On Being Authentic with Kids

Thursday, June 02, 2011

After I posted "How we raised a reasonably polite kid" yesterday,  I realized that I forgot to add something important. Being Authentic. A term Magda Gerber uses constantly in her Resources for Infant Educarers program.

Now, this is something that working with Babies taught me. 

Children have huge Bullshit detectors.  They can detect Fake with one glance, and decide quickly if you are an adult to be listened to, or patently ignored. 

During my years caring for Babies, I found that they kept me completely honest.  They knew if I was trying to put them to sleep before they were tired. They knew if I was offering something for lunch that I didn't like. They knew if I was angry, but had a smile on my face that something didn't  feel right. 

Because I valued my relationships with them, I learned to not be duplicitous in my actions with them.  As such, I had to be entirely honest with myself.  What WAS I feeling? Why WAS I acting? Was I dedicated to the "schedule" and as such would stick to the schedule regardless of the cues of the individual? 

When I could be honest with myself and reflect on my practice as an educator, I saw that many of the things I did were out of habit, or my understanding of what was expected of me.  

When I pushed that to the side and developed my sense of Who these children were, and what they needed from Me, my Education Persona changed.   I could be completely honest with them. I would try to name what I saw them experiencing, but also name my own feelings - authentically.

I can't tell you how many times I have seen a teacher of a young child tell that child that their actions made them "Sad". 

Sad? Really?  From where I was standing, it wasn't Sad the teacher was feeling. Angry, Irritated, Frustrated, Fed Up, Annoyed - these were all more accurate descriptors.  Sad was no where within what the teacher was feeling.

I realized that when Teachers - and by extension, all Adults - mislabel their feelings for the children they are helping to raise, we are telling them some very specific messages:

1. Don't name "negative" emotions. Anger, and all of its variations are to be avoided. At all costs.
2. Negative Emotions are Dangerous
3. Ignore what you are feeling. Stuff it down. Change it.

I can't remember the year I had that epiphany, but it rattled me deeply. I was asking children to lie to me. I was telling them that their feelings were not what I wanted to know about if they were out of a specific range of "safe".  

The first example I remember was a little girl I used to comfort when her mom left. "Don't be sad, I would say. It's Ok", and I would work to get her involved in something else to distract her.

When I re-examined that interaction, I saw that what I was telling her was that her Grief at seeing her mom leave for the day was unacceptable. I wanted her to stuff it down, suck it up and get on with it. 

My horror at realizing the messages I was broadcasting to ALL the children was stupefying. "Don't cry", I would say, "You aren't really hurt"...as I picked a newly hatched  walker up off the pavement.

Who was I to tell that girl that she shouldn't be sad? Who was I to tell a child to ignore the pain of falling down?  How could they trust me when I was telling them to Ignore the tangible?

Letting children Feel their feelings seems dangerous, doesn't it?  Wouldn't it just prolong the separation crying? Wouldn't it just make that Toddler cry harder? 

Believe it or not, No.

Acknowledging that seeing her mother leave for work was really sad, that she loved her Mom and wished she could stay with her didn't make that baby cry harder.  It actually shortened the crying jags. That child learned that her feelings were important and acknowledged.  It didn't change the reality that she was going to be with me until the end of the day when her mom was done working, but it did tell her that I  honored her love for her Mom. 

Telling the Toddler that falling must have startled him, and that I bet his knee felt sore didn't make him cry harder.  Offering a hug and cuddle and cold cloth for his knee only served to say "Hey, I am here for you if you need me. Learning to navigate walking is Tough, but you can do it."

It was in this way that I could have a room with 8 Babies and Toddlers and have a pretty calm and happy learning environment. They knew that I wasn't going to lie to them. I wasn't going to try to get rid of them by putting them down for a nap when they weren't tired. Once they were mobile, I didn't even "tell" them it was time to eat. Mostly, they would crawl to the eating table and let me know they were ready. They would even tell me when they were tired by crawling to the edge of the nap space.  I kid you not.

What those babies and toddlers, now young adults in college, taught me was that Everyone knows when you aren't being honest.  They might not be able to name it as such, but it is apparent. Ergo, if I am feeling something...and you look at me and blatantly tell me that I am Not feeling what I am feeling?  I don't really have to trust you. If I don't trust you, I don't have to listen to you. Children are empirical creatures.

