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Friday, December 28, 2012

Power, parenting and 'solving' gun violence

There has been much said and written about solutions to the spate of school shooting tragedies in the USA. "Better gun laws," cries one faction. "More guns in schools," cries another. "Better mental health care," cries a third. And so on.

When a young man goes berserk with a firearm and kills innocent children, I guess it's natural to look for a single reason so we can feel comfortable that we understand what happened. It's natural to seek a simple solution so we can focus blame where we think it's due, tell someone how to fix it, and move on.

Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to focus our attention on whatever 'answer' fits best with our world view. That much is predictable.

So, for example, the recreational shooters will call for armed guards in schools, while the pacifists call for stricter gun control. The parents of the mentally ill will see terrifying parallels with their own situation, and call for more help from a dysfunctional health system. What I'm saying is that in pushing for a solution, we tend to follow our own agenda.

I get frustrated by that. I think that it's a doomed approach. Nothing will get fixed while people follow conflicting personal agendas, even though many of those agendas are sound and would probably help the situation. It'll all get bogged down in rhetoric, politics, finance and administration. Anyone who's been on any committee knows that, whether it was a school fundraiser or a local club. Once people start pushing personal barrows, that's the end of consensus.

But I'm not saying that it's no use trying to fix it. I'm not saying there's nothing we can do. Quite the opposite!

I'm saying that if we want a real solution, we have to look deeper than weapons and psychiatric issues. Half the trouble with solving big problems is agreeing on what the question is, and we humans are notoriously bad at that. We need to get off our hobby horses, stop blaming and start finding a question we can agree on that helps us solve what happened at Sandy Hook, Columbine, Nickel Mines and the rest.

To solve this problem, I believe we have to look at what drives young men (the perpetrators are almost exclusively young men) to do these things. We have to look at motivations.

Here is what I think the real question looks like.

How can we stop young men from thinking that picking up a gun and killing people is an acceptable answer to their personal problem?

Does anyone disagree that that's the question?

With the exception perhaps of psychopaths, children are not born like that. It was our society that made them seek a violent solution to a problem that was too big for them to deal with. It was the 'normal' that was presented to those individuals. We are 'our society', and it's everyone's responsibility to fix it.

Here are some ways we can contribute to the solution. It's not a quick fix. It's not easy. It's not even the whole answer. But it does, at least, address the root of the problem.

1. We can be very, very careful how we use our own power as adults and as parents.

Children first learn to misuse power by watching their parents; they continue to learn by watching their teachers.

If we respond to personal frustration by inflicting pain on children- by spanking them, by verbally abusing them, by making them feel small and powerless- we are role-modelling violent behaviour towards innocent children. THAT is what happened in Connecticut, as well as in many other school shootings. Young men responded to personal frustration by being violent towards innocent children. Somewhere, these young men learned that violence towards a less powerful person was the answer.

If we can see our own abusive, violent behaviour for what it is instead of labelling it as 'discipline', as if the name somehow purifies it, we are contributing to a solution.

2. We can give our children power in safe and age-appropriate ways.

If children feel powerless, they will sometimes become adults who seek power in inappropriate ways and at a terrible cost.

Children need to have choices. If we make every decision for them, they won't learn to make good decisions. Children need to be able to make small mistakes, to safeguard them against making big ones. And we need to be there to support them as they make their small mistakes- not to ridicule them.

If we constantly frustrate children's desires, their frustration will eventually burst forth. If we are constantly saying 'NO', they will find a way to say 'YES' one day- and they may not be particularly discriminating in what they say 'yes' to.

The teacher who is authoritarian and didactic is just as dangerous as the parent who doesn't recognise their own child's individuality and humanity. The only reason the gun lobby gets away with the dogma of 'Guns don't kill people- people kill people' is because there's a grain of truth in it. If we dominate children to the extent that we create seething resentment against the system and all who dwell in it, we are creating potential 'people who kill people'.

3. We can model empathy and downplay perfection. 

We can express fellow-feeling for even those humans we don't know personally. We can be kind to others, for no other reason than that it's the right thing to do.

None of us is perfect; we all stuff up. We can admit that in front of our children, and we can reframe difficult situations by looking at them from the other person's point of view. There but for the grace of God...

One thing we can assume about all the school shooters: they all felt so much a failure that they now craved notoriety rather than success. And we know that they felt no empathy.

4. We can model healthy methods of coping with stress and frustration.

We can teach that a hot bath, a quiet chat with friends, a hug, a good book, more sleep and empathy for our seeming enemies can be more constructive than ranting, swearing, overeating, fisticuffs or verbal abuse.

We can try to behave better ourselves, and we can apologise and talk through what happened when we fail- in front of our children. We can stop behaving as though every little frustration is a calamity, and we can stop modelling 'giving up'.

We can actively teach that time is a great healer, and that sometimes bad things lead to good things. We can show that obstacles sometimes spur us on to help ourselves become better people, and that a blinkered approach to our goals, where failure is seen as a catastrophe, can lead to us missing out on a lot of good things along the way.

5. We can be careful how we advertise, praise and glorify violence. 

Oh, that sounds weird. But you know, we do all that. It's quite culturally acceptable. And 'culture' is us.

Some of us own guns. We need to be careful not only about how we store them, but about how we use them and how we 'advertise' them to our children.

Killing animals for sport, in my view, is advertising violence and modelling a lack of empathy to children. Target shooting at people-shaped targets is modelling that it's okay to shoot at people. We need to be thoughtful in how we use a gun if we have one.

Regretfully putting a dying animal out of its misery is something completely different. Using a firearm to kill an animal quickly and with minimum pain to use for food is probably much more ethical than buying nicely-sealed trays at the supermarket, if you are a meat eater. These uses of a gun are able to be supported by logic which can be shared with children. You cannot give a logical explanation to a child about why you shot an animal for 'sport' or why you are shooting at a 'human' target.

Then, of course, there's war. This can be a really hard one for some families. Maybe a member of the family is in the military. Maybe you regard the war your country is fighting as good and honourable. But be very careful how much you praise the concept. Your children are listening. Make sure you discuss the war with your children, and explain why you think it's right or wrong. Be careful how you define 'enemy'.

NB: 'Revenge' is not a concept worthy of advertising to your children. Shooters in tragedies often have some warped concept of 'revenge' in their heads. Make sure you didn't help put it there.

And then there's the violent video game. I don't subscribe to the view that video games turn normal children into sociopaths, even some of the edgier ones; my own son went through a phase of enjoying some titles that I really would rather he hadn't got involved with, and I'm happy to say that he's very far from a sociopath. Many 'nerdy' children find these games to be no more than an absorbing diversion.

However there are some children who already have real-life social issues, and I believe those children can lose touch with reality when allowed to shoot virtual enemies. Know your child, and if that child has social coping issues please don't use violent video games as a babysitter. Address your children's relationship issues; teach them some problem-solving strategies. Shooting people is not a problem-solving strategy, yet that's the path which was chosen by those young men in Sandy Hook and Columbine and other sites of tragedy.

