A toddler lives in my home, and the evidence is everywhere: baskets dumped of all their contents, applesauce smears on the wall, crayon scribbles on the table—you get the picture. This time of rapid discovery and growth is astounding to me, even though this is my third child.
Amidst all the magic and the mess, I’ve noticed the difference in how I respond to my baby’s learning and that of my two grade-school children, and I’ve thought about how this works with adolescents.
Why do I respond to some mishaps with grace and understanding and others with anger and judgment?
Here’s an example from just one dinner last week. Three glasses were spilled—one by the baby, another by my eight-year-old, and the other?—well, that was me! The baby dumped her water on the floor, probably intentionally, and announced, “all gone.” The other children laughed, and my husband calmly picked up the cup and fetched a sponge. The baby wanted to help clean up the mess, and we all thought that was sweet.
The eight-year-old accidentally bumped her milk glass with her elbow. I worked hard to not express my dismay, but inside I was angry and judgmental that I was still dealing with spills after all these years. No laughing, no sweetness; I was annoyed.
When I spilled my glass of water at the very end of dinner, I looked at my husband and thought, “We are in for a lifetime of spills.”
Middle-level educators can relate to my story. Adolescents have lost their baby allure, but they make plenty of mistakes as they find their way in life. It frequently is difficult to objectively and patiently respond to their mistakes. It’s easy to think, They should know better!
Lately, when something happens at home, I ask myself what the child might be learning through the behavior. For example, my eldest has recently been responding with “whatever” when we make a request or ask a question. It often sounds like a sarcastic brush-off, but I remind myself that she is learning about the power of her words and how to express discontent, and this realization helps me frame my response: I calmly ask her to rephrase her response. No anger; no judgment.
I’ve been speaking recently with teachers about the usefulness of having a simple response that cues students to repair the mistake: “Fix it.”
When “Fix it” or something similar is said in a calm, neutral voice, it moves the incident forward, unlike lecturing or heightened emotion.
A handy list of fix-it strategies, and tools for fixing (paper towels, glue, apology notes, etc.), provide even more support for students. If necessary, when order has been restored and all parties are in good shape, there is opportunity to discuss a strategy to avoid repeating the mistake.
I sat with my toddler for almost 20 minutes the other day as she put on her boots. I restrained myself when I wanted to do it for her, because I knew this was about her confidence and competence. I resisted my urge to hurry her, and I didn’t criticize her when she put them on the wrong feet.
I’m getting better at framing and responding to children’s mistakes, for the sake of their learning. How about you?
Erin Klug taught intermediate and middle grades in Minneapolis for more than a decade before taking a position as Professional Development Specialist and Consultant for The Origins Program.
Posted April 2014