When I was getting married, would-be well-wishers told me, “Oh, just wait. The first year is hard. Really, REALLY hard.”
When I was pregnant, more experienced parents offered, “You’d better sleep now while you can! When the new baby comes along, you won’t sleep at all. It’s hard. Really, REALLY hard.”
When my baby girl was born, I heard, “You think it’s tough now? Just wait until she’s two! Then it gets hard. Really, REALLY hard.”
When I opened my family child care business, other providers told me, “Working with families is difficult. They have unrealistic expectations of what we can do. It is hard. Really, REALLY hard.”
But lucky for me, back before I got married, I had one friend who shared, “Don’t listen to everyone else. Your first year can be wonderful.” I will forever be grateful for that small phrase. I realized that I deserve the right to form my own opinions. If I expect disaster, I find disaster. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean that “doom and gloom” has to overshadow the joy.
At the park the other day, I realized how this intersected with my work with young children.
A child was climbing on a faux rock wall. When he made it to the top, he turned triumphantly and announced to his care provider, “I made it! Now I’m going to slide down!” Sliding down was an unusual choice, but not a dangerous one. And yet, the carer yelled back, “Don’t do that! It’s going to hurt.”
We have an almost uncontrollable desire to keep our children physically, emotionally, and cognitively safe. And while safety is a very important part of our responsibility to young children,* we must begin recognize that the pursuit of this safety, and the way teach children to be safe cultivates fear and strips them of their right to learn through mistakes. This ultimately puts them at greater risk.
- Don’t mix your peas and ketchup together. That’s gross and you won’t like it.
- Don’t wear your long sleeved shirt today. It’s going to be hot, and you will get too warm.
- Don’t pick up that worm. Gross!
- Don’t slide head first down the slide. You will get hurt.
- Put a sweater on – you will freeze outside without more clothes.
- Don’t crawl over to that sprinkler. Your clothes will get all wet and you hate that!
The “Doom and Gloom” approach uses commands and prohibitions. What do you suppose the child at the park did at the rock wall? Slid down, of course. It was his idea, and when his idea was challenged, he felt a threat to his autonomy that prevented him from rethinking his idea.
Instead, subtle changes in our language offer authentic feedback. All of these examples would change slightly depending on the age of the child. Authentic feedback sounds like this:
- Peas and ketchup. I’ve never tried that. What do you think?
- The weather forecast says it will be warm this afternoon. You might get hot in a long sleeved shirt. If you would rather, we can find a short sleeved shirt with a sweater?
- You see that worm? Do you want to hold it? I would prefer not to hold it.
- I will stop you from going down the slide head-first. If you fall off the end, you might hit your head on the concrete. Let’s come up with a plan to make it safer. (Going slower, putting padding at the bottom of the slide, etc.)
- It is too cold outside today to go without a sweater. Would you like to choose which one? Would you like to wear it or carry it with you? (Depending on the temperature.)
- I’m going to stop you from crawling to the sprinkler. Do you see the water? It will get on your clothes.
Or, if wet clothes are not a problem: Do you see the water? If you crawl that way, it will get on your clothes.
Do you have an experience with “Doom and Gloom” advice? Have you found ways to preserve your own opinion?
* Situations of imminent danger: To be clear, when a child is in real and imminent danger (running towards the street, heading for an electrical socket with a fork, preparing to drink toilet bowl cleaner), carers have a responsibility to interfere and stop their children. In almost all other situations, children can be freed to learn from their experiences, with authentic support and feedback from the adults in their lives.