Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Power Struggle

There are many things that have helped me prepare for my career in Early Childhood Education and in education in general. I think an understanding of how child develop and where they are in a particular stage in development is of utmost importance. However the one book I've read that I think has helped me the most is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The agreement I remind myself of constantly when I'm teaching or simply interacting with another person is do not take things personally. This is by no means an easy task. So much of what we do is wrapped up in our egos. I'll be writing a lot more about egos and education in a few day, but for now I'm going to keep it close to home. How would an agreement like this help in your daily dealings with kids? I know the scenarios I present here are not typical of a home environment, but you may still be able to take away a few things that may help alleviate the daily power struggles that present themselves if you have a toddler, two year old, three, four, five, six year old, a teenage or if you happen to be married or even if you are a hermit who has to go out and buy food then and again.

First keep the agreement in mind. Remember that your child is not doing whatever it is that is getting on your nerves to get on your nerves. No, no I won't allow you to argue this point. I know you "just know that Johnny is doing a, b or c on purpose to push your buttons." I'm telling you otherwise. It's true, Johnny may be doing it to get your attention, or because he is getting a kick out of your reaction. Maybe poor Johnny is trying to figure you out or can't help himself. I'll bet that 99.9% of the time, Johnny (be he your son or husband) hasn't the slightest clue as to what is upsetting you. My question to you is why are you allowing those buttons to be pushed in the first place? Why do you take what Johnny does personally?

Here are some facts I want you to keep in mind while you hold on to that agreement.
  1. Johnny is his own person even if he is three years old.
  2. Johnny is selfish. This is especially true if it's a child, but even most adults are looking out for themselves. (After all, isn't it selfish of you to believe that Johnny's behaviour is a reflection of your parenting?)
  3. You cannot control Johnny. I know this is hard for parents to accept, but we must change the prevailing mindset that education equals control. The truth is you can control through coercion but never through education. You may control your children for a awhile through coercion, but what are you teaching your children? To be followers? To only do good if there is a prize involved? To only behave if you are looking?
  4. Your ego is way too big if you cannot let go if little annoyances. Time to rein it in.
Now that's we've set up some guidelines let's examine a scenario that I face with at least one, sometimes two of my precious little ones everyday. The scene is the transition from free play to circle time. In your house the scene may be the transition from free play to dinner time.

Miss Alida: "It's clean up time, it's clean up time. It's time to clean up."
Boy #1: "It's time to clean up."
Boy #2: "I don't want to clean up! I want to play!"
Miss Alida: (ignoring Boy #2's comments) "It's clean up time, it's clean up time. Jane is cleaning up. It's clean up time, it's clean up time. Boy #1 is cleaning up."

Now either Boy #2 says, "Me teacher, I'm cleaning up, say my name." as he joins in the clean up or he sits there and pouts. If he is indeed helping, he is mentioned in the song. If he pouts, I ignore him.

We move on to circle time. Boy #2 is still uncooperative. I make sure to thank the children individually who helped clean up. I proceed with circle time. Boy #2 sits with his back to me. I begin reading. Every now and then Boy #2 turns to listen to a particularly funny scene or to look at a picture the kids were laughing at. Once he says, "Teacher, can you go back I didn't see the picture?" I do. I go back and show him the picture. We continue with circle time and he slowly starts to join in. We are having a discussion and when I ask him a question, he remembers he is not supposed to be enjoying this and turns his back again. I say nothing and move on to the children eager to participate.

Now in the middle of the second story Boy #2 says out loud, "I'm hungry!" I look at him and put my finger up to my lips (shh) and continue the story. Boy #2 gets up and walks in front of me and says, "TEACHER! I'M HUNGRY!" I stop. Look him in the eye and say very, very quietly, "You are not allowed to interrupt me during my story, that is not kind. Being kind is one of our rules. Go sit down." Boy#2 sits down with his back to me until story time is over.

I tell the kids, lets go to the table. We are going to bake bread. All the children run to the table. Boy#2 sits pouting and says, "I'm not going to bake bread." I ignore him. I walk over to the table and join the children eager to bake. A few minutes later, Boy #2 runs in. "Hey, wait for me. I want to crack an egg." He joins us and there are no more issues for the rest of the day.

I could have taken his behaviour personally and reacted by demanding that he "behave". You will join us, you will listen, you will participate! That would have taken my attention away from the kids that were eager to participate. What this boy was doing was not hurting him, or hurting others. What he was doing was exercising control over his body, his choices and so long as he wasn't interrupting me, I was fine with it. I wasn't taking it personally. Maybe, he had a rough morning, or not enough sleep. Maybe he wanted to see how far he could go before I got mad. I didn't.

By not engaging in a power struggle with a three year old I was able to maintain my authority. By allowing a bit of leeway in letting him control things that really didn't affect the outcome of the day, I showed him that I respect his feelings and moods. That they have nothing to do with me. I also made it a point to emphasis one of our rules, be kind. I did not allow him to cross that boundary of disrespect.

Now what if you are home and you say, "Johnny clean up, it's time for dinner" and Johnny ignores you? What ever will you do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Give Johnny a 15 minute warning. "Johnny in fifteen minutes, you will need to put your toy away because you need to help me with dinner." Note that is Johnny is under six and he has every possible toy out you will have to help him clean up or you are going to yell and scream until you are blue and Johnny will not clean up anyway. Deal with it. Young children cannot clean up a room full of toys by themselves. So even before this becomes in issue, get rid of most toys. Allow Johnny one or two toys to play with before dinner. (I know, I'm really mean!)

2. Remind Johnny every five minutes. "Johnny in ten minutes, in five." 'Okay, time to clean up."

3. Be specific. "I need you to set out the napkins and spoons."

If Johnny ignores the 15, 10 and 5 minute warnings, you go in and say, It's time to clean up and without saying another word, YOU put the toys up and then say come help me. If he refuses, you set the table. If you sing or do something that looks like fun or out of the ordinary, you will peak his curiosity. This works especially well if there are other siblings involved. Make no mention that Johnny is not listening or is misbehaving. Make sure to praise anyone who helped you set the table in Johnny's presence.

4. Be Patient. Rome was not built in a day. Character takes a long time to develop. We teach best be example, by modeling, by being the kind of person we would be proud for our children to grow up to be.

5. Do it again tomorrow. When things become rhythmic and predictable, Johnny will know what to expect and will know that he can be difficult, but it's going to happen anyway. He'll eventually come around. See #4 again...be patient.


Save your power struggles for big important things. There are not many in life. Life is made up of many little things that have the potential to bring us great joy or grief depending on how we handle it. Your little ones will learn. We must make sure that learning is never coerced, that it develops and blossoms like a flower or a butterfly. Children come to us with their own unique programming and views and we may guide gently and kindly so as to not break their fragile spirits.

Children never do things to spite us, unless that's what they have been taught. They do things because they are curious or because something inside says they must. We are not the center of their attention, only they are. Nothing should be taken personally. Guide them to the brighter future in which they will be our leaders.