Be careful not only in what you say yourself, but in what you allow into your home via the media. Turn the TV off if it's playing endless re-runs of war, the latest school shooting, an assassination. Don't buy the paper if it's full of death and destruction. Keep the computer in a public area and monitor what your child is looking at when tragedies happen. The media talks up the perpetrators of violence until they acquire celebrity status, and that's a problem, but it's a two way street and we have responsibility too. The media put it out there, but they are just responding to us; we gobble it up. Stop gobbling.

Last, but definitely not least,

6. We can advocate for peaceful parenting, peacefully, outside our own comfortable little bubble.

Oh, it's so easy to preach to the converted. It's so easy for me, for example, to write this, knowing my followers tend to agree with my views.

But what if I go over to, say, 'Circle of Mums', where spanking is still seen as an acceptable method of discipline by many members? What if I go back to 'Essential Baby', where I was flamed for advocating peaceful parenting methods? What if I make a point of offering an alternative, peacefully and without judgment, when I see a friend or a stranger treating their child without respect?

Am I prepared to be unpopular, just to make sure people know there's an alternative to hitting and shouting and verbally abusing their children? I know I won't 'convert' the hard-liners, but what if some other people are quietly reading, looking for a different answer, and all that comes up on the thread is violence and power plays? Do I have the time to be part of the solution?

I have to have time, or I'm a hypocrite. I'm just mouthing words without doing what I can to change things.

What about you? Do you have time to do what you can? Do you have time to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This is what love looks like.

A while ago I wrote about a little chap called 'Luke', who was pulling down the girls' pants, punching other children and generally being a holy terror. I told you about how I used gentle discipline techniques to break through his violent behaviour, till I got to the feelings underneath.

Here's a bit of a taste of what happened that day, months ago.

"...he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.

"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"

His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."

I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.

"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.

And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.

But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world."

(You can read the whole post here if you didn't already see it.)

I wanted to remind you of Luke today, because I know that sometimes we get so frustrated by trying to use peaceful discipline. Sometimes kids behave so badly that it seems easier to just let go of our own self-control and spank, or shout, or punish. Often it looks like that's working better, and more quickly- especially with repeat offenders.

But I have an update for you about Luke, and I think it's important.

Since the day I wrote that post, which was over three months ago, I haven't seen Luke. I've been too sick to work. Before that, I'd only seen Luke very infrequently- perhaps once or twice a month. I'm only the casual relief. I've had the most minimal chance to make any impact on his world, or on his way of understanding things.

I would have expected that that little incident would have faded from Luke's memory long ago. I would have expected that I had made no difference at all to him, in the long term.

But when I dropped in to that workplace today, to talk to the director about my illness, the very first person I saw when I opened the door was Luke. There he was, rolling about on the floor with some other boys, engaged in some ongoing and highly  energetic play scenario.

And then he spotted me. He jumped out of those cushions, flew across the room and threw his arms around my legs. He hugged me like his life depended on it.

Gentle reader, this is not a child who greets people by hugging them. This is a child who gets off the bus and punches you as he walks by.


Of course, I just about cracked up on the spot. I've rarely been so surprised or so touched by a child's sudden display of affection. I pulled myself together though, smiled, ruffled his hair, had a quiet word with him and moved on to do what I'd come for.

Later, driving away, I started to think about what I'd just seen. This is a child from a terribly disrupted background. Dad's been in jail, mum's barely coping, violence is the most familiar mechanism he knows for dealing with big feelings. Yet when I walked through the door- a relative stranger, who'd had that one magic breakthrough with him so long ago- what came out of him was an unprecedented affectionate greeting.

And then I did break down, and I cried my eyes out. But they were happy tears, for once, in this time of great stress for me.

Perhaps he did remember that day when I met his violence with gentleness. Or perhaps, somewhere inside him, he just remembered a face and a feeling to match it. Perhaps he just saw me, and recognised that this is what love looks like. 

Please, you have to keep believing in gentle discipline. You have to have faith, and try your hardest to be consistent and unflappable. You just don't know when that moment will come when a child crosses the threshold, and suddenly learns that a limit gently enforced can be a true expression of love.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Raising resilient children

Most of you know that I'm currently engaged in the fight of my life, against breast cancer. (You can read about it over at my other blog, Fighting the Freeloader, or follow the journey through my other Facebook page.) It's taking up a lot of my time and energy.

What has that to do with parenting and childcare, you might ask?

It seems, if I'm to believe the feedback I'm getting from my readers, that I'm showing an unusually high level of resilience as I battle this disease. Over and over, people write to me that they're amazed by the level of humour and strength that I'm displaying in these terribly trying and tiring circumstances. I tell you this not to pat myself on the back- I'm a bit bewildered by the fuss, actually- but because it's occurred to me that maybe I have something really valuable to share with you here.

What did my parents contribute to my
resilience now?
How did I become so resilient? Is there a path that my parents  followed which led to me becoming so mentally strong as an adult? What did I learn, that now enables me to bounce back from these dire circumstances with humour and positivity?

Surely that toughness and lightness is what we want for our children. How can we help them to become mentally strong adults?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When kids won't do what you ask

Another request for help from a reader!

Kristin asks:

I teach kindergarten, and this year in particular I am faced with (multiple) children who absolutely REFUSE to do what I'm asking them. I feel like it's attention seeking. Let it go, or take the reins?

The first thing I want to address here is the idea that 'attention seeking' is a problem in early childhood. Of course very young children are seeking our attention! It's not manipulation. They need our attention, and 'being difficult' is often an indication that they are feeling on the outer or that they have some sort of special need in that moment.

Young children are not a
homogenous body- they are
like different rainbows
gathered in a room. Try to
appreciate the range!
For many of them, kindergarten's the first time they've had to be away from their mothers, learning to be part of a large group. We need to keep our expectations age-appropriate. It is not age-appropriate to expect very young children, in their first years of group education, to behave like primary school kids- to act like a homogenous body when given directions. Some of them won't just sit down on the mat when you ask. Some of them have no idea about being quiet when asked.

So that's point one. Think about where these children are starting from, and don't expect miracles. Be patient.

Point two is about respect. Kindergarten children are still learning through play, not through being told to do things. They become very busy with their work of learning through play. They are not being 'ornery' when you call them to make a line or sit on the mat or find their hats, and they fail to comply. They are probably in the middle of something fascinating and educational! If we can reframe 'disobedience' as 'engagement (to the exclusion of external stimuli)', it looks very different.

We want to encourage focus, don't we? What looks random and unimportant to an adult can be vital, in the moment, to a child. We need to increase our respect for what children are doing, and be a little more humble ourselves about the orders we issue.

