I am finishing Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. What a read! Helene Guldberg (2009) challenges educators to think critically about the reasons why we do what we do. And if you know me, you know I love a read that challenges me to be a more critical consumer of information. In a chapter about bullying, she discusses the dangers of viewing children as little adults.
Whereas in the past it was accepted that children, in their unsophistication, would employ the kind of tactless, heartless, and even in-your-face offensive behaviour that adults could not get away with, today such behaviour in the playground is seen as just as shocking and problematic as if it were between adults in an office. (102)
This idea has me thinking. In this particular instance, Guldberg is talking about bullying behavior on the playground, but I think it’s a fair question for us to ask of all of childhood behaviors. Are we reacting to a child’s behavior because we are looking through our adult lenses? To assume malicious or destructive motivations behind young children’s behavior often overestimates a child’s emotional development. To assume a 9 month old repeatedly dropping a spoon from the high chair tray is trying to get under my skin is developmentally unfounded. To assume a 2 year old who immediately (and blatantly, and with a smile) ignores a request to “stop touching the computer!” is acting defiantly is developmentally inappropriate (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 2000). To assume a 3 year old is intentionally lying to cover up a misdeed is developmentally off base (Pasek, Golinkoff, & Eyer, 2004).
Motivation is key. A few years ago, I was driving my children to the doctor to get their ears checked. It was the first snow of the year, and being a California native, I underestimated the amount of stopping space I needed and slid squarely into the front bumper of Honda Pilot in the oncoming lane. The other vehicle was stopped, and I was sliding at a snail’s pace, but there was still some body damage to both cars. The driver of the other vehicle and I found a parking lot to pull over and exchange information. She was incredibly polite, and I offered dozens of apologies for the inconvenience and misjudgement. The next day she called to say that she was able to correct the damage with a hammer, and that I didn’t need to worry about it. What? Not worry about it? What a gift!
But imagine if the details had been different – that instead of weather causing my miscalculated stop, it was inattention – a brief glance at my cell phone to type a text message. Or perhaps if I was racing a friend, cutting in and out of traffic to gain an edge? Or maybe applying makeup on the way to work? Or eating a burger? Any dozens of risky actions could have resulted in a similar fender-bender, but the reasons behind the accident would have been different. I suppose the driver of the other vehicle would have been less gracious if the circumstances had been different.
The same is true with our children. When we attribute unreasonable motivations to their behaviors, we are more likely to act disproportionately enraged over their mistakes. Dan Gartrell (2004) offers the language of “mistaken behavior” to replace “misbehavior” and I appreciate the terminology. Children are not behaving “badly”, they are just making mistakes. Their mistakes can be loud, obnoxious, annoying, wounding, and in-my-face, but they are not targeted or malicious. Some of their mistakes are big mistakes, and cause physical or emotional pain to themselves or their friends. But they are mistakes, and it is our job to teach them other ways of interacting that minimize those mistakes in the future. When I see the world through their eyes, I am able to enter their reality and helpfully re-frame their mindset to open up socially appropriate ways of being.
The distinction between misbehavior and mistaken behavior is powerful, and frees us from a need to punish. We don’t need to punish mistakes, but instead, offer solutions. Instead of seeing a child set on irritating me when she whines, I see a child in need of connection, and I can offer a brief snuggle or an object of mine that she can hold. Instead of seeing a child making my job more difficult at lunchtime when he spills his milk, I see a child learning to drink from a cup with no lid, and I can offer paper towels so he can dry the spill. Instead of seeing an aggressive or mean child throwing a toy at her friends, I see a child needing help entering play with a friend, and I can enter the play myself and model friendly interactions. Instead of seeing a disrespectful child who refuses to get shoes on at the end of the day, I see a child in the middle of a project who doesn’t want to leave, and I can work to provide continuity from one day’s project to the next.
Even more powerful is the idea that as I seek an accurate and developmentally appropriate motivation behind a behavior, I model perspective taking that seeks the best in another person, and this is a life skill that will help these young ones grow socially competent over their lifetime.
Here’s to seeing the world through the eyes of our children!
Gartrell, D. (2004). The power of guidance: teaching social-emotional skills in early childhood classrooms. Australia: Thomson/Delmar Learning.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2001). The scientist in the crib: what early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperPerennial.
Guldberg, H. (2009). Reclaiming childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Eyer, D. E. (2004). Einstein never used flash cards: how our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less ([Pbk. ed.). Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale.