Long before I became a mother, before I entered the world of early childhood education, I had long conversations with friends about raising children, specifically, how to raise decent ones. Conversations like these were usually sparked by some horrendous spectacle at a restaurant, or shopping mall, or while walking down the sidewalk, and always came around to the conclusion that no matter what I did, my eventual children would never do or be anything less than I wanted them to be. Period. Anything else was a failure of parenting.
Oh, naive and ignorant younger me. Somewhere along the journey from that former self to where I am now, I came into a marvelous collection of books, resources, and amazing mentors in the field of early childhood education who shared a secret with me. To be successful as a parent, raising children who will grow up to be compassionate, capable, integrated souls, I needed entirely different methods: no physical punishments, no coercion cloaked as emotional management. I needed to teach my children how to get their needs met. As they grew clearer about how to meet their needs in pro-social ways, we would all be better off.
Here is a short account of how I came to reconsider spanking and time-outs. Spanking teaches a child to manage strong emotions through physical force. Even if you “tame” the spanking – providing space between the infraction so the parent calmly and coolly delivers the punishment, you still teach a child that mistakes of the social sort deserve to be punished through physical force. And then there’s the domesticated version of spankings: the humble time-out. Defenders will vouch for the strong benefits of a cooling-off-period as an emotional management tool. And they’re right! Cooling off is a powerful tool. But being forced to cool off does not result in cooling off – it results in a person who is angrier, more vindictive, and sneaky. Time-out is not an emotional management tool, no matter how it masquerades: it is a punishment used as a consequence for misbehavior. If you want cooling off, develop a peaceful centering space, where children can go voluntarily to regain their emotional wits. (I even take time in the centering area from time to time!) But sending a child away to time-out communicates conditional love: you have to behave like this, otherwise I (with my almighty power) can remove you from my presence. And then we wonder why children use conditions when they are with their friends: “You have to give me that toy, otherwise I won’t play with you.” There are a host of other reason why time-out is an ineffective teaching tool…but the most convincing argument to me went along these lines: you don’t teach a child pro-social behavior in anti-social ways. End of story.
So, I had moved from naive-yet-confident to thoughtful-yet-clueless. I was ready to give up the use of punishments to achieve a desired end result, but I still wanted to raise children who were would be pleasant dinner companions, make friends in school, volunteer their time, contribute to society, and advocate for the needs of others. So I read every book I could get my hands on. I talked to every early childhood professional who was well educated in methods of guidance (as opposed to discipline). I attended every class that I could to learn how to teach children pro-social ways of meeting their needs. The key is not permissiveness. Throwing out spankings and time-outs does not mean that children run wild. If they did, we would be failing them as much as if we were using coercive methods to force behavior. I began to move out of thoughtful-yet-clueless to present-and-intentional, keeping a close eye on the emotional state of the children I am with to provide helpful, sensitive guidance – teaching children how to exist in a community where everyone’s needs are met.
What to do Instead
Guidance revolves around prevention, instruction, and remaining cool in the moment, insisting that children’s anti-social behaviors are needs in disguise. If we can get to the bottom of the need, and teach a new method for getting that need met, we have done our job.
1. Centering. (To read about centering in more detail, read this article.) When we human beings are feeling strongly (angry, sad, frustrated) we lose contact with the problem solving area of our brain. All those magnificent lectures we give to children after an incident don’t do any good. It is unethical and ineffective to try and teach a child how to solve their problems if they are still uncentered. Children need to learn the signs that they are “uncentered” and the tools to help reconnect with their problem solving brain. I teach centering skills at gathering times of the day — for us, over meals and at story time before naps. Children need to learn:
a. signs that their bodies are uncentered: feeling hot, teeth clenched, hands making a fist, feeling “strong”
b. what to do when they are uncentered: washing hands (water helps to relax), sitting alone in a centering space, sitting with a friend, screaming into a pillow, throwing a soft ball, ripping paper, playing with dough
c. how to recognize “uncentered” in a friend
Here is how a typical exchange might go: “Tekoa, I saw you take that truck from your friend. I can’t let you take toys. When you are centered again, we can figure out how you can get it, but now, what would help you center?”
