Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Hope I Parent Like Susan Sto-Helit.

If you like fantasy, satire, and side of silliness with your helping of thoughts on human mortality, it's difficult to find better fare than Terry Pratchett's Death novels, a five-book subset of his Discworld novels.  If you like strong female characters, it's difficult not to like Death's granddaughter... Susan.  Susan does not have children (it is difficult to maintain relationships when you're partly immortal); she is, however, a governess and then a classroom teacher.  I've decided that when I have children, I can take a few tips from her.

After meeting Susan as a teenager in the first novel, we see her again in her role as governess to two young children.  Susan is not pleased with the way the former governess handled the children by telling them that monsters would come for bad children and the scissor man would come for children who sucked their thumbs.  The children's belief in the monsters turns them into realities.

Real Life Parenting Lesson #1: I will not use scare tactics as incentives for my children to behave.  A child often cannot understand the difference between reality and imagination.  There is a difference between telling children about real threats to their safety and giving them nightmares.

Susan beats up a monster in the basement with a poker.  She does not hesitate to tell the children about monsters and bogeymen and how to deal with them (with bogeymen you throw a blanket over their heads which makes them suffer an acute existential crisis and disappear).

With monsters in general, it's "Don't get scared. Get angry."

Real Life Parenting Lesson #2: This made me think about parents trying to shield their children from all the evils of the world.  I don't want my children to become cynical and scared of the world at a young age, of course, but I do want to teach them how to recognize, react to, and handle bad situations.

In her role as a classroom teacher, Susan tells the headmistress that of course she's teaching the children about the occult (which actually exists in Discworld, remember), because that way it won't come as a shock.

Real Life Parenting Lesson #3: I would like to talk to my children as early as possible (in accordance with their developmental capacity to understand) about issues like sex, drugs, etc., so that when confronted with those things, they don't come as a surprise.  I will use the proper terms for body parts and not avoid subjects just because they make me uncomfortable.

The school uses the Learning Through Play method, which Susan does not really use, instead using old-fashioned teaching methods like gold stars.

Real Life Parenting Lesson #4: First, I am all for more recess and P.E.  I think too many kids are labeled hyperactive or disruptive and medicated or punished when schools are basically imposing a six-to-eight-hour "quiet time" on children whose natural state of being is anything but sedentary and quiet.   I still wholeheartedly support Susan's decision to avoid her school's Learning Through Play method, because the method described in the book is used by the teachers to avoid any type of discipline.  It's a full-time recess, not just unstructured learning.  I also like that she doesn't shy away from rewards and a little competition.  I've never been a fan of the "everyone gets a trophy" way of teaching/coaching.  I'd like to teach my children that they are wonderful individuals and can have their own gifts, but they don't have to be the best at everything; other people will sometimes be better at something, and that's OK.

Susan does, however, use her inherited power as Death's granddaughter to manipulate time and space to transport her classroom to other countries to learn about geography and history.

Real Life Parenting Lesson #5: I will certainly help my children with school work, but I will also supplement their education with active learning experiences outside the classroom.  (They will not be called "active learning experiences."  I don't want to be that mother.)  Children don't necessarily learn the same way as adults.  Novelty and visual aids are great teaching tools.  Who says you don't learn anything when going to the zoo?  Or while playing a game?  These seem to be prime opportunities for teaching that can so easily go to waste.

I mean, there's no playtime without gravity. 

When Madam Frout, the headmistress, says that algebra is far too advanced for seven-year-olds, Susan replies, "Yes, but I didn't tell them that and so far they haven't found out."

Final Real Life Parenting Lesson: I will never tell my children that something is too difficult for them (of course there are practical limits on this; I'm not going to tell my six-year-old that he/she is capable of climbing Mt. Everest at that age).  If they show an aptitude for and love of math, or writing, or biology, I will not let artificial guidelines dictate what they can achieve.  If they are not academically minded (but try their best- that's the important part), I will make sure that they feel a sense of accomplishment for doing something challenging for them, but I will never start with the premise, "My child isn't capable of X" before X has been attempted.  

I have no doubt that many rules go straight out the window when one becomes a parent, and things you said you would never, ever do somehow end up being done.  I hope, though, that I can at least manage the above.  So thank you, Susan Sto-Helit, for making me take more time to think about the kind of parent I would like to be.

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