Tuesday, March 01, 2016

"I Don't Like That!"

We've been playing in the balloon cage last week and the beginning of this one. Among the many ideas children have for playing with 100 balloons in a confined space on gym mats, one of the "best" it seems is to take a balloon in hand, or two or three, and shove them in another person's face. Not all of them do this, of course, but after 15 years of observing preschoolers playing in the balloon cage, I would estimate that a good 75 percent of them give it a go.

Now, in all fairness, many of their classmates seem to agree that this is a fine idea and, when molested in this way, proceed to laugh, then shove their balloons back into their attacker's face. That said, many of us do not like balloons, or anything for that matter, shoved into our faces.

Yesterday afternoon, a group of us were sticking balloons under our shirts, pretending to be pregnant, then, when our babies were born, I was using a Sharpie to draw faces on the newborns. These "babies" were being shoved into my face with requests for a happy or sad or sleepy or silly face.

I said, "I don't like balloons shoved into my face." When some of them persisted, I became firm, not loud or angry, but firm, striving for an expression of earnest intensity, "Stop it! I don't like balloons shoved into my face!" They stopped, at least for a few minutes, some of them even saying some mumbled version of, "Gees, sorry . . ."

People often ask me what to do when a child persists in hurting or otherwise harassing an adult. The simple answer is to role model exactly what you expect the children to do when a classmate is hurting or otherwise harassing a child: clearly and firmly say, "Stop!" then just as clearly and firmly say, "I don't like that!" I suppose some might object to the lack of polite niceties in this construct, such as the word "please," and while I'm certainly in favor of courtesy, in cases of being hurt or harassed, I'm not going to insist upon them. In fact, in many cases, especially when working with young children, "excuse me" or "please" give the impression that one's tormentor is being given a choice to which they can just as politely reply, "No, thank you," and continue engaging in the unwanted behavior. Indeed, in cases like this, words of politeness tend to soften your message in a situation in which firm clarity is paramount.

A few minutes later, a loud scream went up from a corner of the balloon cage. I looked to find a girl wearing a fierce expression standing toe-to-toe with a smiling boy. I thought I knew what was going on -- the girl was being hurt or otherwise harassed by the boy -- but since I'd not seen anything all I had to go by was the scream. I covered my ears in the universal signal for "too loud" and said, "That scream hurt my ears."

Neither of them responded to me, but rather continued looking into one another's faces with contrasting expressions. Finally, I asked, "What happened?" The boy replied, "I don't know. We were just playing, then she screamed."

When she responded by doubling down on her fierce expression, I said, "Her face doesn't look happy."

"Yeah, she looks kind of mad." He wasn't smiling any longer.

Now she replied, firmly, "I'm not happy. You put those balloons in my face and I don't like that!"

He appeared almost taken aback, "Oh, sorry," then turned and shoved his balloons into the face of another friend, who responded, giggling, in kind.

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