It seems so counter-intuitive to “give” a child something when they have acted inappropriately. (You just pushed Cadence…let’s go rip paper.) In truth, this is the only way to be helpful. Once a child has access to her problem solving brain, she can learn how to get her needs met, make amends for any wrongs caused when she was uncentered, and work to form a strategy so that it doesn’t happen again. Centering is to the emotional development of a child as driving with fully inflated tires is for gas mileage.
2. Setting clear limits. We must be very clear with children when it comes to limits and boundaries. There is nothing punitive about enforcing boundaries, but keeping the lines of yes and no consistently in the same place helps children learn the rules. Children feel safe when limits are explicit and consistent. Here are some examples:
a. “We sit to eat. When you stand up, mealtime is over.” After one reminder, the meal is done. “I see you are all finished.” If the child protests, we simply say, “It sounds like you were not finished. Next time, you can sit in your seat until your tummy is full. We will eat snack in 2 hours.”
b. “You must have shoes on to go outside.” If a child protests, we can say, “I can see you would like to be out without shoes. I understand. We keep shoes on to protect our feet. I will sit here with you while you put them on.”
c. “It sounds like you are very angry because your friend took your toy. That would make me mad, too. I won’t let you kick her. You can kick this pillow to help you recenter. When you are centered, we can figure out how to solve it. While you center, I will keep your truck safe.”
3. Problem solve. When children are in the middle of an argument (over a toy, about what game to play next), we walk them through a scripted problem solving process. With the older ones in my crew who are very experienced, I simply enter the argument to remind them of what to do. “It sounds like you are having a disagreement over what to do. I will hold this toy right here while you solve it. Let me know when you came up with a plan.” For younger children, I follow the steps I wrote about in this article.
4. Meet the physical needs. Extenuating needs limit a child’s ability to deal helpfully with a situation. Think about the role of hunger, fatigue, temperature, outside emotional experiences (like a death in the family, a new baby, or moving). When children are at their end, our best plan is to move quickly into meeting the pressing need and solving the problem later. More than once, I have had a house full of cranky bodies, only to sit down at a meal and have the entire mood lighten.
5. Take care of your needs. I am unable to help children effectively if I am not on my game. It is so easy to take out our own stress on children, and we have to be particularly alert to our emotional state.
A few scenarios:
Child A take a toy from child B. B bites A. I put my hand on the toy to neutralize it while reaching a hand towards the A. A is crying. Both children are three years old.
Me: “Teeth hurt. B, let’s ask what would be helpful. A? What would be helpful?”
A: “My blanket and a band-aid.”
Me: “B, let’s go get the blanket and band-aid.” (when we return) “B, would you like to offer to put the band-aid on?”
B: “Would you like the band-aid?”
The children calm, and I begin to process the experience.
Me: “A, you really wanted that toy.”
Me: “You took it.”
A: “Yes. I didn’t have any.”
Me: “I see. You were sad because you didn’t have any.”
Me: “B, it sounds like A would like a toy, too.”
B: “A, I can get you a toy.”
A: “I want that one.”
Me: “Maybe you can offer a turn when you are finished?”
B: “Would you like to use it next?”
Child C is angry because Child D doesn’t want to build with blocks. Child C throws a block across the room.
Me: “I see you are very angry. I won’t let you throw blocks, because they might hurt someone. You can throw this ball, or you can do something else to recenter, and then I can help you get what you need.”
C: “I’m angry.”
Me: “I can see. Do you want to play with D?”
C: “Yes, but she won’t build towers with me.”
Me: “Oh. You want to build with blocks.”
Me: “You can invite D to build, or you can ask to play D’s game with her.”
C: “D? Do you want to build with me?”
D: “No. I’m coloring right now.”
C: “Ugh! No one wants to play with me!”
Me: “You wish D would build with you.”
Me: “You can tell her that. Maybe ask if she would like to play when she’s done coloring?”
C: “Would you play with me when you’re done coloring?”
Me: “What do you want to do while you wait? Would you like to ask D if you can color with her while you wait?”