Groupcare: The Parent Relationships

Thank you all for the questions and suggestions of what to address in my ongoing series of posts on the topic of group care for infants and toddlers. I made a list and will get to every one of them! And it’s not too late: if you think of something you would like to ask about, please leave a comment here on the blog, on my Facebook page, or send me an email at likewetcement at gmail.com and I will address it.

I decided to begin at the beginning, with some questions posed by Stephanie on Facebook regarding relationships with parents. This relationship is not the most important that you will form in this setting (that is your relationship with the children), but it is the first relationship and it takes priority for a few reasons.

  1. Your relationship with the parent sets the tone for your relationship with the child.
  2. Your relationship with the parent must be positive for your peace of mind and peaceful focus on your work.
  3. Your positive relationship with the parent is imperative to the success of your program.

Your relationship with parents begins with your very first interaction. When I give a tour of our program, I consider it to be a two-way street — we’re trying to find out if we’re a good match, all of us. If they don’t like what they see or what I say, that means they are not a client that I would have been comfortable serving. We aren’t going to change our program for one family. When that family becomes a part of our program, we will always listen to and respect their needs and wishes to the very best of our abilities, but if they don’t understand and support our basic principles from the word go, it’s best for them to find another placement. (This is why it’s crucial that teachers feel secure in their philosophies and that programs be clear and confident in their policies and practices.)

Honesty is the best policy

The most important equation in parent relationships is honesty. Even when you feel that parents are not being honest with you — and this can happen — it is still imperative that you are honest with them. Even when (especially when) you feel that what you’re going to tell them might make them leave your program, you must be honest with them. Even when (especially when) it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable and it’s downright scary, you need to be honest with them. And this starts when you tell them, “This is what our program stands for.”

Things that I tell parents during a tour include:

  • We will not hold your baby all day. They will get one-on-one attention, they will be loved, they will have all of their needs met, but they will also witness their peers having one-on-one attention that does not include them, and they will witness their peers being loved, and they will witness and wait while their peers have their needs met.
  • Yes, sometimes they all do cry at the same time.
  • The less that your child can be in childcare, the better. Forty hours a week is too much. Fifty hours a week is unacceptable.
  • They will become attached to their primary caregiver and their primary caregiver will become attached to them. This will not ever reduce your child’s love and adoration of you.
  • If it seems like something is wrong, we will be calling you. You must be reachable. If, on a particular day, you will not be reachable, you must leave us the contact information of someone who is reachable.

Do we always end up with families who are the perfect match? No. But that’s how it is with families!

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

Over time, we get to know all of their annoying habits and their quirks and sometimes we butt heads. Most of the time, it’s because one or both sides are advocating for what they think is best for the child. And that’s what keeps us together in the end. There are always bumps along the road, but in general, I am so proud of the relationships we build. I learn something from every single family.

My first year working in the program where I am today, there was one parent (a dad) who was incredibly challenging to work with. Nothing was ever right. His first question to his toddler at the end of every day was, “What’s wrong? What happened?” (His son was most often playing seemingly happily when his dad arrived to pick him up.) His child had never eaten enough food. He’d never napped long enough. Or, he’d napped too long! His diaper tapes were fastened too tightly. Or they were too loose. He wasn’t interacting enough with the other children. He was spending too much time with certain other children. Every day was something.

One day, he came to get his son and found him crying hard with me sitting nearby. “What happened? What’s wrong?!” his panic knew no bounds. “I’m not really sure,” I said, “He got up from his nap about thirty minutes ago and he’s been crying off and on since then.” I would have gone on, but he had whisked the little boy out of the room and went to register a complain with my supervisor (he said that the little boy had been, “Sent to the corner and ignored,” because he had been crying). I was waiting for him the following morning. I approached him directly, “Could I speak with you privately? I wanted to talk to you about what happened yesterday.” He was immediately flustered. I’m not sure if he expected that I would have been fired or cowed or perhaps both, but this direct approach was not one he had anticipated (to be frank, I would describe this man as the kind of person who had found it most effective to be a bully all of his life). “I wanted to apologize to you because when I was told about your complaint, I realized that I had made a mistake. My mistake was to assume that you knew I would have done everything possible to help your baby when he was upset. Let me tell you about his afternoon, moment by moment. He woke up crying and I went and spoke to him, then picked him up from his bed. I asked if he wanted a drink of water and he said no. I asked if I could change his diaper and he continued to cry. He needed a diaper change and I knew you would be coming soon for him, so I changed him. While I was changing him, we talked about how upset he was and how I wished to help him. I held him for a little while after we washed his hands, but then he wiggled away and continued to cry. When I asked if he wanted to be held, he said no. I told him I would be right there, right by him, if he needed me. That’s where I was when you came in. I don’t know why he was upset, but I want you to know that I was there for him to the best of my ability. If you had not come for him at your usual time, I would have called you and explained how upset he was and I would have asked you to come. I assumed that you understood this about me and about our program, but that was wrong of me and because of it you went home feeling upset. I really regret that.”

From that day forward, I never got anything but respect from this man. He continued to complain about little things, like how much or how little his son had eaten that day, but just as he came to understand how carefully and thoughtfully I did my job and how much I cared for his baby, I came to understand that his complaining was a part of his personality that could not be turned off.

When I spoke to this parent, directly and honestly, my hands were shaking. I was uncomfortable. I had never had a parent register a complaint about me, no matter how informal. I was also pretty indignant because he had really exaggerated the story (far from being “sent to the corner,” his son was in the middle of the room, beside me). But those were my feelings, my projections to set aside. Taking a step back, I tried really hard to see his viewpoint, and approached him with empathy. It worked.

It nearly always works, in general, to meet other people with empathy and honesty. In response to Stephanie’s question, the best approach with “difficult” parents is to try your best to understand them, and to make them feel heard (and if you’re any good at working with young children, this will be almost second nature). Janet Gonzalez-Mena writes beautifully about this. It’s important for caregivers and teachers to recognize their own culture, judgments, and biases so that they can set them aside in favor of building, maintaining, and improving relationships with families. You don’t always have to be right, be perfect, be the rescuer, or be the expert. Every parent is an expert on their child and it’s unspeakably important to value that. I believe that the mistake that I see too often in this field, causing a disconnect between families and caregivers, is when caregivers believe they need to correct, inform, educate, and change the families into what they think the family ought to be. How presumptuous!

Parent education should be a valuable piece of every quality early childhood program, but to truly succeed it needs to be a cooperative, inclusive process. Rather than creating a situation where an all-mighty lecturer tells parents, “This is how you need to do it,” it’s best to foster ongoing dialogue. Many parents are open to learning about different ideas, techniques, and philosophies. Most parents see very clearly that each family, each child, each situation is unique and that life and relationships are fluid. Are teachers and caregivers open to the same? They must be.

So this is the foundation of parent-caregiver relationships:

  • Honesty.
  • Empathy.
  • Receptiveness.

I plan to write a bit more about the day-to-day nitty gritty of it. What do transition visits look like? How do you communicate about a child’s day? Do you tell parents when you have witnessed a child doing something new for the first time (like walking)? How and when do you report on “behavior”? What about when children get hurt or get sick? You tell me — what else do you want to know?

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