Far From Childproof

It’s June. The school year has finally come to a close, fieldtrips were arranged in a desperate attempt to give children an outlet for that “Summer fever,” and all that leftover pent up energy is being released upon parents for three months. (Way to go, American educational system. Apologies, American parents. Good luck, American youngens’.)

Fortunately, I was just the teaching assistant, and the class size was relatively small (twenty kids, ages two to six years). But whenever you work with kids in a professional setting, there are always new and recurrent daily tests of your ability to respond to questions, concerns and statements without traumatizing a developing mind—or at least not worsening the everyday trauma of simply growing up. Here are a few of the most common questions, comments and concerns of very young minds:

(1) “Do you like this?”

The child often shows me a picture, points out their new shoes, or points to something they’ve created in class, then looks up with huge twinkling eyes and a voice filled with anticipation, asking for my approval. Sometimes it’s a simple question, and other times I know it’s loaded, with the underlying question being “Do you like me?” On one hand, quick approval of a finger painting seems fairly harmless. On the other, approval to everything can be dull, dishonest and hardly conducive to growth. There are a few alternate responses to the automatic, “Yes, I love it. Please go wipe the snot hanging from your nose right now.”

Option A: “Oh yes, very colorful. Thanks for showing me.”

This provides specific feedback, and lets the child know you appreciated their creation and the fact that they shared it with you.

Option B: “Yes, do you? What do you like most about it?”

Let them know their opinion is valuable! This is great for kids who might be struggling with self-confidence.

Option C: “Very nice. Are you going to color the edges too?”

You can also ask some question that gives a suggestion for what more can be done, if the child chooses to do so. Sometimes older, more ambitious kids like a bit of a challenge with their compliments.

(2) “What does [insert undesirable word or phrase] mean?”

Cuss words, inuendos and obscene gestures baffle innocent minds—and fascinate them. It’s easy for adults to overreact, saying things like, “That’s a very bad word,” or “We never use that finger!” However, these responses alone seem to incite shame rather than a brief but helpful dialogue and some necessary guidance. I’ve tried the following.

Option A: “It’s a word that adults use sometimes when they have strong feelings about something. Instead of saying that, you could say something like [insert fun saying here].”

I suggest “Jiminy Christmas!” But that’s just me. I’m a nerd.

Option B: “That’s a way people show their feelings when they’re really upset. A better way might be to just tell someone how you feel.”

(3) “She says she’s not my friend anymore.” Or “He says I’m not his best friend.”

If I had a nickel every time I heard this one in a preschool setting, I could invest, retire and get my own private jet. Well, not quite, but it’s common. Fortunately, the school teaches us to inform children that phrases like “best friend” are exclusive and hurt people’s feelings. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cure the disease entirely—partly because two-year-olds don’t know what “exclusive” means.

Option A: “I’m sure that hurt. Maybe your friend just needs some space. People sometimes don’t know how to say that. Why don’t you ask them if they need space?”

Option B: “At school, everyone is friends. We can have a best friend outside of school, but talking about that here hurts other people’s feelings. Maybe you should remind that person.”

Option C: “Well, if you think they said it to be mean, you can tell them it hurt your feelings.”

(4) “He/She started it!”

It’s tempting to just say, “I don’t care who started it,” and move on with the disciplinary action, which is often what comes out of my mouth. However, there are more effective ways to address the issue.

Option A: “It’s important to think for yourself.”

The lead teacher uses this one all the time, and it’s my personal favorite. It reinforces an independent way of thinking, and teaches them to take some pride in doing the right thing. Just saying, “You should follow the rules” is like saying “Don’t eat this chocolate sitting in front of you.” Rebellion is human nature. People who think children are “so honest” must only be thinking of that time their toddler asked an obese waitress if they were “pregnant or just fat.” (Yes, there’s a difference between being honest and being blunt. Most Seattle residents in particular will agree with this, as it’s nearly impossible to get a direct response from the majority of us.)

Option B: “I’m talking to you right now. I’ll talk to him/her later.”

This establishes boundaries, sets priorities, and lets them know that you’ve heard that complaint but are handling one issue at a time. Like all responses, it does not have a 100% success rate.

Of course, this list is far from comprehensive, and these responses aren’t based on empirical data. I’ve been asked what snail poop looks like, if God is real, what happens to guinea pigs when they die, and if any of the Seahawks players went to a Montessori school. (My lines of defense? Jokes, Google and Tylenol.)

It’s easy to forget that all children have as much variation as adults, which means there is no one “right answer” to any particular question. Sometimes, parents and educators alike may just have to laugh and admit that they’re stumped/exhausted/frustrated, et cetera. Although I’ve had younger cousins, babysat, have a terrific neice and a nephew, worked in foster care, and even taught Sunday School, nothing has made me appreciate great parents like being with preschoolers five days per week for a year. Those tired moms who still manage to be nice in the grocery line even after their child threw a tantrum in response to being told they can’t take the cart home? They are my heroines. They should get a discount. Those dads whose backs are breaking because they’ve given eighteen piggy-back rides to their children and their childrens’ playmates? They have my undying admiration…and all of my best wishes for an affordable chiropractor.

Parenting isn’t just the hardest job; It really is the most important one. To any of the Montessori parents reading this, I hope I gave your kids more thoughtful responses than automatic slips. Have a great summer!


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