Explore the world of the young child with me, Stephen Spitalny, early childhood consultant and writer. I offer lectures, workshops and mentoring around the world.
I was a kindergarten teacher at the Santa Cruz Waldorf School for 24 years and am a former board member of WECAN (Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America). Check out my 3 books!
Sorry I have not done a post in a while. I just returned from a 4-week trip to China teaching a group of 60 kindergarten teachers. I have a flash of insight during one lecture and I want to share it with you!
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I have seen it so many times...
A parent want their child to do something (or not do something), and the child is not going along with that plan. The parent loses his or her calm and gets upset, and speaks to the child with demands, threats, shame and blame, etc...The parent wants to ‘correct’ the child’s behavior.
The result is that the child is fearful and closes off and is not available for connection. And most importantly for the parent, the child cannot learn what it is the parent was wanting to communicate. Shouting and shaming cannot teach anything, except that shouting and shaming is the way to get what you want. (See some of my previous posts on imitation as the young child’s primary learning modality.)
Let’s look at this from another angle.
The parent wants a certain outcome.
The child is not going along with that plan.
The parent wants the child to learn something (to do, or not do).
Parent gets upset and possibly shouts, and uses words of threat, shame and blame.
Child gets upset. Parent feels sad and unsatisfied with the interaction. Repeat...and repeat...until parent does something different.
From a neurological standpoint, when you ‘lose it’ you and are re-acting, you are being run by your “reptile brain.” The reptile brain is the most ancient of the neurological ‘systems and is functional in fight, flight and freeze. It’s job is survival. It is especially activated when there are safety fears.
Learning occurs in the limbic system, which also is involved in emotional bonding between parent and child, and play behaviors.
When a parent is in reaction mode, the reptile brain is in command. When a child is approached by his or her reacting parent, it feels like an attack. The child feels unsafe and fearful and so the child also switches to reptile brain to get back to safety, perhaps by defending themself, or perhaps by becoming aggressive.
When reptile brain meets reptile brain there can be no connecting, and the child cannot learn what the parent is trying to ‘teach.’ Learning happens when the limbic system is active. Executive function and creative problem solving occurs in the prefrontal cortex, or neomammalian system of the brain. We need to short circuit our reaction patterns so we can utilize our prefrontal cortex and find a response or solution to our situation.
Think about it...when you want to correct your child’s behavior, you have to maintain your calm so your child does not have the need to fight or flee (anger or withdrawal).
I am not saying to not have feelings. No, have your feelings. Surely you get angry, and sad, and more, in situations with your child. Just don’t let those feelings run you. Equanimity is the name of the game. Recognize your feelings, and do not let those feelings stimulate your reaction patterns. Think of a response to the situation to create solutions. Then you are taking advantage of the millions of years of neurological evolution that provided you with your brain. And you are offering an environment to your child where his or her limbic system can be involved and learning can take place.
Call on your highest human neurological aspects, and thereby lead your child toward being more truly human. What do you think?
Your agenda can be an obstacle to connection and a harmonious life. Learning to surrender your agenda leads to more presence and acceptance. Often adults have plans and expectations about the way they want things to be. There can be an attachment to particular outcomes. When what they want doesn’t happen, old reaction patterns arise and get in the way of connection. Your agenda, your expectations and your attachment to the way you think things should be is a major cause of stress and conflict!
As I have spoken about so many times on this page, our reaction patterns are old strategies we developed when we ourselves were young children to try to get our own needs met, and to attempt to deal with stress.
Warning: We are now entering into the dangerous territory of ‘should.’
Many adults feel more safe when they have some sense of control over their environment. That includes being able to expect what is going to happen, and how others “ought” to act.
When our young children don’t do as they should, our agenda is compromised. When young children do what they shouldn’t we lose the feeling of safety we get by the attempt to control our environment and the people around us.
Our agenda is what we expect to come to pass, except we did not reach any agreements with other involved parties. Therefore our unspoken expectation is not agreed to, or even known about by the other party, ie. your young child.
There are a couple things to do to prevent situations when your agenda is thwarted. You can plan ahead. Use that highly evolved brain, particularly your prefrontal cortex, and take action based on thought and planning.
For instance; you have an appointment and need to be out the door with your young child at a certain time.
Try making sure your child is fully dressed before he or she gets engaged in play. Don’t wait until the last minute to get ready to go because surely something unexpected will arise. “Now where is that other shoe?” “Where did I put the keys?”
Instead of demanding your young child put toys away, put them away together and make a fun activity out of it. Leave plenty of time for getting ready.
