Before becoming a mother I taught second grade for a year, first grade for three years, and then second grade again for three years. Over the seven total years of teaching one observation in particular has stuck with me.
Despite how resilient and malleable children are, how much a child's environment affects him or her is astounding. I am fascinated with the concept of nature vs nurture. I taught in two private schools over the seven years: one in Greenwich, and one in NYC. While they are both prestigious schools that are difficult to gain admittance to and cater to extremely wealthy families, they are also extremely different.
The school in Greenwich prioritized both character education and academics, whereas the school in NYC --despite claiming they prioritize character education--solely focused on academics. I was amazed by how different the kids in each of these schools were.
Before coming to the NYC school I really believed that for the most part kids are kids. However, after teaching in these two schools, I realized how much a child's environment really affects him or her.
When I walked down the hallway at the school in Greenwich and encountered a child, nine times out of ten he would say hello and make eye contact as he politely walked by. When I walked down the hallway at the school in NYC and encountered a child, nine times out of ten she would be running, making noise, and would blatantly ignore me, even if I greeted her out loud.
It didn't take long to identify why the children acted so differently in each of these schools, despite them being very similar on paper. At the school in Greenwich, each morning began with a communal meeting where the teacher would do something to build community. The children were taught, and practiced often, how to walk in a straight line down the hall without talking. Children were expected to use manners throughout the day, and to sit quietly when a teacher or administrator was addressing them. Teaching the kids to treat your fellow classmates fairly and respectfully was interwoven throughout each school day.
At the school in NYC, the curriculum was so jam-packed there was little to no time left for morning meeting. In my second grade classroom I had to cut a part of our math period so that I could start everyday with a few minutes for my students to greet one another and discuss the day ahead. There was no time built in between classes, so we were always rushing through the hallways to get from one lesson to the next. As a result, the kids were wild. They ran through the hallways pushing and shoving. The culture of the school was that rules were meant to be broken. Maintaining a stellar academic record, even in first grade, was drilled into the kids so much that I had kids crying about one wrong answer on a spelling test. It was a true rat race, and everyone felt it.
Now, this is certainly not to say that the kids in Greenwich were perfect. They were, however, far kinder, and more attentive and respectful than their NYC counterparts, which had a lot to do with the message their environment was sending them. After experiencing both schools, I knew which one fit with my parenting style and which most certainly did not. It's part of the reason I traded in my teaching job to be be a stay-at-home mom.
I learned a lot about parenting through teaching. A parent, even more than a teacher, is a child's window to the world. Whether it's on purpose or not you feed your kids tons of information everyday. Your kids soak up how you communicate with others. Do you say "please" and "thank you" to the grocery store clerk? Do you address your spouse with kindness and respect? Do you follow the same rules you set for your kids?
Raising my kids to be kind, respectful, productive citizens is my top priority in life. Like many others, I think about my parenting constantly. Am I being a good role model for my daughter? Am I setting realistic, but firm expectations for her? Am I creating an empathetic person who will go on to to wonderful things in our world?
In a culture where your self-worth is determined by how many "likes" you receive on the photo you took of yourself, strong, active parenting has never been more important. I certainly don't have all of the answers to how to be a successful parent. However, right now I think it has something to do with putting away the iPhone, and modeling the character traits I consider important, instead of just preaching about them.
Lilly Holland is a former New Yorker turned suburbanite who writes about parenting and her former career as a teacher in an elite NYC private school. She can be reached at Lilly.firstname.lastname@example.org.