I was talking to a friend and colleague in the field about our observations of caretaker-child interactions. I observed that I am increasingly seeing more caretakers at bus stops with children not actively engaged, but looking at their phones. One thing that struck me was that the children in said scenarios would periodically gaze up at the adult and try to wait patiently. In other cases, the child might begin to act out.
My friend recalled another event. As she was preparing to leave for work, she observed an elder adult, that typically picks up a neighborhood boy to go to school, outside at her usual time. When the boy did not come outside at the usual time, the adult woman knocked on the door and loudly screamed, “Get your fat ass downstairs.” She continued to yell insults as the boy walked outside and got into the car, looking upset. I cringed listening to the story and remarked that this was how the young man would start his day, before arriving at school.
In the first example, there is an absence of voice. Lack of engagement can be as impactful as negative engagement. Caretakers should ask themselves what messages they are sending to the child they are speaking with and engaging? The absence of message may not allow a child to see themselves as worthy of engagement. Thus, behavioral acting out can become an issue. After all, for many children, some attention is better than none at all. More importantly, there are missed opportunities for both parties to learn. Children learn in many ways; while young their learning is facilitated by their engagement with others and their environments.
The second example is one that was particularly disturbing for me as I wondered what the boy, hearing the adult in his life yell at him, interpreted from this interaction. How did he hear the words? What narrative did he begin to tell himself about his worth or image? Not only was the tone of voice harsh but the personal nature in which the insult was delivered likely echoed in his thoughts that day, and beyond. We all likely have had the experience of being treated in a less desirable way by one of our peers, or others in childhood. One of the things that helps children combat negative experiences is their sense of self, which they develop, in part, based on what they are told by the adults in their lives, the type of encouragement they receive, and what they witness from the adults in their lives.
Here are some things to consider.
- Self-concept is internalized. Contrary to historic belief, children are not little adults. Their social and emotional health develops over time. A child’s sense of self is a representation of what they hear, see, and come to think of themselves. The voices of the caretakers in a child’s life characterize their first interactions. Those interactions are crucial. Ideally, children are met with patience, understanding, and direct messages that reinforce their importance as being, their unique attributes, and their sense of competence and confidence.
- Set the tone. It is easy for all of us to get lost in the ever-stimulating posts, pictures, and tweets on social media. Remind yourself that you will likely have other opportunities to sit and scroll through your phone. The time we are able to spend with children, who may spend most of their waking hours in a formal school setting, is fleeting. Instead, look for opportunities to consolidate things your child may have learned in a school. While waiting for the bus or riding in the car, ask your child to tell you what they see. You might suggest that they point out all of the items they see of a particular color. Practice spelling words, counting, or asking questions to develop their comprehension. Or simply, talk to your child about what they are excited about for the upcoming school day. They may also tell you about their fears or anxieties, which provides an opportunity for the caretaker to offer reassurance and encouragement.
- Be patient. Interacting with children amidst your own chaotic schedule and stresses can be challenging. As children grow into adults, they can be temperamental and test the limits. Patience is required by all. It is really easy to lose your temper, react abruptly, or think that the easiest solution to a temporary situation is to Shut. It. Down. In such times, pause. Take a deep breath to cope with your own thoughts and emotions. Ask yourself what is affecting you at the moment. Then ask yourself what the child in your life may be trying to communicate through their behavior or interaction with you. Remember children are developing their emotional vocabularies. In the absence of having the language to express themselves, or the impulse control to manage their emotions, they may act out. Encourage the child to “use their words” to tell you what the issue may be. In other cases, it may be more appropriate to offer the words to help a child understand their emotions; “You seem frustrated right now because…” Imagine the difference for the young boy in the aforementioned example if the elder woman would have acknowledged that he was running late for school, and ask about the morning’s scenarios. How are you doing this morning? Did you wake up late? This could have been followed by some suggestion for better time management or simple encouragement.
- Many adults were socialized during an era when children were taught they were to be “seen and not heard” and to respect their elders (read: adults are always right). This may lead children to think that as younger human beings, their observations or thoughts are not valued. This is not true. Adults have the ability to model for children that no one person is always correct. We all make mistakes and perhaps engage with others in ways that we may regret. A powerful message that we may provide for children is the idea that when we do so, we can apologize to those that we may have affected. This teaches children to reflect and take ownership of their thoughts, emotions, and behavior.