If you are like me and don’t have kids of your own but have plenty of kids in your immediate family, all of which will soon be swarming upon you over the holidays, this post is for you.
Compared to the average twenty-something without kids, I have an inordinate amount of experience with children. I’ve studied them at university and in a post-graduate Montessori program. I have worked with them in a variety of professional environments for over a decade, and for the past three years, I led a 3-6 environment of my own at a local Montessori school. My husband calls me the kid whisperer. I call myself adaptive. Patient. But I would be lying if I said I was always that way.
Plenty of things about children have historically stressed me out, which is precisely why I became so determined to learn. To adapt. To practice leaning into the things I can’t control, and making the most of what I can — my responses. Which brings me to the first and most important part of being around kids:
Keep it calm
Okay. This doesn’t mean we can’t get them riled up and have a Great Big Silly Time together. We are, after all, not their parents which means we are Novel and Exciting in and of ourselves. Keeping it calm just means that after we rile them up, especially if they’re younger (say under 7), we help them regulate back to a calm state.
Note: this does not mean telling a young child to go and “Calm their body.” That’s like a photographer telling me to, “Relax my chin.” Neither of us have much experience doing that — especially not on command!
It’s better to lead them in the direction of calm by engaging them in an activity they enjoy and that comes naturally — blowing bubbles, dancing at an increasingly slower rate, doing a puzzle, reading a book, going to check on an animal. Any activity that causes them to gradually slow their heart-rate, helps them breathe deeply, engages their senses, and transitions them out of the wound-up yellow and/or red zone and into the calm and alert green zone, where the upper regions of their developing brain are online and ready to learn.
2. Keep it positive
Another way to help children stay in the green zone is to speak to them affirmatively. Don’t believe me? Try saying, YES! out-loud to yourself a couple of times. Now try saying, NO! aloud several times. Notice the shift in your body when you heard no? It is important that we tell children what they can do instead of what they can’t i.e. You can walk in the house, and if you want to run, you can go outside.
If they want something that’s not available, try telling them when they can have it, or follow up with a reminder of what they can have. i.e. Mom said no more candy today, but you can have some more tomorrow! or Mom said no candy right now, but you can have something else. Do you want a cheese stick or pretzels? By giving children choices and putting power back in their hands, we give them a feeling of control and can minimize a potential power struggle.
Commiserating and/or engaging in short-term wishful thinking can also be helpful in transitioning out of these moments. Kids, like all humans, just want their feelings validated. They want to feel heard. Commiseration can help with that, as long as we are solid on our boundaries. Kids tend to spot weakness a mile away, so only allow yourself to commiserate if you’re able to strike a balance between kind and firm.
After you validate and/or commiserate, it’s helpful to redirect or distract the child onto something else. The best way to sell any idea to children, is by being sold on it yourself. Thanks to “mirror neurons” we tend to mirror the behavior of people we are around, so the better a version of ourselves we bring to the table, the better a version of themselves a child will bring. Which leads me to…
3. Keep it respectful
Respect is a two-way street. A good way to get respect is to give it. To the child and to ourselves. Each child is an individual, and it’s important that they be treated as such. Take your time in getting to know what is important to them. Some avenues of respecting children that adults often overlook include —
getting on the child’s level to talk to them
making eye contact
giving them our full undivided attention
asking permission before hugging/touching them
asking permission before touching their stuff
asking permission before helping
respecting their “no” (note: if it’s not a choice, don’t ask it! Instead of, Are you coming to dinner? try, It’s time to come to dinner. Do you want to sit by me or by Granny?
respecting their focus (think about how annoying it is when you’re trying to read or work on something, and people keep interrupting you!)
Equally important to respecting the child, is respecting ourselves. This not only models for children how to respect and advocate for ourselves, it also gives them opportunities to practice giving respect. General guiding principles include requiring children to behave and communicate in non-violent ways.
For instance, when a child speaks to me in a way that is bossy or rude, I gently but firmly remind them that I speak to them kindly, and thus, I expect to be spoken to kindly in return. If they don’t understand this as a concept, we’ll talk about what “kind” requests look like, but often kids six and older understand the sentiment.
If the child understands the above but is habituated to making harsh or bossy demands, I will tell them ahead of time that I know they can ask nicely, so when they speak to me in ways that are not nice, I will pretend to not hear them until they practice the nicer way. This is exactly how boundary enforcement should go. It should be simple, direct, and action-based (never lecturing or inciting guilt, fear, or shame).
If I was playing with a child at someone’s house where the rules included not climbing on the furniture, and the child began to climb, my first response might be, You realllllly like climbing on this couch! It look fun, but at this house, the rule is the couch is only for sitting. Let’s go find something else we can climb on. Come on! If the child refused or ignored my words, I might try, Do you want to step off the couch or JUMP off the couch? and if nothing playful worked, it would likely end with the action-based boundary, Are you going to get off the couch on your own or with my help? but chances are with most kids, one of the first responses will have worked, and by now, we would be outside climbing trees and laughing ourselves silly.
During the holidays there is a lot of emphasis on toys and material goods, but you know what’s WAY better than a cool gadget that may very well break moments after its unwrapped? An engaged and loving adult. On behalf of our future, thank you for giving that special gift to the children in your life this holiday season :)
Anything I missed? Another incident where you struggle with knowing how to respond? Let me in the comments know below <3