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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on obedience and the morning rush hour

I have never liked rushing. I'm one of those people who tends to be early for things rather than late, who tends to prepare everything well in advance so the last minute panic is avoided. I'm the one who packs my lunch the night before, or portions up the leftovers so I've got a week's lunches in the freezer. Anything to dodge that feeling of being too rushed to think straight. Any time I get lazy and decide to just leave things to the last minute, I regret it sorely.

So I guess that's why I find it relatively easy these days to slow down for children (and I'm not talking about school pedestrian crossings, either- I'm talking about day-to-day living). I don't let myself feel rushed; I like watching kids, and the way they approach things.

It wasn't so easy when I actually HAD a child of my own and a full time job, mind you, when I lived in a world of deadlines and had a child who liked to experiment with the power of dragging the chain. My son seemed to take delight in making me late by simply refusing to get ready. I have a hideous memory of getting so furious one morning that I actually put him in the car in his pyjamas; another day I drove a hundred metres down the road without him. (I might add that nothing I did back then improved his behaviour in the morning. All I did was entertain my son with the results of his expert button-pushing, or occasionally make him cry without making him comply in the least.)

Aunt Annie is no saint, believe me. Aunt Annie used to lose the plot in the morning, just like the rest of you.

So I won't pretend that slowing down for kids in the morning will be easy for any of you who are in that world right now. But it really is worth the effort to stop expecting instant anything from kids, if you can possibly manage it.

Take Grant, for example.

Grant was one very tricky four-year-old. He had 'issues' at home, such as a much-loved and much-admired father being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. He was definitely a firecracker kid, whose first resort in times of stress was fisticuffs. Obedience was definitely not his middle name- in fact that word didn't seem to be in his vocabulary.

Staff at his daycare facility found him, um, 'trying'.

One day he decided that emptying a whole tin of tiny beads and buttons out in the middle of the playroom floor, right in the area of most foot traffic, was an important scientific experiment. Who knows what he was thinking? Perhaps he was looking at the trajectory of small round items when dropped from a height and allowed to bounce randomly. Perhaps he just liked the noise it made. Perhaps he just felt the need to press our buttons to see what happened.

Naturally, what happened was that a couple of members of staff went ballistic and started ordering him to pick them up. I kept out of it, because I just happened to be writing an observation on Grant at that very moment- and observers should never skew their observations by intervening.

What I observed was that Grant completely ignored everything that was said to him about those beads. Or so it seemed. There was not a single moment of eye contact between him and the teachers, and he walked purposefully over to the car track that was set up in another part of the room and started destroying it.

Or so it seemed.

He wasn't actually damaging anything but the layout, mind you. Certainly he was lifting sections of track high in the air and waving them around so they fell chaotically on the floor, which led to another burst of commands from on high- which he similarly ignored.

Irritated, the other staff turned back to supervising the other children's activities. I guess they figured I was right on the spot and could deal with Grant and his refusal to conform.

I kept watching and taking notes. If I hadn't been so interested in my observation, I may well have intervened to try to lower the temperature in the room and make eye contact with Grant; we'd already had a couple of positive interactions that day, including one where I had to physically restrain him from beating the cr#p out of a peer for no apparent reason. (I used my usual technique for handling violent four-year-olds. It worked.)

Anyway, I'm glad I just watched, because it turned out that Grant was about to do something completely unexpected- and I was the only one who'd slowed down enough to keep watching what he did, thanks to my task of observation.

He assembled a toy semi-trailer, with great sense of purpose and concentration.

He drove the semi through the shattered car track, which I suddenly realised had been transformed into a mountainous 'landscape', improvising appropriate sound effects as he went.

He loaded the semi with a couple of blocks, again with great intent so that they fitted on the truck despite being apparently far too big. Between the blocks, he loaded the jar which had had the beads in it.

Very carefully, so that nothing overbalanced, he drove the semi over to the spilled beads and with the help of a peer (despite his frequent random violence, Grant still has friends, which tells me something about him) picked up every bead till the jar was filled again. Back went the lid. Off went the semi, delivering the beads to the shelf where they belonged.

