From Rescue to Resilience

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by Pam McComas, beginning school head and associate head of school

The following PamNote appeared in the November 2007 Beginning School Buzz.

As you may know, I am a grandmother. My granddaughter Rita is a joy. It is also a joy -- fascinating really -- watching my son become a parent. Christopher is a musician, married to a writer, and lives in Los Angeles. We talk a couple of times a week about all sorts of things, but Rita and parenting are often topics of discussion. He is, I should mention, a guy with strong opinions. He was born with strong reactions and his Catlin Gabel education strengthened his penchant for speaking his mind.

One conversation last August went like this: Christopher, sighing deeply: "Mom, you know how annoying it is when people act like their kid is the center of the universe? And they go on and on and on about how their child is the smartest child ever.

I nod in silence on the other end of the phone.

Christopher pauses for a time, then: "But, you know, I think Rita IS really smart!" Ah, the irony. I love that. (By the way, Rita was not yet 6 months old.)

But isn't that great? Just the way it ought to be, really. Every child should have at least one adult in their lives who thinks they are the most wonderful being ever. It ought to be a birthright. Here you go: one grown-up, completely smitten with you.

One day Rita will go off to school and I hope her dad still thinks she is an adorable genius. When that day comes, both Rita and her dad will have some adapting to do. Because you see, Rita will join a class that will be full of children whose parents are equally crazy about them. And, one of the most important things for a child to learn is how to be – not only a member of a group – but also how to make that group work better because they are a part of it.

This is such an important thing for people to know, because interpersonal and social intelligence is the single biggest predictor of leading a satisfying, successful life. Teachers know this. Throughout the school, at every level, teachers create classroom situations that call on students to develop these skills. It starts here, in the Beginning School where there is a big emphasis on becoming a classroom community member. Teachers in the Beginning School do a great job. But they can’t do it alone. They need your help, and so do your children. You are the coach, the interpreter, the model for you child. You bridge home, where your child’s needs are central to everything -- and school, where she is one in a group. You help guide your child’s shift from her individual sphere to a collective one in the official world of School. This represents a big shift -- for both of you.

What can you do to help? Make the internal shift yourself. This is not unlike the airline asking you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child. Be mindful of the new demands that school requires. Classroom expectations are fundamentally different than those you have for your child at home. So, consider your child in this new school context and use this new mindset as you parent. Then try the following.

First, shift your parenting from Rescue to Resilience. What does that mean? It makes perfect sense for parents of very young children to shield them from disappointment, difficulty, and hurt because they are vulnerable and your role is to protect. As a child begins school, however, it is time to begin to expand your repertoire so that she can develop her own ‘muscles’ for dealing with those rough patches herself. At school you are not there to buffer them, much as you might like to. The good news is that she is maturing and getting sturdier every day, growing more capable of handling childhood difficulties herself. Your challenge is to stop thinking about your child’s frailties, but instead to see her emerging capabilities and resilience. Then, parent from this re-centered perspective and begin to move from “I protect and rescue you” to “You can handle it.” You will, of course, coach and support, but convey confidence in your child’s growing capacity to manage more and more on her own.

Secondly, broaden your parenting focus from simply You and Me (individuals in a special relationship) to All of Us (an inclusive, collective perspective). Of course your child will always be at the center of your world, but your perspective as a parent broadens now that she is a part of a collective, her class. Ask yourself, “How can I help my child learn about boundaries and responsibilities in community?” Model this awareness yourself. You too find yourself in a new collective – with other parents of children in your child’s class. Let your child know that you are both part of a new situation – school – and that the rules of the road are a bit different when you are here at school.

When children come to School in the Beehive -- with a capital ‘S’ -- life changes for children and their parents. There is a new consciousness about your place in the world and your impact on the group. These are big, important lessons -- lessons that my brilliant granddaughter Rita will make one day with the help of her doting dad. Lucky girl.

Your children are lucky too. They have all of you to help them understand their place in the larger, more official world of School.

Lucky us, because we get to participate in this awakening.

Tonight you will hear from your child’s teachers. As you do, be thinking about how you can support your child in light of these new demands. Expand your parenting repertoire from Rescue to Resilience and from ‘You and Me’ to ‘All of Us.’