I am a night person. The gears in my brain really start turning around 11:30 at night, and if I’m not careful, the clock blinks well into the next calendar day before my eyes close. I am envious of people who spring out of bed, perky and rested with anticipation of the day moving like electricity through their fingertips. Me – I am brewing a strong pot of black tea, and squeezing in a few last yawns before I open my home to young ones.
You’d think this would make me empathetic. When the crew shows up out of sorts, last night’s sleep restless or curtailed by a bright (and early) summer sun, you’d think I would open my arms and offer a hug: I know what it’s like to be tired. Take some time to wake up. You might be off your game today, and that’s okay…I understand. Instead, I often find myself mystified, wondering why we can’t find a play rhythm, unsure of why activities that rarely require scaffolding seem to demand bubble wrap style support. One person’s grumpiness is another person’s provoking, and soon, we are all in a grand funk (by which I do not mean the railroad…okay, bad joke)! There is a theory gaining more momentum about mirror neurons in our brains, serving to mirror the emotions of others, allowing us to empathize and enabling us to feel with others. Exactly what role these mirror neurons play is still unfolding in the scientific community, but one idea is that if I am grumpy, the grumpy part of your brain picks up on my grumpiness, and leads you to feel grumpy right along with me. Hiam Ginott puts it this way:
I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.
Today was a wild weather day. My oldest is supremely spirited and deeply feeling, and this morning, she was thrown into a tailspin by her best friend’s declaration that in order to run fast, Tekoa must have the same shoes as she did – that her shoes made her uniquely fast. Tekoa had a moderate flash of anger that we processed together, and we all went along eating our breakfast until she reached across the table, grabbed hold of Cadence’s cereal bowl, and dumped the whole thing out. Apparently, resolution was incomplete. The milk went running onto Cadence’s skirt, which elevated her emotional state from a cool 2 to a hot 5. Meanwhile, Desmond (the 10 month old) took advantage of an accidentally short distance to grab my bowl of cereal and dump it, and then start splashing in the milk. Thankfully, one of our dear Abundant Life parents was still hanging out, and with some quick paper towel work, the whole mess was cleaned up in a flash. (Thanks, Mary!)
But, lest you think the whole issue was resolved, not three minutes later, Tekoa grabbed hold of Simone’s milk cup and dumped it out. My mirror neurons began to pick up on the frustration, and it took some conscientious breathing on my part to remain thoughtful. Spirited children often have a way of letting us know (and never subtly) that they still need our help. Their pleas for help come disguised as malicious and mean-spirited gestures bent on making us mad! In these moments, I must remember to breath. Every muscle in my body wants to react – Really? Again? What is WRONG with you?? But I have learned a key insight in my years working with young children that these kinds of loud and in-my-face behaviors are a symptom of an unmet need, and uncovering the need can reshape the next hours. Keeping the long view in mind helps to put milk-dumping (and other frustrating behaviors) in perspective. I want to equip the crew with skills to manage their anger…a skill set more diverse than, “dump out a friend’s milk when she makes me mad.” Tekoa and I were able to pull away from the group for a short conversation:
Me: “Tekoa, it seems like you are feeling very strongly this morning.”
Me: “Do you know why?”
Tekoa: “I need a hug.”
Me: “I am happy to give you a hug, and I’m wondering if you are still upset about Cadence’s comment about your shoes.”
Tekoa: (beginning to cry as I hug her) “Yes.”
Me: “It makes you sad when she says your shoes cannot run fast.”
Me: “Let’s go tell her that. I want to remind you that we have to make our table a safe place for everyone to eat their food. We have to help our friends keep their milk and cereal in their bowls.”
This wasn’t the moment for a great expansion on the theme of socially appropriate upset behaviors. I made a mental note to revisit it later during some non-heated moment. Tekoa knew that dumping the cereal and milk was not socially appropriate, but she needed vocabulary to speak and be heard about her shoes while she was feeling strongly. In addressing the shoes, we – by extension – managed the milk dumping.
After breakfast, we headed straight outside to the different areas set up for play: water in the dirt digging box for mud pies, water in the sensory tub with shredded paper for mixing, hammers and partially driven nails waiting for some hand-eye coordination and large motor skill work (plus a cathartic emotional release), and Ezra who was reseeding some of our grass and happy for a hand with a top layer of compost. I would like to say that we left all our difficult interactions inside, but they managed to follow us into the warm spring morning. Toys were taken from friends, anger was managed with fists and feet instead of words, misunderstandings abounded – and all the while, I continued to remind myself: They need my help, not my anger. I hopped from one pair of children to the next – stopping occasionally to remove dirt clod from Demond’s curious mouth – supporting difficult interactions with language and vocabulary, and trying my best to keep my own emotions in check! It’s the long view. What I model today teaches them how to manage on their own tomorrow, next week, and 20 years from now. If every problem doesn’t end in a heartfelt apology, that’s okay, because I’m working towards a lifetime of self-aware and others-aware children (and, frankly, the awareness of when one feels sorrow is something that happens over time…not on demand…but that’s another post for another day).
As lunchtime ended, and the sprint to ready ourselves for naptime ensued, the urgency of the long view made itself known again. Friends were pushed, and kicked, and my reminders to pee and make up cots went ignored — it truly felt like some kind of a circus balancing act! I picture several clones of myself trying to move different worn out trains forward along on separate tracks. One of our crew goes home right before naptime, and I am especially grateful for the smiles from this little one’s family, who often observe this frenzied activity and support my work to keep the long view in mind. This little one was on the receiving end of a clothespin pinch just before he left, and his mother sat while I supported a conversation between the pinched and the pincher:
Me: “Henry, you look sad. Are you hurt?”
Me: “Should we tell your friend that it hurt when she pinched you with a clothespin?”
Henry: “Yes. It hurt!”
Friend: “I’m sorry. What would be helpful? A kiss?”
And the two walked through the process of making amends after a conflict. Far from bringing perfect and immediate resolution, it is a process that we practice to gain the skills necessary to form lifelong friendships.
In the end, this is what I know. Children at Abundant Life do not ready their nap area, or clean up from lunch, or transition between activities, or conduct their mornings with the strict thoroughness that (at times) I long for. Their fatigue, their desire to remain connected with friends, their wing-stretching while I am preoccupied with cleaning up from lunch and assisting members of the crew with self-help skills — require a long view of human development that affords flexibility in process. This view applauds conversation and looks for solutions rather than wallowing in shame. And while this view does not insist on a change of heart that may or may not be present, it holds a firm and clear limit that supports safe and welcome development for each member of the community.
I will be honest – it is so much easier said then done. By lunchtime, I was completely worn down! So many requests, so much need, only one of me! I yelled. I ordered. I interrupted. Breathe…breathe…breathe… And during naptime, as each member of the crew snoozed away, I was reminded of how difficult it is to manage our emotions when we are tired. Fatigue directs so much of our ability.
Today was a long day. But even the long days often come with respite, and children are quick to reach out and reconnect after a break in the relationship readily and with open hearts. It is one of the most beautiful things about spending my days with young children.
Here’s to a new day full of rested connection!