The Wild One asked after I told her school was closed as a preventative measure for Covid-19 aka Coronavirus. She remembered our friends were not able to return to Beijing after their holiday and I could tell she was worried.
It’s in our parental job description to answer questions. Often they are really easy. Sometimes they are really difficult, and most of the time they are just plain awkward. Like the time Charlie asked her Nanay, “When will your baby come out of your belly?” My mother was not pregnant. (Oops!) Parents often ask how do you answer all their questions in a way that isn’t going to confuse, upset, scare or shock them.
Start with facts and end with the truth.
Though we limit and monitor what they see and hear about sensitive topics, children are still exposed to them in some capacity. They hear adults or older siblings having conversations, see the news on TV, hear a podcast, and even hear children talking on the playground. They are natural and keen observers and children are often listening more intently than we realise. And to process all the information they are receiving— and to gain a better understanding of the world around them—they ask questions. They are mini scientists, after all, and their purpose at this age is to continually explore and seek answers to their questions.
It’s not enough to simply monitor the things our children listen to, watch, or read. We must have the “tough” conversations about issues that are occurring in their immediate surroundings, as well as current global issues around the world…
…be it be Covid-19, racism, gender equality, women’s autonomy, politics, terrorism, bullying, guns, human rights, LGBTQI, or environmental issues. (The list goes on!)
I urge you to tell the truth. It doesn’t have to be long, or complicated. But it must be honest, and more important, age appropriate. Approach sensitive topics with honesty and without bias. This means being objective. We need to provide accurate information that is factual and without judgements.
A statement like “Chinese people have Covid-19” is highly subjective, becausenot every Chinese person has Covid-19 (also, a fear mongering, sweeping generalisation!).
But, “Covid-19 is made up of germs and they are spread from people to people by coughing or sneezing. That’s why it’s important to always cover our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze”, accurately describes the situation by providing factual information without judgement.
Covid-19 is scary! Judgement only adds unnecessary stress and panic. Admittedly, I found myself tracking its progress from country to country (not-so-secretly hoping that it would never reach Peru). Not to mention mass media hysteria, racist sentiments, hand sanitizer theft and people starting brawls over toilet paper (I’m looking at you, Australia!)
The world has indeed gone mad with fear!
But there’s no need to bring fear into our homes. We just need to tell the truth using open and honest conversations, because children will ALWAYS be curious about what’s happening around them. It is essential to show young children that we acknowledge that they possess the capacity to understand even the most difficult sensitive topic.
So, to answer her question. “No, I don’t think we need to leave Peru. But you can’t go to school right now because we are trying to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to more places.
Here she is explaining what she knows about Covid-19. We had a calm discussion and I provided facts that she could process. She didn’t panic, she didn’t get scared and she wasn’t upset. In the end, having more information has helped ease her anxiety.
As Dr. Montessori said,
“The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge. He [or she] has the power to teach himself [or herself].
Creating positive communication fosters trust and demonstrates that you recognise your child’s capacity to be their own teacher. They gain appropriate skills that will enable them to engage in conversations about other sensitive topics. Giving them the confidence to continue to explore and seek answers, which encourages their intrinsic curiosities that feed the inherent scientists within them. Thus, helping them to think critically, which will help them make educated decisions.
Once you get through the first sensitive topic, the rest of them will be just as easy to navigate—thus, fostering a stronger bond with your child, which will last a lifetime. (You’ll be extra thankful when your child is a teenager!)
Who remembers the PC game called The Incredible Machine?
If you were raised in the 90’s, and had access to a PC, you mostly likely played this game. Most probably at school during “computer classes” when you were supposed to be doing typing exercises, but instead had a separate window opened with the game in the background. This game’s purpose was essentially to create a series of Rube Goldberg Machines. If you’re not familiar with a Rube Goldberg Machine it’s a contraption that performs a simple task in a very complicated way. The game provided endless hours of fun!
Anyway…you’re probably wondering why I’ve taken you down nostalgia lane. Hit play. (I promise it’s worth it!)
I love watching this video of Charlie explaining her Rube Goldberg Machine (which she constructed all on her own. So proud!), because it’s hard to believe that a mere four years ago I thought her only form of communication was through a series of cries and squeaks. Quite a difference from the mile-a-minute chatty girl she in the video. I laugh at myself sometimes because I was so worried about her learning to communicate. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but parenting leads to obsession…
…and this was my parenting obsession.
