Thinking Before Shouting "No, don't!"

The other day, my daughter (1.5 years) caught hold of a measuring tape (the steel one). She started investigating it, pulling the tape out and twisting it in the process. Instinctively, I was about to take it away thinking that she will damage it but her sincere, inquisitive manner kept myself from acting on that instinct. As a moment passed, I realized that it is not an expensive or delicate object to worry about or to take back from her hands. I started to observe her. She played with it for 3-4 minutes and then left it alone. No damage done.

It made me think how often we parents say "No, don't!" to children without even thinking. As soon as they pick up something other than their toys we become uncomfortable. As soon as they try some adventurous body balance on a furniture we get frantic. It is sort of a widespread belief that little children can only make a mess - either of themselves or of the things that they touch, that at any moment they can do something very stupid or destructive. The outcome of this belief is that parents are always on a high alert and children are always on a reckless spree. The more anxious parents become to protect the child or protect the things, the more impulsive kids behave. It becomes a vicious circle - unending and miserable. How can we break out of it?

We need to start with SELF. We need to regulate our own emotions and anxieties. We need to honestly examine our deeper feelings and motives - am I doing this out of an irrational fear or am I acting out based on "what will people think". Once we become clear of our underlying feelings and motives, we can dismiss the useless chunk and focus on the situation at hand to figure out a constructive response.

So, for example, when I see my daughter (2 years) sitting, purposefully and adventurously, on the foot-board of the bed and having fun doing so, instead of shouting frantically "No, don't!", I tell her to be careful and then put a carpet below to protect her in case she falls. How else will children learn to be careful if they never fall? Rousseau, a great philosopher, writes in Émile, "Far from being attentive to protecting Émile from injury, I would be most distressed if he were never hurt and grew up without knowing pain."

Similarly, when we are walking happily on the road together and my daughter bends down to pick up a pebble, I discard my mental conditioning on hygiene and I discard the disturbing thought "what will people think of me". How else will children learn to be creative if we scoff at their invention of every little game?

In supermarkets, when my daughter starts touching, feeling, picking up the various things she sees, I tell her to be careful with the things and to keep them back in the right place after having a look and feel. How else will children learn the right way to handle things if we never give them an opportunity? John Holt, the great educator, writes in How Children Learn,

"It is a mistake to assume that whatever little children touch they will destroy, and that we must therefore keep them from touching anything that is not theirs. This dampens their curiosity and confidence. More than that, it probably makes them too fiercely possessive of what is their own. We should try instead to teach that respecting property does not mean never touching what is not yours, but means treating objects carefully, using them as they are meant to be used, and putting them back where they belong. Children are perfectly able to learn these things; they are less clumsy and destructive than we suppose. And it is only by handling and using objects that children can learn the right way to handle them."

A.S. Neill, who founded the famous 'free' school Summerhill, writes in his book Freedom Not License, "Every mother must regulate herself first before she can rear a self-regulated child. A child cannot be more self-regulated than his mother is. Self-regulation implies a balanced woman, a relaxed woman. It means behaviour that springs from the SELF - not from outside compulsion. Self-regulation is foreign to the sort of mother who dies into a temper if some silly vase is broken, or one who wants to impress her neighbours by having a nice, well-behaved boy or girl. "

He then goes on to give an account of a wonderful woman who never heard of psychology or self- regulation, yet who fully practiced it, "I think of Mary, a plain woman in a Scottish fishing village. Mary had wonderful placidity; she never fussed, never stormed; she was instinctively on the side of her boys and girls; they knew that she approved of them whatever they did. Mary as a mother was a comfy warm hen with her chicks around her; she had a natural gift of giving out love without making it possessive love. She followed her emotions in dealing with the family, and did not act according to any set rules of child rearing. There was a simple give and take, and an absence of parental bossiness. Mary knew what to expect from a child. She didn't expect a cucumber to sprout beautiful flowers, nor did she expect her three-year-old to be clean and considerate. What was tolerated in a five-year- old was not tolerated in a l0-year-old. Mary loved her children but she also loved herself -respected herself, and would never permit any of her brood to exploit her kindliness. She called a spade a spade. The kids knew she was on the level; they knew she couldn't be pushed all over the lot, but over all, they knew that here was a mother who never exploited them, who loved them, and never pushed them to fulfill impossible goals. Here was true self-regulation--a home without pressure."

Category: parenting