It was recently pointed out to me that parents and caregivers can learn so much more about interacting with kids when they’re watching it in action. I’ve always been a supporter of this idea. I’ve always pushed for mentors and real-time training rather than having caregivers go to a class after work, when they’re burned out and foggy from a long day of being with kids, to try to absorb the fine art of classroom management skills.
I’ve supported it since I went to grad school for a teaching degree, had an 8-week student teaching practicum, and came out of it not knowing how the hell to run a classroom.
And I’ve supported it ever since I had this awesome idea to start caring for large numbers of children in my house, and suddenly there were five of them here, and I was alone with them and DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO.
Unfortunately most of us don’t have the time to sit around and observe people working with children for hours and hours. So, I’ll just write about it.
So I was paying close attention today while I worked with my kids. I realize that I have developed skills over the years (long, hard years, with hundreds of distressed phone calls and emails to many different mentors who have guided me along the way) that have become second nature. If someone asks me, “Well what do you do when…” I really have to stop and think about it. I don’t know what I do consciously anymore, because my now-instinctive super-skills just kick in. (Yeah you actually do kinda hafta be a superhero to work with kids.)
But when I first started, I had no idea how to do these things and couldn’t imagine ever being able to do them at all. And spent a lot of time being upset and frustrated because I knew I was destined for failure.
Truly, the key to working with littles is consistency. Meaning what you say, and following through with it. You know nothing makes you madder than when you’re with kids and you say something and they ignore it. That’s when the fights begin.
So I should say the key is being consistent without escalating. At any point in these interchanges I could fly into a rage: “Did I NOT just tell you blah-de-blah? Do you NOT speak English? Are you IGNORING me?” and after I finish yelling I could use my body language and silence as a way to continue to send the message: I’m pissed at you. Go away.
OR I could be working really hard on being nice to the small people in my life.
And not making empty threats. If you make threats you can’t follow up on, they’ll never bother to listen to you. So I try to just be honest and tell them what’s up, what I want them to do, and why I’m annoyed when they don’t do it. It’s actually kind of simple when you get down to it.
My sons are notorious at running through the house leaving doors open, doors I’ve just closed to keep the 14-month-old from wandering into danger zones, doors that by Child Care Law are supposed to be closed and locked all day, doors that keep me sane because I know that everyone is where they should be. This morning I closed one of those doors for the third time, went to check the twins, and walked back in not thirty seconds later to find it open. I bellowed.
“SHUT!!! THE DOORS!!!!! BEHIND YOU!!!!”
Then I realized it was not one of my sons who had left it open, it was my other after-schooler, the precious little girl I’ve had in care since she was two and who worships me, and she’s about to burst into tears because I yelled at her. (Well not really. She paused and looked at me a little taken aback, but just kept on going. Yeah she knows me too well.)
I immediately apologized and told her, “But can you please shut the doors?”
And it was just one more of those countless moments when I realized that I will treat other people’s children with so much more patience, respect, and love than I will give to my own.
OK so back to being consistent and not losing it and hurting the feelings of the little people around you, which will only make them act out more. And by the way, not being consistent will make them act out more too. So be consistent. Here’s an example.
I’m getting everyone ready to go outside. Three kids decide to go barefoot and that’s cool with me. It’s one of the first days where it’s actually warm enough to be outside barefoot – GO FOR IT. The first three kids head out the door, and my fourth one who I thought was following suddenly decides she doesn’t want bare feet.
Now I’ve got three kids outside and I’m stuck on the porch with this one. Why do they always choose the most dangerous moments to take a stand on something? So I rush back to her and try to slam the shoes on her feet quickly. But she doesn’t want the shoes, she wants her slippers.
Me: You can’t wear slippers outside. Let’s put your shoes on.
Little Person: I waaaant my slippers.
Me: (putting on her socks) You will ruin your slippers if you wear them outside.
LP: No. Waaaannn slippers!!
Me: (trying to put the sneakers on) Slippers are for wearing inside. It’s sneakers or bare feet.
LP: (kicks me) Slippers!!!
OK remember, I’m being consistent and calm… I put the socks, slippers, and sneakers in her cubby, pick her up, and walk outside. I put her down on the driveway and ask which car she wants to play with. She chooses a car and we pull it into the driveway. She was fine, and I suspect, happy that I didn’t let her get away with it. Kids feel safe when we protect them from themselves.
I meant what I said – the slippers will not be worn outside. You can’t convince me with whining, thrashing, or kicking. But the ending is key too, when I just let it go rather than harping on it. Holding grudges is toxic in day care – you will spend the entire day seething. So just move on. We got outside, she was OK with it, that’s the result I wanted, so let’s move on. No need to hold it against her, we’re onto the next thing now.
Later it was naptime and Miss M doesn’t like going to nap so the stalling begins. Miss C was in her crib and Miss M started pushing against side of it. They were both laughing delightedly at this game but it’s a pack-n-play and the meshy side is being dangerously stretched and I can just hear the tearing sound in my head… So I tell Miss M, “Oh no, we don’t do that because it will rip! Someone might get hurt!”
Miss D, whose diaper I’m changing, says, “Hurt?”
“Yes!” I tell her. “Hurt! We don’t want that to happen.”
Miss M is happily ignoring my attempt to reason with Miss D and is still pushing on the crib. Miss C is getting scared. Remember, I’m being calm and consistent. I put my arm around Miss M and hug her to me, pulling her away from the crib. I finish what I’m doing with Miss D, and bring Miss M over for her diaper change. Consistent. I said stop, you didn’t stop, now I’m going to help you stop. That doesn’t mean I have to yell at you, but I will stop you. Trust me. I mean what I say.
And there’s the magic. Eventually, they WILL trust you.
Sometimes it still breaks my heart to do this work with children. I want them to be happy and have every little thing their hearts desire too. The twins were looking for a doll and as I passed it to Miss C, Miss D tried to grab it, and began to cry so hard when I gave it back to Miss C. That sound was killing me but I told her, “I was giving this to Miss C, it’s her turn now.”
That’s hard to do. (And even harder to do when it’s your own child who’s crying, but that’s another story.)
Miss D might have been upset, but how do you think Miss C felt when her sister grabbed her toy away? And then, more powerfully – life lesson coming here – how do you think she felt when someone stuck up for her?
Miss D got over it. We all have to learn that we don’t get to grab and be first and get what we want all the time (I spend a lot of time singing, “You can’t always get what you want…” to my little ones). The younger you start teaching this, the better off those kids will be.
I know I sound like somebody’s cranky old uncle, railing against “these kids today!” I once taught a parenting class and asked if anybody watched Supernanny, and wasn’t she great? And one mom said to me, “I don’t really like her.” I asked why, and she said, “Because she’s mean?” As if it was stupid of me not to have noticed.
Clear, direct, and firm does not equal mean. It means structure and boundaries, and that’s what kids crave. I’m so grateful that I’ve finally become the provider they need me to be. When Older Son was in care we had a provider we called the Nazi. She was a wonderful woman and a good provider, but she was Tough. Met you at the door, hello goodbye, fine day, see ya later. But did he nap? Did he eat? “Yep. Just assume it’s all normal unless I tell you otherwise.”
Yeah, she was a little scary. But that kind of structure is what kids crave. This woman knew exactly what everyone needed (including herself and her family) and if the rules were strict and it made us a little uncomfortable, so be it. I really admired her for it.
And guess what? Eight long, agonizing years later, I’m getting there. And it feels SOOOOO good.