From the moment Charlie was born I had a goal. (Keep the tiny human alive!) My goal was to develop language and communication skills instantly. Tall order, I know considering she was literally a minute old. But this thought had been brewing in my head for nine months and it stuck. I was obsessed. I wanted to start communicating with her as soon as humanly possible. I wanted to know EVERYTHING about her. What she was thinking. What she was feeling. What she wanted. What she needed. What she liked. What she disliked. Why she wasn’t sleeping. What was making her cry. What was making her smile. What was fascinating on the ceiling. What was going through her mind.
Did she dream? What did she dream of? Does she know who I am? Does she recognise my voice? Does she recognise my face? Could she really tell me from another person?
Yep, I was obsessed with my child.
I read textbooks and articles on baby cues. I downloaded child development apps. When she was two months old, I hauled her for an hour in an Uber to the other side of Beijing to take an introductory baby sign language course. I baby signed and signed and signed as much as I could, teaching her “Mum”, “Milk” and “More” I devoured anything written about child development—they all said reading aloud is key to promoting language. This is something we had been doing since she was two hours old. I remember drifting in and out of sleep in the hospital the first night she was born and seeing my husband reading her one of his sci-fi novels. It was the sweetest moment ever.
Until one morning when she was about five months old I heard “Mum-mummm-ummm-mumm!” THIS WAS THE SWEETEST MOMENT EVER. I was feeling groggy from the millionth hour of having broken sleep since, well, pregnancy. But this sound, this utterance…it woke me. It shook my core with excitement. She was talking! My baby, the smooshie blob that my husband and I created, was TALKING! (Ahhh…new mothers, gettin’ excited about literally anything their new child does, amiright?)
I picked her up and inhaled her scent, as I always did every time I was near her. It was glorious. I loved her new baby scent. “Good morning, little Pipsqueak! Are you calling for me?” I beamed at her and she looked at me with those beautiful, big eyes and I melted. She was a human and my human’s first word was “Mum!” I obviously took it as a clear sign of me being the favourite (Ha!). My husband will argue that she was simply babbling, but I was not accepting this. She said “Mum” and that was that.
But then she didn’t say it again for a really long time. Instead, she developed what my husband and I called the “Doon, doon”. It didn’t matter if we were asking a question, making a statement, playing with her, or being stern…all her responses were “Doon, doon”. She would play with other kids and have conversations with them saying “Doon, doon, doon?” When we traveled (this child has traveled a lot!), flight attendants would find her so amusing, “Hello there!” they would greet, and she would reply, “Doo-oooon, doon!” with a wave. She would even have conversations with herself while playing alone or looking in a mirror, and her intonations changed depending on what she was trying to express. She would mimic our words and translate it into “Doon”. It was her own private language. After a while we found it adorable, and in her own little way she was expressing ideas and exploring emotions. She was our miniature, cuter version of Hodor (without the horrible Game of Thrones backstory and magical body possession, of course).
While “Doon, doon” was great, it still caused many, many frustrations because she was clearly trying to tell us things but we would still have to guess what exactly she wanted. Then when she was 10 months and finally signed “Milk” our lives changed…This was it! We had a way to communicate where we didn’t have to guess what she was trying to say. She signed “milk”. I gave her milk. She drank it. Everyone was happy. I started signing more and more words with her, and soon pretty much everything we did we incorporated baby sign language. Songs and chants were even more fun!
It was also around this time that the “Doon, doon” started to wane. I was surprisingly really sad about this. With every new phase your child enters, you say goodbye to the baby. My husband and I decided from the beginning we were one and done…and so this was it—our only chance to enjoy the infant stage. It was coming to an end and all of a sudden it felt as if it only lasted a few days. But I knew we were about to enter a new phase. I was so excited for this phase. I had been working at Kids’ Planet Hutong for years learning valuable skills, tricks, and researching resources. I had also been studying to become an early childhood teacher, but really it was impromptu Mama Training. Toddlerhood was going to be where I shined as a mum.
So, toddlerhood was upon us and that meant a new phase of language development (among a series of other developmental gains, of course). This was my goal after all. She was about to develop a voice and along with this voice was emergent self-awareness, agency and independence. It would mean that she would start recognising her likes and dislikes and form her own opinions. She would start recognising if she felt uncomfortable, frightened, or frustrated. She would start recognising her family and gain a sense of belonging and security. And of course, she would start understanding what the word “love” truly meant—not only would she begin feeling love, but she would feel us loving her. Thus, helping her to develop into a resilient and confident young girl, because she would feel secure and self-assured. And with that, always feel comfortable to use her voice and express her ideas. More important, she would begin standing up for herself.
