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).
If Your Are in Reaction Mode, You Are Your Inner Reptile
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 had 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?