Give warnings before you want them to transition to a new activity. Respect the play-work they've done. Protect their partially-completed structures and projects, so they can return to them later. Try not to regiment them too much- they are very young. There's plenty of time later for sitting at desks and lining up, and at 4 or 5 years old, most children are not developmentally ready for that sort of learning environment.

Of course, that is not to say that it's alright to have a free-for-all in your kindergarten room. Children do need to learn to do as they're told, and not just for educational purposes. You do need to feel secure that they'll listen and follow instructions- for example, in case of an emergency. Worst case scenario- if the house or the childcare centre is burning down, the children need to be accustomed to doing what you ask them when they hear certain signals.

So the answer to Kristin's question is that you MUST be able to take the reins.

But how?

That's not something that happens overnight- you need to grow a sense of community and an atmosphere of trust, and you need to be respected as the leader. The good news is that there are some tricks of the trade that can help you to achieve that.

The answer to everything, as I often say, is relationship. But if you're a teacher, the truth of starting out each year is that you have to walk into that kindy room cold and...

Get their attention

If it's not working, stop doing it.

Raising your voice and shouting instructions to get the attention of a group of young children is doomed to failure. Yelling means someone's angry or upset- why would they want to engage with that? Would you? They simply don't hear you, or they block out what you're saying.

You need to change the way you get the whole group's attention so that it doesn't send out those old, negative emotional overtones. Here are some ideas:

(a) Turn all the lights off. Then when the kids look up from what they're doing and stop talking, turn them on again, and speak in your normal voice.

"I need everyone to come to the mat right now, please! It's important!"

And smile. Make it sound exciting, engaging, important.

(b) Ring a bell, beat a drum, or blow a whistle. A new and different tone colour cuts through noise much more effectively than your voice, which the children are used to. (There's a reason people used to use dinner gongs!)

Again, what you say next is important- keep it simple, direct and positive.

(c) No lights on? No musical instruments at hand? Then sing what you have to say instead of shouting it.

Singing cuts through chaos like nothing else I know. You'll find some simple attention-getting ditties in my blog post about music, under the heading 'transition tricks'.

(d) Use a puppet or toy to do the talking, and address individuals by name. "I'm Mr Sneezy, and I want to see you on the mat right now, Ethan! You too, Arianne!"

(e) Lower your voice instead of raising it. Go to each group of children and whisper "Something's happening over at the mat! Are you coming? Shh! Let's tiptoe! Do you think anyone else will see what we're doing?"

Actually, you don't have to say a word. Mime it. Put a finger to your lips and beckon, smiling. This is a good way to gather up stragglers- make sure you have eye contact by getting down on their level and using their name, then go into your Marcel Marceau routine.

Okay, you have their attention. Now what?

Be organised

Very young children will stop listening to you if you keep them waiting. You need to be organised, both practically and in your head. You need to know what you want to say or do, and launch into it the moment you have their attention. A child who gets up from the mat and wanders away before you've got your resources together, because you didn't have your gear assembled before you called the children in- well, that behaviour's not the child's fault. A child who walks away when you're giving him an instruction- well, you haven't kept his attention, have you?

How do we make sure instructions 'get through'?

Keep it simple

Start the year giving ONE instruction at a time. Work out the right level of language- and it won't necessarily be the same level for every member of your group! Suit your language to the individual child when talking one-on-one. With the whole group, keep it simple and short.

Make it engaging

Children co-operate when they're having fun. Keep it light-hearted if you possibly can. Make them laugh if you can.

OR, make it fascinating. Irresistible. Practical. Children learn by doing, not by being told, so make sure they take part in whatever you want them to learn about.

Note- be careful of overstimulating them, as well as being careful not to bore them! That's a balancing act, a fine art which is learned only through hard experience. If you're an inexperienced teacher, be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes. That's only a sin if you don't learn from them.

What about the 'problem child'?

What, there are still some children not co-operating?

Identify the leaders in any unco-operative groups. Target them with your professional skills and your loving attention. Improve your relationship with those leaders, through play and positive interaction. Find out their interests. Make sure they feel like they belong in your room. Spend time with the most 'difficult' children in your room, talk to their parents, find out what goes on inside their heads. Learn to love them for who they are, if you possibly can.

Give them specific leadership roles- sometimes the child who won't come to the mat themselves is the very child who's awfully good at getting everyone else to the mat! Make the 'problem child' your helper and messenger.

It's still not working!

If you're still not getting through, consult with your colleagues. Do they find this child hard to get through to? Is there perhaps a special needs diagnosis waiting to be made? Do you have a bored, gifted child making waves?

Ask for help when you're struggling- don't blame the child, or the parents.  Your 'problem child' (or children) may be desperately needing someone to notice that they're not coping.

That lack of obedience could be a cry for help. Are you listening?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tantrums: 3 steps to beat 'em, not join 'em!

I love answering my readers' questions. It's a long time since I wrote a post, given all that's happening in my life at the moment, but this morning Cari asked:

How do you handle tantrums?

And I can just imagine what she's going through. Anyone who's had a toddler knows what she's going through. So I'll put my Aunt Annie hat back on for a moment, to answer that question properly.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

More about homework, and kids who are just like you

Last week I shared a wonderfully thought-provoking meme about parenting on my FB page. It's had a barrel full of 'likes', because anyone who's ever parented identifies with it so much. Here it is:

Have you been there?

It reminded me straight away of the Homework Dilemma I had with my son. He simply would NOT do it. He would do anything to get out of it, including evasion, distraction and straight out lying. I didn't know what to do.

A few times, I really lost the plot with him over it.

I mean, it wasn't just school homework. It included his 'cello practice, and I was paying a LOT of money for those lessons. The frustration I felt was huge. He had so much potential, and he was WASTING it (as well as wasting my hard-earned cash).

Have you been there?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What feels right can be so wrong

My friends Dave and Samantha have just had their first baby. Do you remember what that was like- that first few months where you really had no parenting experience to fall back on, where everything was new?

"How's Sam going?" I asked when I saw Dave recently. Sam had looked pretty confident when I last saw her, but maybe things were less serene behind the scenes; her family is far away, so she's been a bit short of support.

Animals have incredible parenting
instincts. Can we rely on instinct
in our parenting too?
"I reckon she's going really well," replied Dave. "She does a lot of reading on the net trying to work out the best way to do things, but it's all pretty contradictory. You've got all these experts, and none of them agree with each other. I told her to forget all that and just go with her instincts."

Dave had a point. There's just SO much information out there that it's very hard for a new mum looking for advice to make sense of it all. How can you tell what's an informed point of view, versus  the ramblings of some self-appointed guru with an opinion and an agenda? It's easy to conclude that you can only go with what feels right to you.

I wish it was that simple. But the complex truth is that in some cases, what feels right to you isn't necessarily the best thing for your children.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Standing in the shoes of a preschool bully

I've had another request for help from a reader, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you all. It's a pretty common problem, and it's an important one to nip in the bud. Most of us who've worked in childcare have had to deal with a preschooler who is demonstrating unacceptably antisocial behaviour while in care- behaviour that we would identify as bullying in an older child.

