pattern, how to follow instructions and fulfill responsibilities…Already, my busy class of 27 can tear the room apart during a play time, with blocks and puzzles and paint and paper and play dough and sand strewn everywhere, and have it reasonably tidied up within five minutes and be sitting at their tables with their lunches out. 

Things in the classroom have changed over the years, though. I used to notice it when I was teaching Kindergarten back in the 90’s. Every year, it seemed that there were more and more behavioural challenges in my classes. That didn’t change in my absence from the world of Kindergarten. “Is it just me?” I asked another Kindergarten teacher, while we roamed around outside in the school yard, supervising the kids on the climbers. She assured me that it was not. I realize that it is not just me getting older and more critical, or less patient or tolerant. There is a genuine decline in the behaviour of many young children, coming to school for the first time. Here it is, in simplified terms: many little ones are coming to school without ever having heard the word “no” or without ever being made to do something they did not want to do. It was time for my class to line up for gym and one little guy went over to the Lego table and sat down. “I don’t want to go to gym,” he explained, fully expecting that he wouldn’t have to–because he didn’t want to. A little girl climbed under the paint easel at circle because she didn’t want to participate, and then stuck out her tongue at me when she was told to come out and sit back down in her spot on the carpet. She seemed so genuinely shocked when I took her down to the office. Another boy, after demonstrating several times that he understood the expectations of sharing the toys in our classroom, continues to yank things out of the hands of his outraged classmates. “I wanted it,” he explains earnestly, thinking that reason enough. Several time-outs and emphatic conversations have not swayed him otherwise.

Of course, I understand that these little guys are completely egocentric, and that’s the way kids are at that age. What I don’t understand is that many of them have obviously never experienced consequences for any kind of unacceptable behaviour. Up until coming to school, they have lived in worlds where nothing was expected of them, and denying them anything has been out of the question. Their short lives have been filled with television, processed and/or fast food, and fun, fun, fun. It’s almost as though some parents have been waiting for four years to send their progeny to school where they expect the teachers to proceed with the miracle cure. The parents who think this is the easiest approach to bringing up children will sadly discover, not too far down the road, that the investment in loving discipline would have been in everyone’s best interest. Early childhood is a critical time in their learning. This is when many things become hard-wired in children’s rapidly developing brains. Discipline needs to begin well before kids start school. There is no miracle cure for poor behaviour. If a parent wants a child to be successful, dropping him or her off at school with a pocket full of unreasonable expectations isn’t the route to take The kids that grow up to be awesome human beings are the ones who’ve experienced the combination of committed parents and great schools. If a parent expects to push a child into one end of a school “machine” and have a polished product come out the other end, disappointment can be the only result. It is not the role of a parent or a teacher to be a child’s entertainment facilitator. That kind of happiness is false and very temporary–an easy way out that will bite hard later. A well-adjusted, happy human being is a person who does not expect immediate gratification or for things to be easy all of the time. That kind of expectation can only bring disappointment, and it’s an integrally selfish way to live. Kids need to hear that two-letter word and to understand that “no” is not synonymous with being unloved–it’s quite the opposite. 

Just some observations from a highly flawed person and a parent who has made a lot of mistakes. 




Thank You Note

Hello, Year Off.

I’m sad. I miss you. I miss all the things we did together…the trips we took, the stories we wrote, the music we played, the long walks we shared, the movies we watched, the pictures we painted. It’s like a dream now, even though it wasn’t that long ago. Like a memory that seems clear, but never actually happened. A connection once so real, and now, this separation that renders you ghostly. Were you ever really here?

I miss the times when we did nothing. Like the mornings when we got up for an hour or two, and then yawning, slipped back into bed to sleep deeply until the noon sun enticed us out again. Sometimes, we sat on the couch in the tidy house and admired all the clean, gleaming surfaces. Everything was arranged, in its spot. We had time, then. Remember when we decorated for holidays–the coloured leaves on the Thanksgiving mantle, and the bare branches we arranged with strings of lights and tiny glass ornaments for Christmas?

Christmas…I loved that Christmas with you. I’ve been so overwhelmed with holidays over these many years. With you, I learned to enjoy them. Nothing was an emergency with you around. You made me sane. You gave me calm. You opened my eyes to the changing of the seasons…the curtain of gold leaves falling behind us, the snow unbroken in the front lawn as we sat in the warmth behind the window, and then the riot of things blossoming in the spring. We sat in deep shade and read in the summer time. And we took pictures of all of it, then painted those trees and skies and watery spots in the quiet evenings. We stayed up late, often. Everyone else went to bed–held hostage by alarms set to ring, schedules to be adhered to. Not us. Not you and me.

Remember the afternoons at the piano, in the empty house? Just you and me. No one complained. They were gone, busy. We played and played until our fingers hurt, and then we took a nap. Or worked on our story. Whatever we wanted to do…it was ours to do, when we wanted to do it.

But it came to an end, as we knew it would. I knew it would be hard to let you go. I knew I had to, all the same. It was the bargain that was made, at the beginning. I’m proud to say that I never took you for granted, not for one blessed second. I knew how fortunate I was, and I appreciated you with all my heart.

And now, this crazy riot of 27 children lined up against the wall in the mornings, the watching Mommy go tears, the clinging to my hands and arms and skirts, their sudden urgent dashes to the bathroom and sometimes not making it in time, the indoor/outdoor shoe chaos, the 54 little hands trying to hold scissors and to print names, the reminders to keep hands to self and sometimes, the time-out chair, the dozens of small bodies hurling down slides or past on trikes, the buckets of blocks strewn wild across the carpet, and the blue paint wiped on clean pants, the sand all over the floor, and the craft table spilling scraps and string and markers without lids, and a boy screaming long, because he can’t find the words. I’ve lost you in this. I can barely remember you. I can hardly remember myself.

I have to do this now; it’s important, and I know that. It might not be what I was born to do, but it’s my responsibility. There are those 27 faces, looking to me. I must do my best by them. They deserve it. And maybe, in all the mess and chaos, there really is something that I can offer them. It’s good to move the focus from inside to out–for life to be about something other than yourself.

But wasn’t it wonderful, for that one year, to spoil ourselves just a little–to do all the things we never had time to do, after four kids and a challenging career, and all the hard times and sleepless nights–to put ourselves first, to be a little selfish, and to just let that be ok?  I have no regrets. Not for one second.

Don’t wander too far away from me, old friend. There are trips to take, stories to write, piano tunes to play, songs to sing, friends to meet, pictures to paint. And time…time for all those things that seem so lost and distant now. It’s waiting for us, in its own perfect time. I’ll see you there, after this.

I can face it, because of you.