When something happens between children that results in an adult needing to intervene, the children enter into a sort of fear or flight mode. Have you noticed that? And try as we might, it’s very difficult to ascertain what exactly transpired between the children. When asked about such an altercation, children usually begin by telling us what the other child did. The other child, after hearing this, usually denies that and instead replies with what the other child did to him/her. It isn’t that the children are “lying” really, it’s just that they are trying to avoid something we all hate, and that is blame. No one wants to be blamed for anything. When a child senses blame is coming her way, she goes into overdrive trying desperately to save herself from that curse. For the child knows that what follows blame is punishment, which must be avoided at all costs.
So if we adults know this, that blaming children results in their lying to us, deceiving us, and fearing us, then why are we so intent ourselves on placing blame? Are we fooling ourselves into thinking that once a child has been blamed that he will “come clean” and say those words “I’m sorry” with a contrite heart? Do we believe that he will go on and say, “I did it, go ahead, punish me as you will, I deserve it?” On what planet are we living?
So what could we do instead that might be helpful for our child, that might guide our child towards taking responsibility for her actions, that might open up our communications with her, that might keep us from alienating her?
In her 2003 best seller, Radical Acceptance, psychotherapist Tara Brach tells us that there is a technique she calls a “sacred pause” – taking a moment to pause and reflect on what matters most in our relationship with our child – that might be just what we need to learn and apply. In the heat of the moment, when we’ve witnessed the offense and while the hair is rising on the back of our necks and before we engage with our child, we need to ask ourselves what is truly important. Is it finding out who hit whom first or last or hardest or who started it all? Perhaps we will find that what is truly most important is to preserve the child’s sense of dignity, or for us to convey that no matter what we love this child; or perhaps it’s that we want to deepen the trust between us and our child. Whatever you discover after you take that “sacred pause” and ask yourself what matters most in your relationship with your child, hopefully you will then be able to greet the child and the solution to this problem with an accepting heart, a heart that houses love for this child. After all, what we really want our children to learn is to solve their problems with words, with thoughtful actions, and with kindness. We want our children to be able to tell us the truth because they know we can hear the truth without blaming them.
… to be continued
A Sacred Pause – part 2
Daily children come to me complaining about something another child did. One of our ways of talking about these issues is to follow a pattern of dialogue where one child tells what she doesn’t like that was done to her and the other child actively listens and repeats what the other child said. Then that child asks how he can resolve the dilemma, usually by offering a deed of kindness. But sometimes as the first child tells what she doesn’t like, the other child interrupts and declares that he didn’t do that to the child. You see, he’s feeling blamed. Maybe he’s feeling guilty, maybe he’s afraid of the truth and its consequences, maybe he doesn’t realize what he did, maybe he’s fooling himself, and for sure he’s just a child. So I usually say to that child, “I’m not asking you if you did this or not, I’m just asking you to listen to what Sally said about what she doesn’t like. What did Sally say she doesn’t like?” He might say, “She doesn’t like being poked with a pencil.” That’s a little different than saying, “Sally doesn’t like it when I poke her with a pencil,” and it’s a lot easier for a child to say, a lot safer for a child to say. And you know what? It’s OK with me if he says it that way because he’s getting the idea that it doesn’t matter who poked Sally with a pencil. What matters for him to know is that she doesn’t like being poked by anyone. I might go on and ask him if he might like being poked or if he thinks anyone might like it. Then we can usually agree that probably no one likes that.
As we are talking other things might come up, and we can talk about whatever arises. We’re all starting to feel calmer, we’re leaving the arena of fear or flight, we’re beginning to realize that we can open up a bit, that we can take the chance to discuss our feelings. We’ve begun to communicate, and it’s a miracle.
The result of this communication is sometimes unimaginable at the moment. But what begins ever so quietly and innocently is that we’re creating a relationship of trust between us. Each child is beginning to trust that this is a safe place after all. The one who was hurt feels heard and understood and the one who acted out feels calmer, more in control, and certainly safer and more ready to be truthful. The fear of blame has been erased.
“But,” you might say, “doesn’t the child need to be punished; shouldn’t there be a consequence for what he did? He can’t just get away with that, can he?”
So just use that “sacred pause” for a moment and think about what happened and what effect it might have on the offending child. He might just decide not to hurt Sally again because his awareness of her feelings was brought to his attention at a time when he was not in a defense mode out of fear for himself, but at a time when he could safely listen to her and maybe, just maybe, understand her.
We can’t force our children to be nice, to be kind, to be truthful. They have to want to be that way out of goodness and compassion. Blame and fear stand in the child’s way of being free to be all he can be as he interacts with others. Greeting children with an accepting heart gives them chances to learn how to behave appropriately and reasons for wanting to.
Life is all about ages and stages, and most of us don’t know it. Oh, we get an inkling of it when we have a toddler and we know (s)he’s entered the “terrible twos,” and we hear about it at school meetings when teachers talk about grouping children of different ages together. But we don’t seem to understand the magnitude of this idea and its great importance to our children’s lives. Fortunately, Maria Montessori did, and we can learn from her and others who followed her.
Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was really the first physician and educator to create the notion of psychological stages of growth and development. Of course prior to her work in the early 1900s, few had given serious thought to children’s mental health or well being. Children, after all, were necessary workers for the families, not viewed as the cherubs we know them to be. But Maria Montessori, with her strong religious roots, felt a Biblical love and respect for young children, which led her to observe and study them very carefully. As a result of this study she identified and developed an understanding of the developmental stages of children. She created an entire curriculum around these stages which also embodied something she called “sensitive periods” for learning, times when children are most able to learn certain concepts.
While her work may have gone quietly unnoticed by some, others substantiated her work. One famous one was Erik Erikson, who lived from 1902-1994. He identified the same stages that Dr. Montessori had identified years earlier. Briefly, here are Erikson’s stages which validate and support the work of Maria Montessori and the task of each stage followed by Montessori’s plan for that age:
Infancy: Birth to 18 months
During this time the child struggles with trust and mistrust. The major emphasis is the mother’s positive and loving care for the child. This tells the child that she is in a trusting home. Both visual contact and touch are important for the child to pass successfully through this stage. Maria Montessori believed at this age the child’s growth was best fostered by being in her own home.
Early childhood: 18 months to 3 years (the Toddler Class):
During this stage the child masters skills for himself: walking, talking, and feeding himself. Fine motor skills are also learned as the child becomes toilet trained. This time is where the child begins to build self-esteem and autonomy. It is also a very vulnerable stage, for if the child is shamed in the process of learning these skills he may feel great shame and doubt about himself and suffer from low self-esteem as a result. The child’s most significant relationships at this time are with his parents.
Toddler Class: Great importance is placed on reassuring the small child that the parent, when gone, will return. Attention is given to toilet training in a relaxed manner where the environment, with its tiny toilet and sink, accommodate this skill.
Play age: 3 to 6 years (The Primary Class):
During this period the child wants to copy the adults around her. She takes initiative in creating play situations which mimic adult actions. Here she experiments with what she believes it means to be an adult. Now the child also begins asking “why” questions as she explores the world around her. Still vulnerable, she may experience guilt if she is frustrated over her natural desires and goals. She is struggling with her own initiative versus guilt. She benefits from being given the opportunity to do it by herself. Her most significant relationships are with her basic family.
Primary Class: The room is filled with real-life activities for the child, activities whose actions are similar to the actions she sees the adults doing around her. She is permitted to show her own initiative in choosing her own work throughout the day. She is given lessons on how to care for the indoor and outdoor environments so that she may feel like she is capable and become confident.
… to be continued
Ages and Stages – part two
School age: 6 to 12 years (The Elementary 1 and 2 Classes):
During this stage the child is quite capable of gaining many new skills and of learning a lot. He frequently develops a sense of industry during this time and we adults can be impressed by his work. This is a very social time of his life and he is sensitive to how he is perceived by his peers. Relationships among his peers at school and in his neighborhood become his most significant relationships. While parents are still important, they no longer are the complete authorities they once were.
Elementary 1 and 2 Classes: Here great lessons with wide visions are presented to the child. The universe, the chemical elements, the history of the world and its people, the political geography of the planet, and classifications and life cycles of plants and animals are subjects the child studies in addition to gaining skills in language, reading, and mathematics. Peer relationships are fostered and effort is given to helping the child solve his problems with his peers using strategies that promote mutual respect.
Adolescence: 12 to 18 years (Middle and High School)
Prior to this time of life a child’s development depends mostly upon what was done to her. But from here onward, development depends primarily upon what she does. Life is becoming more complex for her; neither a child nor an adult, she struggles to find her own identity. She puzzles over social interactions and moral issues. The child is now interested in herself as an individual, apart from her family of origin, and rather as a part of the wider society. This is a vulnerable time, especially during the first few years of this stage when the child is truly totally engrossed in herself and lacks experience to deal with complicated social issues which may confront her.
Middle School: In this class, the child is mentored by adults who not only understand the conflicts of this age, but who also enjoy being with this aged child. Care is given to make this environment emotionally secure for her as well as academically sound. Opportunities for going out from the classroom in many ways (overnight field trips, working for a few days in a career of her choice, community service projects, running small businesses) support her need to know the larger society.
Not only can we educate ourselves about these stages of growth and development, but we can also find comfort in this knowledge. So often I hear a parent (usually of a first-born child and hence the parent’s first time with the issue) voice concerns about her child doing or not doing something and wondering whether she should worry about this. After 40 years of being a teacher, I can usually assure the parent that this behavior is typical of her aged child. Other children in the same stage of development exhibit similar behaviors, and better yet these behaviors disappear as the child enters a new developmental stage and others appear!
In a time when we’re too often worried whether our child will get into the college or university of our choice, we loving parents must stop and think about our child and her current stage of development. Helping her work on the tasks of each stage gives her a better chance of becoming all she can be. Remember, the child is the mother or father of the woman or man!
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher