Katy Smith, the 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and currently an early childhood instructor in Winona, shared parenting and educational insights in Chatfield last week. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Katy Smith, the 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and currently an early childhood instructor in Winona, shared parenting and educational insights in Chatfield last week. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Katy Smith is all about "scootch."

"The older I get, the bossier I get," Smith admitted.

The 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, a Winona early childhood family education (ECFE) instructor, spoke to a gathering of parents and educators at Chatfield Elementary School last Thursday evening. Her admission was part of her educational seminar, "Engaging Minnesotans in a Community Conversation About What Kids Need," a discussion on building children's self-regulation skills, or personal boundaries and self-confidence at the same time.

"I was at Split Rock Lighthouse watching a family trying to take a picture of their kids, and I couldn't help myself," Smith continued her story about her self-proclaimed bossiness. "I said, 'Here, give me your camera. Now go sit down. Scootch. And you scootch in a little bit there, too.' And I envisioned this being that family's Christmas card picture. When the gal came to take her camera back, she said, 'You must be a teacher. I think so for two reasons. First, teachers all say 'Scootch.' And second, you're just so pleasantly bossy.'"

Smith showed a slide of her family when she was young, all of them sitting on a boat, smiling. "Your kids would be the third generation out from mine. How many of you are concerned about childhood, and how it's vastly different than this picture?"

An audience member volunteered that the family was wearing no life jackets, and Smith replied, "So we're so safety conscious? And what about technology? I'm not sure where we are is good for kids. In Winona, our church youth pastor wanted to take seven 12-year-old boys on a trip to the Boundary Waters as a retreat. They ended up not going because their parents worried that they wouldn't be able to contact them, and the boys said they didn't want to go because it was a 'no-devices trip,' which was 'boring'."

Another audience member volunteered that children no longer are allowed the "ability to learn from falling."

Smith agreed, "Parents tend to shield kids from all disappointment, and now they're getting to college and don't know how to deal with it."

She added that childhood is more difficult now because the people who are supposed to be guiding children are absent and have very diverse viewpoints on life itself.

"Our values are no longer mostly the same. It used to be easier when we had parents and extended family to tell us the stories of our values...we used to have the same values and discipline. Family structure has changed dramatically," she said.

Smith, a member of a rare blended 1970s family, also pointed out, "About 70 percent of my generation came home to a parent. When my kids were young, it was about 40 percent, and now, that's even less."

Furthermore, kindergarten is no longer "chocolate milk and naps" - it's essentially prep school for first grade, or in some cases, first grade.

She has witnessed the achievement gap seen in children, which supposedly begins at age 2, and believes it actually begins at birth, from the day a child is brought home to an advantaged or disadvantaged home, a place where words are or aren't used, storybooks are either read or neglected.

She noted 90 percent of a child's brain is wired by the time they're 5 years old. "Isn't that scary? Our kids struggle in lots of different ways," Smith continued. "About three in 10 kids are struggling in every classroom, maybe with health, behavior, sleep deprivation. They're hurting, but they're also smarter than ever."

Smith introduced the concept of self-regulation, or teaching a child how to control his or her own impulses. "Self-regulation is twice the predictor of academic success than intelligence, and it requires practice," she explained. "That's the ability to keep your hands, voice and thoughts to yourself until it's your turn. Where did you practice self-regulation?"

"Church" was the first answer from Smith's listeners and she showed them "the stink eye" given to her by her parents, the "church lady," and anyone else who felt she was misbehaving in the pew. She then related a tale of how she had witnessed a 3-year-old at a wedding misbehaving, so his mother handed him a Tupperware carton with fruit, vegetables and...dip. "Who brings dip to a wedding?" she asked, astounded. "There should be special permission from the pastor to bring dip to a wedding. I thought about giving the mother the stink eye."

School also provided students with a place to practice self-regulation, where the "cold, cold realization that the kindergarten teacher had 16 other little kids to keep track of and wasn't there just for you" set in.

The dinner table was another place, and that's where, Smith observed, family communication has been lost.

"In the car...it was a long haul without anything to do, so we did things to keep ourselves entertained," she recalled. "But not long ago, I was at the Winona Target, and I saw a lady sitting in a lawn chair outside her minivan. I had to ask."

Smith discovered that the woman's daughter refused to get out of the van until she stopped watching "Dora the Explorer," so the mother was just sitting outside the van waiting

"The car is one of the places where you got bored, and it's been said that being bored is where we're best at self-regulating, where we're most creative," she added.

Smith illustrated the "marshmallow studies," in which small children were given a marshmallow and a choice of whether to eat it now or save it and receive another as a reward for not eating it. The children used several tactics to satisfy their impulses - one group ate the marshmallows immediately, the second group staidly left it and was rewarded, and the participants in the third group, the undecided, did everything they could to leave it, but then they got creative, even hollowing out the middle and setting it back down.

"Researchers followed up on these children as college students, and they found that each group did just what they'd done as children," Smith said. "The journey of being disappointed needs to start when they're children, and if that journey is delayed, they will struggle as adults. The places we used self-regulation...we don't have them anymore. If a child walks into the room, they own it. Think of self-regulation as a muscle you have to stretch."

The group discussed the question of whether teaching self-regulation is similar to discipline, since society seems to be afraid to discipline children.

Smith stated it is, in some ways. "The thing about having a child is that if you haven't learned self-regulation, you will as a parent. There's a difference between discipline, punishment and being firm. Being firm doesn't mean 'mean'."

Smith also showed her listeners a picture of the dreaded iPotty, alongside a picture of an old-fashioned potty chair, drawing observations that the iPotty would sell simply because it allows parents not to have to sit with the child and there is "some promise of results."

"But kids do things based on relationships," she continued. "They want to please their parents, do things that make them happy. Take that away and something's missing."

Smith apologized for the violence and promiscuity in the videogame clip she shared next. "'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' is one of the best-selling videogames on the market. Kids as young as second grade are playing this," she said.

She told how she'd met a 4-year-old who had watched news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and deduced that people who "run with a number get shot."

"When parents tell their kids that it's harmless just because it's on a screen, younger kids believe something is happening right outside their door," she explained.

She encouraged parents to maintain sacred spaces, such as the dinner table and children's bedrooms as places to read to children and hear their concerns, and to limit what media children encounter.

"Parents need to understand that sometimes, the media has a bigger voice than yours...reading is also something I'm worried about, because kids who love to read and have a lot of reading materials do better," she said. "The number of words they hear in the first year of their lives is a predictor of their third grade reading level."

Giving children routines, structure and limits, as well as having optimism and practicing community parenting can make a difference, according to Smith.

"When I was growing up, there were people who loved tattling on us. They weren't interested in being our friend. They were interested in keeping us safe. Children do better when the adults in their lives are connected," Smith concluded. "Most people say that parenting has gotten competitive, but that doesn't make sense to try to pretend that things are going well if they're not. I've seen lots of really big changes in my lifetime, and for our children, we can do better."