Teacher of the Year speaks on parenting

Published 8:55 am Thursday, January 26, 2012

Column: Sara Aeikens, Creative Connections

“Raising children in today’s technological advanced culture is not easy,” 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Katy Smith said recently at an interactive presentation at the Albert Lea High School. Smith, a licensed early childhood teacher and parent educator from Winona, encouraged her audience to examine parenting techniques.

Sara Aeikens

I don’t have a young child and I’m not a grandparent, but I decided to attend the public program out of curiosity. Smith combined both humor and statistical evidence to help all her audience consider the pitfalls of parenting in today’s high-tech society. She doesn’t think schools have changed much. She believes adults define what childhood is, so kids are trudging through what we create for them and are not as happy as they used to be.

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Smith said she’d “never met a parent who wants to wreck their kid. In fact everyone wants to do their very best every day.”

Yet she indicated that today’s children are anxious and depressed at startling rates and that childhood has changed radically. When asked what they thought children needed during childhood, the audience spoke up with words like “fun, safety, learning, memorable, happy and innocent.” She spent the remainder of her time with us interacting about her top half-dozen essentials for children, especially those over 3 years old.

Self-regulation is the ability of not blurting things out or waiting one’s turn quietly. Some of us recalled sitting in a church pew, riding in the car, fidgeting on the wrong side of the bathroom door or waiting to be excused from the table, as opportunities to learn this skill. Today’s children might practice by waiting for the TV remote or the video game controller. Smith described it as “keeping one’s hands and thoughts to oneself.” She cited a self-regulating marshmallow study where the children knew they would get another marshmallow if they sat patiently and didn’t lick or get too close to the treat.

Another study Smith mentioned had 3-, 5-, and 7-year-olds stand still for as long as possible. In a 1940 study, 7-year-olds were able to comply for 12 full minutes. In a follow-up done in 2001, 7-year-olds could only stand still for 40 percent of the time compared with what 5-year-olds were able to do in the 1940 study.

Smith also told of a mother waiting in a lawn chair by her car outside a Target while her preschool daughter finished watching a Dora movie instead of telling the child to pause the DVD so they could go inside and shop.

Reading was next on Smith’s list. Children can cuddle with parents, in-laws or adopted grandparents while reading a book. This closeness will help keep them from fidgeting, fighting, texting and tweeting. “The more they read,” Smith said, “the more kids know and associate reading with pleasure while simultaneously practicing fine and gross motor skills.”

“Setting limits and routines are like having a security blanket and a cadence to the day to help children organize thoughts and feelings,” Smith said. “Using discipline or even saying the ‘D’ word makes it like a swear word. In today’s parenting atmosphere parents tend to take their child’s behavior too personally because their self-image is reflected by their child’s behavior. We owe it to kids to set limits,” she said.

“Every single adult is here to cover my back in parenting,” said Smith. “I community parent all the time. That means getting to know your neighborhood children by waving to them, knowing their name, birthday, when they lost their front tooth and what they are reading. When they swear, show them your imaginary allergy bracelet and don’t be afraid to let them know you’re allergic to swearing.” Smith pointed out knowing the difference between keeping your children safe from strangers and raising them to be respectful to adults.

Mealtime together around the table gives parents an opportunity to teach children manners, find out how their day went and expose them and their friends to new and positive vocabulary. It gives them a chance to learn about setting the table, home-cooked meals, slow-cooking methods and real food versus fast food.

Smith said, “Be there and be available. I do my homework, and provide an atmosphere so they’ll do theirs. The cell phones get dropped off at the entryway basket.”

“With the amount of media poured into our children daily, the need for protection by parents increases,” said Smith.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that children spend an average of more than 7 1/2 hours of on-screen time and experience two hours of sleep deprivation daily. She pointed out that violent video games require supervision and threaten the needs of children. “I want this to bother you,” she said.

Smith said she is “passionate about the issue of play.” Eighty percent of toys script or program play activities and do not encourage imagination, even previously open-ended toys like Legos. “Children are suffocating in toys. The average child receives around 250 toys a year. They deserve better and fewer toys,” she said.

Pick a toy that’s special that does not say anything to the child. I recall the pretend world with blanket forts and leaf or snow playhouses. Do children still create these fun worlds?

While absorbing Smith’s presentation about the need to be “champions for childhood,” Jean I. Clarke’s book’s on childhood overindulgence came to mind. After listening to Clarke speak at an Albert Lea Community Education program, I understood her message to be that giving children too much can be a form of child neglect. Both Clark and Smith offer us ways to make sure we don’t get our children too much, while telling us how to give them what they really need.


Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident who writes occasional columns for the Albert Lea Tribune.