I am so pleased to be thinking with everyone about happy, healthy children and families. Social, emotional, and spiritual development in children is particularly close to my heart. My work in classrooms and homes has informed my practice as a developmentalist, and sharing my observations for you is my mission here.
Just last week, I was outside with two boys whom I care for. Danny was digging in the corner of the yard, and Eli was casting spells to the fence. I was marveling at what an easy afternoon we were going to have. Ahh, this isn’t so bad, I thought.
And then, for no apparent reason, the boys started fighting.
I’ve had so many of these moments, and maybe you recognize this scenario. There are moments I feel I was born to take care of young children and other times I’m stumped about what to do next and find myself covered in someone else’s lunch – literally. I’ve had this feeling as a teacher, a nanny, and as a friend and family member. Oh no, I think to myself in these moments, should someone more qualified be in charge right now?
As Danny and Eli wrestle, trap each other, and shout, I recognize that they will both be hurt if I don’t intervene. I take a deep breath and explain that this is not safe for our bodies. “Danny, you stay here, Eli, you need to go inside to play now,” I say firmly over their protests. They are not happy with me, but follow the instructions.
Danny, who instigated the fighting, is fuming at his brother still. As I go to sit next to him, I shuffle through the possible ways to handle this – does he need a consequence? Does he need a hug? I think about what’s worked in the past, and intentionally sigh loudly. “Phew. Danny, do you know that I have a brother too?”
His eyes swivel around to me. “Younger or older?” he asks.
I tell Danny a story that relates to his argument with his own brother. Within five minutes, he is facing me and listening, his brown eyes locked on mine. At the end of my story, I ask what he needs. Danny is normally a helpful, engaged older brother – I know if he instigated the fighting, he was annoyed. All behavior is adaptive – that is, all behavior is trying to meet a need. Usually that need is distance or closeness, alone time or attention. By recognizing the fight as a symptom of an unmet need, I’m respecting the cause of the behavior – not simply punishing the fighting.
Danny lowers his eyebrows and considers. “I just want to sit by myself,” he grumbles. I agree, and walk away.
Children learn and grow in relationships. When the adults in their lives respect their needs, we communicate that they are worthy of having their needs met. This lays a foundation for self-respect and agency. As an adult in the life of Danny and Eli, I want them to know me as a caring, consistent person. Neither of the boys would have followed my instructions or let me connect with them if they didn’t trust me. Thus, building a positive relationship with them has to come first and foremost. Imagine a tiny seed, planted in dark dirt. The dirt is doing more than just sitting – it’s ready to support the seed right when it needs to. Relationships, too, provide the context for a child’s social, emotional, and spiritual growth. A strong relationship meets a lot needs, and thus tending it is important.
Tending relationships looks different for each child, each day, even each moment. Sometimes children need guidance, sometimes they need independence, sometimes we need to get down on the floor with them, and sometimes we need to pause. Even with these different approaches, it communicates a consistent emotional theme: this child is lovable, and you, the caretaker, are here with them; and, in those moments of total uncertainty, you ensure that you are communicating a message that nurtures trust and respect.
Positive relationship building in the home is an evolving, never-complete process because children have different needs in their stages. Because there is no perfect way to care for a child, we instead can commit to trying. We can misunderstand, try again, and ask for help. These patterns of positive relationship building are grounded in what children need as they grow: attention, space, help, and encouragement. Understanding these needs and helping adults meet them is my SUNKISSED FAMILIES™ topic and I couldn’t be more excited.
The characteristics of healthy relationships are my personal and professional interests as a developmentalist. In my work of caregiving, teaching, and group facilitation, I have seen these characteristics at work. They feel familiar to most people when they encounter them, because we all need respectful attention, help, space, and encouragement at times. When I arrive to pick up children, for example, I always ask what the best part of their day has been because I want to communicate immediately that I’m paying attention. Once, I forgot, and my small friend Tara tugged on my sweater, “Nora, do you want to hear the best part of my day today?” she asked, smiling.
These small, thoughtful actions to communicate care have a cumulative effect, all in service of a healthy relationship. A quality relationship with even one adult makes a tremendous difference in a child’s life (Bruce & Bridgeland, 2014), and so it is my personal mission to make the patterns of good relationships explicit.
Future articles here will include stories and strategies around managing conflict and behaviors, celebrating children, and understanding how to speak and listen effectively with children. Creating a haven of a home is an incredible gift to a child, and I have the utmost respect for the people who are there, every day, for children (especially when you’re covered in their lunch).
So, let’s start with this foundational question as we begin our shared learning: what makes your child feel loved? Maybe it’s physical affection, time when they have your full attention, or a special gesture. Understanding how to communicate, “you are lovable” to a child, is the foundation to positive relationships, so your insights will be valuable as we move forward.