It’s a familiar situation. It’s time to get dressed, which means it’s time to finish playing, lay the last blocks, draw the last lines, sip the last drops of invisible cocoa. If you spend time with children, you know it can be a struggle.
One particular instance comes to mind as told to me by a parent in my class. In this case, her toddler complied at first, as shirts and pants and socks were thrust upon him. His mother held out a shoe, and he stuck out a foot.
“Other foot, honey,” she said.
It’s true: the shoe and the foot didn’t match. Mom saw a teachable moment. “This is your right shoe,” she said. “See how there’s a curve on this side? It goes on this foot, your right foot.”
The boy kept his left foot aloft, not budging. Now it was a power struggle moment.
“Honey, wrong foot.”
“No, Mom.” He said. “Wrong shoe.”
She recognized the power of the moment—her son’s quick response and somehow existential perspective. Wrong shoe? How could a person be “wrong” about which shoe to put on first? And instead of piling it on to her toddler’s growing resume of defiance and self-assertion, she saw the humor in the interaction. I also took it for more, and the anecdote has stayed firmly in my mind a parable of sorts for what it means to be child-centered in caring for young children.
Seventy years ago, Dr. Edith Dowley, founding director of Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, defied custom, asserting that all children are “worthy of respect and dignified consideration” (1949, p. 508). This view, that in their perceived naiveté, impulsiveness, and “incompleteness” (isn’t that what’s implied by being “in development”?), children still deserve the same respect and consideration we all expect, is simple but profound. It forms the basis of the child-centered curriculum in many school programs and it translates to family life, policy, and beyond. Likewise, it influences both broad philosophical views of early childhood education and discrete interactions on a day-to-day (or minute-to-minute) basis.
Consider the shoes. The mother had chosen which shoe to put first—fair enough. But the child had chosen which foot to put first. Taking a step back, they are equally valid choices, but from the adult’s perspective, the child was inherently in the wrong. Therein lies one of the great obstacles to child-centered care in the classroom and at home: adults are given the enormous responsibility of making most of the decisions. Often, in the form of curriculum or parenting advice, they are given guidance about how to handle various situations or how to plan for a child’s success. These plans are of course well-intentioned, usually based on evidence or past successes, and aimed at giving children the best experiences possible. But, paradoxically, when a child does not follow the adult’s agenda, the child takes the brunt of the responsibility for things drifting off course.
It’s as if adults are consistently looking for a Cinderella moment, in which their beautifully designed glass-slipper plans slide perfectly onto the feet of the children in their care. When a plan works, children shine. But the problem with treating plans like glass slippers is that they can remain precious and rigid. When the shoe doesn’t fit, it’s all too easy to assume that the foot belongs to an ugly step-sibling. Children who differ from the plan may be perceived as being (or made to feel as if they are) in the wrong. They may struggle or push away entirely. So while some children appear to excel by following the plan, others might end up stuffing their ideas and preferences into ill-fitting molds. Worse, as in the old Grimm version of the Cinderella tale, they may end up changing parts of themselves in order to become what the plan requires them to be.
Admittedly, this may be a sensational representation. But I don’t think it’s far off from the pitfalls that educators and caregivers can easily stumble into. Adults tend to define behaviors as “challenging” simply when they are not expected. For example, we say that children “aren’t paying attention” when, in reality, they are paying very close attention—to something else. Many children have trouble transitioning from playtime to a meeting or a meal. Of course! They’re in the middle of something important—to them.
What’s more, adults’ own best intentions for activities can get in the way of thinking and learning, as they redirect children’s behavior to use materials the “right” way. I remember spending hours rolling newspapers into tight tubes for a constructive art project, only to find myself cringing when children used the tubes as props for dramatic play rather than for the sculptures I had envisioned. Was this okay? Were they missing out on the spatial reasoning and hand-eye coordination I’d intended them to use? Maybe. But as the tubes became oars, swords, and wings, children also leapt forward with cognitive activities in their play like storytelling and symbolic representations. (And they practiced a lot of physical coordination, too.) In the moment, though, I had fallen victim to the universal and very human problem of getting stuck in my own agenda, confined by my own perspective.
