I don’t discuss this much on my blog, but I am a teacher by trade and nerd by choice. A 21-year public school veteran with a love of learning and personal growth. In fact, mid-career, I made a significant move to teach a new content area that still continually requires substantial re-tooling on my part to be effective in the classroom. I’m not saying this to be boastful, but it is worth noting that I have even won a few awards of the “teacher of the year” variety. And this after what most could consider a fairly squeaky clean academic record, K12 and beyond. So I’m no slacking, slouching couch potato. Really in anything I set out to do.
But today I’m putting the world on notice that I’ve opted myself (and my husband … and son) out of the parental rat race. People, I’m about to get real with you all for a moment. You can feel free to disagree with me, and I will still love you. At the same time, I will make the decisions that are best for my kid. Even if it bucks the trend. So here goes.
In my opinion, the world has all gotten a little crazy. In my 21 years in the classroom, I have witnessed a progressive culture change that has filtered intense academic stress down to the youngest babies of our school systems. And I don’t agree with it one bit. I get that college admissions have grown more competitive. I really do. But I wonder … is all of the stress worth it?
As a “trauma mama,” my life already looks different. I have things to consider that most biological moms may not have. But putting all of that aside for a moment, I read a statistic that should shock and alarm you. Are you ready??? Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders! Nine to seventeen. Do you remember what you were doing when you were in that age bracket? Personally, I was having slumber parties, going to the library with mom, and riding bikes to the corner drugstore with my BFF to buy Fun Dip with my babysitting money. Honestly, I can’t even think of one solitary classmate that I had in all of my K12 years who had a disorder of any kind. Folks, this ain’t normal.
So why am I speaking so passionately about this topic today? Well, to be honest, I recently had a bad experience that has left me thinking. My experience involved a conversation with another seasoned public school educator. The conversation started with benign inquiries about Little Bean’s progress. Initially, that disarmed me. Because I’m so happy to tell you (or anyone!) all the things that he has been up to, and give you at least a short list of what we are most proud of … lately. But before I could so much as get out a few words, I found myself on the receiving end of a heapload of unsolicited advice. In fact, the advice-giving concluded with a exhortation to do more, and do it faster, so that I can make sure Little Bean is writing complete sentences before Kindergarten … “because THAT is what they EXPECT.”
Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with my opinionated and well-read self. So, if I were to have the conversation all over again, here is what I would have liked to have said (but was too mad to say then).
An Unfortunate Reality: Trauma Changes the Brain
Simply said, the brain has two main parts that affect our ability to think and process all of the input we encounter: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system of the brain is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, manages complex processes like reason, logic, problem solving, and planning.
When we are in a state of homeostasis, or regulated balance, our prefrontal cortex helps us use logic to think things through and make good decisions. However, when we experience disruptions to our homeostasis (IE get too hungry, get too tired, have a fight with a spouse, or … in the case of kids from a trauma background, when you have a parent who isn’t sober enough to feed you or change your diaper when it is dirty or comfort you when you cry, or who abuses you regularly, etc etc etc), the brain will not be able to function using the prefrontal cortex. Logical, rational decisions will not be made. All that baby cares about in that moment is survival, and will do whatever it takes to make sure that they don’t die. Literally. The limbic system response will manifest itself in either a fight, flight, or freeze method of coping.
For children who have often suffered at the hands of adults early in life, living in the limbic system eventually becomes a way of life. Had they not done so, it may have been the difference between life and death for them at one point. And unfortunately over time, that type of response (fight/flight/freeze) becomes encoded and very difficult to change without therapeutic interventions. Even if they experience a small disappointment or simple “no” from a parent. The body simply does not have the ability to magically overcome the hard-wiring that has occurred as a result of the early trauma.
While the good news is that it IS possible to re-wire the brain (due to its neuroplastic nature), and to teach kids better executive functioning skills, … it takes a LOOOOOOOONG time.
So how does this relate to the Parental Rat Race?
We are investing. In parenting, just like in finances, you need to invest for a long time until you begin to see a return. But you don’t stop investing just because you don’t hit the jackpot right away. Right? So our most important parenting task right now … and until further notice … is to help Little Bean feel safe and to learn (eventually) to be able to regulate his own emotions. We are working at this, hour by hour and day by day. The victories that he has had in this area are too numerous to list, and they come in small packages. For many parents, our small victories would be no more than a blip on the radar. But for us they are huge, because many of them reflect at least 1-2 years of investment. Don’t get me wrong … we are still in the weeds as far as helping him learn to emotionally regulate.
But there is tangible progress.
And I’m not about to put that in jeopardy because of some external expectations that do not take his background into account.
Dear reader, do not misunderstand my viewpoint on Little Bean’s education. It is very important to me! It is a part of who I am and what I love about my role as his mom, … and first teacher. Little Bean has become, to my delight, a total book hound! I squealed with delight the last time we went to the library, when he exclaimed, “I love this place!” We are working diligently to help him academically!
But at the risk of him winding in that 29% group, when he has already overcome SO. MUCH? Nope, not going to happen. So, I’m sorry, but we won’t be doing summer camps all season long or enrolling in multiple foreign languages to learn in our spare time or putting him on a path to take every AP class the high school has to offer. We are going to let him be a kid.
Because at the end of our lives, my earnest hope and prayer is that Mr. Bean and I raise a son who has healthy, stable relationships in which he can freely give and receive love … who holds a job/career that is satisfying to him (and that makes him financially independent! LOL) … who loves to learn … and who loves the Lord most of all. So while writing full sentences before Kindergarten is a great goal, and I will be happy if that happens … we have a few more moving parts than most, and will continue working on nurturing this little soul as our foremost goal. Its not about the speed, but the direction.