How Do Children Learn?
1. Handling Tricky Moments
There are so many things we want our kids to learn in order for them to be safe and happy; to grow up accepted, respected, loved and valued – with their best qualities shining. So when children are doing something naughty, crazy or silly – how can we best teach them?
In a group of related articles, I explore nonviolent, empathic approaches to childcare:
“Children must learn!”
How can we have a peaceful life, where fun and play come happily, without upset?
What we do is to educate. Parents naturally teach. We want our children to behave sensibly; to treat others with consideration. If they don’t learn basic rules and behaviours, we fear for their happiness and safety. We want our kids to know where they stand. That’s why parents often feel that a cross outburst, or a flash of temper, is the best shortcut. Sometimes we shout ‘for the child’s own good’.
Yet temper comes more quickly when we focus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We feel more justified shouting at what is ‘wrong’ – be it scratching, kicking, biting, seizing, screaming, painting on walls; you can make your own list...!
Curiously, emphasising what is wrong or bad (however strongly we may feel it as a parent) is not the best way to teach a child. Since the message that something is wrong often comes with a verbal and emotional charge, it’s very hard for a child (and most adults) to separate what they have done wrong from a sense that they are wrong or bad as a person.
So how can we teach children differently?
Parents have needs too
What do we mean when we say something is wrong? What we really mean is that our child has just provoked our own natural (often completely understandable and reasonable) response of No! Not alright! This instinctive, baseline response is our ‘instant messaging service’ telling us important needs are in jeopardy.
It can be hard for parents to accept that they have their own needs, because they come in so many shapes and sizes. Parents’ needs encompass the needs of the ‘naughty’ child (e.g. his health and safety, her future learning) and the needs of those around (e.g. other siblings). At the same time, parents are only human; they do have needs of their own. It’s important that they do. This is how a child learns that his or her behaviour affects other people:
Baby brothers need care!
Daddy is tired and needs rest!
If I scratch Mummy, she hurts!
A parent’s own needs are a crucial part of a child’s world. If parents are clear about their own needs (and the needs of others around), it enables their child to form his or her own, unique identity. In this way, our children learn that they are interactional beings, in a world of interrelation.
The best basis for change
If we want children to learn, we want them to do so because they have truly learned the effects of their actions. We don’t want anyone to ‘stop behaving badly’ for fear of being wrong – for fear of punishment. We want children to understand that other people have needs too.
So the most important thing we can teach our kids is how to meet their own needs in ways which also take other people’s needs into account. In other words, we want our children to learn the fundamental basis of all social interaction whatsoever: empathy.
Sadly, a great deal of parenting advice promotes the idea of kindly-delivered punishment as means of teaching and changing behaviour – for example, the Naughty Corner. I believe there are grave problems with these approaches. At worst, we end up teaching children to punish us!
I’ll written more this about in my coming blog-articles: How do Children Learn? Problems with kindly-meant punishment (Coming soon!)
For both children and adults, empathy happens naturally when we feel considered, respected and valued. When our own needs are acknowledged, we can easily understand other people’s needs. So if we want our children to learn empathy, the best way is to practice and exemplify empathy ourselves.
So when the next tricky moment comes along, let’s pause, however briefly. Even the tiniest gap can help. Put aside for an instant how overwhelming or urgent it feels to resolve the difficulty, and remember that empathy is the best lesson the child can have.
Here are two golden rules:
Empathy before solutions:
Start with empathy for yourself. This is like fixing your own lifejacket, or putting on your own oxygen mask in a plane! If you are resourced and well, you can be that for others. So make room for your own difficult feelings; be kinder towards your own unwise words and actions. As you do, you’ll feel gentler and more human. Then you can respond without any edge of temper or upset that a child may hear as punishment. You become larger and more understanding. As your empathy grows, it will spill out and encompass everyone around.
Empathy before education:
Next, empathise with your child for his or her upsets. Leave teaching aside for a while, until both of you are calmer and happier. If you want your child to learn consideration, respect and kindness, the best teacher is you! First children must know that you welcome their troubles with kindness and understanding. Only then will they trust that your firmness and clear boundaries are a welcome support, full of love and care.
That’s when a happy family spirit can truly thrive in our homes. It’s not by being perfect or happy all the time – who can? – but by responding to what’s imperfect in new ways, with a spirit of kindness, empathy and love.
For more explorations of nonviolent, empathic approaches to childcare, watch out for my blog articles, coming soon!