Keeping Connection When Caring Routines Change: Shoe Battles

When the kids here were first learning how to put on their shoes by themselves, this provided them with some wonderful one-on-one moments with an adult… face-to-face interactions with joint attention to a task, centered around learning they were really proud of. But as they have become more and more independent in these kinds of task, the need for those moments become less pressing and less frequent. At the same time, the novelty of putting one one’s shoes wears off. This, unsurprisingly, has resulted in some unpleasant “shoe battles”. More and more they request us to do it, or whine for help. At first, my reaction was to sort of refuse to help, maybe by reminding them they could do it themselves. Truthfully, at times I was not so much refusing to help, as feeling the pressure to address some other need. Sometimes I was even annoyed… feeling like, “Do it yourself! Can’t you see I’m busy!” But even a nice refusal could escalate the situation, leading to further whining or even everything falling apart.

So over the past few days, I have been trying to pay more attention to our interactions around these events, noting what my feelings are when they happen, and spending more time figuring how they might be feeling. There are a couple things I have noticed and changed.

  • First, I tried to see their request for help (not as a literal request for help), but a longing for connection. I am trying to see it, like when a friend says, “Remember that time we went on that trip together to,.. ” It would be really weird to respond to your friend by saying rolling your eyes and saying, “I don’t have time these days to go on a trip. Can’t you go by yourself?” WTF? Instead, a normal response is to feel good about those memories, and in a moment, reconnect around that past time by telling stories. So, one  of my changes has been to just be present with them as they work on their shoes, and to retell stories of the past about when they couldn’t yet tie their shoes, or when they were learning to tie their shoes. To basically say, “Yeah, I remember that, too. That was so great.”
  • Second, I learned that they are more likely to request help when they are only half-engaged in the task. When they were first learning, they would usually have all their focus on the task. Now that they are better at the task, I noticed that they would try more and more to multi-task. They would be watching what another child was doing while putting on their shoe, or whatever. And getting on their shoe wasn’t going so well, because they didn’t have their attention on it. Because the shoe putting on was going well, they were getting frustrated. So the second thing I learned to do, was to “help” by reminding them to use their eyes to focus on the task. I’d just say, “You are looking at L and trying to put your shoes on. Your eyes need to be looking at your shoes.” I might choose to then  “sports cast” what they are doing, or give helpful reminders, or just be there. I’m trying to think of this as “spotting”. Like when the kids are first climbing some difficult new obstacle in the backyard, we will often continue to spot them, even after they don’t need physical help with the obstacle. Someone there to build confidence is all that is needed. And in spotting, I did actually notice that they still need some help. The hardest parts for them right now are when putting on their shoes goes awry, like the tongue or the heel gets folded over. They still need help noticing those problems and trouble-shooting, and I can physically help them out of a jam if needed.
  • The last thing I have tried is to just tell them the truth about when I’m busy helping someone else. Maybe tell their options: patiently wait (like llama llama) or keep working out it until I can give them my full attention. This seems to be working OK, too, mostly because we have good established routines around waiting and being patient. Reminding them to be patient helps me to patient.

So far, this collection of changes seems promising, although it’s too early to tell. But more importantly, it just gives me a more mindful presence and a job to do (tell stories, help keep focus, narrate the action). Roles are comforting, and I now know my roles. Be a caring presence, a reminiscer, a spotter…

Examining My Own Discomfort: Learning to Respond rather than React

This is a new blog I’ve started for the purpose of reflecting about my experiences playing and learning in the family childcare that my wife runs in our of home.

One of the earliest things that I was learning in daycare (even though I didn’t even realize it at the time) came about when the kids would be doing whatever and I would turn to Bethany and ask, “Is it OK for them to be doing that?” Maybe they were climbing up a bench and jumping onto the floor. Maybe they were throwing something. Whatever it was, Bethany would usually respond the exact same way, “If it’s making you feel uncomfortable, …” At first, I thought that phrase was pretty annoying. I just wanted to know, “Is this safe for them? What are the rules here?” Or maybe Bethany was holding a screaming baby and I’d ask after a few minutes of unsuccessful soothing, “Do you want me to take him?” and she’d say something like, “It sounds like you are uncomfortable with him being so upset.” This was also slightly annoying at first. I would be thinking, “OK. I was just trying to help. You don’t have to get all ‘babies crying doesn’t bother me’ about it.”