The good news? Adults have the cognitive power to get themselves out of that rut. A first step is to adopt the assumption that children are, as Dr. Dowley said, worthy of respect and dignified consideration. Decades later, research supports Dowley’s supposition, as scholars demonstrate more and more how children have their own unique and profoundly interesting perspectives on the world around them. In his 2003 book, We’re Friends, Right? Inside Kids’ Culture, William Corsaro illuminates children’s cultures and perspectives, taking an anthropologist’s approach and incorporating himself into children’s self-forming groups. Remarkably, he found that children develop rules, customs, norms, linguistic expressions, and even creative trends independent of adults’ influence or guidance. These patterns are akin to—if not equal in complexity and scale—the customs that adults create and value in their own groups. Our societal norms tell us that imposing an idea or practice onto an entire culture is generally a bad idea: it’s disrespectful, one-sided, and potentially destructive. So why, then, is it okay to do that same thing to children?
In addition to children as a group, each individual child has a unique perspective on any given situation, idea, or problem. Recent research has shown that children are remarkably logical in their thinking, as they observe data and draw probabilistic conclusions about the world (Gopnik, 2012). George Forman, in his reflective article, “Helping Children Ask Good Questions,” highlights one child’s theory that rain comes from a system of pipes running through the sky. A traditional adult’s view may conclude that the child is wrong or illogical: he should know that pipes cannot physically exist up there. Forman, on the other hand, recognizes not what the theory lacks but what it represents: the boy’s logical conclusion based on the information he has available. This child has had no way to clearly observe or experience phase changes and evaporation, and therefore no earthly reason to think that such a transformation could occur. Instead, he’s seen water only in its liquid form, and rain as he knows it follows the same physical laws that all water does. Therefore, for him, the theory that rain is held in some sort of container is actually more grounded in reality—his reality. How could he suppose that heavy water transforms into floating vapor and back again, or, alternatively, that a substance that always flows down can somehow make its way up and stay up without the help of some sort of engineering? Wouldn’t such a hypothesis seem like fantasy, like leaves fanning the air to create wind, or sunglasses working by capturing light and redirecting it through the earpieces (both wonderful theories I’ve heard in the classroom)? From the child’s perspective, his explanation, his “wrong foot,” is the most plausible one.
This is not to say that the adult’s perspective is irrelevant—remember, those shoes have equal value. In fact, much of the child-centered approach to education is built on theories that highlight the adult world in which children grow. Lev Vygotsky asserted that children learn and develop according to the society in which they’re reared: the adult’s society. In his theory of identity development, Erik Erickson implies that the building of the self occurs, in large part, in understanding oneself in relation to others (Lenahan, 2017, http://sunkissedfamilies.com/language/en/your-childs-life-in-stages/). That is to say, both cognitive and social-emotional health are built on relationships, and relationships are a two-way street.
The adult perspective does matter. But it can be destructive if it comes to dominate the child’s perspective. The answer, of course, is found in balance, the marker of a true and healthy relationship. Both classical theories and contemporary research suggest that respecting children’s play is a primary way to strike that balance. To this point, Erickson argued that play is far from a lost diversion of years past; it is central to adults’ understanding of childhood, and, therefore, to our own lives as the parents, teachers, and caregivers of young children. “Playfulness,” writes Erikson “may occur in the vital center of adult concerns, as it does in the center of those of children” (Erikson, 1977, introduction). Through play, children demonstrate competencies, curiosities, and theories about the world, so adults can gain genuine respect for children by observing this activity. In fact, adults can view play as a primary vehicle for integrating important lessons without disrupting children’s autonomy. Recent research supports “guided play” (integrating adult learning goals into child-initiated activity) as the most effective means of supporting everything from academics to motivation and executive functioning skills (Weisberg et. al. 2013). In short, the adult’s role is to see and respect children’s play, to keep some goals in the back of their mind, and to find opportunities to incorporate them. At times, this means stepping back and letting the play unfold for its own sake (think of goals like autonomy, creativity, and resilience in these instances); other times, it’s about making suggestions or talking through problems (consider integrating math or literacy with ongoing play, or introducing new materials that you want children to become familiar with).
Think back to the shoes. The mother’s goal was to get her son’s shoes on. They needed to go on, just like many things really do need to happen in children’s lives; things like eating healthy, reading, and respecting others’ property and perspective. But did the shoes need to go on in the way she planned? The adult’s perspective created “right” and “wrong” when that dichotomy did not exist before. Next time, the parent could strike a balance, following her child’s lead by responding to which foot he puts out first. Doing so fosters his autonomy and initiative while still achieving her goal of getting the shoes on. Right shoe, right foot.