Growing up is a funny thing.
I’ve had a long-standing conversation with one of our nursery parents (now an alum parent) about how a child “becomes” herself – what influences who she becomes? How is her identity formed?
This came up anew in our “Coffee Chat” this morning (9am in my office, first Friday of every month), as we spoke about our own children, even within the same family, are both similar and different. One sibling is defiant and the other is obedient; but both sucked the same two fingers (even though the elder had grown out of the habit before the baby was even born – without modeling, how did the second child even know to adopt this habit?) The son takes after the father in his reaction to un-announced changes; yet with the mother’s guidance, a generational pattern is disrupted. A child separates smoothly in his 2s class, yet the next year has tantrums upon entering his 3s class.
As any parent or teacher knows, children are complex! My perspective on child development is that to best understand how children grow, we must be humble about our role in their lives. This is not how adults have traditionally viewed themselves around children; American parenting and educational psychology has a very long tradition (which I won’t cite here to bore you but ask me if you’re interested!) of seeing the adult as taking primary role in explicitly shaping the child in front of them. After a century-long revolution in “how we understand children,” we now realize that children bring with them their own thoughts, ideas, dreams, and volition to their environment. Your parenting strategy that worked for Child #1? Not gonna work for Child #2. The classroom management strategy that worked for my 2010-2011 class? It didn’t work for my 2011-2012 class.
As children move throughout different spaces in their lives (home, playground, school, doctor’s office, etc) they not only are exposed to very particular and unique experiences (Diana Ross Playground is different if you visit it Tuesday 2:00pm or Sunday 10:00am!), but they also interpret those experiences in their own way. The point is – despite our desire to rationalize and reduce the child’s world to an understandable algorithm with a predictable input and output, we can’t. And when we try to, we find ourselves frustrated with our own efforts because, “Why won’t it just work already!”
Instead of sculpting children into what we want them to become, then, our job is to work with children to understand what they want to become. By watching their play closely (and not always intervening), by paying attention to what they draw and paint, and what they read and write, by giving their voice a loud and clear place at home and at school, we can come to realize how they view the world. This is quite different then imposing on them how we want them to view the world.
When we do this, we may notice that our words and strategies are different. “You promised me you wouldn’t cry today” turns into “I notice you’re really scared about me leaving. Let’s work together to make sure you feel safe in your classroom;” “You have to share that toy” turns into “It really makes me feel good when people share. How do you feel when people share?” and “Today we’ll be learning about the alphabet” turns into “What is important to you right now and how can we write a story about it?”
Each child’s response will be different, and it should be. The hard part is being OK with that, and recognizing that as a result, there is not one strategy that works for every child, even within the same family or the same classroom. By listening, by giving space for the child’s voice, we can then begin the journey of giving them the environment they need. The world is full of creative divergence because our children need it. To fully honor their potential, we are obligated to let them lead the way and build an environment that suits who they are.
Growing up is a funny thing.