Now, we fast forward to four years old. Gone are the days of trying to guess what she’s trying to say. Again, it seems a bit silly now to have been so obsessive about Charlie learning to communicate, because I realised (well, I learned through the brilliant Dr. Montessori) that this Wild One has always communicated with me, even in utero. Because I have always communicated with her. When I was pregnant I sang songs and if I stopped she would kick rapidly. I shone a flashlight on my belly and she would wriggle towards the light. I would eat something delicious and she would wobble around (kinda like she does now when she eats ice-cream). I realised that communication has always been solid between us.
According to Dr. Montessori, the way in which parents respond to babies cues in the early stages of infancy translates to emergent communication skills later in early childhood. As parents, it is imperative that we do not assume what our babies need when they cry, because this tells them they are not valued when their cues are misunderstood. It’s been well documented that babies communicate by crying, and each need is signified by a cry that differs in tones (Just in case you needed a reminder because parent-brain is real.) I’ve heard time and time again, “Babies all sound the same when they cry”, but my time as a nursery teacher at Kids’ Planet Hutong has given me a special super power that enables me to recognise a (most!) babies’ specific needs.
You will also gain this super power. You simply need to watch and listen to your baby and respond positively. You will learn to recognise your baby’s cues, and how you respond to these cues will determine the progress of your child’s language development. So, the point here is…respond positively and in a timely manner to your child’s cues and it will foster feelings of value and self-worth.
But fostering communication skills is a double-edged sword.
On one edge, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I wish I hadn’t encouraged her to voice her opinions quite so loudly, because it’s often a struggle when she has an opinion on everything. I just want her to eat her dinner, or put the jeans on, or put sunscreen on, or let me use the red crayon without argument. But that’s Fournado…it’s hard, so, so hard. The days and nights can be long difficult. But the method remains the same. Respond to her cues positively, and she will remain positive.
But on the other edge, her communication skills show us that she definitely possesses value and self-worth.
She shows us every day that she is confident and self-assured. From the way she speaks, to the things she says, in the way she confidently retells stories she’s heard, read, or watched. She enjoys making her own stories and creating worlds. She sings constantly and dances the day away. She definitely walks to the beat of her own drum—sometimes very literally. She loves The Lion King, science, Frozen and queens, in that order. As you can see, she loves to build. Everyday she builds something new. She’s industrious and resourceful, and anything and everything has the potential to be constructed. Language is always present in her play—that is, there is always a story, a reason, a purpose to each creation.
I truly believe this edge is the sharper edge.
It’s the edge that gives her a voice. A big, loud voice. That enables her to speak and be heard. We all know that it is very important to let children explore and communicate their emotions, as well as explore the things that make them feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Because the sooner they recognise these feelings, the sooner they can develop agency and start advocating for themselves. They will understand what it means to be respected, and be respectful. To steal a quote from Sven of Arendelle, “You feel what you feel and your feelings are real.” Don’t deny your children of learning that they are allowed to have bad days too. So, let your children have a voice and always encourage them to speak up.
If Charlie has something on her mind I want her to say it. And if it’s wrong, impolite or just strange, it doesn’t matter, because that’s how she learns. My husband and I will always be there as her moral compass and guide her to make good decisions…”Just do the next right thing.“ Yep, that’s from our good friend Anna, also of Arendelle! (We really love Frozen. And yes, I broke out into song when I wrote that! Click on the link, you know you want to.)
So, here we are at the conclusion of my parenting obsession.
Much like Charlie’s Rube Goldberg Machine, I metaphorically jumped over the fire, aka newborn phase, and headed straight for obsession, then knocked over the proverbial ball of, the sometimes confusing and frustrating, baby cues, which rolled and rolled and rolled into the baby sign language phase, and then crash landed into the sensitive period of language pit, and got hit with a drumstick of realisation…
…I took a series of long, and at times, complicated steps to perform the simple task of helping my daughter foster effective communication skills.
Today marks my tenth Chinaversary. It’s no secret the most significant event I’ve experienced throughout my decade in China is motherhood, but second to that is the journey that led me to working with infants and toddlers and Montessori.
“I don’t know how you do it…I wouldn’t last a day!”
I hear this all the time and I always ask, “why not?” Often people have never really thought about it, nor asked themselves what exactly it is about young children that is so baffling or scary that they would never dare consider working with them. They just believe they do not have the patience for it. I hate to admit it, but once upon a time I was absolutely that person. Seven years ago if you were to ask me if this is where I saw myself in the future, my answer would have been a resounding NO…
…but here we are.
