Last year my daughter was in a minor car accident with my parents. The next day as my husband and I drove her to school we approached the spot where the fender bender occurred. Her stream of chatter stopped. I took a deep breath to pause and listen. In that moment all of my past experiences with car accidents came to mind, the surprise, the loud noise of metal crunching into metal, glass breaking…I was ready to reassure her and offer her the emotional support that I could.
What I was not expecting was for her to say cheerily, “Mommy, Daddy, the sunlight looks like it’s dancing in between the houses!” And so it was. Thankfully I kept my mouth closed and my thoughts to myself or I could have created an anxiety where there was none. About a block or so later she informed me in a very matter-of-fact tone, “Mommy, you weren’t there yesterday. Back there was where Mama and Pop’s car was hit. They are going to bring it to Uncle Matt so it can get fixed. We’re almost at South Campus. I’m going to finish my breakfast at the breakfast table with my friends today.”
Children have much less life experience so they interpret things through a different lens.
I was reminded in a very powerful way in that moment of how important it is to let children experience events and emotions in their own way. My training as a teacher to observe children without making judgements and let them take the lead in their learning and conversations has been helpful as a parent. In this moment, I waited until I was invited before I joined her conversation. Once invited on that day I nodded and said, “It does.”
Children’s perceptions of the world are very different than our own, as are their feelings about events. They have much less life experience so they interpret things through a different lens. When adults listen to what children are expressing emotionally, physically, through play or words, we can learn so much about the child and their view of the world. In trusting a child to interpret things on their own and do the work they need to do in the moment, they are developing lifelong tools to be resilient and resourceful people who can navigate the world with confidence. When they do this with an emotionally connected person by their side, they feel secure even if those emotions to us may seem powerful.
Allowing children to be, while being non-judgemental and supportive of their emotional development, looks different at different ages. A baby may cry while trying to achieve a milestone, yet are diligently working. If an infant makes eye contact an adult may say, “You are working so hard to. . . !” If the baby continues the struggle they will know that a trusted adult is close by. When the goal is met a smile of delight will be shared. It’s important to acknowledge our own feelings about crying or struggling so we can support babies in doing their work.
Young toddlers might hold onto the same toy. An adult may rush in to negotiate turn taking or quickly offer another toy to dissolve what is perceived as a conflict. If left alone with a watchful eye the two children may begin to shake the toy together and giggle. In trusting and respecting the child’s perspective, children learn about their power in the world and develop social connections. What a relief in looking at the situation as an opportunity!
As children’s social worlds grow, their pretend play develops and expands, as does collaborative play. Children will bring home ideas and concepts that were introduced by their peers. A two-year-old might begin to sing a song from a popular movie that she has never seen or pretend to die “just like my friend . . . .” A three- or four- year old may come home and begin to “kill the bad guys with guns”. These situations are also opportunities to see what your child is working on and thinking about. In remembering that children have a different perspective of the world after pausing you may see that after your child pretends to die, they stand right back up or realize that when they kill the bad guys they are gaining power over those things that are scary to them. In these potentially charged scenarios feeling accepted is crucial for their development of competence and confidence.
Things look different through the eyes of a child. Sometimes it is challenging to step back from our own lens, suspend judgement and accept the child as they are in the moment. In the moments that I have done so, I learn a lot about the child. The child learns too and feels connected, supported, autonomous and confident. Those moments I have not are an invitation to reflect on what was happening for me in relation to the child. Most importantly it is a reminder to step onto the balcony the next time, so I can take in a different view.