It's terribly frustrating. It can make us very angry on behalf of the children who are being hurt or frightened. But I want to put you into the shoes of the preschooler who acts like a bully, because understanding is the only way you will fix this problem. Maybe that child can't empathise with his peers- but somehow, you will have to find a way to empathise with that child and to offer him love and compassion if you want to find a solution. You have to work with him, not against him.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sharing our true selves: from baby talk to difficult events

Maybe you saw this great post by Abundant Life Children, about the small behavioural changes we can make in ourselves to improve our relationships with children. At the end, Emily invited readers to add their own tips for making small but effective changes to improve our journey together.

My baby got my true self from the start.
My career made me happy, and I never
hid that from him.

My tip was that we should share our true selves with our children. I encouraged her readers to share their thoughts and feelings with their children honestly. And I thought I might elaborate on that a little, because there's a reason I feel so strongly about it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

About teaching two Rs, and moving a donkey

Exploring the shape of 4. I didn't say
a single word. This is self-directed
Pushing down the curriculum is a hot topic in Early Childhood circles at the moment. Developmentally speaking, it's quite clear that young children learn through self-directed play- and that hounding them to sit down and learn their alphabet and their numbers is actually counter-productive. (Don't mention worksheets. PLEASE, don't mention them. And if you mention homework for preschoolers, I may have to block you.)

Honestly, the way some education authorities are behaving, it's like they've decided that children's academic progress is some sort of donkey that they have to get moving against its will. They push the donkey driver in the back, and the donkey driver looks scared and whips the donkey, and the donkey looks around stubbornly as if to say "I'll go when I'm ready" and stays right where it is, and the donkey driver gets blamed. Pushing a donkey is idiotic and ineffective, and so is pushing down the curriculum so the teachers have to try to force all little children to learn their letters and numbers whether or not they're ready.

But that doesn't mean that we can't expose our children to literacy and numeracy in the early years. In fact, even in EC facilities where play-based learning is at the fore of programming, teachers are required to provide literacy and numeracy experiences.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to be an 'expert' problem-solver: 3 tips

Some of you may have read this recent post by An Honest Mom, in which she very kindly refers to me as an 'expert' after I gave her some advice about her child's problems at daycare.

Well, you know, that got me thinking, because 'expert' is a word that I would usually associate with having lots of degrees in a certain field of learning, a very high profile amongst one's colleagues and possibly a bit of media coverage... hmm, this doesn't sound like me! I mean, it's not like I've got a Masters in Early Childhood or write a regular column for Rattler Magazine or anything. 

Sure, I've spent a lot of time with children. So have a lot of other people, and some of them would give advice that makes your skin crawl. So it's not just about my experience.

And that made me think that if I can develop some expertise without impressive pieces of paper and world-wide kudos, maybe it's not beyond you to become an 'expert' in dealing with your child's problems. I started to break down what it is that's made me a source of expertise. Maybe if you follow in my footsteps, you can empower yourself as a problem-solver.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The power of nature: fighting kids, troubled adults

A while ago I was down south nannying for a friend. You probably remember me mentioning the two adorable little girls who were in the middle of a huge sibling rivalry stage. It's a really common problem, but to me, seeing it up close, it just resembled what happens during a spell of miserable weather in the preschool room at childcare; after a while, kids just need more ego space.

I can remember taking my class out into a soaking wet slippery playground one day the instant it stopped pouring with rain, just because they were in far more danger of harming each other inside. Yes, someone slipped over and cried, but at least nobody split their head open on the corner of a bookcase when they fell due to running around crazily indoors. Children are just as susceptible to claustrophobia and the irritation of forced company as we are.

And so I fell back on that knowledge while I was nannying. Every time those purry little pussycats began acting like tigers, showing their claws and laying into each other in word or deed, I'd take them outside. For a while, they'd continue to compete and squabble. But then nature would work its magic on them.

First, as you can see in the picture above, they'd find their own space; I can't begin to tell you how important that is. Kids do need some ego room. They're no more fond of being crowded on top of one another all day than we are.

After a while, once they'd calmed down, they'd really get involved in and fascinated by the properties of the natural world. The temptation to share their discoveries would be overwhelming; it would draw them together, whereas ownership of a brightly-coloured, manufactured toy always seemed to tear them apart.

Nobody owns nature, you see. But it is endlessly fascinating.

In the end, they would find a way to co-operate and play together without fighting, at least for a while.

What's not to like about that?

This strategy worked over and over again. Even when the outdoor space involved some manufactured equipment, the strategy worked.

They'd start out doing things in their own space...

...oh yes, there was still an element of competition there- who could go the highest was important for a while- but soon they started to compete against themselves instead of against each other. Can I go higher than last time?

SO much healthier.

And then, with their angst worked out, they'd find a way to play co-operatively. Hurrah!

Do you see how they've used natural objects imaginatively here, to invent their own game? The long stem of bamboo was a 'found' object in the park. You don't need expensive goalposts and nets.

(You do need a ball, but there are ways of 'inventing' one of those, too! Ever made a ball out of old work socks, rolled, twisted and folded? It even bounces!)

Here are my little tigers again, on another day-

first playing in their own space...

and then co-operating.

That's a valuable message for anyone who's having issues with their kids fighting. If you get them outside and they're STILL fighting, find a larger and less populated space. The day I took these kids to another very popular local playground, which had fabulous equipment but was crowded with other families, they fought harder than ever. We got out of there quick smart and found them some ego room!

But the value of this message doesn't just apply to our kids. This was brought home to me very recently, when I had back-to-back visits from two seriously traumatised adult friends.

I live in the forest, you see. Here, nature is all around us, and even the house is a sort of outdoors-when-you're-indoors house, with big verandas and lots of big doors and windows. And when my friends come here, suffering from their various heartaches, they all discover a magical quality here.

First, they can sleep. There's something about being in the outdoors nearly all day that promotes relaxation, whether you're out of your mind with worry or not. It's quiet here. It's beautiful. You can let your worries drift away when you're in a quiet and beautiful place.

Second, they get involved with the outdoors, because the outdoors is where we are every day; there's always something to do here. I mean, look at these.

We're doing some building works here at the moment, which to an environmentally sensitive person like me means leaving a minimal carbon footprint- using materials off our own property. So these trees had to be respectfully and carefully selected, felled and the bark stripped off.

Well, there's nothing like thumping an ironbark log with a blocksplitter to get out your feelings of frustration and anger with a failed relationship. There's nothing like ripping and prising the loosened bark with your bare hands, and finally exposing the beautiful surface of the wood, to make you feel like you're really in touch with the earth. It gets things back in proportion. You realise that your entire worth and ability isn't tied up in any one person or event or activity; you just made something naturally beautiful appear, with your own focussed efforts.