Um, hello, everyone- Grant just did what he'd been asked to do. Did anyone notice?

He didn't do it at once. He didn't do it the way he was expected to do it. But, in his own time and in his own way, he did what he was told.

So what did my observation conclude?

Grant needs us to slow down if we want him to be obedient. He needs a bit of latitude to do things in his own time, in his own way. He needs less impatient, raised voices and more options. He needs to be allowed to take ownership of his obedience- this is the 'sense of agency' that's talked about in our curriculum and which, in practice, is so often overlooked because we're in a hurry. My observation follow-up instructed staff to stop jumping to conclusions about Grant's disobedience and give him more time and agency. (I worded it more diplomatically than that, of course, but that's what I meant.)

I wish I could turn back the clock now, to the days when my son refused to get dressed for school in the morning and I became more and more impatient and enraged. What I'd do these days is get up half an hour earlier instead of blaming the rush on a child, and hand back a bit of agency to my son instead of expecting him to conform to my agenda. I realise that my morning routine back then contained absolutely nothing that was about him.

A child is not a chattel. Nor a robot which conveniently converts to a human being when we have time to pay attention to it. A child requires us to make adjustments to what's easy and convenient for us. We know that- why do we forget it in the morning rush?

A child's performance is not improved by fear. But Grant's performance suggests to me that a child's performance is improved by giving him time and agency.

Please do better with your child in the morning than I did.


  1. Yes! My 4 year old needs a lot of time. If you just let her pickout her shoes and coat for example you will get out the door quicker than if you try to hurry her. she will throw a fit so bad that you will lose your time. Great post!

    1. Perfect example of giving a child agency, Amanda!

  2. Hello, found this blog through a google search and am now a follower. I am a parent to two four year olds, and this question actually applies to a situation at their school. There is a little boy, neary five, at the preschool who is aggressive and has taken to a lot of potty talk for the past few months. My girls try to ignore it and rarely repeat the behavior, but they are getting very tired of him saying to all the kids that their clothes/hair/songs/toys/ideas etc are "poop." the teachers are aware of his problem behavior, but I don't know if they know the extent or how they are addressing it. I have told the girls to ignore it or say "that is not a nice word and it hurts my feelings," or walk away or tell a teacher, but they are asking me to sit down with the teachers and really address it.

    What should I tell them to do on how to handle themselves? What should I be saying to the teachers?

  3. What an incredibly frustrating situation for you and for your girls!

    The way out of this is not through confrontation, however tempting it might sound. The way out is through understanding. I would try to create some empathy in your girls for this very unappealing little boy; ask them to think about what that little boy must be feeling like inside, if he feels a need to say such silly things to them to get their attention. Maybe that's how everyone talks to him at home. Maybe he feels like nobody is really seeing him at preschool, that he has no place there.

    Ask them if they can find it in their hearts to help him instead of fighting against his unpleasant ways. They could do this by actively engaging with this boy instead of avoiding him, by saying positive things to him, by offering to play and share with him, by encouraging and praising him when he's behaving the way they want him to behave. He says this stuff to make them notice them. If they notice him first, he may well not need to talk to them like that.

    It's a hard ask for your girls, mind you. But it would be a way forward.

    Of course, the teacher needs to do all this too! Make an appointment to talk to their teacher and explain that your girls have been protesting to you and begging you to deal with it. The teacher will be bound by confidentiality not to tell you what's going on with this boy, so if you can show some awareness that there may be circumstances that you don't understand leading to this behaviour, you will put her in a much more amenable frame of mind. If you also make some positive suggestions (as per the above) rather than just complaining, you are MUCH more likely to get a good result.

    The last time I saw this sort of behaviour, the child's parents were in the middle of a violent (and I do mean VIOLENT) break-up, and the child was just mirroring his world at home when he came to school. I dealt with it by doing some anger management using puppets (if you look on Aunt Annie's behaviour management page there is a link to a post about that) and there was a marked improvement in the boy's ability to cope with his stresses. Maybe you could suggest something like this to the teacher?

    Good luck with it. The situation certainly needs 'dealing with', but you will get more flies with honey.


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