Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why can’t they just be nice?

How do kids grow? Not physically, we all get that, but what are the things that actually push emotional growth forward? It’s not exactly what you would think. We all need positive attachments. Children need love through their mistakes and protection from dangers that we can avoid. They need affirmation, cuddling and extended story times. They need the calming routine of ritual to center them on a regular basis. What we sometimes forget is the value of hurt feelings, lost friendships, unanswered questions and broken promises.

The infant learns to self soothe when a parent can’t get to the crib fast enough to replace the “paci.” The toddler learns it hurts when he runs through the house too fast and turns a corner to meet the edge of a partially open door. We are all familiar with these things. We accept it with a knowing smile and a confident “sigh” that we have been there and survived. But then we also forget.

Once they go to school so many things occur that we hear about through the lens of our child. Because we love our children it causes us anxiety and guilt when they hurt. We turn into mamma bear or papa bear ready to protect them at all costs. How do we sort through the real need to protect our child and yet set limits on our propensity to rescue them when they are in crisis?

First, remember children are actively learning social skills. They have to start somewhere, and that is likely from a place you don’t really want them to stay. Normal developing children do not like to share, say hurtful things from time to time and really care mostly about themselves. While sweet and innocent and honest, they manage to also greatly disappoint us as well. What 4- or 5-year-old hasn’t said, “I don’t like that! I don’t want to! Go away, you are not my friend!”? Children who do not express themselves this freely at times may actually be feeling a bit anxious or afraid to say the wrong thing, therefore hesitating to speak from their egocentric hearts.

Second, we must be patient. These skills develop over time through a series of mistakes. The potty training child generally has multiple accidents before success. The toddling 12-month-old wobbles and falls often before triumphing at the walk across an entire room. The growing 5-year-old will hurt someone’s feelings, say something rude or embarrassing, and demand the right to retaliate on multiple occasions prior to integrating the values of our culture. It is through our continued feedback about their behavior, and even paramount to that, the feedback from their peers, that motivates them to shift from healthy egocentrism to the compassionate individuals we all hope to raise.

Third, be sure your school takes time to talk about and develop these vital relationship skills. If a child says a bad word he doesn’t need to be admonished. What he needs is to connect empathy for others who are offended by the language. Children naturally want to please us; we are the ones that take care of them. Capitalize on their empathy and you will see results that stay with them, rather than just seeing them obeying the rules when the authority figure is present.

When a child leaves another out or monopolizing play time with a few students they desire, we are seeing a tremendous strength. Initiative to connect and impact the behaviors of others is a wonderful leadership skill. Once we see this happening, again, rather than firm limit setting, we need to help the child connect empathy to the experience of others to help them curtail the behavior. The change we want to see is not immediate. Just like weight loss, it should happen over time if it is to last. So when your child reports that the playground captain is still acting like the captain, know that real change happens over time. And, note the incredible value of learning to relate and get along with those who think the world revolves around them. Don’t we all know a few adults like that? If we learn these skills as children we are well-equipped for adolescent and adult relationships. If we are not exposed to these conflicts we will not learn how to manage these relationships.

The point is, value the social drama your children experience. Carefully and protectively choose the school setting that will take the time for social and emotional education. Keep open communication with your teachers, counselor and school administrator about trends that don’t seem to improve over time. Get your child the support they need to navigate particularly difficult relationships. But please don’t avoid them completely, because it will only mean learning those lessons later in life. Once our pattern of relating to others is set, it is much more difficult to change. If we grow up learning to cope with a few difficult peers along the way, we will surely have the skills needed to manage the social arena of adulthood.

Michelle Bostian, MSW, LCSW
Lower School Counselor