Learning our humanity means learning how to behave socially. It’s not easy, especially when we begin life believing that the world revolves around us and that the only rules to follow are the toddler ones: If I see it, it’s mine. If I want it, it’s mine. If I saw it first, it’s mine. Oh yeah…if you have it and I want it, it’s mine (maybe after I haul off and smack you in order to get it).
Ah, yes…welcome to a day in the life of a parent, teacher or child care provider. Anyone who doesn’t think it takes a whole village to raise a child is delusional. Anyone who says it’s the toughest job in the world knows exactly what they’re talking about (thank you, Mom).
I work with children from infancy through age eleven. While I am cradling a baby in my arms, it’s easy for that tiny person to look at me and for me to gaze back with loving compassion. We have connected through our eyes, and without speaking, I’m telling this child that I will do my best to intuit what s/he needs since speech has yet to develop. I’m also offering this child my love with all my heart. My eyes say: You are loved, and I will keep you safe.
As children grow, this task becomes more challenging. Kids speak to express their needs and wants. They test limits. They also act quickly and sometimes violently. They need adults to help them with impulse control and to provide structure to keep them safe. Here’s the equation: Structure + Observation + Guidance=Love.
This is not easy to implement. Each day I see children who instantly bite, grab, hit, kick, or punch one another when they don’t get their way or someone takes something that was “mine.” What I’ve quickly learned is that correcting this behavior requires more than saying, “Use your words!”
The reality is that most children don’t know what words to use because adults don’t teach emotions. Most of us don’t know how to identify our own and express them in healthy ways. (You are never too old to learn this, by the way.) Kids can easily tell you what so-and-so did to them, but I’ve yet to see a child tell me the corresponding feeling that accompanied her/his undesirable behavior. Part of what I do when I intervene to help a child is to ask one question: “What were you feeling?”
I’m usually met with a blank stare. If a child can’t tell me, I start with the “basic four”: mad, sad, glad, or scared. Most every other emotion is some variant of these. “Mad?” That usually nails it. Now I’ve connected the feeling to the behavior. It’s also important to note that we can feel more than one thing at the same time, e.g. “sad and mad,” “sad and scared.” (For the record, “okay” tells me nothing and isn’t a feeling. It’s as vague as the word “interesting.”)
Part of offering corrective guidance is helping children learn to apologize when they’ve harmed someone. As much as I see blank stares when I ask what a child was feeling, I hear the automatic, “Sorry!” even more often. That wouldn’t bother me so much, except that it’s often said with an edgy tone and there’s rarely eye contact between children.
I also witnessed the lack of eye contact when I first needed to address some acting-out behavior from one of my elementary school-aged kids. I first asked him to please look at me. I felt such sadness that this seemed like such a struggle for him, but he eventually did when I said I just wanted to talk with him. When we finished our brief conversation, I thanked him. I added that I looked him in his eyes because I wanted him to know I meant what I said.
I’ve taken this a step farther, so that when I’m helping two kids resolve conflict, I ask for them to look at each other for the very same reason. This helps prevent the autopilot “Sorry!” response. It slows the process down enough to help two human beings connect through the heart. It also has the potential to do something else.
Communicating with the eyes helps bridge heart and message (verbal and nonverbal). It’s no accident that the eyes are known as the windows of the soul. When adults facilitate interactions like this early and often, we teach children so much. We teach them that their actions—and inactions—affect others. We do more than promote positive social skills. We help sow the seeds of empathy and ultimately, forgiveness and love. It’s valuable. It’s important. The future of all generations depends on it.