Over time, I gradually realized what Bethany was doing. A lot times, I was intervening in situations (unnecessarily) simply because I was feeling uncomfortable. Sure, I might conjure up some concern for safety (or rules, or morality, or just trying to help), but really in the moment I was just reacting to my own discomfort. This is a problem for all of us–our own unexamined discomfort propels us to act in order to resolve the discomfort. Later we try to legitimize our actions through post-hoc rationalization. Bethany was asking me to examine my discomfort. Am I uncomfortable with this? Why am I uncomfortable with this? Is there a problem with the situation or do I have a problem with my discomfort? Is this situation inherently dangerous, or do I just feel like this is not what is supposed to be happening right now (irrationally)? This process was for me the beginning of learning how to respond rather than react. Discomfort, fear, uncertainty, frustration are all emotions that going arise in the process of caring for children. I was learning to become really aware of those feelings–what they were and what triggered them.

The second thing that Bethany was teaching me was NOT that I should completely ignore my discomfort, but the opposite. I should definitely be using my own discomfort as a gauge, but since my discomfort was not well aligned to the task of caring for children, my discomfort needed to constantly be examined and re-examined. Through reflection, practice, and feedback, I might eventually learn to rely more on my discomfort more naturally. Although, I’m not sure the process of reflection goes away, maybe it’s just not as hard?

For me, doing this meant observing what children were doing more, which is actually something I’m pretty good at from years of education research and teaching. Just observing has interesting consequences. First, observing and deliberately responding just takes more time, so events unfold more than they do when you react. As things unfold, you get a lot more data about what’s really happening, or what possibilities of happenings are occurring. So if you do intervene, you are doing so better equipped. But also, in reality a lot of situations just resolve themselves naturally a moment later. Your intervention in fact often makes the situation worse. You don’t get to see that if you intervene all the time.

A good example for me might be a kid throws a block across the room. Before I would have “reacted” immediately–jumping up to stop them, or immediately stepping in to remind them of a rule, or maybe even sternly saying no, or whatever. Now, I’m much more inclined to just watch. I want to see how it unfolds. See how the child reacts, how the rest of the children react. Does it look like the child is going to keep throwing blocks? Did the child look at me immediately after? If it looks like that was it for block throwing, I’ll most likely saying nothing and ignore it. If it looks like throwing is something they want to be doing, I can help them to find the bean bags. If someone got hit by the block,  I’ll attend to the hurt child and perhaps ignore the block-thrower.

Another really good example, is when one child steals a toy from another. My own discomfort took the form of some “moral-outrage” reflex. This feeling led me to intervene waaay to soon, and waay to often. It is hard to hold back when some moral outrage button is going off. But the truth is, for certain children, and certain age groups, in certain moments, sometimes they couldn’t care less about having a toy taken away, or they willingly hand it over.

I’ve come to see toy taking as more like when friends or couples pick food off each other’s plates at a restaurant. It’s overly simple to say, “Never take food from your a friend’s plate.” It depends on the friend, the mood, the type of food, and your shared history of success and trouble at sharing food in this way. Maybe you ask. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you use body language to communicate the request, and they use body language to refuse or accept. Maybe there’s an explicit offer, or just a subtle move of the plate. The truth is, sometime someone gets mad when you grab their food. You either misread the situation, or the problem was you weren’t reading the situation at all. You just impulsively grabbed. Learning to read the mood, the cues, and the unfolding events is what it’s all about.

For the youngest in our group, especially when he first came and barely crawled, things were constantly appearing into and disappearing out of his world, and it wasn’t the least bit odd for an object to sort of disappear out of this world. Sure, sometimes he would get upset. But even older kids, just sometimes don’t notice or don’t mind. Sometimes, they willingly hand it over, or they get distracted by something else. Children don’t need to learn a rule like “never take”… they need to learn how to ask (using words, subtle cues), read the mood (including their own), and learn how to read the unfolding dynamics.

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