And you filled your lungs with air, and you stretched and worked your muscles, and while you did it you were surrounded by the songs of unseen birds and the rustle of leaves in the wind. Suddenly nothing seems quite so bad.

I watched nature help to heal my two friends while they were here. They went home calmer, happier and more prepared to deal with their problems.

And I thought, we Early Childhood bloggers are all trying to encourage people to get their kids outdoors, but what about the adults? What about the parents, what about the childcare workers? How you look after the children in your care depends so much on your own state of mind. Are we all taking time out in nature to heal our hurts?

Go and find somewhere beautiful nearby. Maybe you'll have to drive for an hour to get there, but find that quiet and beautiful place. Don't just take your kids there- take yourself there.

Because hello- you deserve some peace and healing too.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Playing with guns

Every time I go to work, I spend part of my day bashing my head against a brick wall. I'm not alone- I know that. I think that if I took a vote amongst Early Childhood workers about the playground rule most often broken by young children- the rule which is the most completely futile and requires constant, constant reinforcement without any hope of long-term success- it'd be this one.


You can play at being a policeman. But
you can't play with a gun.
I was a 'no guns' mum. I'm a peace-loving person. I'm distressed by criminal gun use, from robberies to massacres- aren't we all? I cringe at legal gun use too, from policemen shooting mentally ill people by mistake (yep, that happened here fairly recently) to the condoned violence of war.

I hate it when I see on TV every single night the suffering caused to ordinary people by real-life gun use. I hate the way guns are used to solve problems in books and on screens. I don't want that quick-fix, no-think solution modelled to the world's children. I don't want the world's children growing up with guns being normalised like that. I don't want kids to think guns are toys.

So when my son was young, I had a rule. (Lots of urban parents have this rule in Australia, though it's probably different in other demographics.)

No toy guns in this house. 

I started out my Early Childhood career as a no-guns teacher, too. I fitted right in; nearly every centre where I worked had a rule about that.

No guns at school. 


We don't shoot our friends, not even pretending. 

All very well in theory; but as I've discovered over time, our homes and our care centres exist within the real world, not in some fairy-floss land constructed by well-meaning adults. There are guns included in the spy and soldier and cowboy costumes at the toy shop, and guns used in superhero movies and cop shows and cartoons, and real guns on the news. There are guns in the hands of police on the street, guns in the hands of soldiers and in the holsters of security guards. There are dads who play Paintball with paint guns, and there are big brothers who play shoot-'em-up video games with virtual guns.

This is the real world, and in the real world children copy what they see others do. That's what children are hard-wired to do; it's one of the ways they learn.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I won't give up on you: connecting with a 'bully'

The little girl is crying as she runs to me.

"Luke tried to pull down my pants!"

Luke has been in strife all morning. He's been punching, he's been pushing, he's been jumping out from behind the fort and making the little kids cry. It's pretty normal behaviour from Luke.

Every playground is a small
His peers are fed up with him. Nobody wants to play with him. The teachers are fed up with him too, and this pulling down pants- well, we're all shocked by that. It's the last straw.

I give the little girl a cuddle, tell her Luke did the wrong thing, settle her ruffled feathers. Tell her I Will Deal With Him. She goes back to play quite contentedly, now the rules are being adhered to.

I walk nonchalantly over to the soft fall, where Luke is racing around at top speed, and as he climbs the stairs of the slide I catch him up in my arms. It's the only way to get his attention when he's in this mood- sneak up and catch him. If I tell him to come to me, he'll run away. He knows he's in trouble. And he's the fastest runner in the school- if he doesn't want to be spoken to, he'll keep out of reach till some other crisis catches my attention and the moment passes.

Of course he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.

"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"

His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."

I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.

"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.

And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.

But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world.

I'm constantly surprised by the children's real size; I see them on the street, in their parents' company, and I do a double-take at their smallness. I watch them all day as they go to and fro within their little society of equals, the adults standing like pillars on the perimeters of their world, and I forget that they're tiny. I think we all do. Watching their microcosm at work, it's easy to forget the scale of things down there and use our adult labels on them. Lazy. Bully. Violent. Shy. 

When really, there's just one label that's useful: learning.

Luke is having trouble with his lessons- not the academic lessons, oh no; he's good at those. But the social lessons are way beyond him. I suspect that I know why; I suspect that what he sees at school and what he has modelled to him at home are so different that he can't reconcile it into right and wrong. His code is all over the place.

And that's not his fault, and I won't blame him for it.

I've seen Luke shamed before his peers, for repeating words that are part of every second sentence in his home. I've seen him shouted at and put in time out, for doing what's fully acceptable at home. Words, words, words. Anger trying to put out anger.

Oh, I'm not saying it's easy, dealing with a kid like Luke- it's not. The other children have to be protected. We have to be careful what he teaches them from his own unsavoury learning. But I will not give up on him; I will not make him feel worse about himself for failing to fit in to this little society.

Too often adults do give up on children like Luke. I know that my gentleness will be dissolved by the realities of the rest of Luke's daily life, and he'll come back tomorrow hitting, and pushing, and probably still trying to pull the girls' pants down. For many adults, looking at other people's children, that's enough to make their patience expire. It can seem hopeless.

So they'll label kids like Luke with adult terms, because it's easier to talk in black and white and give up on him than it is to deal with grey. They'll blame him, and they'll try to shame him; they'll look at his background and say "There's nothing I can do". Maybe one day they'll exclude him completely, so he ends up shuffled from one little society to another, fitting in nowhere, learning to feel content with standing out as the bad boy.

I've seen children like Luke expelled. Repeatedly. From preschool.

But Luke stands half a chance here. I'm not the only one who meets anger with gentleness. I'm not the only one who refuses to give up on him. And so I can sit here, stroking his back while he sobs, trying to connect, trying to explain how this world works.

Some other children come over and ask what's the matter with Luke. He's been crying a long time.

"He's feeling some really big feelings," I say, "and he's sitting here with me till he can use his words to talk about it instead of saying it with his hands."

They accept that readily. Some even smile at Luke in a friendly way; perhaps it helps them connect if they understand what makes him do it, too.

After a while, I say to him "Are you ready to go and play yet?"

He shakes his head violently, and I realise that now he's soaking up the gentleness, enjoying sitting on my lap- maybe even feeling safe there.

"Don't you want to play with Mitch?" I ask, naming a boy he seems to hang with quite a lot, and he shakes his head again.

I go through the names of all the other kids I've seen him playing near. He shakes his head each time.

I realise he doesn't feel connected to any of them. Not at all. It makes me infinitely sad, and more determined to connect with him myself.

"You don't have to like the other kids," I say. "That's okay. But you can't hit them or pull down their pants."

He's still crying. That's okay. I don't try to stop him. He doesn't want to play, he just wants to sit here.

So we do.

"You could play by yourself if you want. I was watching you on the playground yesterday. You can pull yourself all the way to the top of the fireman's pole. You're very strong. Or I could get you a football- I know you're really good at kicking the ball."

