Meredith Small, an ethnobiologist who has written extensively about child development across cultures, reflects in her book Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children,
“One of the greatest joys in life is seeing a child grow. It’s also a daily tragedy, as any parent knows, because no matter how much we love this or that stage, kids just keep on growing into adults. A record of their growth in shoes or on a chart is one of the most sentimental records many parents can have. You can read in those records the day-to-day life of a child, the progress of biological growth, as well as the development of a person. And if you have been intimately involved in this process with one or more children, it is one of life’s greatest experiences—and one of its greatest mysteries.”
As a parent myself, this message resonates deeply. My son is turning into a teenager. In every physical, emotional, and intellectual way, he is leaving childhood behind. I am awestruck on a daily basis by the transformation of this human—my child—from a precious baby into a delightful young man. I have loved every stage of his life.
As an educator, I find another level of meaning in Meredith Small’s words, especially in September. I work in a school that spans a broad spectrum of ages and developmental stages, giving me the opportunity to follow hundreds of children for many years. Greeting them and observing them on the first day is magical. This little person, who left in June as one of the smallest students in the building, is now noticeably taller and looks so mature next to the pre-kindergarteners. This other person, who I’ve known for six years, gives me a hug and I notice that her head is now at the height of my shoulders. And here is a bright smiling face attached to an energetic second grader, giving me a warm hello and asking if I remember that great book we read together last year. A first grader, simultaneously proud and shy, brings his little sister to meet me. She is entering Pre-K, and he can’t wait to explain how everything works at our school.
As a professor of education, one of the first thoughts I share with my graduate students each year is embedded in Meredith Small’s words. I believe that every child deserves to be someone’s favorite human. Every child is entitled to know what it feels like to be loved all the time. I have written those sentences in the singular, but that is not to imply that parents of siblings would have a single favorite among their offspring. To rephrase myself, I would also say that all children deserve to know that someone thinks they are essential, cherished, and worthy.
Treating children as essential, cherished, and worthy does not mean that we overlook their mistakes, shower them with excessive praise, indulge their behaviors, or give them every toy or treat they request. It means that we value them enough to encourage resilience when they make a mistake or experience a disappointment. It means that we respect them enough to speak to them honestly. It means that we teach them the value of “doing your best,” even if you’re not “the best.” It means that we provide rules, establish consequences, and continue to love them even when their actions are less than we expect from them. It means that we celebrate their successes, but we love them just as much when their efforts are not successful. It means that we consistently show them and tell them that they are worth our time and effort.
Unfortunately, not all children are fortunate enough to be treated this way. In those cases, it often falls to us, their teachers, to try to fill some of the gaps in their experience. “You never know,” I say every year, “when you might be the adult who makes a difference for a child.” To be intimately involved in the process of development of people is to experience a career filled with contrasts. Teaching is both humbling and uplifting. It is demanding yet rewarding. It is incremental yet immediate. It is urgent yet carefully paced. It is a job that involves benchmarks and milestones, but it is never finished.