A huge fire truck (actually normal size but humongous to preschoolers) came to demonstrate fire hose spraying. After hearing the driver’s helpful talk on fire safety (crawling on your belly beneath the smoke in a burning building or standing near a window or doorway so a fireperson can rescue you), a few preschoolers opted not to go out to see the truck. Most of them were boys. Perhaps they were anxious that they would be called upon to perform some heroic act of bravery.
I was particularly interested in one very social boy’s decision to stay inside. I complimented him on his ability to know what he wanted to do and voicing it. He’s a young man usually concerned with what his friends think, someone who doesn’t like to show vulnerability. His rough-and- tumble gregariousness belies his sensitivity, and he often hides his tears. The teachers could have cajoled the boy into joining the excitement of a spurting fire hose, but they wanted to honor his decision. He was obviously content with it and never even peeked out the window at the truck.
At school, teachers show respect for children’s feelings every day, even though we have to limit children’s actions. That means we try not to say “You don’t have to be afraid to see a fire truck” or “You don’t have to be sad that your friend is playing with someone else.” We don’t want to encourage children to hang back from interesting learning activities or hide in a corner when they’re afraid or feeling left out. Yet sometimes being able to make an unpopular choice (his friends went to see the fire engine) strengthens a child’s feeling of inner resolve.
Making small choices about life and living with them is a crucial process for children. How else can they make their own determination about situations and then reflect on how their decisions worked out? Recently a boy didn’t come to a small group when my rabbit was visiting because he was upset. Afterward he cried and said, “I didn’t get to pet the bunny.” There was no need to remonstrate him about making a choice that ended up with sad feelings. We have to allow life to teach, and the biggest mistake would be to alter the situation based on a child’s emotions after a decision. We can empathize, “I know you’re sad. You missed your chance.” No lecture. No shaming.
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A colleague overheard someone telling a child recently, “You have to take karate!” It made us reflect on how nice it is when after-school activities are elective for children, depending on what they feel their needs are at a given time. People may disagree that children won’t try things if we don’t force them to see that sports or other extracurricular activities are important for their future. But that hasn’t been my experience. Remember when school officials threatened us that any failure to do something or a mistake we made would be listed on our “permanent record”? Deciding not to go out for soccer won’t impede a child’s success in life. However, allowing a child to decide what she can take on will make a lifelong impression of loving trust on her heart.
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.