Luke stops crying around then, when I start telling him some good things about himself. But he won't leave my lap, this big strong hunk of active boyhood. We sit there for half an hour and he never even wriggles.

When it's time to go inside, I carry him on my hip, sit down for circle time with him still on my lap. Right now, he seems to want to be little. He is little, though he's the biggest kid in the room.

We're playing a colour matching game today.

"You can do this," I say to him. "You're good at colours."

And he's off. He's the first to name the colours, he jumps up and is the first to find the right colour in the room. And he doesn't punch or push or pull down pants for the rest of the day- not once.

It won't last, of course; I know that from experience. But I wonder what would happen if Luke had a daily dose of gentleness when he arrived, if he was swept up into an adult's arms for a cuddle and some quiet words to help him move from one world into another. If he was reminded every day of his strengths, reminded to speak with his mouth not his hands, reminded that it's okay to cry and seek a kindly adult when feelings overcome him.

Later in the day I catch his eye, and he holds up his arms to me for a hug. It's so unlike him that I almost burst into tears.

Love is the answer, even if the answer only lasts for a day. I won't give up on you, Luke.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Risky play, dodgy rules and the fine art of climbing trees

"Why aren't we allowed to climb the tree?"
A forbidden tree at
another centre.
It's tiny!

Sometimes a child pins you down. Brock (aged 4-going-on-40) had cornered me at the base of the forbidden tree, with no other kids or staff nearby, and fixed me with a very direct stare. I had a suspicion that I'd been set up.

See, even though I'm just a casual, the kids have got to know a few things about me. One is that I tell them the truth. Another is that my risky play threshold is unusually high, compared to what they're used to. And the third is that I'd rather be right there with them, interacting with the kids and supporting their play and laughing and answering questions, than standing around talking to the other adults.

So by putting me on the spot- me, the mere casual- Brock was showing a level of belief in me that I didn't want to abuse. I felt like I owed Brock the truth, but of course I also had to walk the fine line of professionalism. It's a constant problem when you don't see things the same way as your more established colleagues, this choice between authenticity with the kids and keeping your job.

Forbid climbing trees?
No way!
And yes, climbing the tree has been forbidden at this centre. I don't agree. I've never agreed. But it's not 'my' centre, and I have no power to make radical changes to the ethos there; all I can do is discuss, suggest and nudge. It's a centre that's come a long, long way in terms of risky play, and the 'no climbing the tree' rule is a bit of a hangover from the bad old days, when the yard was essentially risk-free and deadly boring.

This is a public playground.
The girl who's highest up is 5.
The irony is that the centre has a brand spanking new risky playground- the best and most adventurous I've seen in any centre. Nobody bats an eyelid when the children leap off the high platform of this structure, which is as high as any child could climb up the tree in question. But still, the tree-climbing rule remains.

Honesty is the best policy. I decided to show Brock how the tree looked to the people who'd made the rules.

"I think it's because your teachers are worried that you'll get hurt," I said. "If you fell out, you might fall on this wooden platform or on the ground over there. It's pretty hard. It's not as soft as the bark under the playground."

Kids and trees.
It's natural.
Brock looked at me somewhat dubiously. (Like I said- 4 going on 40.) He put one foot in the lowest fork of the tree, and when I said nothing more, he started to climb.

Now, before you have conniptions here, we're not talking about a big tree or a tree that's particularly treacherous to climb. It's a great climbing tree for little kids. Various limbs have been trimmed off over the years, leaving perfect footholds up to a point not so far up where it becomes impossible to climb higher. And as ever, I was spotting for him- close enough to catch him if he got into trouble, but not interfering in a way which would break his thought processes or confidence.

So up he went, to the point where he could stop and look around with no fear of losing his balance. (Seriously, folks, he was only about a metre off the ground.) The grin on his face was infectious.

"You're a good climber, Brock," I said. (And he was.) "Now that you're up there, I can show you some other things that worry the teachers."

Some trees are more risky than others.
Don't let kids climb gum trees- the limbs
have a tendency to snap without
warning. But isn't it glorious?
And so I pointed out a cut-off branch that could scrape his skin or catch at his clothes and cause him to lose his balance. I pointed out the hard pebbles underneath one branch. I pointed out the sharpish edge of the iron on the shed roof nearby.

"Your teachers don't want you to get hurt on any of these things."

Brock gave the various dangers a scathing look or two. He seemed as unconvinced as I was. (I mean, we're talking about a child who's very competent physically; he never looked anything but completely in control as he went up that tree.)

What the heck, let's be totally honest, I thought.

"And they worry that if you get hurt, your parents will be cross with us for not taking better care of you."

The blue eyes made full contact with mine again. I felt like I'd made some sort of breakthrough; the rule was somehow making more sense to him.

"I'm being careful," said Brock.

Some of us are still climbing
trees long after we're all
grown up...
And then he proceeded to talk me through how he'd approached climbing the tree. He pointed out the footholds and handholds he'd used, and how he'd chosen which one to use next. He went up and down that tree giving me a masterclass- Tree Climbing 101.

A few other children had wandered up by now, and they were listening intently. Two of them decided to try their hand at following Brock's instructions, with mixed success; I pointed out how tall Brock was, how long his legs were, how they might have to wait a little longer till they grew taller.

I was pleased to note that the new arrivals didn't ask me to help them. That's another thing they've learnt about me- I won't promote them beyond their ability. I want them to listen to their own gut feelings, and self-regulate- or in other words, stop when they start to feel unsafe.

And that's exactly what they did. Nobody got higher up that tree than they could manage. Nobody hurt themselves getting down. This is something that I've read about in books, but it's also something that's reinforced over and over again as I watch the children playing on their new playground. If you trust them to self-regulate, and shut up instead of expressing your own fears, they won't go beyond what they can handle.

These trees have been played in
by my family for generations.
So let's cut to the chase here, because I'm sure some of you are tut-tutting at me for allowing the kids to break a centre rule. Should I have stopped Brock from climbing the tree, just because that was the rule?

I care about the children's safety more than I care about rules. Let me tell you what would have happened if I'd told Brock to come away from that tree and stop climbing it.

First, he would have tested me, partly because he would have sensed that my heart wasn't in what I was saying. (Believe me, kids can tell right off whether you are speaking from somewhere real or just toeing the party line.) He would have started climbing the tree, because that's the sort of kid he is, and I would either have had to look like a fool and protest weakly while he defied me, or physically remove him from the tree- which would have been distinctly less safe than letting him keep going.

You try lifting a well-grown 4-year-old child who's clinging to a tree above your own centre of gravity, and see how safe it is- for both of you.

Second, if I'd succeeded in stopping him, he would have appeared to comply by walking away, kept one eye on me till I was interacting with some other child, and then gone round the corner and climbed that tree without a spotter. Knowing that he would get into trouble if he got caught, he would also have been keeping one eye out for teachers instead of giving his full attention to getting up and down the tree safely.

