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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