Lessons to live by - FamilyEducation

Lessons to live by

January 30,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Last Wednesday my husband and I took our daughter to her four-year old check-up. I drove from campus and waited in the parking lot, engine idling, while I listened to some CDs and read through a batch of student memoirs. I marveled at where some of these students of mine have come from; some flirting briefly with life on the Other Side: the dark side of a life on the streets and drugs and jail time. They've rubbed elbows with cousins spiraling toward self-destruction, friends who would pull them along down that shadowed and winding, wrong road (the one that often looks so well-lit and tempting when it first beckons) but for the strength of a few good people in their lives they broke free and there they are, in my classes. Some of them are young parents themselves, making it on their own, writing not about their babies, but about their own childhoods, fractured by the loss of one or more of their parents.

Before I could make too much progress with the grading, I caught sight of our minivan and I set the papers down and headed out to greet my husband, and scoop up T., leaving behind my students' stories on the front seat of the car. Years of juggling teaching with parenting have trained me not to miss a beat in the transition between worlds; I switch myself on and off between the two constantly--snatching a few minutes here and there to grade papers, until I have to set them down and referee a dispute between the kids, or they become too much for my tired mind (the papers, not the kids, although often the reverse is true) and I put them aside once and for all, giving up hope of making any progress until after they have gone to bed.

For years now, at each well-child visit, the pediatrician gives us a green sheet with helpful information for parents on how to navigate through the challenges and milestones of that particular age. T.'s sheet was marked with FOUR in big, bold letters at the top. I'll hoard it away, placing it on top of THREE and TWO and ONE and all the precious sheets counting away the weeks and months of early infancy. On this sheet, as on every other, there's a final bulleted point under the Parenting category, right below the advice to Continue to use consistent discipline with your child:

Continue to show affection for your child

It seems preposterous, really, for that piece of advice to even be there. It makes me wonder whether or not the people who create these sheets think that at some point they can remove that sentence from the information sheet. Maybe affection for your child is needed at TWO or THREE or FIVE, but once your child hits TWELVE, for instance, it no longer becomes necessary? Will it drop off the sheet? Does there come a point at which showing affection is no longer important?

To me, at first glance, that sentence seemed absurd, and borders even on insulting in some ways. But no sooner did I have those thoughts, when I saw again in my mind the student papers fanned out across the passenger seat of my car. Seeing them again, in this new context, gave me pause to think about what I know is true: that there are parents out there who might need that reminder; parents who perhaps received very little affection themselves when they were children, and so they try their best to parent, all the while working hard to mend together the damaged pieces of themselves, to be whole again. I realized again how privileged I am to be a teacher, and how brave and determined so many of my students truly are.