Friday, June 19, 2015

Messing With People


































You've gotta mess with people. ~Utah Phillips

When our new puppy plays with other dogs, after the initial sniffing ceremony, she proceeds to engage in behavior that, were she a human, would be called "messing" with them. She tries to jump on their heads, to bite their asses, to nip at their heels. She bumps them. She runs at them. She sometimes even barks and growls. Some dogs, usually older ones, rebuff her by turning their backs, ignoring her. More timid dogs might attempt to hide. Prickly dogs might react with fangs and snarls. But most take up the challenge and mess with her right back.

Of course, we recognize this as playing, but it usually at least starts off with this sort of probative messing with one another and even after they've settled into a mutually satisfying game, it isn't always pretty.

This is how it often looks when young children attempt to enter into play with one another as well, at least when left to their own devices, without adults urging the usual niceties and rules.

Sometimes it starts when one two-year-old messes with another by knocking down her block tower. Sometimes the builder objects and that's when I say something like, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower." But sometimes she laughs and wants to do it again. Sometimes these very young kids mess with each other by snatching things or knocking things on the floor or moving right up into someone else's face and smiling like a horror movie clown: just messing with people to see what will happen. 

Not long ago, I watched a boy systematically go around our block area, smiling and smacking kids on the top of the head, each one recoiling or even crying. Adults were futilely attempting to persuade him to stop, until he came to one boy who smiled, stood up, and smacked him right back. They then wordlessly exchanged head smacks until they were both laughing uncontrollably. You never know what's going to happen when you mess with people.

As they get older, most of them have figured out to leave the other people's block towers alone, but that doesn't mean they're done messing with people. For the most part that's what spontaneous classroom wrestling is all about, or the silly name calling, or intense dramatic play. There are always a few four and five year olds in our class who more or less greet one another with a body slam or even a hit. Last year, one boy went through a phase during which he snuck up behind both peers and adults alike and swatted them on the rump. One of the most popular games in that class was called "sneak attack" and involved tagging someone, shouting "Sneak attack!" and running away. Heck, a big part of the gun play we see around our school is really just an attempt to mess with people. This week, a group of boys and girls experimented with pouring water onto the heads and backs of unsuspecting people, including me.

While older boys are more likely to continue to mess with each other physically, older girls keep messing with people as well. They're just more likely to turn toward messing with people socially or emotionally, playing games of rank or inclusion and exclusion.

This is a core part of the play instinct, I think, and it's an aspect that confuses adults perhaps more than anything else. We jump in with admonishments and corrections, telling children what not to do, and, frankly, robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior. Of course, if a child is really being physically injured (or the likelihood is high), or if the social-emotional stuff tips toward bullying, we step in, but most of this messing with one another is of the run-of-the-mill experimental variety and if kids are going to get the full benefit of it, we need to take a couple steps back.

More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is when children are provided the opportunity to learn what they can do. They can say, "No!" or "Stop!" They can say, "I don't like that!" I role modeled that behavior several times last week when children poured water on my back, standing up and firmly saying, "No! I don't like when you pour water on me!" More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is to narrate (or as Magda Gerber called it "sportscast") the consequences of their messing with the other people, like when I say, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower," supporting young children in making the connection between their behavior and the behavior of others.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often create worlds too strictly controlled by black and white rules -- no hitting, no taking things, no excluding -- then proceed to enforce them assertively and uniformly, and in the process we too often gut much of the essential educational value of free play with the other people.

We'll get it wrong sometimes, of course, but developing the ability to recognize when it's just kids messing with people and letting it play itself out is vital if our children are going to grow into emotionally and socially healthy adults. It's through this instinct to mess with people that we learn to connect with one another, which is the reason we're here.



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post so resonated with me...my 4 year old has had some struggles at kinder. He is in your face, highly energetic and impulsive. He went through what I thought was a slightly psycho phase of making his close friend cry by saying he wouldn't play with him and never would again and didn't like him. The other kid was inconsolable and the teachers said it made them so upset to see him doing this to his friend. He got over it and now they are back to being besties. This article explains that to a tee. It seems he is a total messer and sometimes stands out from his peers because of it. I know some children don't want to play with him because they consider him " mean" I hope he learns how to handle this and guess he's got this time now to practise these skills in the hope that he can fine tune his social skills as he develops.
Thank you so much for an invaluable perspective and a weight off my shoulders.

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