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Friday, October 21, 2011

Firecracker kids: walking the right disciplinary line

I don't have a lot of voice today.

I don't have a lot of voice today, because yesterday I decided to spend some time one-to-one with 'Violet'. Violet has her problems. She's a high-energy, LOUD, I'm-over-baby-stuff kid who has been going through a Bolshie stage the whole time I've known her.

Maybe Bolshie is just who she is. It goes with being bright sometimes, and Violet is definitely very clever indeed. She's a wizard at spacial challenges. Her creative work is incredible.

I come into Violet's life frame very sporadically, being a casual worker. Each time I have to re-establish the boundaries with her and work at our relationship, while she tests the fence, and tests the fence, and TESTS the fence of my limits. She does it to all the staff. It's not personal. But as with all children, it's so much easier to deal with difficult behaviours when you have a good relationship with the child.

I'm genuinely fond of Violet; she can be outrageous, but she also radiates an inner light.  If she can harness that energy for good, she will be someone truly outstanding one day. It's not so hard for me to try to build that relationship, because I can see her light despite the Bolshie wrapper. Sometimes just seeing a child's light can be a challenge, I know. I count myself fortunate that I can see that light in Violet; with other difficult kids I've sometimes struggled away in the dark.

Ironically, yesterday Violet was literally testing the fence by climbing it, and had to be manhandled and persuaded away from it before she was over, off and away up the street. Yesterday she used her considerable problem-solving powers to work out that the ladder from the climbing frame could be used to get to the top of the said fence.  Yesterday Violet was a handful.

(Actually, Violet's nearly always a handful.)

She used up my voice, and she used up my energy, but yesterday she also gave me a priceless gift.

Mind you, I feel like I worked for that gift. 

I spent a lot of time with Violet in the yard, negotiating how she was allowed to use that ladder. After five minutes or so, we'd established that going over the fence might be possible, but not wise. Going up the trees was possible, but given that there's no soft fall under the trees, also not wise. Eventually she decided on a new configuration of the climbing equipment, involving a beam support, a trampoline and the ladder stretched (precariously) between the two.

Did that sound amazingly civil and reasonable? I've omitted to mention her screaming, kicking and thumping of fists every time I quietly challenged her views, or had to physically intervene when she took off with the ladder towards the fence again, or altered her final arrangement to stabilise it so she wouldn't break her leg when the ladder twisted and jammed her foot as she fell.

I didn't lose my voice by shouting.  It's so important to remain calm when you're dealing with a bundle of firecrackers like Violet. She's so reactive that she'll immediately escalate her behaviour based on your level of displeasure with her, and laugh in your face as she does so (or maybe kick you in the shins with a scowl). I got a few thumps along the way anyway, despite my conscious effort to chill out. I had to remind myself that I'm the grown-up, more than once.

Anyway, we got through that.  Then we had to get through her decision that she 'owned' her new configuration. "I'm the boss," she said, over and over, as other children came to investigate the novel set-up. Eventually I established with her that 'being the boss' did NOT involve a permit to push others off the ladder (more screaming and thumping); that sorted, she was managing the queue very nicely, enforcing the rule of 'one at a time and no pushing' by inserting herself between the trampoline and the queue and bellowing at anyone who pushed.

It seemed that to Violet, crowd control was more fun than using the equipment herself; the children fell in like lambs and we had half an hour or so of marvellous gross motor play, with a touch of problem-solving as the children experimented with different ways of negotiating the ladder's thin rungs. I stood by and narrated- "Jason's like a snake, he's doing it on his tummy!" "Paris is crawling. I wonder if it's hurting her knees?"- which encouraged even more experimentation (and disguised the fact that I was keeping close enough to Violet to intervene if she forgot the 'no pushing' rule again).

In the end, I probably spent half my supervision time outside interacting with Violet-and-others or just Violet.  In all that time, I never once raised my voice or lost my cool, though I did have to prise her fingers off that ladder a few times and it sometimes took all my powers of wit to turn the scowl to a smile. (Yes, I'm giving myself a little pat on the back. I had my borderline moments, I can assure you.)

