An infant as young as ten days old, who isn’t even aware it has a face, will copy dad sticking out his own tongue, as long as the dad is holding him close and sticking out his tongue and paying full attention.
That’s why the first rule of good fathering is to be present, in the mindful sense.
That lesson emerged during an engaging hour-and -a-half professional development session on early fatherhood education convened at the Early Childhood Resource Center housed at the Connecticut Children’s Museum on Orange Street at Wall.
Thirty early-childhood educators — ranging from directors of Head Starts to family providers in individual New Haven homes for up to six kids — gathered in a warm setting at the museum this past Thursday evening for a salad and mac-and-cheese dinner and for fatherhood talk.
The centerpiece of the session was hearing Janic Maysonet, the family services and engagement coordinator at LULAC Head Start, discuss struggles and successes with his own young daughters and best practices to engage dads in the care of their little ones.
The sessions take place weekly. Among child care professionals at all levels, word is out that the sessions are rich in warmth, validation and socializing critical for educators in an under-appreciated sector of the profession. Besides picking up practical tips, participants get credit toward the 20 hours of professional development required of full-time early-childcare teachers.
The weekly talks range from “The 3 R’s of Early Literacy”, to helping kids make friends to American Sign Language to “Let’s Talk About Guns” to “Dealing with Challenging Behaviors Mindfully,” the last conducted by well known New Haven yoga teacher (and scientist) Peg Oliveira.
“It’s not only professional development,” said the museum’s director, Sandra Malmquist. “It’s personal development, they get to meet and bond with people they may not know.”
Maysonet’s talk, with Spanish translation, combined personal anecdote, PowerPoint, and YouTube and Ted Talk videos. He organized it around five principles of early fatherhood education: presence, engagement, communication, discipline, and love.
He spoke of how he and his daughters made green slime together in the living room. The location was his choice; his wife was skeptical. Sure enough the kids spilled the goop on the carpet and made a mess. But he was there for the mess, present, not jumping to clean up or to get angry
“They’re going to remember, ‘Dad, we made that green mess together,’” he said, not all the hours that went into preparing, or the cleaning up afterwards.
When you’re playing with your child, and something breaks on a doll, and the kid asks for you to fix it, you should, he advised. And be present while you do so. It’s easy to say, “Oh go and play with another doll.” But if you patiently are helpful and fix the doll for your kid, they’ll remember that, and learn, because they are absorbing everything at an incredible pace.
“And then they can scale up in helping a friend in the future,” he added.
Maysonet was at pains to say discipline should never to be equated with punitive punishment. Rather, parents should see it as training to an understood code of behavior.
He noted that many of the dads he deals with at LULAC are from high-need and high-poverty families. That presents a particular challenge when, for example, a kid spills a glass of milk. There might not be much left, and little money at the moment to buy more. Resist flying into anger and accept that a serious part of fatherhood is cultivating acceptance and patience with messiness, Maysonet advised.
He put it this way: “If I can’t afford that toy because I need to pay the rent and now you are having a tantrum in Walmart because you want the toy ... for some families that is their normal. We need to be humble. We try not to tackle discipline in a judgmental way, but to challenge [dads’] thinking.”
Veteran child care professionals Betty Baisden and Pam Miller said they appreciated hearing a man’s perspective in a field with “so many women.”
“In addition to the learning,” Baisden said of the weekly sessions, “we meet people. There’s a feeling of camaraderie” that works against the feeling of isolation that teachers often experience at their centers. “Teachers don’t always realize that when they have a kid struggling, if they come to something like this, they see there are others, and it supports what they do.”
“Public school teachers get a lot more respect. I have a masters degree, and I could teach there. But I have a thick skin. I prefer to do what I do. Coming here, that’s community. You feel a little taller, stronger,” Miller added.
The Early Childhood Resource Center runs on a budget of $45,000 for all the programming and the staff time. The museum receives $15,000 towards that goal from the New Haven Early Childhood Council through a state grant. The balance, $30,000, the museum must fundraise for every year.
To that end, there’s a benefit concert to support the center and the workshops starring John McCutcheon on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Center Church Parish House at 311 Temple St. The $25 tickets can be purchased here.