Friday, June 26, 2020

Observing and Thinking Deeply: Where to Start When Talking With Young Children About Difficult Things

With everything going on in the world right now, we adults have a lot of explaining to do.

"Why is everybody wearing a mask?"

"Why can't I go to Marcus' house?"

"Why are those people shouting and blocking the street?"

"Why are people mad at the police?"

"Are you mad?"

"Are you afraid?"

"When do I get to go back to school?"

Children are driven to ask questions about the world around them. For some adults, the instinct is to shelter children under the notion that they are too young and innocent. The risk, of course, is a future child who, once the truth is known, will feel betrayed. Others reveal the whole unvarnished truth with the idea that it's the child's world too and they have the right to know. The risk here is a child who becomes overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. And then there's all that middle ground where most of us are trying to navigate, that gray area in which we conjure the ideas of developmentally or age "appropriate," where we strive to strike just the right balance between too much and not enough. We struggle with our own discomfort, our own mixed feelings, our own questions. We're torn between waiting for them to ask us and anticipating them. We worry about what we're going to say, then beat ourselves up about it having got it all wrong.

This is the work of being important adults in the lives of young children. When they experience things in the world that they can't figure out for themselves or that concern them, they turn to us, in trust, to ask their questions. It's a sacred trust, one we do well to take quite seriously, which is why there is so much discussion right now about how to talk to children about racism or pandemic or climate change. 

Talking to young children about ugly or frightening things is in the job description and it's not easy. 

The first thing is to know the child. This is why being a researcher is so much more important than being a "teacher." If you've been observing and thinking deeply about the children in your life, be it from the perspective of parent or educator, you should have a pretty good idea about a child's temperament and cognition, no matter what their age, and this will help shape your words for this particular child or group of children. If you've been observing and thinking about the world around you, you should have a pretty good idea about yourself, what you know and what you still don't know. From that you've formed opinions and beliefs that you may or may not want to share with children. Being clear with yourself, however, is essential, because otherwise your words will not ring true, they will not inform, and they will not comfort. Saying "I don't know," may seem like weak sauce, but it has the virtue of being true.

But more important than talking is listening, not just with our ears, but with our whole selves. Again, it's about the research, the observing and thinking deeply. Children tell us what they are thinking about, not just with words, but through their play. Play is how children process their world, how they strive to make sense of it, how they make peace, and how they pursue knowledge. To paraphrase an idiom that is often wrongly attributed to Plato, you can learn more about a child in an hour of play than a year of conversation. Listening in this way, with our whole selves to their whole selves, is how we come to a fuller understanding of the children in our lives and more than anything else it is this that should guide us.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 

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