We are their Teachers. What are they Learning?
"She's not okay. You hit her. She is hurt!"
A friend of mine called this week to tell me about an experience that happened to her and her daughter on a trip to the library. During a story-time event, she noticed that one child (a two year old) was becoming aggressive with the other children. There was pushing and shoving, so my friend decided it would be prudent to stay really close to her daughter (who is sixteen months old) to make sure she did not become a target.
This aggressive boy ended up pushing another bigger child over--this child fell down and hit his head and started crying. The mother of the child who had hit his head responded by saying to the pusher "oh, he's okay." and then to her own child "you're okay. you're okay."
The pushing child continued to run around and despite my friend's best efforts to stay as close to her daughter, this boy ended up running up behind her daughter and striking her on the head. Her daughter started crying, and the boy's mother came up and asked "Is she okay? Is she okay?"
How would you respond?
I think in these situations, there is a lot of social pressure to minimize the offense. Interacting with other moms can be fraught with conflict. Just play it down. Avoid the confrontation. But--what is that reaction teaching all of the children involved? The mother of the boy who fell down and hit is head fell into this parenting-trap. Her decision to minimize the consequences of the "pusher's" behavior meant that he did not feel the full weight of what he had done. He continued to behave in the same way because there was no real negative feedback.
The mother of the boy who was pushing other kids definitely should have taken her son out of the story-time after the first display of physically aggressive behavior. Hitting is a very common two year old behavior, but we all need to be prepared to swallow our mom-pride and say to ourselves "Okay. Today is not my kid's day. We can't stay here because my child is creating an unsafe environment for the other kids." Just walk out. No one is going to judge your kid for having a tough day and not making it through a story time. It just wasn't. their day. We, as a collective of mothers, need to make walking out after a bad behavior okay. No judgment--just sympathy because we have all been there.
A situation that should have just been a failed attempt at attending a story time turned into a dangerous (yes, dangerous) situation for the other kids. My friend's daughter was much younger than the child who hit her, and when the hitter's mother asked if her daughter was okay she answered honestly and emphatically. "No, she is NOT okay." and then to the aggressive child "You hit her. She is hurt. She is crying because you hurt her." My friend's response did not downplay her daughter's pain. She VALIDATED IT with her reaction. She is teaching her daughter that it is okay to express feelings even if there is social pressure to just "be okay." After all, what would you do if another adult came up behind you and hit you hard on the head? I guarantee that you would not just buck-up and shrug your shoulders. You would be furious. Why arewe teaching our children that righteous indignation and pain are unjustified when they are inconvenient?
"No. She is not okay." My friend and I both believe that until our children can speak, it is our job to speak for them. My friend's daughter is too young to verbalize reliably her feelings from an event like this. My friend's response may seem harsh if you don't realize how important it is to allow the reaction to an offense fit the offense itself. Children are great observers of natural consequences, but they do need our help to build their sense of empathy.
"You hit her." She restated the action that caused the pain to help the aggressive child link the behavior with the result. Many mothers baulk at challenging the bad behavior of other children. My friend has the unique and wonderful combination of being both a beautifully brave and confident woman while also being a former early childhood educator. She reacted to the situation as she would have in her own classroom--using the education techniques she believes in. (more on this later)
"She is hurt." She translated her daughter's crying into words for the other child. She focused his attention onto the consequences of his actions. In stressful situations children often have trouble understanding what is happening and why it is happening. She is in physical pain.
"She is crying because you hurt her." She put it all together one more time. Visible consequence=crying. Her crying was from YOUR behavior that hurt her. This is what children need the adults around them to do. We must approach these magnificent developing minds with the respect they deserve. In this case, respect the other child by being brave enough to show them the full weight of what they have done in order to help them develop that much needed ability to empathize.
In telling me this story, my friend told me about the way she handled teaching children in her classroom. She told me about the Reggio-Emilia approach to education, so I, being a bit of child development nerd, wanted to look into this a bit more. The phrase that kept sticking out to me as I was reading about the philosophy was a description of children as "strong, capable, and resilient" beings. What a beautiful way to express the nature of children. My friend's reaction to the aggressive child embodied this philosophy. She was acknowledging that the child in front of her was strong enough to handle the justified rebuke. Capable enough to realize that causing another child pain is unacceptable. Resilient enough to learn from the natural consequences my friend was emphasizing with her emphatic words.
My friend left the story time, very upset that her daughter was hurt. Upset at her own inability to protect her daughter. Frustrated at the other mothers--one who minimized the consequences and another who allowed a pattern of aggressiveness to continue unchecked. She wondered how could she stop this from happening in the future? I have no idea how to answer that question, but I believe her actions can teach all mothers a valuable lesson about our children.
Each child in the story was "strong, capable, and resilient." Our little ones are always learning, It is our job as parents to make sure they are learning the right lessons. Children are allowed to have "bad days," but should not let their bad days hurt others. Children should be encouraged to be strong in the face of aggression, but we should never deny them their feelings of pain. Children should be expected to be resilient, but also protected and supported. Mothers, fathers, babysitters, grandparents, aunt and uncles: We are their first teachers even in the littlest moments. We must teach them empathy, always.