Sunday, December 30, 2012

Please Don't Be Mad At Me

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

I pissed one of our parents off at the school recently when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter.

He asked, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

One of them answered, "No, we're on one team and he's on the other team."

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share -->


At Home with Montessori said...

At times it is the hardest thing ever - to sit back and watch as something unfolds. Harder still when parents are present. Even harder still when it's your own child involved. I have always tended to err on the side of caution when it comes to interfering in kid's business, but learned how difficult it really is to do after I had kids of my own. A friend commented to me the other day that it was the parenting skill she most admired in me - my ability to watch things unfold and be ready to act but to hold back before rushing in to fix. I admire that in you too - the kids you teach are lucky to have you.

Kelly said...

I've been the parent in almost that exact situation. When I saw the teacher and 3 other moms standing there watching, I almost cried - it was my baby being called by 5 older kids and he was oblivious that there was pack behaviour going on when he would run toward them and they would scatter. Over and over again. I intervened and we ultimately pulled him from the program when the teacher refused to acknowledge that something was amiss. I wasn't convinced she would ensure his emotional safety when I wasn't around. I'm not sure I did the right thing at all. But I can tell you that the situation absolutely pulled at my heart. It sounds like you were on a different page from our teacher - you were waiting to intervene and I respect and accept that.

Amanda said...

Great post!

I'm in Australia and run social skills groups for kids that are struggling with friendships. One of the things I often see, is adults (mostly parents) intervening too soon.

It's hard to watch kids struggling, but without giving them an opportunity to sort through things, we may take away valuable learning moments for them.

It's even harder when it's your own child, but I'm still convinced that the 'watch and wait' strategy is the's how I tend to approach things in my own life too, I guess.

One of the favourite sayings I remind myself of is "the more there is of me, the less there is of them"...

Thanks for your insightful posts...always enjoy reading them.

Have a wonderful 2013.