A big part of the job of an educator, especially an early childhood educator, especially especially an early childhood educator in an independent school, is parent education. Most people don’t remember being four years old. And even if they do, the world our four-year-olds inhabit now is likely much different than the one of parents’ past. So I take seriously my role in educating parents, helping them to better understand their children, how they experience the world, and what they are doing in my classroom.
If there is one singular lesson I can get parents to understand, it is this: limits = love. Don’t get me wrong, many are quite clear on this fact. But not all. Especially now, especially in independent schools. Recently (over the past few generations), there seems to be an uptick in the parent-as-friend approach to child rearing. The logic seems to be, “If my child likes me, we’ll have a better relationship, they’ll be better behaved, and things will just be, well, better.” Wrong. Wrong, wrong wrong. There may be deeper motivations at play –how those parents were themselves parented or the extreme excess showered upon children that dominates the airwaves and a desire to be part of the in-crowd– but whatever the reasoning may be, parents are wrong if they think they are doing their child a service by being lax in their duties.
One thing you’ll never hear me say is that a child is “bad”. With rare exception, children are just childrening, which typically includes behavior we might describe as bad. But I genuinely believe there are exceedingly few truly bad apples at four years of age. So what do we say of the child who seemingly breaks every rule at will? He is limit testing. But that ain’t just some euphemism that allows me to call a kid bad without actually saying. It is perfectly describing what that child is doing. There may be other motivations at work, but ultimately much of it boils down to determining what the bounds of their world are.
Let’s use an example I’m sure many of us can relate to: speeding. Show of hands… who drives over the speed limit at least once a day? Golly gee, a room full of bad people, right? Of course not. Most of us can articulate a reason for why we speed: we’re late; we think the limit is too low; we think we can confidently drive faster in a safe manner; we didn’t know what the limit was; everyone else was doing it; no one was stopping us. Again, show of hands… who justifies their speeding in one of these ways?
Well, this same logic is often behind why children defy limits. They’re not trying to be bad or piss us off or thumb their nose at authority. More often than not, they are following motivations that they place higher value on than adherence to the rule, the purpose of which is likely too abstract for them to understand. “Mommy said I couldn’t have more cookies. But I like cookies. I know it feels good when I eat them. I know it feels bad when I don’t. What a silly rule.” Four-year-olds typically don’t and can’t understand fully how that cookie and the fifty that would follow it if left to their own devices can have severe negative impacts on their long term health. Not now, at least.
But you know what happens, slowly, over much time? They start to. They start out thinking, “Daddy doesn’t let me slide down the bannister because he’s a big ol’ meanie.” But what happens? Well, one day Daddy is in the other room and Junior slides down the bannister and falls off and twists his ankle. LIGHT BULB! “Hey, maybe that is why Daddy didn’t want me to do that. He wasn’t being mean. He was trying to protect me.” They start to learn where the limits are and begin to abide by them independently.
Now, every child’s learning curve is different. Some people simply need to be told not to do something and they likely won’t. But others need to experience the act and the consequence before they fully grasp or accept a limitation. Sometimes multiple times over. “Ah, I just landed funny. I can still slide down this bannister.” Several bumps and bruises later, the lesson will likely be learned. A hard earned lesson, but a lesson none the less. But not just a lesson about gravity and speed and physics and the frailty of the human body. But a lesson about why Daddy said no in the first place: “Daddy wants me to be safe. He didn’t want me to get hurt. He loves me.”
Does this mean every parent should go out tomorrow, enact a bunch of rules, and hold steadfastly to them? No. That’d be going to far. The rules have to actually serve a purpose. If your children learn that the rules and limits you enact are not serving their interest, but rather are a power play, they’ll just engage in increasingly more difficult power plays. But if the rules and limits are good, sound ones, put in place to help your children pursue the best outcomes you’ve identified for them, they will soon see them as the expression of love that they are. And all will be better for it.
[photo courtesy of Brown Liquor]