During his recent visit to The Walker School, child and family therapist and educational consultant, Dr. Rob Evans asked the following question: Do you think your child’s school should be preparing the path for your child OR preparing your child for the path? Click THIS SURVEY LINK to answer that very question. This question framed his talk with both faculty/staff and parents because Dr. Evans recognizes that parents and schools are less confident about setting parameters for children and are more anxious about an uncertain future. In that context, he shared his sense of what decades of research tell us about what children need most from their parents – nurture, structure, and latitude.
To nurture is to care for and encourage the growth and development of children (and adults). For Dr. Evans, nurture is the bedrock to healthy development, and the best way to nurture someone is to spend time with them. He disparaged the notion that parents can force quality time. “Quality time,” he said, “only arises from meaningful interaction, which, of course, takes time to develop. It cannot be forced.” When I consider our family dynamic, quality time has almost always been generated by playing board games, camping, or simply relaxing together. For my wife, Cathy, and me, it happens when we go on long walks. I concur with Dr. Evans, nurture takes an investment of time.
Structure, in Dr. Evans’ mind, is like a box: “What’s inside the box is what we do, what is appropriate behavior; what’s outside the box are the things we know we should not do.” Interestingly, research shows that the contents of the box, what behaviors are acceptable, vary from culture to culture, and even from family to family. But children must be taught what those parameters are, and parents must be consistent in handling instances where children test the boundaries. I remember one time when Cathy and I had to discipline our children for testing the boundaries. When we found out that our children lied to a babysitter about their bedtime, we had a decision to make: would we take the children to the Cardinals baseball game the next day, as planned, the day that we now know Mark McGuire set the homerun record for a season? The answer was clear; we would not. Lying was not acceptable and we needed to be consistent with our discipline. They were both disappointed; our son was mad. But, as Dr. Evans’ mother would have said, “You will just have to get glad again.”
Finally, our children need latitude or room to make mistakes. “While it appears that many parents want their children to have stress-free childhoods,” Dr. Evans said, “that is actually not helpful. What will distinguish your children, what will reveal their character, is how they respond to mistakes, hardships, failure. It is vitally important that children learn from non-catastrophic mistakes.” Dr. Evans implores parents not to intervene when a child is working through a problem or a challenge. He loves to tell the story of the head of school who tells parents at the beginning of each year, “We hope each of your children experience failure this year. We are not going to facilitate it, but we hope, nevertheless, that it happens. And when it does, we ask you not to intervene or attempt to rescue your child. If we want them to grow into resilient, self-confident problem solvers, they need experience working through the problem.” And I believe, if they grow into experienced problem solvers, they will be able to face an uncertain future with self-confidence, which is exactly what we hope for our students at The Walker School.