A friend of mine used to scream Nooo!” when her child fell down. Her screaming was more startling than her child tripping. I often wondered if her daughter adopted the attitude that falling down was a tragic event. As adults, the impulse to “fix” things often makes us react when something goes wrong with a child. Books often advise us against intervening, for example, when a child is having a tantrum or siblings are fighting. However, these “blanket rules” for interacting can easily mislead or confuse us.
It’s more helpful to reflect about intervention and when it supports those involved and when it undermines their abilities to handle things for themselves. I sometimes find when I watch children to see if children can handle an argument that situations resolve themselves. Other times, no response could cause “wrong thinking.” Let’s talk about circumstances that propel us to act and think about our choices.
A child screaming in disappointment or frustration
We can show we understand and accept children’s feelings without trying to talk them out of feeling disappointed or mad.
Siblings hitting each other
We always need to intervene if children are hurting each other. Children should never infer from our non-action that physical aggression is okay. But one person doesn’t have to be wrong. You can help them work out their conflict with words.
A child yelling at another child
Yelling often gets our adrenaline flowing. At another school, I once heard an adult yell at a child who was raising his voice, “Use your words!” However, yelling is using words, and sometimes when children are trying to establish a boundary with someone else, they have to yell. If they said “I was using that first” in a soft voice, they could easily be ignored. As adults, we want to watch two things—whether the person yelling is maintaining self-control and whether the listener is overwhelmed. We could also observe the emotions – “It sounds like you’re angry!”– then ask the other child, “How are you feeling?” We could also offer each compliments for not hitting or name calling (if that’s the case).
If feelings are hurt, we can request that the angry child state her needs in a calmer voice.
When young children are cooperating on a project, there is often loud talking. Standing back to see if they can communicate often brings wonderful results.
Your colleague or partner or a relative is expressing anger toward a child
It depends. There is a difference between an adult saying “I’m upset that you did that” and yelling in a way that intimidates a child. We want children to learn that they have a different relationship with each person, and people get upset about different things. Sometimes we don’t have to do anything. However, if an adult is losing self-control and belittling a child, we might say, “I understand how you’re feeling. Do you want me to take over for a few minutes?” Often just stating our understanding will defuse the situation. If an adult is swearing at a child, calling him names, or hitting, we would always ask to take over.
Children wrestling or playing shooting games
At school we don’t allow children to wrestle because someone usually gets hurt. Shooting games aren’t allowed at school, though young children show enormous creativity in devising toy guns. However, as we know from our own childhoods, wanting to explore these activities is normal. You can set up your own rules at home but explain to your child that other situations may have different guidelines. This is important because we sometimes find that children who roughhouse at home hurt people unintentionally at school because that’s the way they think people play.
Children saying they are bullied at school
Intervene by talking to your child’s teacher about her perspective on the situation. If your child does feel intimidated by a schoolmate, you can role-play how to speak up or ask your child what ideas he has for handling the situation. The main goal is to help a child feel empowered to respond in situations for herself. There’s a wonderful picture book about a father supporting his son who feels bullied at the playground without telling him exactly what to do, only validating his feelings and asking questions. The intervention we want to avoid is accusing another parent of not disciplining her child or confronting the “intimidating” child ourselves. Children and adults have a whole range of temperaments, and we want children to feel confident and brave interacting with almost anyone.
Child calling a person who isn’t present names while expressing anger to us
We could say, “I understand why you’re angry, and that’s fine. But we have to respect other people by not calling them names.” When we establish the habit of not belittling people whether they are present or not, relationships flow more positively.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.