When I was about 10 years old, my family took a trip to the California coast to visit my favorite auntie and some of my only-see-once-a-year-cousins. You know how it went, because even though this was the 1970s, family dynamics are timeless.
The adults were inside the house chatting, and the cousins and I were told to play outside. And play outside we did.
We focused on an old shed, and quickly began turning it into a fort. The cousins and I were intent on utilizing the only day we had together to work and play in our new-found space.
As we were diligently working, my father interrupted us by saying, “Let’s gather together for a photo.” A simple request, with good meaning behind it I’m sure. Why not take a picture that captures the joy of family?
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How do you think we responded to stopping our intent to play? You guessed, it – we didn’t exactly obey. We dragged our feet, we whined and begrudgingly gathered together for a snapshot.
Remember, this was the 1970s, before the invention of handy phones with zoom lenses. Photographs took ages to take. My dad had a light meter on a serpentine chain around his neck. He would point that meter to the sun and silently twist the meter to do whatever the light was telling him to do to take the perfect photo.
After twisting a dial round and round a couple of times and pointing it again towards the light, my father then picked up the camera that was also attached to a similar serpentine chain around his neck. He then took several minutes to focus, then check the light, then focus.
You can imagine what my cousins and I were thinking during this whole process, as time was being utterly wasted from our perspective.
Finally, my father said, “OK. Smile.”
You were young once, would you have smiled? We did not. We stood still in unspoken solidarity without smiling. He repeated the command in a more firm voice (because repeating something again, but with more firmness always works right?) “Smile.”
We simply weren’t feeling it, so we continued our stance of defiance.
My father then uttered the phrase that has become legendary in our family. “Smile, or I’ll spank you.”
Yup, he actually said that! And no, we still didn’t smile! I’ve got the famous photo to prove it. That’s me in the background in my homemade dress and my very frightened cousins terrified as the uncle who threatened them with a spanking.
My point it this: Force doesn’t work. It never has, and it never will. It doesn’t work in parenting (regardless of our good intentions), it doesn’t work in education.
Neither does coercion, guilt trips or manipulation. Rather, we strive to invite, to inspire and to uncover.
Western Washington University’s Associated Students Child Development Center honors children and their childhood and want to support you in this effort.
Sometimes, well-meaning adults try to force ideas that the child can benefit from learning on his or her own.
Telling isn’t teaching. Just last week, I noticed in the 4- to 5-year-old classroom, two children vying for the use of the same sink at the same time. They were using their bodies to hip push the other aside, and one of them was losing the slightly physical battle. A teacher noticed from across the classroom what was unfolding.
She could have rushed and rescued by saying something like, “You need to move aside and let the child who was here first go first.” Problem solved right?
Not really, because a similar situation is bound to repeat itself in both children’s lives, and they will not have the tools to navigate the next time without relying on adults.
Instead, she calmly approached the two children, “It looks like both of you want to use the sink at the same time.” Then, she turned towards the child who was losing the physical battle, and had arrived at the sink first, and said calmly, “I need you to be really brave and use your words. Let’s practice right now so next time, you will know what to do.”
Do you see the difference? Did you feel the teacher’s compassion towards both children?
I believe that compassion with children and adults goes a long way with learning and providing a sense of safety.
If only my dad could have said, “I see you all are busy playing with each other. That’s great. When can I come back and take a quick photo?”
Teaching children at home, the backyard or the classroom has the same principle of caring involved: Have the courage and confidence to train, then step back and allow the real learning to take place by giving the child ownership of the lesson or ability.
I’ve found that the more I step back, the more children learn.
I have to be very mindful of what to say and when and how to say it.
Certainly, we can all commit ourselves to never threatening with a spanking! Perhaps this summer, you can do the same – step back, and give ownership of learning to your child and let the first message you say to your child be one of caring.
Keri Krout is program manager of Western Washington University’s Associated Students Child Development Center, which provides care for children 2.5-5 years old of students, faculty and staff. It works closely with Woodring College of Education in providing a quality early childhood education.