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Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence II

After reading “Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence” Lyn decided to try the approach and told me this story about her two-year-old daughter Uma:

When Uma didn’t want to get in the stroller, she did the usual in physical protest: arched her back and made it impossible for me to strap her in.
And so I said, “Uma, I know you don’t like to be strapped into the stroller and that you’d rather I carry you. I appreciate that you don’t want to be in the stroller.” She looked at me, felt her feelings were properly acknowledged, (I guess) and sat down in the stroller.
It worked later on when she didn’t want to be put in the car seat: “Uma, I know you don’t want to sit in the car seat. I respect that you don’t want to be in the car seat.” She sat down.

Was it some kind of magic? All I can say is, I hope it works next time Uma and I have a difference about what we are doing and how we are doing it.

There aren’t many magic wands in this business, but there are, indeed, disciplines that actually work, and this is one of them.

Marion, a kindergarten teacher, told me about Damian, who at the age of five-and-a-half seemed to be a gang leader. For a certain group of boys the playground was a place to fight and, since there was a rule against fighting, they kept getting into trouble. The teachers felt they were “out of control,” and to Marion it was obvious that Damian was the dominant male and the ring leader.

“I am awfully glad I didn’t have this class when I first started teaching,” she said. “I don’t think I would have stayed in teaching. They are really hard. They can’t keep their hands off each other. They fight every chance they get. Damian, in particular has such bad impulse control. I talk to him; he understands, says he won’t do it again, and boom, does it again. His mother is even more frustrated than we are. We are working together, but nothing is working.”

I told her about Musa and Ruben in “Don’t Get Mad; Get Creative,” and I suggested she find a moment when he is not misbehaving and say: “Damian, You are kind of a warrior aren’t you?” in a neutral loving voice and see what happens.

Two days later Marion reported that she had found a chance to chat with Damian when no one else was around, and in the conversation, she smiled at him and said: “You are kind of a warrior aren’t you?”

Damian beamed back: “Yes!” as if finally someone understood him.

There was no change on the playground that day, but Marion called Damian’s Mom, Shivan and asked her to come in an hour early when she came for pick-up at the end of the day, which she did.

They had a long talk in which Shivan intensely repeated her position that violence was bad. Further into the conversation she said that she was afraid that Damian would turn out to be a troublemaker like his father had been when he was in school.

At this point Marion said: “Aha. Here’s the thing. Fears come true.”

“I know, but what can I do?”

“Do you think Damian knows your values?” Marion asked.

“I certainly hope so! We tell him at least once a day.”

“Well, your first move is to stop. Know that by now he is hard-wired with your values. He has been spending the last 1,800 days of his life incorporating them into his brain.”

“Well, he certainly doesn’t act like it.”

“I know. But that is not because he doesn’t know them. He has been trying to figure out how to apply them to his situation—the person he is and the environment he is in.”

“But the school is against violence, isn’t it?”

“Of course.” Then Marion told her about her conversation with Damian that morning. “What we need to do,” she said, “is 1) Notice who he is. 2) Try to see the world through his eyes. 3) Reflect our observations back to him and 4) Help him with his project: how to be himself and live his parents’ values and make something good of himself in the world.”
The conversation lasted an hour, but this was the essence of it.

And to make a longer story shorter, by the end of the year the gang had mellowed into a group of friends who branched out to other kids in the class (including girls) and Damian was showing himself as the kind of leader we will all be proud of some day. They were still rambunctious, but they stayed within the rules and were generally socially responsible.

Contrary to how it sometimes feels, children’s natural tendency is to be the way we want them to be. Sometimes their lives get a little convoluted, because they are also—and most fundamentally—going about their business of trying to make something of themselves in the world.

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6 Responses to “Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence II”

  1. Jonathan Mugan June 8, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    Ah, society and its discontents. It looks like Damian just needed a more socially acceptable way to channel his inner alpha male. Great post.

  2. Lisa Sunbury June 8, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    Rick this is such a wonderful post. What I believe most children (in fact, most people of any age) long for, and respond to, is to be given the respect of being seen, heard , and accepted for who they are. It doesn’t matter if a child is two years old, or twelve years old, if we hope for co-operation, or if we hope for change, it’s got to start with empathy, and acknowledging, “I see you. I hear you. I appreciate your point of view.”

    The one thing I slightly disagree with is the presentation of this “discipline” you are speaking of as a “technique”, trick, or magic wand. It’s not, and can’t be used as such to get a child to do what we want or to control them; in fact, this often backfires.(Children often sense when an adult is “using a technique.” “I hear you, I hear you, now pipe down, and get on board with my way of doing things.”)

    I believe what you are describing is a way to relate to a child as a human being who has genuine and valid emotions, preferences, wants, and needs, that may be in conflict with our own. When we express genuine empathy the results can be amazing. I believe showing this kind of respect allows a child to relax, and leaves a space for them to decide to co-operate because they can give up fighting just to be “heard.” Children are capable participants in relationships right from the start…

  3. Rick June 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Right, Lisa. I do agree with you and kid’s (all people) are pretty sensitized to when the other person is trying to manipulate them. A disicpline is a behavior or habit or attitude that helps us accomplish our goals.
    At the same time all of the adults in the four examples of using this discipline, do actually need the children to follow their lead–and there was no mystery about that, either, to the child. So really, it is about leadership behavior. To get others to follow, they must first feel understood, or heard, or noticed and respected for who they are. That is a person’s sine qua non. Without that. Game over.

  4. Mark June 10, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    For me, the lesson here is “children are people, too.”
    I once helped a chronic-complainer employee by acknowledging his perfectionist streak and putting him in charge of a project that he could do well, but not perfectly. He had a remarkable change in attitude toward others. Likewise, I coached a troubled teen on a softball team who was leading a rebellion. After discussing her resentment about being given instructions, we found areas that she could be responsible for, including developing new drills that she felt were more useful. She’s now a young adult coaching kids.
    Rick’s point, I believe, is that children need and deserve the same kind of understanding that teens and grownups do. The hard part is figuring out how to translate this approach to work for the special problems and communications challenges that kids face. It’s not easy. But beginning with respect and calmness seems like a good start.

  5. Rick June 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    Lyn’s Comment:
    Yes, what we don’t realize is that it’s not only “grown-ups” who want to be recognized and validated – but it’s still so tricky to figure out what that validation should look like and how to make it mesh with the classroom/society and with the 5 1/2 yr old.
    Marion is a creative teacher! Can we clone her?

  6. Rick June 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Excellent examples, Mark.
    It’s funny that approaching others with sympathy and understanding is not ground-breaking, but when applying the idea to children who are giving you a hard time (or who are having a hard time) is much more rare, especially in school, yes?

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