In those circumstances, he would have been far more likely to fall.

And think of the teaching and learning that would have been missed if I'd insisted on the rule being followed. How wonderful it was to see a small child teaching his peers! How great it was to give these children a chance to test themselves, and to learn to stop when they felt unsafe. They were listening to their internal voice. They were self-regulating their risk-taking.

And so I advocate that when you're considering whether to ban an activity on the basis of risk, be brutally honest with yourself and with the children. What are you afraid of? And are you actually doing the children an educational disservice by banning the risk?

I'll let Brock have the last word. As he waited for his turn to go up and down the tree again, he turned to me, eyes twinkling.

"I like this tree better than the new playground," he said.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Safety is not a check box

I used to work at a high school where the children had to have a permission form signed by their parents every year in order to attend some of their school lessons, because walking to one department's buildings involved crossing a quiet, dead-end road that ran through school property. 

We are talking about teenagers crossing a clearly marked pedestrian crossing on a road to nowhere in broad daylight. 

That was just one example of the lunacy of a system that was suffocating its workers under a mountain of paperwork. I mean, the children even had to have a signed permission form to attend their own school concert, which was out of hours and involved being accompanied by their parents. 

And every form had to be marked off against a list, 

and every missing form had to be chased up... 

and there was a form for everything.

When I queried the craziness of this regime, I was told in all seriousness that any law suit might cause the school to close due to bankruptcy and then none of us would have a job. Yes, the endless mountain range of permission slips for the most ridiculously minor things was an attempt to stave off liability for absolutely everything, just in case.

Of course, it doesn't only happen in education.
The saddest thing of all was that the administrators really thought it was working. In my usual fashion, I tried in the first instance to approach the situation with humour; I circulated a form of my own to all staff. It began:


You must complete this form before completing this form.

It gave a lot of people a laugh, but it didn't change anything. The mentality was delusional and deeply ingrained. Nobody was stepping back and looking at the big picture- nobody could see how administering all that unnecessary paperwork was affecting the quality of the teaching. 

(Are you hearing me, EC professionals?)

Monday, July 23, 2012

'Sorry' doesn't fix it: getting to the bottom of children's fights

"Excuse me? That boy over there, the one in the green shirt. He needs to say sorry to the boy in the blue shirt. Make sure he does it."

I bit my tongue, hard. The total stranger who had wandered through the preschool room on her way to a meeting next door got a raised eyebrow and silence from me, in response to her brusque demand. It wasn't just her tone of voice that got my back up, nor the fact that she'd taken it upon herself to start issuing orders to me without so much as introducing herself.

No, what really riled me was her complete confidence in her own take on the situation- confidence that she could just take a snapshot of what had gone amiss between two children she didn't  even know, and instantly solve it by forcing one of the children to use a magic word.


Sadly, it's a common mistake. Parents and carers often fall into the trap of looking for a formula that saves them having to think all the time. We're busy. We're stressed. Analysing every single conflict situation that comes up with our children is sometimes difficult, sometimes downright impossible, given the other demands on our time and the frequency of the conflicts. We're hanging out for a short cut, a magic solution.

Siblings or peers fighting? Someone must be at fault. Therefore someone needs to apologise. If we can work out who's to blame and make that sorry happen, it's all sorted.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let me unpack what actually happened in this particular case, and that might give you some clues on why forcing a 'sorry' is always a complete waste of time and doesn't solve a thing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spanking, karma and children's thinking

Today I shared this little meme on my Facebook page:

I love the interactions on my Facebook page, I really do. They make me think. They make me see things from other people's perspectives.

Almost at once, a parent posted this comment:

"Ya it is! Suck it up! Call it karma..."

Now, when I stop to think, I can really understand how this parent came to this point of view. The idea of karma (on a superficial, buzzword level) is that what goes around, comes around. So if a child hits, this parent feels that it's karma if he then hits the child, to balance the equation. In Christian terms, some would call it 'an eye for an eye'. The concept is similar; the hitting justifies the hitting. It's fair.

There are other seemingly logical reasons to believe that spanking a child for hitting is a good idea. If we look at what happens on the streets outside the pub at closing time, we can all picture what will happen if our 18-year-old decides to lash out and hit someone. Someone will hit them back, probably hard, and there will be tears before bedtime (possibly in a hospital ward, or worse).

It's understandable that we might want to teach a child cause and effect by pre-empting that scenario. Perfectly understandable. 

Sorry- I know you mean well- but it doesn't work like that. Not for children.

Before I explain how does it work, let me call a point of order here, because I have some Indian readers and I'm feeling a bit snarky on their behalf. One of their religious concepts has been acquired and misused here.

It's probably not all that wise to use a faith-based word like 'karma' without really knowing what it means (though I realise that many of us do use it in jest- I've done it myself). If you really understand the concept of karma, you'll know that you can't manipulate it or rush it. Karma is delivered by the Universe or by God, not by you, and in the Universe or God's own good time. If you decide to appoint yourself the agent of karma and rush things through, you've kind of missed the point. 

A simple search of Wikipedia will tell you, among other things, that

"Karma operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage it. "

So if we could be serious for a moment here about the term we're using, karma does NOT justify you smacking a child who hits. If you wanted to continue the karma analogy more accurately, perhaps the most short-term 'karmic' result of the child hitting might be that the victim refuses to cooperate or share in a later game- that is the natural consequence of putting bad energy out there; it comes back and bites you on the proverbial, just when you've forgotten all about what you did wrong.

That's the time for a wise parent to engage, and point out the emotions involved. "Ethan doesn't want to play with you. Maybe he is still angry that you hit him when you were in the sandpit this morning. Do you remember that?"

That is how you use karma in behaviour management- by explaining cause and effect, not by appointing yourself as God.

As for the Christian 'an eye for an eye'- I think we'd do better to pay attention to a much more recent Biblical directive, 'do unto others as you'd have others do unto you'. (I mean, do you really want someone bigger and stronger than you to hit you every time you make a mistake? That's the essence of the Christian message.)

But both 'karma' (which I suspect was actually used rather flippantly in this context) and 'an eye for an eye' are adult concepts. To understand why smacking doesn't work as 'justice', you have to look at it through the eyes of the recipient- the child. The real problem here is a mistaken understanding of how a child thinks.

Children tend not to project understandings the way adults do; that isn't where they're at, in developmental terms. Nor do they sit there thinking deeply about interpretations of actions. Children are usually very literal. 

So when a child hits, and then an adult intervenes and also hits, the child doesn't take away a lesson of 'karma' or justice. That is an adult interpretation. 

The child sees only the modelling expressed by your action. You, as the parent, are first and foremost a role model. The child sees that hitting is an accepted strategy for expression of difficult feelings, because even you do it. You are angry with them, so you hit them. But all the time, you're shouting "Don't hit"!

