Education Opinion

Lessons on parenting

By Jessica Shyu — June 05, 2007 6 min read
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More than a year ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog, east meets west, on what I’d learned about parenting. Today, I am still not a parent. But as I sit in my gated apartment complex bedroom 1,238 miles away from my home in New Mexico, this entry takes on new meaning. They are not only reminders about parenting, but also nuggets on life that they knew I’d take with me wherever I moved next.

I didn’t learn about parenting from Western New Mexico University. Rather, I learned what to do (and what not to do) from people like my assistant. The secretary. The parents I work with. The kids I teach. The other special education teachers. The principal. Mrs. T. across the hall. The dorm counselor. Mrs. F. and her 5-year old who reads at the 7th grade level. Mrs. M. The night-shift custodian. All of my surrogate moms and grandmas at the school.

During the meetings I run for the Special Education department, sometimes I just sit back, shut up and watch as my assistant or secretary tells the student’s mother an anecdote of her own children. These stories are about depression. They’re about sociopathic behaviors. They’re about boys and their dads. They’re about reading to your babies. These wise women don’t necessarily have college degrees and most haven’t ventured far from the town their entire lives. But they know about life. These women are my mother’s age and just as quietly wise about things regarding people. Little people. Big people.

From my assistant, my Navajo mother and friend, I’ve learned the most about how to be a parent. But really, it’s about how to be more of an adult than the kids (because a lot of times, I feel like throwing a tantrum alongside the 12-year old). I’ve watched her and learned to be more precise and measured with my words, my actions. I’ll take the time and use a ruler to make a straight line now. I’ll take an extra second to put a happy face sticker on a B+ paper. I speak slower to my students and avoid saying what is unnecessary when I give instructions, lest they get even more confused.

I watch her, amazed, as she quells a temper tantrum (not mine) with a look, a step-by-step explanation of what happened, a question of how they student would feel if someone else did that to him/her, and then finally, asking the student if they think what they did was right or wrong. She never actually tells the child that they did anything bad (well, she does when they’re REALLY bad!), but she lets the child come to the conclusion him/herself.

From her, I’ve learned how to look strong in the face of adversity. I’ve learned about men. I’ve learned about forgiveness and about holding your dignity high. I’m reminded how it feels to want to protect and take care of your mother.

Never in my previous life did I have to analyze how to confront misbehaving teenagers. I never had to break down the process of explaining why I’m upset and how this behavior can be changed for next time. The psychology behind it is amazing. And it works. Kids sometimes need to be reminded, in a step-by-step manner, of what they did that was wrong and what they should do instead.

She has also taught me to take time at arts and crafts. I hate arts and crafts. I loathe taking a precious hour to make a poster. But kids like it. They learn better through visuals. So do it. Measure the lines properly. Cut the letters out carefully. Laminate.

In my unofficial education, she and so many others have taught me life skills. They tell me to look out for depression in our children. They remind me to check for signs of self-mutilation. They say to make sure Dad is just as engaged and involved with the kids as you are-- you’ll pay for it when the kids become teenagers if he doesn’t.

Sighing, they tell me in their lilting Navajo accents, “Read to your babies.”

If I read in between the lines, they’re telling me, “Teach them phonics AND whole-word skills.”

And oftentimes I don’t have to read between the lines. They sit me down and tell me, “If your teenager is thrown in jail and waiting for you to bail him out-- leave him there at least for one night. Probably two.”

They also say: “Make kids work for spending money. Give them music lessons. Don’t yell. Yell only when you have to. ALWAYS SPEAK IN THE POSITIVE. Make sure they know how to wipe their noses. Teach manners like you would teach potty training.”

“Don’t have only one child. Have lots, even though it means less money to spread around and more laundry. Encourage socialization. Give everyone their own space to do homework. Always try to be home when they return after school. Don’t give them everything they want, just everything they need. Have high expectations-- but don’t be discouraging. Give Christmas gifts to their teachers.”

“Teach anger management skills along with manners and potty training. Stick to your promises. Stick to your traditions. Remind them constantly that you live and work for them. Realize that at some point, they’ll need someone else more than you. Realize that they’re going to do what they want to do, regardless of what you say. GEDs are not good enough-- get your diploma.”

“Don’t joke or speak casually about divorce or separation. Don’t be afraid of counselors, therapists or trusted family members-- keeping dark secrets only breeds darker secrets, and eventually, possible emotional disturbances. Spend individual time with each child in the family. Always pick kids up on time. Always believe your kids. Doubt them privately, not publicly.”

“Start and end everything with ‘I love you.’ Remind them that all they have are each other. Ask comprehension questions even during movies and TV shows. Listen to classical music in the house. Use hands-on materials to teach. Have them teach you. Empathy is taught-- make volunteering and giving natural. Be liberal with hugs. Let them take nothing for granted.”

“Everyone needs time alone-- give them their space for awhile if they’re upset. Practice using an “assertive voice” against bullies. Practice sports at home. Practice self-defense. Practice smart-ass come-backs. Defend your kids publicly, grill them privately. Model what you want them to do. Take regular field trips to the book store. Make a lesson out of everything-- even baking chocolate chip cookies.”

“Teach them about puberty. Teach them what sex is. Tell them the truth about drugs and cigarettes-- that they’re bad. Tell them that you tried them before, but stopped because you didn’t want your babies to come out deformed and brain-damaged. Remember that kids are going to do what they want to do, no matter what barriers you put up in front of them.”

“Pick your battles. Make sure they have another trusted adult to turn to, like an aunt or uncle, when they’re mad at you. Teach them to vent. Teach them to cook and do laundry. Make doing taxes a family affair. Give them bank accounts at an early age. Sign them up and make them responsible for credit cards before they move out of the house.”

“Check for fevers. Check for cuts. Check for hickies. Forgive them. Work extra shifts to pay for after-school lessons. And don’t ever imagine having perfect children.”

The opinions expressed in On the Reservation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.