In 2011, I worked for a young, expatriate couple who had a two year old daughter and they changed my whole perception of family life. The parents were smart, beautiful, and both had successfully climbed to the top rung of their respective journalism ladders. But perhaps the most amazing thing to me was how much and they travelled and how easy they made it seem with a two year old—who was inquisitive with an energy that never slowed [I was exhausted just looking at this child, seriously]. I had always been told that children and travel do not mix and so, I said I would delay having a child for a few years. But I found myself being more and more curious about children as I continued to work for this couple. And so, I began to study child development.
While studying, I had the good fortune of witnessing for myself the wonderful milestones and the developments of infants and toddlers. It was so fascinating to observe all the transformations occur in their physical, cognitive, socioemotional and language skills. I began to understand children and I started to recognise the different ways they learn and the different ways their minds perceive different situations. It was also satisfying to successfully apply the skills I had acquired through the studies. It changed the way I interacted with children. I found myself becoming more empathetic, patient, and generally, just happier to be around them. I had gained an understanding of children that made it a pleasure to work with them—even on those really difficult days, when the cries would cut through you like a hot knife on butter, there was always something to be thankful for because I began to view the world through their eyes; I had gained their sense of wonder.
Now we fast forward seven years and I have devoted many years to studying children. I continue to practice my craft and I continue to find new ways of understanding them and so when people ask me, “How do you do it?” I simply say it’s because, “I want to.”
Thank you, China, for letting me discover what it means to truly love your work.
This is something that really annoys me, but in the past I’ve also been guilty of referring to women as girls. But I’ve made a conscious effort to stop, because language matters. In the video, Mayim Bialik explains why we all need to stop referring to adult females as girls. And she backs it with science (Yay for Science!).
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the theory that language one uses influences the way in which people think about things. And so, when we refer to grown women as girls we are in fact implying that they are not mature adults, as well as perpetuate gender biases and stereotypes of gender roles. Mayim states it perfectly…
“Language sets expectations. Let’s set ourselves up to have women behave as mature, responsible women.”—Mayim Bialik
So, please, please, please take four minutes out of your day to watch the video. You might learn something new (and that’s always a bonus!).
Okay, I’m being hyperbolic—but, it was the year that I was asked to stand in front of the class, pick up a piece of chalk and solve a mathematical problem. It was some sort of multiplication or long division or, as far as I was concerned, the most difficult mathematical problem ever created!
To this day working with numbers sends a heart-stopping fear through me that I can’t explain, other than just sheer panic. And needless to say, I try to avoid mathematics at all cost, which is not ideal…my husband is forever bewildered that I never check if I’ve received the proper change after paying for something. It’s also the reason I’ve embraced weChat and other electronic forms of payments (Why wouldn’t I? It does the math for me!).
I know that soon enough the day will come that Charlie will ask for help with her maths homework (Cue: The Imperial March.)…and she’ll realise that Mathematics is my kryptonite. This poses the following problems:
1. I won’t have the confidence to help her or, more likely, still try to help her and fail and ultimately, let her down—which is my actual biggest fear.
2. I’ll eventually have to admit that I never bothered to “face my fear” and avoided it instead of actually trying harder to learn mathematical concepts (because let’s be honest, your annoying math teacher was right, we use mathematics everyday!).
3. All the times I encourage her to persevere telling her to “keep going” and to “try again” and all the occasions I try to promote resilience and foster positive learning dispositions…they will all be lies. It would be hypocritical to call myself a role model.
How can I urge her to persevere when trying to solve a difficult math problem and when I never did?
I can’t, unless I can honestly model it.
This is the one major mathematical problem I am solving in my life.
Because I am resilient.
(And the Internet will teach me…privately, and in the comfort of my own bed where nobody ever has to know how many times I panicked, cried and hit the reset button!)
“So, I look like a boy because I have short hair?”
My heart sank a little. I’d been chatting with two young sisters about differences for my uni assignment. In my years of working with young children, I’ve learned that conversations need to be organic and that you just have to follow their lead. And thus, how we landed on the subject of the differences between boys and girls, specifically hairstyles.
When I was nine I had, unfortunately, been exposed to head lice and my mum decided the best option was to chop off all my hair. My dad could not hide his disappointment. “You’re so beautiful with long hair. I guess it’ll grow it back” (Uhh. Thanks?) That Monday, I found myself being screamed at in the school bathroom, “Get out! You’re not supposed to be in here!” I was dressed in hand-me-downs, old jeans, and a t-shirt—a slight contrast from the bright pink dress the girl (yelling at me) wore and her long hair, which gently draped against her shoulders, would’ve made Rapunzel jealous. It was almost the complete opposite of the short, bowl-cut hairstyle my mum had given me. Before I could open my mouth to explain, a teacher—who I guess decided that I was a boy too—was dragging me out.
