Human babies are born into families where they are helpless . . . needing to be cared for until they are ready to venture out on their own. We are not like snakes where they are born to fend for themselves immediately; some even being risked eaten by their own mother. I compare it more like the kangaroo; where the joey is nurtured, protected, and strengthened close to their mother (inside a pouch even) until it begins to foray a little at a time further and further away.
In some unschooling circles, it is said that we need to “trust the children; that they know what they need when they need it.” I don’t believe that in the literal sense it is often conveyed, though I do believe it in the figurative sense. I believe most children have the desire and drive to be independent and become self-sufficient, but they need attentive mentors to model, guide, and/or facilitate along their path. The way I have found to be that healthy mentor is to learn to trust myself. This means mindfully extracting conditioned responses or pendulum reactions and using my authentic life experiences and perspectives to empower my children along a self aware life path.
For instance, take brushing one’s teeth. As the adults, we have accumulated experiences and possibly gleaned wisdom from that to understand to a greater measure the long-term impact on short-term decisions. My hubby and I came from similar hard-working, middle class, blue collar backgrounds. Interestingly, both sets of parents did not encourage or demand personal oral hygiene. My hubby ended up self conscious about his very crooked teeth, though he ended up with few cavities when he pursued dentistry services as an adult. I ended up dental phobic when I had a mouthful of cavities after pursuing dental services as a teen and had a painful experience. When I was able to pursue and choose my own dental provider as an adult and advocate for my rights to a painfree dental experience, my dental phobia slowly eased. These experiences shaped our insights in this arena and we had to decide how it would impact our sharing that with our children.
This is where things shift from conventional reactive or pendulum swinging responses to the empowering path we chose. I wanted to use this information from our experiences to draw mindful conclusions and thus, I hoped, healthy choices and mentoring for my children. So, the sifting and sorting began. I noticed that genetics must play into having cavities at least as much as oral hygiene since my hubby took the same lack of care throughout childhood as myself, yet, he had maybe one cavity in the end compared to my mouthful. Then, each of our individual experiences shaped what would personally be important to us. One was that my hubby had wished his parents had taken more concern or care about the effects of crooked teeth on self esteem in the social and professional realms. I had wished my parents had advocated both good oral hygiene and appropriate and pain-free dental care.
Then, it was time to find the middle, healthy ground for how our experiences shaped us and how we wanted to use that good information to empower our children in a positive and ongoing relationship with oral care. We didn’t want to be alarmists or reactionists and pendulum to one extreme in how we interrelated, nor did we want to ignore the good information that emerged from our own experiences that might benefit our children while they had limited perspective. Therefore, we established good oral hygiene with our children right from the start, would provide good information at an age appropriate level throughout their upbringing, and would find solutions through collaborative efforts when difficulties arose.
Some of the solutions that have occurred throughout the years and from various children are: to encourage our children to choose their own toothbrushes and toothpaste. No one likes to brush with a taste or texture that is uncomfortable or revolting, and that value was extended to each child. When the child was too young to successfully brush their own teeth well, it just made sense to institute some form of predictable timeframe while it was our season to do the brushing for them to lessen the potential powerlessness that might be felt by the child. I used various songs as that predictor such as the alphabet song (many of my children learned this song because of tooth brushing) or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. When my children wanted to do for themselves, a sand timer might be utilized or an electric toothbrush could be considered. We have found “toothbrushing songs” (or made them up) that depict where to brush, we have stood side by side with them and brushed our teeth together in a follow-the-leader type of scenario, as well as even creating a video of good toothbrushing techniques for my older special needs son. In other words, where there’s a need, there’s a way, if one keeps brainstorming together to find the right solution for everyone.
There were also information sharing as well as behind-the-scenes facilitation based on we parents’ wisdom and experiences. As soon as my children were old enough to understand, I would share my own childhood experiences and how and why I felt the way I did about oral hygiene. I shared in a way that conveyed my wisdom gleaned without trying to use it as a weapon or a scare tactic or any other ulterior motive to get them to do as I wanted. It was truly offered from mentor to learner. Further, I made sure that I was allowed back in the dental procedure area to ensure that my child was respected, listened to, and given information before anything was done. I made a stop/go sign that my children could use in the chair if they had any questions or something wasn’t working for them. I went to great lengths to not bring in my phobias, but to empower them with their rights. Finally, when a few of the children had some issues with their teeth that braces would fix, and the child was indifferent, my hubby would share his past experience and wisdom to help them make an informed decision together.
What I found in raising my children is that in the early years, there is so much of their decisions that would be based on their limited understanding. It is our privilege to share our wisdom and experience in a way that empowers each child to understand the impact of any decision in their life. This would be true of oral hygiene as well as such areas as food choices, sleep choices, screen time, etc. Like the kangaroo mother, in the beginning, I keep them close, protect them, nurture them, and empower them to slowly venture out on their own as they are capable until they are independent and making their own choices stemming from their own upbringing and experiences based on good information and healthy mentorship.