In our parent handbook, you’ll find the following thought:
“Always assume that confusing or concerning information your child shares about the day is his/her best interpretation of the facts and may not be completely accurate. What you hear may also be based upon your child’s desire to speak to your interests in order to connect with you. When concerns like this arise, there is usually a gap between reality, the child’s perception and his/her ability to articulate the details.” This might seem an obvious concept, but every year I personally spend time working with parents to resolve this exact misunderstanding. Here’s why this is such a common occurance and how with a little patience, trust and introspection, you can easily avoid it.
It happens so easily. Last week, one of our teachers walked a child to her parent’s car and as she greated her mother the child said “Mrs. Black ate cat food today!” Mrs. Black was surprised to hear this, of course, since obviously that was not the case. Everyone sort of shrugged their shoulders, laughed, said goodbye and the parent drove away. Later, Mrs. Black mentioned the exchange to another teacher in the room, who responded that she ate salmon for lunch. The teachers eat at the table with the children and this little girl obvioulsy observed (and smelled) the salmon. Even though the food was eaten by a completely different teacher, in her mind, the child equated the sight and smell to cat food and suddenly we have an outlandish tale, which the she believes is 100% true. The thought left such an impression upon her that it was the first thing she shared with her mother after school. Such a simple recipe for misunderstanding.
This is clearly a benign and mostly unbelievable tale, but it might be the best example I have heard of why, in the face of concerning information from a child, parents should always ask themselves “Is that what really happened?”
Let’s get into a scenario that is not so easy for parents to navigate, but that happens every single year in schools all over the country. A parent arrives at school to pick up her child. Upon greeting her, the mother asks “Did you eat all your lunch today?” The child responds “No.” The parent, now disappointedly searching through the lunch box, asks “Why not?” To which the child responds “The teacher took away my lunch before I could finish it.” What happens next varies from parent to parent, but this exchange almost always results in at least an email query to the teacher, but sometimes escalates into a parent’s demand for an explanation and immediate change in the teacher’s behavior, without stopping to reconsider reality.
What’s really going on here? If we remember that the child’s words are simply how she recalls the moment rather than the full truth, this should be an easy one to handle for any parent. However, in this case, because of the parent’s own biases and previous history with the child, the information is much harder to dismiss. Firstly, this parent asks the same exact question every time she picks up her child. This, in itself, accounts for most of the reason for the child’s statement. There is a history. See, the child’s motivation when she sees her mother after a long day is simply to connect. Mom’s overriding concern of her child’s eating, although it originates from a place of love, also comes partly from a sense of guilt after spending the time apart. She also wants to re-connect with her child, but knowing she ate all of her food offers mom some reassurance that her child is safe, healthy and happy. So this important moment of transition for mother and child ends up revolving around this one issue of food.
Since I mentioned it, we should all remind ourselves that guilt comes standard with all parenting models. Just like avoiding a child’s disappointment, our own guilt has a way of creeping into our parenting decisions. It’s the panko crust of a parent’s emotional casserole that leads us to indulge, enable, perpetuate and overlook child behaviors we really should not allow in the first place. Acknowledging and understanding your own guilt and how it influences the way you receive new information is an integral step in this prescribed introspection.
Lunch is a particularly tricky subject because, especially when sent from home, it holds a unique quality as being the only tangible element which connects your home to your child’s school. It is a physical representation and reminder of your presence in his or her daily life away from home. Furthermore, ensuring your child is fed and nourished has been your responsibility since day one and is literally the difference between life and death. Some of us have a more difficult time handing over this job to our children. Even when we do, it still makes sense that we could feel some trepidation about their ability to do it effectively…thereby keeping themselves alive. So when we receive information that appears to prevent our child (and by extension, us) from performing this life requirement, our emotions often control the immediate reaction. In this little anecdote, a four-year-old girl, has intuited all of this on at least a superficial level and has begun to experiment into which ideas will generate the strongest response, and therefore, the strongest connection to mom. Simply by hyperfocusing on lunch, this parent has inadvertantly created a point of control for her child. A simple fix is to vary the discussion upon each pick up. Ignore lunch entirely for a bit and the subject will quickly lose its power over the parent.
Let’s say you’ve never asked your child about her lunch, but she offers the same story unsolicited. That eliminates the inherent bias of history. Lunch was taken from her without remorse. Now you are dealing with the child’s pure interpretation of reality. The truth is likely very close. She was probably asked to clean up her lunch before she was finished with it. A quick pause to consider all known aspects of this situation should usually lead to the correct response. First, consider your child’s tendencies. She might have simply spent too much time talking to friends at the table or was distracted by other things and ran out of time to finish her lunch. That’s a natural consequence of her actions, which we use to create a teachable moment for her. She may not appreciate it at the time, but the disappointment is a good learning experience. She’ll eat more when she gets home tonight.
However, since you’ve never heard anything like this before and your child is not in the habit of lying to you (as far as you know), you may feel the need to take some kind of action. Ironically, the fact that this experience seems so uncharacteristic of both your child and the teacher might actually make it seem more believable. That’s a juicy little paradox, isn’t it? Again, before you do or say anything to your child or the school, take time to ask yourself “Is that what really happened?” If there is any other plausible explanation, your next steps should be based upon the fact that you honestly do not know the truth. If you trust the school and the teacher, the best response is to let it go and see what happens tomorrow. However, if you must reach out, then your only response should be to ask the teacher how your child typcially spends her time during lunch because she did not finish her lunch today. That’s a very different email from an acusatory one in which you accept the information as indepsutable fact and blame the teacher without hearing the full story.
There are a million iterations of this type of exchange. They range from full-on gut-check moment to adorably cute misunderstandings. Right now, you might be thinking “I love my child’s school. I’ll never have this problem with them.” Perhaps you won’t, but it is worth remembering that we are talking about your child. The most important thing in your life. In 21 years I have seen some of the most trusting, most flexible parents struggle with a seemingly simple moment because they couldn’t stop to consider it more deeply. For them, it may not have been lunch, or a silly story, but it was something that mattered to them more than they realized beforehand. Without recognizing this moment could come, they never bothered to consider how they might react and they were caught off guard.
That’s the purpose of this blog. That’s why I talk about this during our new parent orientation every year. Anticipating the future is difficult, but it is also a crucial element of effective parenting. It cannot be done alone. Sometimes we may forget that our parenting brains develop along the same timeline as that of our children. Just like in Dr. Montessori’s research on sensitive periods for children, there are common themes and experiences that reoccur for parents at predictable times. We’ve jumped into these moments head-on to help parents and almost always have been able to find a resolution. The benefit of having access to teachers with 20 years of experience is that you have the chance to partner with those who have been there before. If you listen closely, you just might see what’s coming before it gets here.