When we went inside, I was asked to do some music with the kids, so out came the trusty guitar- and Violet's eyes lit up.  She sang, she danced, she played 'Freeze!', she made requests for favourite songs and was totally engaged in mat time.

Now, I have to say that this is unusual. Violet can be a double-bunger-with-attached-rocket when we're inside.  Like many indigenous children, she'd rather be outside all day, and sitting still while the teacher holds forth really isn't her thing. 

Anyway, by the end of music time I could see that the fireworks were ready to go off the moment the children were dismissed from the mat. I called her back and asked her if she remembered the Aboriginal song I'd sung last time I was there (months ago!), 'Inanay'.  "SING IT!" she cried.

That's where I got the croaks. I think I sang it about fifteen times to and with her, until she could sing it herself. (I was amused to find that Teacher Tom's latest post is about the value of repetition, given that I've now just about lost my voice to such a perfect example.) It's a very gutteral-type song, and I have a very choral-type voice, so I was straining the heck out of my vocal cords.  But the light in Violet's eyes stopped me from saying 'enough'. Soon she was racing to the drawing area to get pencils to use as tapping sticks, and other kids were drifting over and joining in.

Eventually, though, my voice gave up completely (after I'd branched out into Aunty Wendy's 'Red, Black and Yellow', slightly adapted to mention Violet's home town; huge reaction! She loved that!). Violet wandered over to the drawing table quite calmly, and I started making up for my attention drought with the other children.

As I passed the drawing table in my rounds, Violet looked up at me. "Look at this, auntie," she said.

Now, I assure you that I'm not 'Aunt Annie' when I'm at work. That's pseudonym for blogging purposes. But it wasn't a random or absent-minded comment, either.  She called me 'auntie' again later in the day; it was fully intentional.

Being called 'auntie' by Violet was the greatest compliment she could give me. In the indigenous community, respected adults are called 'auntie' and 'uncle', even if they're not blood relatives.  Violet was accepting me as a respected elder, a leader, someone she would listen to- and that is the greatest gift a child can give to their teacher.

Would she have given that gift to me if I'd shouted at her, scolded her, excluded her, thwarted her ideas completely, failed to notice and capitalise on her interest in the music, ignored the connection of music and her culture? I doubt it.

Would she have given me that gift if I'd not insisted on the boundaries, let others deal with it, not bothered to build a relationship because I mightn't be here tomorrow? No way.

It's about finding the right line to walk, when you deal with children who push your limits.  If you fall too far to one side or the other, you're lost.  Stay calm, stay positive, build relationships. Look for the good, grab it and run with it. Nudge difficult kids in the right direction with calm, firm words- and don't just push them off the ladder of their ideas by saying 'no' to everything they want to do. Negotiate, within the boundaries.

True authority is a mixture of discipline and loving relationship.

'Discipline' doesn't mean pushing kids around, just because you're bigger and stronger and louder and you can.

'Loving relationship' doesn't mean letting kids do outrageous things, for fear of crushing their creative souls.

True authority is inspiring children to respect you and to follow you, so you can lead them towards the best self they can be.  That's the right line.


  1. A wonderful post. So many times, I've seen adults just label rather than look for the child's light. You are so right - the balance between discipline and loving relationship is key. Thanks for sharing your precious gift with us.

  2. A pleasure, Scott. It was a special moment for me.

  3. I love this post so much Aunt Annie. Can you please tell me what your definition of "discipline" is?

    Many thanks for all of your brilliant posts. I love them.


    1. Thank you, Jennifer!

      My definition of discipline? I prefer the term 'self-regulation'. Teaching your children discipline, to me, is a process of encouraging them to self-regulate rather than inflicting your standards on them by force. You can do it by example (modelling), you can do it with discussion, you can do it by physically preventing dangerous or unacceptable behaviour, but the bottom line is that it has to be done with love and respect for the child's humanity. It's showing the boundaries to the child and explaining why they're there, not tying them up to prevent them from going near the fence. It's letting them go near the fence sometimes, if the fence isn't going to be fatal, and letting them suffer the consequences.

      Too often 'disciplining' our kids is about what other people think of us or about our own need for power, rather than what our kids need. I really don't like the word at all.


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