Another action you can take to eliminate the stress of your agenda not being fulfilled is to embrace chaos. Chaos is the unplanned, the unexpected and the disorderly. How much chaos can you feel comfortable with? Can we live in the chaos of not knowing what is going to happen next? When we can learn to dance with chaos instead of resisting it and trying to control it away, form can organically arise and we feel more relaxed and are more connected to our children.
Additionally, can we consider the needs and wants of our young child when our unfulfilled agenda alarms are ringing. If we include our child in the equation, it is possible that more compassion and patience can manifest.
Learning to let go of our your agenda means giving up the struggling and holding on to trivial issues, and discovering the gifts of allowing. When we can allow life to happen, we live with an open heart, an undefended heart, and then deep connection can thrive.
Recently I was re-experiencing the amazing results of doing real work with the young children are around. When I am truly engaged in necessary, meaningful work around my house or preschool or kindergarten, the children are served in ever so many ways. Of course it is important to be playful with the children, and to play with them sometimes. It is also important to get the things done that your household or facility require for continued smooth functioning and beautiful aesthetics.
What sort of work am I talking about? I mean the real stuff of cleaning, cooking, pruning, raking, laundry, bathroom cleaning, window cleaning, sweeping, mopping, cobweb removal... You know what I mean. Some call these sorts of things ‘domestic activity.’ When you hate to do these things, the benefits to the children are limited. Learn to love taking care of your home - for the children’s sake at least.
Young children are newly arrived to our world. What helps to ground them into earthly life, and gives them activities to imitate and thereby develop capacities and skills, is the work of taking care of our home environments. This is true quality time for the children. If we learn to focus our engaged attention on these needed tasks and at the same time develop open channels of communication and connection with the children, we have high quality time.
When a baby is born, first he has to develop control of muscles to be able to pilot the vessel he has been given. Then he has to learn hygiene of this inherited body. Next step is to learn to care for the home and the surroundings his body lives in. For me, incorporating activities of caring for the home environment into daily life is supportive of early childhood development in so many ways. When he is going on the grade 1 it is time to look out into the surrounding world and discover what is there.
I think of early years development as concentric circles. The inner circle is learning how to move. Next is learning to keep the body clean and fed. The next circle out is caring for the home. And just in time for first grade, we look out into and begin to learn about and understand the wider world.
Why real work is so important:
1. Getting done what needs to be done around the home decreases stress levels for the adults which in turn creates a more harmonious, peaceful and wonderful environment for the young children. Adult stress and anxiety don’t foster the child’s development.
2. Play is the essential ‘work’ of the young child. When the adult engages in ‘real’ work around the home or kindergarten, the play of the children is more grounded and harmonious. The more you can focus on the work that is needed (while keeping the eyes in the back of your head on the children) the more constructive the children’s play. If you continually are the ‘entertainer’ for your young child, you are creating a pattern that is hard to change later. The child will rely on you as a playmate and won’t be as much of a self-starter able to entertain himself.
3. Young children learn by imitation. With the adult example of real work activities, the children can learn actual skills. And they can develop habits of taking care of their home environments. We are thereby helping the children into the community of human doers, workers and makers, and giving them a strong foundation for their individual futures.
4. The so-called domestic activities are love in action. These activities are in service to the community of the home or kindergarten and are social deeds. Without instructing or explaining, we are helping the children develop a sense of social responsibility by including home care as part of daily life together.
5. We are giving examples for the children to imitate and develop skillful hands able to do these tasks. The children become handy, and as they grow they are able to handle many types of situations.
What sorts of activities can you do to incorporate the children? If you are doing the laundry, the children can joyfully join in the folding. They may not be as quick or as neat as you, but they can participate just the same. Sweeping is an amazing activity for enhancing motor development. Washing and cutting the veggies for the soup is an obvious time for young helpers. Window washing is a great joy for young ones. Try filling a spray bottle with plain water and using microfiber cloths to clean the windows. It is the best way to clean glass. In fact, water and microfiber cloths is the best way to clean most everything. Be the example of using some elbow grease and the children will be lining up to help!
Can we support the children in their development by becoming handy men and women, whether we are a teacher or parent? That is, the person who can fix what needs fixing, and clean up afterwards. We can all learn to do simple plumbing, wood repairs and so much more and thereby give the children so much to imitate. This way we support them into the community of human doing.
