Monday, August 6, 2012

The Unintended Messages We Send

Recently, I listened to a story on NPR about the young gymnast, Gabby Douglas, and the criticism she received over her hair not looking good enough despite having won gold in the Olympics.  The author made the point that if Gabby can win gold who cares about her hair, and that the message  we should send young women is that the substantive should triumph over the superficial.  I absolutely agree, but it reminded me of a time that I directed a program and was told that the reason the parents did not want their children to get dirty was  because the families were low income and were afraid social services would consider taking their children for neglect if they did not always look their best.  I remember thinking that was silly, that child development demanded that we focus on giving children a play-based, experiential environment, and, of course, social services would understand that.  But even at the time, that comment gave me pause about the messages we send children, and others.  It is the others I am more concerned about in this blog.

For some people looking your best at all times is paramount and to be seen looking less than perfect in public humiliates the person who doesn't look their best.  I think this view transcends race, class, and culture, although undoubtedly all play a role.  This view has historical roots that still persist, although there are people who work to buck this system.  But the prevalence of this viewpoint frequently plays out in ECE classrooms since parents, for various reasons, may not want their child to get dirty. This often leads to conflicts between parents and staff in ECE programs.

Unfortunately, these types of conflicts inhibit a program's or teacher's ability to develop strong relationships with parents.  Parents, particularly those who are disenfranchised, may feel at the mercy of those they see with more power, education, expertise, etc, and will not question them.  However,  even if they are silent they may feel unappreciated, devalued, and unheard.  This bring me back to my experience as a director at a time when I did not fully appreciate parental choices, backgrounds, values, and cultures, and as such did not handle the situation as well I may have.

To be fair to myself, I did try to find solutions such as asking parents to bring in an extra pair of clothes that we would change the child into before they went home, encouraging parents to send their child in old clothes, and having the child wear a smock.  But what I did not do was to appreciate where they parents were coming from, and since we generally know when someone does not respect our point of view, I am sure the parents felt it. And I deeply regret that the message I sent was that the parents were being silly.  

Learning how to really respect, and honor anther's viewpoint means hard work that often requires looking at ourselves in uncomfortable ways, and finding humility.  And who really wants to go through that kind of work?  This is not to say that you can't have a philosophy about messy play within your program, but it does mean that you need to be willing to listen, understand, and come up with a mutual solution.

After all, those are the skills we try to teach the children, and if you want to have a strong, trusting relationship with parents it is work that must be done.   If parents are ever to become our allies in the  fight for recognition and funding for ECE. we must first become their allies.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mahatma Ghandi