What’s the best way to respond when your child comes home complaining that Timmy pushed him again? It is a more difficult question than it seems and it is far easier to get it wrong than to get it right. Fortunately, there is a rule that applies regardless of the situation; suspend judgement and focus on the facts.
Obviously, this is no easy task -especially when our children are involved. The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the world in which we live is all about judgement. Snakes are bad. Barking dogs are mean. It is hard to find a children’s story that doesn’t involve a “bad” character and you can count on one hand the number of TV shows that don’t involve some kind of “bad guy.” The notion is so ubiquitous in a child’s world, how can they not expect to find “bad guys” around every corner?
Studies show that as early as 6 months old, children can recognize the difference between bad and good. It will be years before they can pick out the nuances of this surprisingly complex issue. Still, if we are being accurate, most of the things we hastily judge as “bad” are not inherently so. Animals, bugs and creepy crawlies do what is in their nature. How we feel about them should not apply. The same is true for a young child. Normal social development involves a great deal of trial and error. Pushing, hitting, arguing, yelling, biting etc. are all examples of error. Errors aren’t bad. If we accept and allow that no child is perfect, then error must be considered a natural part of growing up.
Last year, a fox ate all of my chickens. My children loved those chickens. Just days before, my 4 year old had proclaimed them his “best friends.” The carnage that day was fairly traumatic even for an adult. My son was upset, but his response was amazing. “Dad.” He said with a quiver in his voice. “The fox isn’t bad. He’s just doing what he does.”
So your child comes home from school saying “Mom, Timmy pushed me again.” Before you respond, remember that everything from your facial expressions and body language to your word choice and tone of voice will affect what happens next. Each must be intentional. The bigger the response, the greater the impression on your child and the more likely you are to hear about Timmy again tomorrow, whether or not Timmy is even at school. I have spent many hours helping parents walk themselves back from this point because they unintentionally sensationalized the subject and gave the child an ability to control the moment.
Before you speak, wait. Take time even if you don’t need it. There is almost never a downside to being silent for a little bit. Then, when yo do speak, stay positive. While you don’t like his actions, or possibly even Timmy himself -labelling him as “bad” almost certainly makes the situation worse for everyone. In essence, you’re lumping Timmy into a category from which, at least in a child’s eyes, it is nearly impossible to emerge. Timmy is now -and possibly forever, a “bad guy.”
Some conflict resolution tactics advise separating the actions from the actor. “Timmy is not bad, but he is behaving badly.” This is not a completely objectible way to go, but I don’t personally believe in doing this either. It’s still a judgement and who are we to assign that definition when we weren’t even involved in the moment? Just because he doesn’t have the vocabulary to choose another word for “bad” doesn’t mean your child can’t hold a different view. So give him the right words from the start.
The fact is that your son is clearly upset at the situation. So that’s where we begin. The first response should be something like “I can see you’re upset by that.” Then wait, again. Maybe you get an explanation. Maybe not. But from here we have options. “What happened?” “What did you do, then?” “How could Timmy have handled things differently?” “What could you have done differently?” These are all great questions to ask, just don’t get in too deep. Keep it brief. Keep it light. Regardless of the details, you want your child to come away with two points:
- Timmy is still learning
- Timmy may need our help
Even if you know nothing about this child whatsoever, point number one is an indisputable fact. Acknowledging this enables your child, who is also still learning, to relate to Timmy. The second point gives your child some ownership and possibly some control over the situation, because there may be effective words or some kind of productive action he could take. It is up to you to figure out what type of help to advise -if at all. It could be as simple as encouraging your child to give Timmy some space or tell the teacher if he sees that Timmy could use some help.
There will always be Timmy’s in your child’s world, but your child spends his or her days in a Montessori environment. This is the best place in which to experience these moments. We are specifically trained not to help children avoid conflict, but to ensure that all parties learn from the moment. By following these simple techniques at home, you’ll be sure to do your part to acheive the same goal.