My kindergarten group one year included a tall, older boy named “Noah.” Noah was six-years-old. One day Noah noticed one of the other children was playing with a toy that Noah liked. I watched Noah walk over, grab the toy, and tug it away from the other boy. Noah then went to the other side of the room leaving the other boy teary-eyed.
Standing between me and Noah was a student teacher who was spending 3 weeks in my kindergarten. She was facing Noah and I watched for a minute or so to see if she could help resolve the situation. I could see her tensing up wanting to do or say something but she did not.
Not wanting the situation to be prolonged, I went over to Noah with outstretched hand, palm up. I didn’t say anything. Noah looked at me, sighed and handed me the toy. Then I went over to the boy who had started with the toy and handed it to him. At the same time I spoke, loudly enough for Noah to hear across the room, “It is Sam’s turn now. Noah can have a turn next.”
That’s all I said and did, and I resumed the activity I had been doing with some other children. The situation was resolved. Harmony was restored.
And I had offered the two boys something they could imitate in future interactions, though it might take a number of similar interventions by me until one or the other boy took up a new approach. Noah could perhaps go to another child and ask, “Could I have a turn next?” Or Sam could say, when another child is trying to take something he is using, “It’s my turn now. You can have a turn next.” But remember, it might take many, many similar interventions by me until the children take up the new habit in their speaking.
What does not work is saying,”I already told you to ask for a turn.” It is not useful to expect quick changes in children’s behaviors. It results in frustration on the adult’s part when you expect change after one or two on fifty interventions. Habit change is slow and comes at it’s own time.
One thing that helps me is understanding that the children have developed habits, unconscious strategies, that have been successful for them in their past so they will keep using those habits until another strategy takes it’s place. That takes time and repetition.
After the children had gone home that day, the student teacher asked me, “How did you do that?” She was amazed. She though I did something magical. I thought I took a simple and logical action. In our discussion we came to realize that when I approached Noah, hand open for him to give me the toy, I had confidence that he would give it to me. I didn’t force him to give it to me, but I knew he would. I knew the situation called for the other boy having the toy returned to him and so I was the vehicle for restoring kindergarten harmony. And on some level Noah knew it too. My student teacher went away considering the question of inner confidence in knowing what is needed.
Thanks to all of you for reading. I hope I can continue to offer helpful ideas and experiences that make your life with young children more satisfying for all concerned! And now for some 'housekeeping.' If you want to receive this newsletter, after signing up there is still one step to complete. An automatic email is sent to your email address and you must confirm if you want to have this newsletter sent to your inbox.
One another subject, I want your help with solving a mystery. I noticed on the analytics page of my blog (that only I can access) that for a couple of weeks, hundreds of views of my blog are from folks in Russia. I don’t know who those folks are, ‘google analytics’ does not give that information. My blog is in English, I have not yet done workshops in Russia. I have no close family there, though some ancestors came from there bringing my surname.
If anyone can help with this mystery, please contact me. I am so curious.
The turning point of the year is a time to look back at what we have done, and consider what we could do better in the future. In the northern hemisphere where I live most of the time, the days are shorter at this time of year leading to more introspection and reflection. It is a time to take hold of one’s own development and self-education.
British poet and playwright Christopher Fry wrote the following words in 1951 in his play A Sleep of Prisoners. They also speak clearly to our time, to our moment in world history;
The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no dark winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
Where are you going? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake....
What can we each do to wake up? It is no easy task, this “longest stride of soul.” Only we ourselves know what to do to make ourselves into into the better person we can become. How can I better serve the world and the young children who are the future?
I wish you all strength and enthusiasm in your own work at shining some light into your shadows and creating new habits that are more supportive and life affirming.
As we transition from 2015 to 2016, I’d like to share nine recommendations that are valuable and meaningful for me - some of my favorite resources to help you on your way. .
1. The Alliance for Childhood promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning, and joy in living. Their public education campaigns bring to light both the promise and the vulnerability of childhood. The Alliance has published various writings in support of healthy development and a sustainable future for our children. They campaign on behalf of the children for a more just and healthy future.
2. For 20 years now, LILIPOH magazine has been offering ideas on living a healthy lifestyle from many perspectives. Their wonderful articles address nutrition and food, health, gardening, social life, education, economics and more. I hope you have had a chance to read some of their issues, if not...now is the time.
3. The Challenge of the Will, written by Margret Meyerkort and Rudi Lissau, offers guidance for understanding young children and human beings of all ages. The tone of this book is very much one of questioning. We are not told what to do, but through the images that are offered we can decide how to best meet the needs of the young child. This little book also looks to the self-education of the adult as a key to the child’s healthy development. When we can wake up and be more present, we can better serve the needs of the children.
4. Helle Heckmann led a program for 1- to 6-year-olds in Copenhagen and has traveled widely offering workshops, lectures and mentoring. For 30 years, her goal has been to support parents and child caregivers who want to nurture early childhood and help young children blossom and thrive. Helle writes an inspiring blog!
The next few listings are folks who support the work of adult self development. They offer tools and paradigms for self-education as well as practices for self-transformation.
5. Rick Hanson is a psychologist, writer and Buddhist teacher. His books include Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha's Brain. Rick’s work examines the relationship of meditative activity and neurology and offers techniques for changing our own neurology. He also offers an online program to help you develop positive neuroplasticity called Foundations for Wellbeing. This program helps you turn everyday experiences into inner strengths including kindness toward yourself, insight into others, grit, gratitude and self-worth.
6. David Richo is another psychologist and Buddhist teacher. His many books include You Are Not What You Think and How to Be and Adult in Relationships. David offers insight into how getting our needs met in our early years (or not) has repercussions in adulthood.
7. Brene Brown has devoted her life to studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her insights into the human condition in our modern times is profound. She also has written three bestselling books:Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.
Drs. Hanson, Richo and Brown all have numerous audio and video recordings you can access on the internet to more fully consider their work and its implications for your life.
8. The 8-Shields Foundation is dedicated to the work of deep nature connection, culture repair, cultural mentoring and community resilience. They offer support in strengthening families and guidance in developing true mentoring. The practices they offer come from the wisdom traditions and elders of many cultures.
9. Self-care. Nobody can do this for you. You need to find some balance and remember to enjoy yourself. What do you love to do?
I suggest reading delicious novels and listening to great music. Here are a few authors I suggest; Louise Erdrich (Plague of Doves, Four Souls), Terry Pratchett (the Disc World books) and Jane Yolen (Except the Queen). Each of these writers has published many, many books and I haven’t found a single lemon yet.
And as for music, if you ever get a chance to see Bongo Love perform, don’t miss it! This band of young musicians from Zimbabwe play a unique style of music they call ‘afrocoustics.’ Their positive message of love and peace is steeped in an infectious rhythm and high musicianship.
Make time for renewal and fun! Take some grownup time. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Self-care your way to a balanced life that enriches your children too!
So as we enter into 2016, again I wish you wisdom, strength and enthusiasm to meet the world and nurture the young children who are the future. The world is depending on them!
As a continuation of my previous post, I want to offer some more thoughts for the season.
Many religious traditions point to the specialness of this time of year. What the many traditions speak of at this time of year are light and love. Because of the shorter days and often cooler weather, there is a tendency toward inwardness. This can manifest as quiet reflection, contemplation and meditation, and can thereby be a time of a birth of the true self, that core part of our psyche that we want to guide us to awake responsiveness.
We adults must make the time for this crucial self development activity!
So here are my five guiding thoughts.
1. This is a time of year to remember our human connectedness, human community, and the warmth and love of human relationships.
Phone or write cards (actual paper in envelopes with stamps) to reconnect with family and friends who you may have neglected reaching out to over the year or years. Sit down and eat meals together without electronic distractions. Experience the warmth of human gatherings.
2. Remember your deep and true human values of giving, compassion, caring, generosity, sharing, warmth, and love.
Out of your care and compassion, what support and help can you offer others who may be in need? A hug for a friend or a meal for a homeless person?
3. How can you help your child toward these through your example?
Rather than a mood of getting, frantic shopping, stress, and the over stimulation of malls, movies, and consumerism, create quiet times reading stories, singing and making things together and simply being together.
4. How about making time for cooking together.?
Surround your child with warmth of the modern hearth, the smells of cooking, the warmth of your activity, the giving of cooking for others, cooking as a gift? Maybe make some sandwiches that you can bring downtown and give away to folks who have less to eat that you.
5. Create an environment of less stimulation for your young child!
The world of stores is so bright and loud and intentionally overstimulating. Find ways to leave your young child at home if you must enter the rushing shopping world. Grandma or Grandpa would be so happy to have time with your children, or maybe you can trade off with other parents.
Do you know that the light source with the closest spectrum of light as sunlight is candle light? Have less bright lights (including colorful screens) and less loud music for your young children. Read and sing by candlelight. It can be such an enriching experience for you and your children.
