Child, give me your hand
That I may walk in the light
Of your faith in me.
Being present with children means living with the tension of divergent experiences simultaneously: exhilaration and exhaustion, give and receive, accept and inspire, extend and envelop, secrets and outside voices, good enough and more than expected, tears of sorrow and tears of joy. And yet, despite the abounding paradox, through the center of each experience runs the consistent thread of connection. Amidst the strongest emotions, children are silently imploring, Do you love me now? What if I do this? Or this? Will you still love me? In my moments of fierce strength, are we still connected?
Children who are connected are safe to grow and explore, to try on different pieces of themselves to see which ones work. In that process, they plunge their most true selves towards us, desperate for connection that tethers their experience. Sometimes they parade wearing confidence, compassion, intuition, or creativity. Sometimes, they embody certainty, giddiness, orneriness, or anger. Still other times, their countenance is whiny, mean, petty, or rude. In these moments, when they are experiencing what it is like to be a deeply feeling human being, they depend on a constant connection in order to remain fully authentic.
Tethering – in the sense of remaining steadfastly connected through the ups and downs of emotion – is hard work. Remaining a point of connection when things are moving along swimmingly is delightful. Spend hours snuggling and reading together? I can do that. Receive kisses and hugs? I can do that, too. Kiss hurts? Bandage scrapes? Done. Negotiate ups and downs between friends? Sure thing. But what about when those expressions touch a raw place in my soul, the times that I don’t want to connect? What about when I ask for help with cleanup and don’t get willing volunteers? What about a meal that I have spent time preparing that is ill received by the crew? What about when silliness gets the best of my young companions and they are disrespectful of the needs of our community? What about when I am on the receiving end of a heart full of frustration and anger?
This sums up the most important work that I do. The crew trusts that I will be a point of consistency — that no matter how out of control they feel, our connection will tether them to something solid. Strong emotions are scary and unnerving for young children. When they feel swept away by their feelings, they plead with us for our strength. The problem is that strong behavior elicits our strong responses. At this precise point, we must catch ourselves and help the child to re-center in order to gain awareness of the situation. Almost all behavior is an expression of either a secure feeling of connection or a frightening awareness of disconnection. In this light, we must learn to be tethers – connecting even when it is difficult, helping children find the centering they need.
What does this look like? The crew and I talk frequently about what it means to have strong emotions – the way our fists clench, our breathing quickens, our face feels hot, and our mind clouds. We talk about how strong emotions make it difficult to think, hard to make safe choices, and impossible to learn. We also spend time building tools for re-centering. Sometimes it helps to have space away from friends. Sometimes it helps to put our hands into water or mold some dough. Sometimes it helps to snuggle with a friend or hold a picture of a loved one. Then, when the moment arises, we are ready. It seems like you are feeling very strongly. What would be helpful, friend? Most importantly, it is the child who feels overwhelmed by emotion that determines how to re-center. We all know how to help our friends re-center, because we are aware of the impact of imbalance on the learning spirit of the whole community.
As adults, this type of tethering is tough stuff! We have been taught to punish misbehavior, so a child who hits, screams, kicks, pinches, or otherwise acts in less than social ways needs to be taught a lesson. Allowing a child to re-center is audacious. Reward a child who hits by pulling out the play dough? Reinforce a child’s kicking or biting or screaming by letting them snuggle? Yes! Teach a child the skills they need to regulate their strong emotions? Absolutely! Meet a child’s needs for centeredness and connection? Most certainly! Once we begin to see strong emotions as a sign of a need for connection and empathy, we can respond with connection and empathy, and thereby enable a child’s sense of belonging and worth.
In honoring a child’s need for connection, I still maintain my sense of oneness. I get angry. I feel hurt, tired, or overrun – and it’s important that children see me as an emotional being. But, as the adult, I model re-centering behaviors. I breathe. I connect with those I love. I verbalize my need for space. I wash my hands in cool water. And I hold boundaries that protect everyone’s need for safety and learning. Children draw strength from consistent and recognizable limits. When a child does bump up against one of these boundaries, sparking a monumental reaction, I chose connection instead of coercion. I remind the child of our bond, and help the child re-center. Once the child regains a sense of balance, we make amends – soothing the hurts caused in the cloud of emotions, repairing the damage, restoring the broken relationships. And in the end, we have all maintained a sense of relationship, connection, and integrity.
I have never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than real, unconditional love. You can find it in a simple act of kindness toward someone who needs help. There is no mistaking love. You feel it in your heart. It is the common fiber of life, the flame that heals our soul, energizes our spirit and supplies passion to our lives. – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
I began writing this post a week ago, as Valentine’s Day sat on the horizon. The face of this reflection has changed many times throughout its crafting, but at the heart, I pay tribute to the deep desire within all human beings for love and connection, and through this awareness, I find the motivation for the social and emotional guidance I offer to young children. Since my foray into early childhood education, I have found that this awareness has transformed the way I relate to everyone in my life – we are all looking for a tether, the grounding that will help us be our most authentic selves.