Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Sitting and Watching is the Not So Secret Sauce


As a boy of six-years-old, I objected to the term "babysitter." For one thing, I wasn't a baby, and for another, the word conjured the image of babies being sat upon. 

By the time I was 10, old enough to be entrusted with the care of children back in the early 70's, it made more sense. After all, most little kids were "babies," with all their whining and fussing, although no one did much sitting on my watch. My counter to whining and fussing was to actively play with my charges. After all, I was, by virtue of being a big kid, a figure of some glamour, someone to be looked up to, and having recently been a little kid myself, I knew it. I would spend the first few hours performing the role of games master, romping right along with them, winding them up, tiring them out, then packing them off to bed, making a big deal of allowing them to stay up past their bed times if only they would agree to not tell on me.

By the time our daughter Josephine was old enough to babysit (which in the 00's was 12), I'd evolved once more. I now placed the emphasis on the "sitting." As a teacher, I'd figured out that a big part of the adult role with young children is sitting (or standing or kneeling or squatting) and watching (another word for babysitting, as in "watching the kids"). I told Josephine that she could entertain the kids if she wanted, but that babysitting was a job with the description in its title. 

The longer I've worked with children, the more time I spend sitting and watching. Of course, there's more to it than that, but the sitting and watching remain at the core of what I do. It's a policy of non-interference, of creating space in which children are free to pursue their own interests in their own way. The watching is, of course, partly about keeping them safe and, in certain circumstances, protecting property, but mostly it's about understanding. Usually, when we assert that "all behavior is communication" we are referring to some sort of misbehavior, but it applies to all behavior, be it building with blocks, hiding treasures, drawing a picture, or running in circles. So perhaps the word "listening" is better than "watching," although it is a listening that is done, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "with our whole being," because that's what it takes to understand. When adults don't make the effort to understand, we react to children based upon our fears, assumptions, and prejudices, thereby misunderstanding, which, more often than not, leads to even more misbehavior as the child struggles to be understood.

Sitting and watching is the not so secret sauce.

We live in an era of adult intervention. The prevailing idea of parenting or teaching or babysitting is that we must constantly be guiding or teaching or correcting, that sitting and watching is laziness, that if we aren't constantly enriching the children's world we are neglecting them. This lies at the heart of much of the stress and guilt parents are feeling, especially during these days of pandemic when the children are home and their parents are torn between paying the bills, keeping the house, and instructing the kids. 

Janet Lansbury advises young parents to lay their baby on a blanket on the floor and just enjoy watching them. Professional play workers say that their job is to "loiter with intent." Eleanor Duckworth wants us to shut up and listen with our whole selves. In past generations when stay-at-home parents (usually mothers) were the norm, children were usually left free to entertain themselves, which is to say play in their rooms, in their gardens, or around the neighborhood, without the constraints of adult cautions, corrections, or, heaven forbid, lectures. 

This is the natural habitat of childhood. When we step back, when we sit, we leave a space that is perfectly conducive to the proper development and education of young children. When we watch, when we listen to what they are communicating, we will understand when, how, and if they need us. And most of the time, all they need from us is to know where we can be found and that we love them.

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