Naturally, this is very confusing for a child- and this is where the cartoon above starts to make sense. What they are seeing from their role model is that hitting is okay, but what they are hearing from their role model is that hitting is not okay.

There's a word for that- hypocrisy. Children generally don't know that word, but they'll learn the concept mighty fast if you do it often enough (and then heaven help you when they're teenagers).

The child might indeed stop hitting right now- but not because they've learned that hitting is wrong. You just showed that hitting is okay. No- the child, with his literal mind, saw that only the biggest, strongest hitter is allowed to hit. (Well, that is exactly what just happened, isn't it?) 

And so they are much more likely to have learned not that hitting is wrong, but that while a bigger, stronger hitter is around, they'll get hurt if they hit. That might cause them to become sneaky, and hit other kids- maybe kids who are smaller or weaker than them- when and where no adult can see them. (That's called bullying, by the way.)

You haven't taught a lesson about behaviour or empathy- that got lost in the confusion. You've taught a lesson about power.

A more introspective child might learn that the world is a scary and unpredictable place, with rules they don't understand, and start to withdraw trust from you, or even from anyone large and powerful. (That's called anxiety, by the way.)

So while I do understand the reasoning behind thinking that hitting the hitter is 'karmic' or just, I can't agree, and neither will your children. I think it's a clear case of hypocrisy- and believe me, that's exactly how children will see it.

How are you going to wriggle out of that one, when they turn into teenagers and throw the word back at you?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nudging creativity with nonchalant stimuli

I've already told you that play-based learning is not the same as a free-for-all. Free-for-alls can mean that you miss things, as I explained in that post. But let me get a little more specific about the importance of providing some subtle stimuli for young children's creative play.

It is NOT enough to just dump the same old toys out on the floor, or pull out the same old boxes of equipment, and say that you're providing 'open-ended play' in line with the EYLF (or whatever your own national equivalent for C21st EC curriculum might be). Early Childhood teachers still need to provide creative flash-points for the children. There is still a role for the teacher in EC classrooms. We are not just babysitters, watching attentively lest Little Johnny bumps his head or wets his pants.

It isn't necessarily a case of laziness when ECEs stop putting in. Quite a few have developed an unholy fear of nudging children in any direction at all, lest they be in breach of the 'free play' thrust of the new curriculum. We are told over and over not to provide direct creative models for the children, lest we damage their confidence in their own ability to create anything comparable. (For example, you might entertain the children mightily with your wonderful playdough dinosaur, but you won't encourage them to make their own dough creation.) Overly structured artistic models are more obvious no-nos. (For example, giving children a stencilled picture to colour in, complete with 'here's one I did earlier' for them to copy, is an educational joke- and an unfunny one at that.)

But please, let's have some balance here. There's a big difference between leading a horse to water, shoving its head in the pond and holding it there till it drinks, and setting the horse loose in a paddock without a water trough whilst hoping it rains one day.

Perhaps we could aspire to wandering nonchalantly towards the pond, with the reins held loosely, when the horse looks thirsty. 

Today I witnessed a perfect example of how a well-timed stimulus can nudge a child's creativity to new heights. The fact that this stimulus was 'accidental' and provided by someone other than a teacher is irrelevant. The point is that a stimulus was there to be discovered, and it had a magical effect in changing the course of an afternoon's creative play.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A foolproof child-raising formula

I was standing in an 'alternative' supermarket the other day waiting for a friend, watching the people go by. As shoppers go, I've got to say these people were intense. They inspected, then they were decisive. They carefully selected their organic vegies, their spelt flour, their echinacea tablets, their no-added-anything almond paste, their herbal supplements and heaven only knows what else; I failed to even recognise many of the products on display.  

These people didn't need to ask questions. They knew what they wanted and where everything was kept. They were long-term disciples of their chosen path to good health.

Of course, there's no guarantee that any of these people won't develop cancer or muscular dystrophy or some other dire disease tomorrow. They hope that what they're doing will work- some of them truly believe that it will work- but really, they don't know. They're just clutching at straws, because they want to defy death as long as possible.

To me, they didn't look much different from anyone else on the street. Maybe their skin was a little clearer. Maybe less of them were obese. Yes, they're probably improving their chances by eating less rubbish than most of us, but honestly- I felt like I was in church. Their formula for health seemed almost like a religion.

Nobody was smiling. I thought that was sad.

And hello, if anyone really knew the answer to defying death, we'd all be doing it. Just the other day, I posted a link on my Facebook page that debunked the popular doctrine that sugar is poisonous. Dr Atkins is reported to have been obese when he died, despite his famous diet advice. I've had two older friends die of breast cancer, despite them taking extreme measures to modify their diet and detox their system.

Fads, methods, beliefs. There aren't any guarantees, no matter how hard you try.

And of course, that got me thinking about raising children. Because again, despite all your reading of books and blogs and articles, and despite scientific research, and despite what everyone around you seems to be doing successfully, you can't be sure what will work for you and your child. There are too many variables- personality, life circumstances, twists of fate, genetics, environment- for anybody to be able to perfect a formula for raising a child perfectly.

I was a 'Dr Spock' baby- but when I started bashing my head on the floor and screaming to express my displeasure, my mother had to just give up on 'methods' and let me finish expressing myself.  Is that called 'cry it out'?
(I can assure you I don't have brain damage.)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The secrets of being a great teacher: how to allow creativity without losing control

Once upon a time, not so many years ago really, when we thought of education we envisaged an authoritarian figure- perhaps in a robe and oddly-shaped hat- holding a stick of chalk and standing in front of a large group of seated (and preferably silent) children. The children would listen, then regurgitate the required information when called upon.
A caricature from Vanity Fair

There are some in our society who would like that model of education to remain fixed in stone. Some of them are teachers, some are parents, some are politicians and administrators.

If you're at the coalface, you know that education doesn't look like that any more, and nor should it if we want the human race to achieve to its potential. Gradually the realisation is filtering through that mass conformity doesn't produce brilliance, that the best education is not a twelve- or sixteen-year conveyor belt operated by authoritarian adults who force-feed the children from text books as they pass.

It's taken a long time to get to this point. History is littered with schoolroom failures like Thomas Edison and Isaac Singer, who achieved greatness only once they got out from under the thumb. (Go on, YOU try imagining life without the light bulb or the sewing machine.) And as technology explodes into new realms, creativity and individuality should be valued in the classroom as never before.

Teaching styles have to change to accommodate this realisation of truth.

I'm in an unusual position amongst my colleagues. I've had the experience of teaching all age groups- from birth to the end of high school. I've also coached adults. And so I can say to you, it doesn't matter how old the student is- nor does it matter that educational models are finally on the move. The essential truths of great teaching remain the same. There is a way to maintain control in a classroom without sacrificing individuality and creativity.

As a music teacher, I had to find these things out. My students had to be creative to do well in their course- and in setting them free, I stumbled upon these maxims which have served me well for over 30 years.

Here they are.