Mary Hartzell on Parenting
Mary Hartzell has helped me immeasurably in my quest to be the best possible parent I can be (I often fail). Her research and hands-on practice both as a teacher, and as the director of First Presbyterian Nursery School in Santa Monica, have enabled her to write and create some of the most invaluable resources for parents. Her book, “Parenting from the Inside Out,” is a must-have for any parent, as are her CDs on Parent/Child relationships. I gave a friend of mine a copy of “Parenting…” and she said, “This book is changing my life. I like my kids again.”
From Mary Hartzell’s CD, “Disciplining with Love”
Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to First Presbyterian School in Santa Monica.
“I went to graduate school in UCLA where I completed my master’s degree in Early Education and Psychology. While I was there I was invited to join the teaching staff of the Early Childhood Unit at the UCLA Elementary School. This wonderful opportunity gave me a very strong foundation of integrating theory and practice. Because the school is part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, I was involved in research projects and mentoring student teachers. The aspects of visibility, team teaching, dialogue, research and innovation that I learned there have continued to inform my work as a teacher and a director of a school to this day.
I became the Director of First Pres 26 years ago and had the opportunity to work with the teachers to evolve the school in a way that supported children’s thinking and development in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive areas. When I read an article in the journal of The National Association for the Education of Young Children, called “Beautiful Spaces, Caring Places,” I became very intrigued about what was going on in the schools in the municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and set out to learn more. It’s a philosophy that is constantly evolving. We never say we are a Reggio school—because we are not in that part of Italy—but we have been inspired by their philosophy.
*While I was at home with two young children, I organized a parent education class for a group of my friends that met with success. After starting at First Pres, I began an individual consulting program as well because I found that some parents wanted more personal support. I continue to teach parenting classes and consult with parents as well.”
Can you tell us a bit more about Reggio Emilia and how this approach to education works within a school?
“At First Pres, we have been inspired and working with the Reggio Approach for 13 years. We continue to consult with Amelia Gambetti, a liaison between Reggio Children and schools in the U.S and throughout the world. She encouraged us to embrace our identity within our own context and community.
The Reggio Approach sees the school as a system of interactions and relationships and the daily life of the school reflects and values children, teachers and parents as protagonists in the learning process. The system is about facilitating children’s own powers of thinking. In doing that, there’s a sense of the expressive and the communicative and cognitive capacities that each individual has. The environment is rich with many materials, which can give form to their ideas. They are learning through all their senses. It is a pedagogy based on listening. Teachers listen to children’s ideas, document and reflect with them as they formulate, test and revisit their theories while building knowledge and skills. When children come to school, they already have their own theories and ideas developed through their early experiences. We begin with a strong image of the child as capable and competent. Children are protagonists in the learning process and learning is co-constructed with the teacher and other children as they work together in small and large groups sharing their ideas and listening to others’ ideas.
There is a pedagogy of listening that gives respect to each individual’s ideas within the context of the community and a give and take between children as they talk and solve problems together. Most of the learning takes place in small groups, which promotes deepening levels of thinking. Children are provoked by others’ questions. Everyday there is engaged, dynamic learning!”
You co-wrote Parenting from the Inside Out (which I would recommend as required reading to any parent) with neurobiologist Daniel Siegel, M.D, and if you had to sum up what this style of parenting is, how would you describe it?
““Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Helps Us Raise Children Who Thrive,” is a parenting style based on relationships. Becoming a parent can trigger unresolved issues that we may unknowingly carry from our relationships with our own parents, and can interfere with us being the kind of parent we want to be. I work with many parents who are stuck in ineffective relationship patterns with their children. Because our book integrates both left and right brain processing, offering both narrative stories and neuroscience research on the brain and relationships, it offers a hopeful message to parents. The feedback I receive from parents often includes that their other relationships become more satisfying as well.
Learning to communicate is at the core of effective parent/child relationships. Reflective dialogue supports the child in feeling understood and strengthens their core sense of selves. When we are able to listen with an open mind and open heart, our child feels understood even if they are not getting what they want. Respectful communication is very important to develop, because when we have children, one of the things that we’re doing is we’re essentially telling them who they are. We are giving them an image of themselves, and we want to give them an image of themselves as being confident, capable and lovable.”
What are some simple exercises we can think about as parents to help us overcome our own negative patterns and not hurt our children?
“I think we have to start by being self-aware and honest with ourselves. It helps if we check in with ourselves to see how we are feeling to help us slow down our reaction. We are then less likely to act in a way that we might regret later. If we don’t take care of our own feelings, they will most likely come out in indirect ways, which disconnect us from our children and family.
When everyday routines aren’t working well, talk with your children about the problem and include them in a conversation about possible solutions. Ask them what they think would help solve the problem. When we include children in the process of making a plan they are more invested in its success because they have been given the respect of being part of a collaborative problem solving process. Here’s an example of how you might begin:
What do you think would help us get out of the house on time in the morning because we’ve been late the last three days. It’s just not working. It seems like every morning I’m getting mad and raising my voice and you probably don’t like that. Let’s make a plan so that we can have a pleasant morning and everyone can be ready to leave the house on time.
Inviting your child/children to offer some ideas of what they think could help, makes a significant difference. It helps to have an honest conversation with kids about what’s not working, rather than getting angry at the same thing over and over again every morning. Stop doing what isn’t working. Getting angry at our children in the morning is unlikely to have any positive results. When we’re angry at our children, they’ll often defend themselves by getting angry at us. Sometimes children get mad at us because they think we’re going to get angry at them. When both we and our children are defensive, communication breaks down.
I often advise parents who feel stuck in a negative pattern with their child, to stop doing what isn’t working, and observe and reflect on both their child’s behavior and their own before making any change.
This is a good time to journal. Journaling can be helpful as it gives witness to our thoughts and feelings. The very act of writing can begin movement towards calming and healing and we are able to become more compassionate to our children and ourselves. When we are angry at our child, we may also be angry at ourselves because our child’s behavior makes us feel like an incompetent parent.
Another good time to journal is when you become more aware of what triggers a negative, unsuccessful response. When you notice that your reactions are more intense and extreme than the situation might merit, this awareness gives you an opportunity to change. The disruptive issue may have more to do with leftover or unresolved issues from your own childhood than with your child’s behavior. Writing your thoughts and feelings can be very helpful and begin to give us a deeper understanding of our child and ourselves.”
—If you are interested in learning more about relationship based parenting, you can go to Mary’s website at MaryHartzell.com, where you will find parent education CD’s on Parent/Child Relationships that help parents make positive, practical changes in their everyday life with their children.