BY LINDSEY STAPLES, HERITAGE HOUSE UPK TEACHER’S ASSISTANT
Today, eight four-year-olds brought me to tears. As I clocked out of work for the day, tears soaked my face. I was free to no longer pretend to be brave or in control. I walked to my car, and as my body sank exhaustedly into the soft gray seat, so did my heart inside my chest. I put the key into the ignition and allowed my head to fall against the steering wheel. For almost a half hour, I cried. How is it possible that preschoolers can be so disrespectful? How is it that within their innocent shells, these sweet-faced children possess such power of coldness, hostility, and anger?
I chose to work with preschool-aged children because I assumed that working with the alternative—middle school and high school students—I would indefinitely be overwhelmed by attitudes of naïve, stubborn independence. Although I have never experienced a middle school or high school classroom as a teacher, I remember as a teenager feeling the hostility between students and teachers. I was always baffled when the teacher would give a simple instruction such as, “Please open your text books to page seventy-four,” and a handful of students would stare at her blankly or even worse; they would respond with a defiant NO. Did all those angry, disrespectful teenagers begin as defiant, ill-mannered preschoolers? When I was a child and a teenager, I never dared or even desired to blatantly defy or disrespect an adult or my peers. Instilled with strong morals and values from my parents, I learned and exemplified respect at a young age and continued to carry it with me into my adulthood. Have too many parents failed to teach their children the definition of respect, how to earn it, and how to give it? Have parents not learned respect themselves?
I continue to be baffled in regards to respect and lack of respect within my preschool classroom, especially during the transition of parents bringing their children from home to school. Too often, I witness one of my students lash out in a tantrum just as their mother or father are bringing them into the classroom. The outburst of angry emotion usually stems from the conflict between the child’s desperate want to keep a favorite toy or blanket with them in the classroom and the rules of the classroom dictating that in order to keep everyone safe at school, outside toys and belongings need to stay in designated cubbies.
Too often again, I have dealt with parents that just don’t want to deal with their child’s behavior and run off to work without teaching their child why it is important to follow the rules of school. They shoot an uncompassionate look at me as if to say she’s your problem now. In this situation, the parent has taught and reinforced disrespect. The child has learned how to not respect his or her parent and not respect his or her teacher. This one incident has set the pattern for the day, for the entire school year, and unless the parent changes the way he or she approaches his or her child in terms of teaching respect, it has also reinforced a learned behavior for life.
Children are not my problem—they are my purpose. Their existence gives meaning to my life. I take my job seriously because I know that my influence in children’s lives bares a great deal of weight and worth. Teaching respect—how to give respect and how to earn respect—is such an important value to me because I believe that
almost all other values, emotions, and behaviors stem from its significance. If a child wants to play alone for the day, although I might encourage him to play with his classmates, I respect his need for space and allow him to have time to play alone—that is only if he has used kind, respectful words with me and his classmates in requesting to play alone. If he says, “Susie, I would like to play by myself right now, and maybe later I’ll play a game with you. Miss Lindsey, would it be okay if I play at the puzzle table by myself?,” then I know this child understands that it is acceptable to play alone, but he must still be kind to his classmates. By using his kind words with me and his peers, he has earned my respect for him and shown me that he knows how to give respect to others.
As a parent, if you are thinking my child would never be able to say something in that respectful, mature way, first of all, you are not giving them enough credit, and secondly, you are not teaching them in the first place how to speak respectfully. Children indefinitely live what they learn. If they observe a parent respecting another parent with kind, loving behavior; a parent respecting a teacher by following school rules; a teacher respecting a student by allowing the child to have personal space and expression; and one child respecting another child by using kind words and compassionate behavior, then children will learn how to respect their community, parents, teachers, peers, and ultimately themselves.
Children crave rules and boundaries; they long to feel safe and cared for. As a parent, you will show and teach your child the definition of respect if you set, follow through with, and stick to rules and boundaries. By building walls of guidelines and lessons around your children, you are teaching them to respect you as a parent—the one who provides for them and keeps them safe. And if they learn to obey your rules and boundaries, they have earned your respect, which will in turn allow you to create flexibility within those walls as your children learn and grow. n
Lindsey Staples, a teacher’s assistant for the UPK program at Heritage House Childcare and Learning Center, earned a B.A. degree in English/Creative Writing from Keuka College in May of 2009.