Since the bullshit detectors on Young children are much more finely attuned than that of Adults, they can sniff you out and discard you easily.  They are, after all, novice communicators. They tune in to everything, even things adults don't see or hear or notice. It is part of the evolutionary package of survival.  They only have a limited time to go from helpless infant to communicating, moving toddler.  This feat requires observation skills unmatched later in life.

Since learning that lesson with Babies, I have tried to bring it to all aspects of my professional and personal life. Not always successfully, mind you. It can scare the hell out of other Adults, and frequently does. However, kids are a different story. Kids migrate to me. When I speak to them, they listen.

I don't ask them to not feel what they are feeling. Instead, I ask them to describe it. Emily can describe her feeling in a million shades of words. They are all different, you see. Sometimes mixed up together, but still all distinct.  When a person can describe what they are feeling, it is a step to being able to understand what you are feeling. Not stop it, but understand it. Understanding gives you power.

It is a terrible thing when we teach our children to lie to us, to lie to themselves about their feelings. Yet, we do it every day.

"You are All right", we say. "Stop crying", we say. "Don't be angry - here look at This", we distract. "Don't be such a girl", we might say to a boy. "Don't be such a tom boy", we might say to a girl. "Don't be such a Baby", we say to all kids.

Anything from having to deal with the situation at hand or to say what we mean. Worse, to say what we mean would force us to examine Why we are saying what we are saying, forcing the search light back onto ourselves. It isn't pretty, and it isn't polite.

Not many adults are prepared for the constant reflection it requires to be a great teacher, even fewer for the complete transparency it takes to work with infants and toddlers.

I challenge you to stop the next time you find ourself about to say something to a child, any child. Examine why you are going to say it. Examine what you really mean. Are those two things matching up? If they match up, consider the child. Are your words matching the child's experience? If not is there a way you can adjust your words to more fully reflect the child's experience in an open ended way?

The goal is not to merely parrot words at a child, but to give them options within their own experiences. To give them Adults who are attending to their world, but not overpowering it. Adults who acknowledge their emotions and feelings without negating them. Adults who are available for comfort and support, but also who can step back and allow the child to fully experience being human. In all of it's glorious messiness.

6 Baleful Regards:

Mignon said...

I was working at my (ultra-fancy, high-end) stationery store job last week, and a woman came in with her pre-schooler son. He was a 'toucher,' so I kept a distracted eye on him, while she, obliviously, looked for a thank you note. In the time it took me to call a couple customers about their custom orders, he had found a tube of expensive print-making ink and dumped it all over the floor and a couple packs of expensive invitations in a corner of the store. I felt a flush of anger, but his mom's response (5 minutes later)? "Nathan, that makes mommy sad when you do that." No specifics, no display of anger, no consequences. She took out some baby wipes, washed the floor, paid for the ink and invitations and gave him snack before leaving with a rueful smile.

It made me cry, it was so messed up.

Dawn said...

Oh. That boy. What a world to live in when even extreme acts produce nothing except a lukewarm "sad".

How are children supposed to learn to manage Anger when they don't have adults who can manage anger?

I can almost envision this mother sitting across from me as I describe some incident with her rueful smile.

"Oh, we never raise our voices at home. I can't imagine where we picked that behavior up from..."

Jeebus. We don't need to beat our kids to express anger, but to pretend that actions have no consequences except to make mom "sad"?

Some future partner is going to be woefully upset with Nathan when he doesn't recognize how his actions affect others.

It is messed up Mignon. It would have made me cry too.

Heather said...

ah geez. more stuff i need to think about so i can raise Heath right (and/or in a manner I and he can live with!)

Dawn said...

Heather - I can not recommend highly enough Magda's books-

Your Self Confident Baby and Dear Parents. The other two I suggest are "The Emotional Life of the Toddler" and "1,2,3 The toddler years." That one might be out of print now, but worth finding if you can.

I was out to dinner with a good friend whom I passed on my copies to borrow and she was telling me how much help she found them, and how common sense they were.

Gurukarm (@karma_musings) said...

Plus? Isn't it pretty clear he was trying to figure out what it takes to actually get his mother's real attention?

Wow... poor kid!

Heather said...

I'll try and track em down Dawn. Thanks!

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