by Clair Ward, Head of School at Valley School of Ligonier
I have been either a teacher or a school administrator for nearly 30 years. Over that time, I have seen the onset of many “new” strategies and tools that now have an automatic place in the class-room. I have also seen my fair share of approaches to parenting, and I am a parent myself. I write all of this not in the spirit of presenting myself as an expert, but rather as a data collector.
My colleagues and I have begun to notice that children are arriving to school with significantly less self-sufficiency in the areas of calming and organizing themselves. We are seeing children who rely on adults exclusively to entertain them, distract them, redirect them and soothe them. We are seeing an increasingly exhausted group of parents who are concerned that they function at the whim of a child at bedtime and mealtime; the parents’ need to serve the children means significant programming during the weeks and weekends leaving the whole family running from structured activity to structured activity. There simple is no down time—no time to be bored or calm for either parents or children.
I recently gave a talk about the book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. This was a board book that my own daughter carried around as soon as she could walk. It was one of the first books that she memorized and it was often a part of her bedtime routine. In our house, simply reading he book was a way to sooth a child, but inevitably it also had a similar effect on whichever adult was reading it to her. It had a cadence and a pattern that allows the mind to settle into a comforted mode. And most of us recall it being read with a soft tone. The words matter less than the spirit of quieting the mind and the body. If you are familiar with the book, you will remember …
Goodnight room, goodnight moon
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon
Goodnight light, and the red balloon
Goodnight bears, goodnight chairs
Goodnight kittens, and goodnight mittens
We live in very hurried times these days. People struggle to eat well on the run, and the amount of sleep that children and adults get each night is declining. Technology plays an increasingly prominent role in our “down time” in spite of the research that says that screen time effects our sleep and body rhythms. Not only are children getting less and less practice soothing themselves to sleep or out of a heightened emotional moment, but the adults in their lives are leading the charge with chaotic schedules under the pressure of being perfect parents. In short, we are no longer taking time to soothe our children and we never soothe ourselves in front of them. There is no question that this is having an effect on children’s own ability to self-soothe.
As adults, we need to be role models. Children need to see us as being able to sooth ourselves. We need to ask children to practice self-soothing in ways other than digital devices. While Good Night Moon may no longer be a child’s preference, what are similar activities that a child could do to self-quiet? Singing? Reading? Knitting? Walking?
We spend a lot of time as a culture soothing infants with things like Goodnight Moon. As children get older, we spend less and less intentional time doing this important and nurturing task for children. And this is what we are seeing in school: children unable to meet the rigor of learning or of playing, children who need adults to rescue them, children with a decreasing amount of resilience, children who crave “free” and unstructured time, and children who – no matter what they say – crave limits, structure and routine.
Grandparents, parents and friends, I urge you consider ways to reincorporate soothing routines back into your time with the children you know. I urge you to consider the ways in which calming activities and regular/predictable routines can help children relax. As adults, let us model for them ways in which to quiet the body and the mind other than those that take electricity or even leaving the house. If nothing else, you can practice your quiet voice – and who knows, perhaps you yourself will benefit for a calm and soothing moment.
Clair Ward was appointed in 2008 to the position of Head of School at Valley School of Ligonier (www.valleyschoolofligonier.com). Ms. Ward holds an M.Ed. from Boston College and a B.A. in English/Classics from Hamilton College. She lives in Rector with her daughter and husband, Bryon Williams, a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University.