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How I've Changed as a Parent

Four years ago, my world was drastically changed forever: I had become a father. My wife and I had created a beautiful little boy. Not to waste too much time, we began the process again and a year and two months later we had our second precious baby boy. Roughly two years passed and I made yet another life altering decision to change my career path and entered into an entirely different industry. I dropped a (not small) percentage of my income and started work as a Trainee Educator at Stepping Stones Early Learning Centre, Dubbo. Before that, I had been working passionately for nearly seven years in the rather niche field of Local Government Law Enforcement, or as they are more commonly known: Council Rangers.

At this point I imagine you the reader, uttering an “Ergh”-like sound of distaste. Suffice to say that was often the kind of response I could expect when answering questions as to my occupation in those days. But setting aside the rather common misunderstandings about that line of work, I felt that I was well suited to the job. I worked with animals, every day was different, my place of work was as big as the rural borders of my city, I went on adventures which often ended in ridiculous/funny scenarios, I was even involved in presenting animal safety talks to children at schools (which would also later influence my previously mentioned ‘big decision’) and there was always more to learn. But it was high conflict work and increasingly the challenge of dealing with angry customers and horrible situations was starting to push me from my typically, unquenchable optimistic disposition to one that was decidedly more cynical and far too often pessimistic. Not at all being comfortable with those changes in my character, I was becoming disillusioned.

No, I did not actually write a ticket for the Big Red Car, but in hindsight you can’t tell me you would not want to after hearing the song a billion times!

Then tragically, a few months before our first boy was born, my best friend Steven, who I had known since second grade, died in a motorcycle accident. He had worked as an Early Childhood Educator since around the time that we left High School and we had often joked that he and I should have swapped careers. That is not to say that he did not love what he did, because by all accounts he was excellent at it and very passionate about his work (but Early Education is not what you would call an easy job either). And as was evidenced by the enormous turn out at his funeral, he had also become an influential member of our community. Given my growing discontent in the job that I was doing and the very real considerations I had already given Steven’s suggestion that I work with kids, well suffice to say the seed of change had been planted.

Now being a father and considering my previous experiences of people while working as a Ranger, there were certain qualities that I was determined that as a parent, I would instill in my children: Good manners? A must. Emotional resilience? Absolutely. Empathy and respect for others? Definitely. Happiness? Most important! I was determined that my kids would not be anything like the entitled, bitter, self-important and arrogant individuals that I often encountered in my travels as a Ranger. Thankfully for me my wife’s views largely coincided with my own as she had not long finished her University studies to become a Teacher and had experienced the joys of trying to educate a variety of age groups, which included teenagers with all their respectful, adolescent wisdom and glory. Largely this translated into a parenting style that swung from being loving and fun when the boys were "well behaved" to stern dictators when they stepped out of line. Our great emphasis was on consistency and it must have worked because the feedback we most often received when friends and families spoke about our boys was on how well behaved and polite they (usually) were. Little did I know then, that perhaps there were other considerations crucially important to my children growing into healthy, well-adjusted and happy adults.

Me and my best friend Steven, (left) the short and wildly annoying inspiration for my career change. One of the best men I have ever met.

My wife and I now work together at Stepping Stones ELCD (in different rooms) and our boys are both happily enrolled there with us, also in separate rooms (thank goodness for that). In the time that we have been there I have learned a lot, one of the most important lessons being: you never stop learning. In fact, our service collectively made the decision about 18 months ago that we wanted to move towards being a reflective, Reggio Emilia-inspired centre and our staff have already been treated to some fantastic industry-specific training towards that goal. Principally among this training was a two-day workshop presented by Prof. Louise Jupp from Seneca College Canada, who our centre engaged the services of, to visit our little corner of the Country. Louise is involved in research for the investigation of wellbeing in forest schools as well as being an active member of an international community which advocates the principles and educational pedagogy explored by Reggio Emilia. As mind blowing, inspiring and motivational as this training was, it was also a huge eye-opener to my wife and I as parents. Somehow, we managed to not drop everything and move to a Canadian Forest school or the city of Reggio Emilia itself (in Italy). But instead we decided that in addition to modifying our professional approaches to our work, we also wanted to modify our style of parenting.

In the interest of brevity I have listed below a small number of the changes we have tried to include in our home and our parental styles, such as:

- Being more democratic as a family and listening/acknowledging the views of our children.

- Speaking to our children more respectfully and less as dictators who make and enforce all the rules.

- That we would stop buying toys and instead introduce more loose parts and natural materials into our house and especially our backyard.

- That we wouldn’t try to fill our kids days with things to do, if they become bored…fantastic! They would just have to invent their own games or find things to do.

- We stopped intervening every time the boys had an argument with each other. Certainly we spoke to them about emotions and how they might communicate more respectfully and in ways that are less likely to cause conflict, but largely we let them work things out themselves (we of course step in if things get violent, but normally it doesn't).

- We try to let them discover solutions for themselves and figure things out instead of just giving them the answers (this is harder than it sounds when it seems so much easier to just give them the answer).

- Lastly, and even though we already sort of liked the boys taking risks before, the training with Louise Jupp really articulated and emphasised its importance to us. We have come to really value risky play for it’s crucial role in allowing children to learn how to experience, overcome and self-regulate stress. A life skill that is more than ever apparently deficient in generations such as millennials, this recent culture of "over-protecting" children has already been found as a major factor contributing to costs and loss of productivity as, more than ever before, workforces are struggling with serious health issues associated with stress.

My boys, Dallas and Donnie, the rock climbers. What I did not take photos of, was my face and the internal freak out I was having as the boys got higher and higher.

For me personally, the training more than ever vindicated my decision to enter the Early Education Industry! I couldn't imagine doing anything more meaningful, especially knowing now just how crucial those first years are to children in learning and development of character and resilience. Does being an Educator make me a perfect dad? Heck no! I still lose my patience daily and I still get angry (a lot), especially during the oh-so-nightmarish period we call “bed time”. But it has made me more mindful of the precious and too-small window of opportunity that childhood is, the difference between whether somebody grows up to be a happy, resilient and healthy person or one who is subject to the ever-increasing mental, emotional or physical illnesses of a childhood spent being protected against everything but a sense of independence and agency. Being exposed to industry research and practice has impacted my approach to parenting deeply.

If I could go back in time to when the boys first came along, this is what I’d say to myself: Please don’t stress out so much. Let the kids be kids. Boredom is good. Take the time to talk with them and ask what they think, value what they tell you. Having boundaries and being consistent is important but so is treating children with respect and listening to what they have to say. Trust them not to fall; sometimes they will hurt themselves but taking risks is more important than avoiding bumps and bruises.

Dallas Forrester

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