Fun Fact 1: Gender roles significantly impact educators’ image of children, as well as their pedagogies (teaching practices)—specifically educators of children in early childhood. Early childhood educators have biases toward gender-specific stereotypes and prefer when boys and girls engage in play and activities that match conventional gender roles. Simply put, teachers like to see boys doing boy things and girls doing girl things. Thus, when a child challenges these perceptions, more often than not, they become stigmatised as being deviant (a tomboy, a sissy-boy, or the weird girl that looks like a boy). You can only imagine the negative socio-emotional effect this can have on a young child.
Being mistaken for a boy happened a lot. It happened at airports, shopping malls…and even church! I had trouble making friends because nobody wanted to be friends with the weird girl that looked like a boy. When I finally grew my hair long and started wearing dresses, I started making friends. They were mainly girls because pop culture and society said so. I was a girl and I was to play with girls and do girl thing and boys play with boys and they do boy things. Many believe this is a fact backed by “clinical studies”… a little something called “gender segregation”. But as an adult, I question it…how much of this behaviour is determined by the culture and environment in which children are raised?
Fun Fact 2: During the mid 70’s American families started having fewer kids and retailers were unhappy with the fact that families were buying less and fewer goods and, in a stroke of brilliance, decided to market gendered items, and that’s why you have pink for girls and blue for boys…(and there you go, folks. The birth of gender segregation!) Don’t believe me? Check out Hidden Brain for the full episode transcript of the podcast called The Edge of Gender.
So, back to my question…has culture and environment impacted the way adults see children? Simple answer, yep. Ever since I could remember heteronormative perceptions of being have been deemed “the right way”. Girls behave this way, boys behave that way and girls wear pink and boys wear blue. Girls are the beautiful princesses—the damsels in distress—and boys are the brave princes that marry the damsels upon rescuing them from distress. These are the heteronormative narratives to which we have all become accustomed. You’re probably thinking, “there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s normal.” But is it normal because society decided long, long ago that the definition of femininity and masculinity are the gender roles that have been created by these narratives that we have all grown up hearing, reading and seeing?
So, what can we do?
Research new norms that provide a gender-neutral understanding—one that facilitates an understanding of equality and provides children with positive role models and ideas that enable them to decide their own ways of being and more important, new norms that step away from the heteronormative narratives that reinforce stereotypes about gender.
It’s as simple as offering storybooks that challenge traditional values on gender roles—such as The Paper Bag Princess and My Princess Boy—and creating safe spaces that encourage young children to engage with toys and activities that promote non-traditional play, which enables children to critically examine and explore ideas of gender. It also provides opportunities for young children to demonstrate that they are active participants in the process of their own gender.
And maybe, just maybe, it will also create a society that embraces the deviants—no matter their gender…or length of their hair.
Don’t ever mistake any moment with your child for anything less than a learning experience…for both of you.
What do I mean?
Well, tonight Charlie said, “I draw A” during dinner and I looked up and she had used her fork to ‘draw’ on the walls (My fault, I was answering a text…during dinner). Of course, I was busy lecturing her on the appropriate use of the fork to look at the lovely lines she had scrawled on our white wall. But she insisted, “I draw A!” Exasperated. I took her fork away. I mean, she hasn’t even learned to identify ‘A’ from ‘B’, it’s also all ABC to her, even numbers. After a while, she acknowledged that “Forks are for eating, not drawing.” And but then she repeated again, “I draw A.” And I finally looked carefully at the wall… and lo and behold, there it was an upside down ‘A’! I felt terrible for not listening to her… and of course, I praised the upside down letter immediately upon realising, but then she repeated, “Forks are for eating…” Sigh.
After the little stinker (Yep, I said it!) went to bed, I came across the Janet Lansbury article below, and this quote resonated with me:
“…Kids draw to have experiences, tell stories and express ideas. Even when they scribble, they are often expressing energy, sound, or motion rather than just moving their arm along the page or making a primitive attempt at something more representative…”
I realised that Charlie had found a way to express that she had finally identified the letter ‘A’ on her own (and drew it!), but all I could do was focus on the negative—not to mention the fact that I completely underestimated her capacity to recognise the letter ‘A’ from ‘B’—rather than appreciate the learning that had occurred right in front of my eyes.
Next time, I’ll parent better, kid. I promise.
So, parents please read the article. It’s an eye-opener! And I implore you, observe and listen…your little one might just be expressing just how clever they are (even if it is upside down)!
“Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.” – Magda Gerber Parents have often asked me some variation of the question: “How do we strike the right balance between molding our children and trusting them to unfold?” In my view, “molding” should be reserved for ceramics projects and dental work. In…