I write this at the beginning of November. Halloween has passed, and I am guessing many people are gearing up for a coming holiday season. Many family traditions involve celebrations and holidays in the winter months. Thanksgiving comes at the end of November. This year Diwali is November 11. In 2015, Hanukkah starts the evening of December 6, the same day many families celebrate St. Nicholas. Yule is celebrated on the Solstice, December 21. Many families celebrate Christmas December 25, and the four weeks of Advent that lead up to it. Kwanzaa starts December 26.
One thing these Festivals have in common is a they celebrate the light in a time of year when the days are shorter. These celebrations generate gatherings of families and friends, sharing food together and often there are gifts exchanged.
What does your young child need this holiday season?
Let’s start out with what your child does not need.
She doesn’t need the new Hello Barbie.
He doesn’t need a new Touch and Swipe Baby Phone.
She doesn’t need the latest Game Boy or Disney Princess Doll.
He can do without a Drone Camera (even if you really want it).
It is not toys and gifts that your child needs. Your child most need you to truly connect with her. It isn’t stuff that is the real need - it is the fabric of a connected life. Connected to family and family traditions, to nature and the seasons, and connected to herself. The example of connecting the adults offer is the style of connecting imitated by the child. It is up to you to show the path to connecting in the holiday season.
It is you that your child most needs. You, the parent available, present and connecting. You are your child’s guide in this life on earth, and you are her example of how to live. To me, holidays are an opportunity to develop and nurture traditions of connecting with each other. And I’d like to share some specific suggestions.
What are the foods that are important to you as part of your family holiday? Do you have the same foods every year on that holiday? That is something that makes memories and helps your child have direct experiences of the cycle of the year.
When I think of foods, I try to think how the child can engage in the preparation of those foods. Can he help cut up the vegetables? Can she pour in the ingredients for the sauces? Can you knead the dough together? Be a creative cook and create ways for your young child to help prepare the food. Food preparation is a social gesture of service. Encourage your child in this way. One tip though - plan for the extra time that these young helpers will add to your prep time.
Another aspect of food is that you can make food together for other people as gifts. Grandma would love some pumpkin bread you made for her. Uncle Steve would be thankful for a batch of chocolate chip cookies. And don’t forget the mail delivery person and your health care professionals. The gift of food is a gift of love!
There are many other types of simple gifts you can make together with your children, the internet is littered with them. You can help your child to create gifts for siblings and other relatives. It is a wonderful sea change when you can shift your family culture from gift-getting to gift-giving!And you have created this opportunity for spending time together engaged on behalf of another person. Incredible!
What about singing together? My fondest elementary school memory is the weeks leading up to Winter Break each year. The school would open a half hour early for those who wanted, and the halls were full of teachers and children singing together songs from various religions and traditions. You can create this on a smaller scale and sing at home, maybe after dinner each evening, or in the car. “Of course,” you say. “That’s a great idea but I can’t sing.” The secret is, your child is NOT a critic. She will be a joyous participant in song with you and you will even discover it is FUN.
How about arranging for some friends and families to get together and walk around a neighborhood knocking on doors and offering songs to the residents? Caroling is great fun and you can even meet your neighbors. The possibilities are infinite.
Maybe you can have a special family outing to a special performance. Perhaps there is an annual artistic or musical performance in your area that you can make part of your family annual tradition, and each year make sure to return as a family in your fancy outing clothes. In my area, El Teatro Campesino presents theartrical productions and every other year they offer a version of the story of ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ they call “La Virgen del Tepeyac.” For my younger daughters, and now my granddaughter, it is our family tradition to head down to San Juan Bautista and enjoy the pageant (it’s really an amazing show) of the meeting of the traditional culture with the Spanish colonialists.
If giving gifts is important to you, I suggest limit the amount. Wisely choose the one gift that is just right for the child, and that she will enjoy and treasure. Gifts made by you are extra special.
A gift that is something for the child to do, or make, is a great way to go. How about a tool box or sewing kit and some supplies to go along with it. And then be sure to make something along with your child so she can learn by imitating you (because imitation is how the young child learns).
What about one special book as a gift? Maybe each year, for a birthday or a holiday gift, choose one book that you sense will mean something for your child. And then after he receives the book, read it to him again and again.
Oh...don’t forget to limit your own use of electronic devices so they are not an obstacle to connecting with your child. Have some electronic free time, and make the time to use your smart phone when your child is asleep, or otherwise engaged and you are elsewhere. Be smarter than your smart phone.
The best present for your child is your presence. True connecting with your young child takes some active will on your part to overcome the habits our consumer culture has created. It’s worth the effort.