Friday, February 12, 2010

What do you do when one child hurts another, pt. 2

I was delighted to read yet another excellent advice column by Marguerite Kelly (Family Almanac, Washington Post) in today's paper that supports and enhances my thoughts on this subject from Feb. 5th. This column is entitled "Little giant shouldn't be a big bully." The question surrounds a parent's concern about aggressive behavior by her 7 year old towards his little brother and his overall interest in gun play and other violent games; Marguerite Kelly points out that playing with imaginary or toy guns is developmentally "right on" for his age, but the catch is:

You should worry, however, if your son plays violent games more often than most boys his age and if he is more aggressive than they are and teases and taunts other chilren more than they do. A child likes to play with toys that suit his talents, his temperament and his age, but the way he plays with them reflects the way he feels about himself. And clearly your big little boy doesn't feel great.

I highlighted the words above that I'd like to run with: it's our job as parents and educators to pay heed to our children, to be alert to what they are telling us that they are probably not expressing in words. What's that classic Momism - "Actions speak louder than words"? With children, this is always true. You must help the child express himself appropriately, you must figure out the source of his pain, frustration, worry, or concern. Again, from Marguerite Kelly:

. . . drop the lectures and start listening to the boy. Choose a time when the two of you can be together, then turn off the TV, the phone and your cellphone and give him your full attention.

First ask him, gently, how he feels when he gets aggressive or teases his little brother. What sets him off? And how does he feel afterward? Is he pleased with himself? Or does he feel ashamed? Or guilty? And why? If you give your son plenty ot time to answer your questions, and keep your judgements to yourself, he will tell you how he feels, deep inside - if not in this conversation, then in the next one - and what he plans to do about it.

With this advice, you are focusing on being with your child with the goal of unlocking what he has bottled up inside him.

I am a huge proponent of simple togetherness every day. If you take the opportunity to have focused play time with your child on a daily basis - a time when you put your work and concerns aside and simply follow your child's lead - you will be laying a strong, resilient foundation for this little child, for your family, for your classroom. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton refers to this as "floor time" and notes that you don't need more than 15-20 minutes of this child-led play each day. But the benefits are enormous. You will strengthen your relationship with him, open up lines of communication, and send your child the message that his interests are respected. You will have all this to fall back on when stressors occur. (And we know they will!)

I hear teachers screaming "Oh, come on now, how do you find 20 minutes per child?" Well, you are right. In my 4 hour teaching day, I can't spend 15-20 minutes on each child. But, I keep a mental checklist of time in with each of my students; every day, during our free play period, I hone in on one child, rotating my way through all the kids in my class. I believe I spend probably 10 minutes with each child during one 3-day teaching week. And this time isn't "scheduled into the daily plan" - I don't broadcast it to one and all: "Ms. Maureen is playing with John now!". I simply sidle up to a child and ask if I can play, too. I follow that child's lead, I let him decide what we are playing. I build blocks, I have tea parties with dolls and bears, I paint at the art tables, I race cars down cardboard tubes, I make muffins out of playdough. I always have a lot of laughs - and I am so heartened by the conversations I have with these children, hearing, really, the stuff of their lives "You be hurt, Ms. Maureen and I'll be the princess mommy with the baby who takes care of you." Follow your child's lead.

And see if some of your household and classroom tension goes away.

I'll close here, but I encourage you to check out Marguerite Kelly's column every Friday in the Washington Post Style section. I've been a fan of it for years.

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