Have you ever noticed how much space and energy fear can consume in your life? Or, more specifically, have you noticed how little capacity for learning a child has if they are dealing with a lot of fear in their lives?
Most commonly practiced (even promoted) parenting techniques use fear to make kids do what their parents want or need. Time outs. Consequences. 1-2-3 Magic. A lot of parenting says “do what I tell you to do, or I’ll take away what matters to you until you comply.” That might be a favourite toy, an outing the child has looked forward to, time with loved ones, technology time, etc…
And that’s the “good” parenting – that doesn’t even begin to touch on the fear that children live with when they live through poverty, parents fighting, divorce, any level of abusive or controlling behaviour, parents with anger issues or anxiety or depression, etc…
And school only tends to heighten fear, particularly when it’s already pervasive at home. You put that child into a school situation where there are all sorts of expectations and they have little or no say in what or how they learn, and it only augments the fears. Kids move from one teacher to another, from year to year (or even subject to subject), with little opportunity to build relationships and trust.
There is definitely a need for healthy boundaries and helping kids develop a work ethic. But manipulation and control don’t teach these things. They teach fear. And the more parents and schools make kids afraid – the more kids’ brains become wired to react stronger and longer and more intensely to any kind of personal “threat.” That may be “I don’t fit in” or “they’re laughing at me” or “Mom/Dad/my teacher will be mad at me.”
When we see kids having out of proportion reactions to what we think should be something minor, or when they are refusing to do their work or follow instructions, I’d say their fears are high – the bucket is full and one more drop makes it all overflow. The solution isn’t to tell them this (most recent) incident isn’t a big deal and to quit making a big deal out of it. The solution is to help them find and manage their sources of fear (or maybe even just acknowledge their fears) and help them feel safe.
What Kids Need #1: If they can’t depend on you and trust you, consistently – then you’re propagating their fears. Period.
What does that mean? It means that, at a minimum, do no harm. It’s not always possible to reach every child. It’s often not possible for schools/teachers to “undo” what’s happening outside of school, or for friends/extended family/coaches/(or anyone else interacting with kids in communities or groups) to make a connection. But don’t make it worse, if at all possible.
It means that you ask questions instead of assume. Kids don’t need lectures on respect and responsibility, they need adults who believe in them, believe in their ability to learn, see each individual and ask “Hey, what’s going on? I really want to know. Because you matter…”
It means never assuming that a child is “unreachable.” It means not “telling” and not needing to be right. It might even mean letting go of a short term goal in order to reach towards the long term goal instead (i.e. homework or chore completion vs. trust, relationships and love of learning).
It means not making a regular practice of punishment or taking away the right to participate in the fun stuff (recess, lunch breaks, fieldtrips, play time, parties, favourite toys, cuddles with mom/dad, etc…).
It means seeing defiance or anxiety or disengagement or any other kinds of behaviour issues as signs instead of frustrations – they shout out “This child needs something! Help. Support. Care.”
It means realizing that everything must play second fiddle to the person and the relationship. Always. Because fear consumes all available energy, and there’s simply nothing left for learning or growing – and connections/relationships with caring adults are the best, most lasting antidote. After all, you need a strong foundation in order to build a house that won’t fall down…
It means having a strong and conscious repair process, so that you have a way of coming back together after difficulties or failures – since we’re all human and it’s absolutely impossible to be perfect at this stuff! We all “lose it” or mess up sometimes. Paying attention to the effects of our words/actions and apologizing/adjusting as needed is critical – so that we model how to handle “failure” and let kids know (through our actions) that they matter.
And it means being aware of and dealing with our own issues. It’s much easier to be the kinds of parents and teachers kids need us to be, when we don’t react to what they do or don’t do. In order to make sure my kids don’t push my buttons all the time, I’ve had to work on having less buttons…
What Kids Need #2: Kids need joy and wonder to release some pressure – this is how we can create some capacity in them to handle the hard stuff!
When they’re at or near capacity, kids have no room to be resilient. One little thing can send them over the edge! There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s simply reality.
We may not always be able to connect with every child, or certainly can’t always solve their problems. But we can help kids create some space and capacity within themselves – or just take off some pressure for a moment. It’s joy and laughter and wonder and passion that let off the steam or create some space. Kids need to have fun!
Sure, we tend to worry that we’re helping kids “escape” when we do that – we’re letting them “off the hook” or that they’re “getting away with” something. But my experiences, and according to the works of Gordon Neufeld, Dan Siegel and extensive self-regulation literature, what actually happens points to the exact opposite being the reality. Pushing kids when they’re at or past capacity only damages the very foundational relationships and trust – and actually makes it harder for them to learn anything. Kids learn independence by being able to depend on us first.
Indeed, it’s even their ability to find and keep seeing what excites or inspires them, that helps them keep going despite the hard stuff. This capacity to hold conflicting ideas at the same time (i.e. seeing your difficulties AND your goals/purpose) is key to breaking through the anxiety cycle. But they have to have found something that excites them or brings them joy, first!
That’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us, I believe! Find a way to laugh with every child. Watch to see what lights up their eyes. Or, as a friend once said to me “pay attention to what catches your attention…”
It’s not easy (or even impossible) to make a child learn or behave. But I suspect it is always possible to find a way to share joy and wonder and passion. And wouldn’t it be fun trying??
All we have to do is trust that the learning will come later. When they’re ready for it. And in the meantime, anything we do to connect with and laugh with the children whose lives we touch will pay unimaginable dividends.