Tuesday, November 23, 2021

This Is How Children Learn Emotional Buoyancy

One of my earliest memories is of a small, plastic mouse figurine. I remember it as yellowish, but otherwise not cartoonish at all, about the size of an adult thumb, hollow, molded from the sort of thin, brittle plastic that characterized "Made in Japan" trinkets of the day. In other words, it wasn't a valuable item, but my love for it, made it precious. 

I carried it in my pocket most days, fingering it throughout the day, sometimes bringing it out to share my meals or to have a little chat in the squeaky voice with which I'd imbued it. One day I carried it out of the house with me. I walked up the Beale's driveway, then cut through the Saine's backyard to get to my friend Jeff's house, who lived one block over on Winston Street. I showed Jeff my mouse, who I'd named, obviously, "Squeaky," and being a good friend he played along with me, finding the charms in it that only lived in my own mind.

Jeff had this cool set of paint pots that I'd seen advertised on television. They were designed to be "spill-proof," a feature that was meant to appeal to parents, but that we considered a "modern marvel," like waterproof watches and push button telephones. At one point, in a moment of whimsy I threw the yellow spill-proof paint pot into Jeff's lawn. He ran after it, returning to show me, angrily, that it had gotten dirty. "There's dirt in it!" he growled. I had placed Squeaky beside where we had been painting on the patio table. Jeff snatched it up, dropped it to the ground, and stomped on it, crushing it to tiny yellow shards.

Memories from before five-years-old are notoriously foggy, but I still remember that moment of disappointment and violation as if it were yesterday. I can still summon up that image of Squeaky in pieces on the pine needle bestrewn slab of patio concrete. The tears were instant. I ran. I ran across Jeff's lawn, through the Saine's backyard. I ran up the Beale's driveway, across the street and through my own front door, bawling all the way. I honestly don't remember whether or not I told my mother what had happened. I must have, but the rest of my memory of that day involved feeling that sense of loss and disappointment,  living with it. I don't remember being angry at Jeff at all. Instead I thought about my own culpability. I'd let myself down and Squeaky had paid the price. 

I have no idea how long it took me to "get over it," although the fact that I can write about it today, more than a half century later, tells me that it will always be with me. That feeling was sharp and painful. It overwhelmed me at first, but slowly, over the course of the rest of the day and into the next, it became more and more bearable until, by the end of that second day, I was once more back on Jeff's patio sharing his spill-proof paint pots.

My feelings are something with which everyone can identify, but my experience of processing it, of contextualizing and learning from it, is something that I fear many children today miss out on. Adults today are far more ever-present than they were when I was young. For many, an emotional moment like this would have been hijacked by a concerned adult, naturally upset that their child is upset. They strive to distract them, to help them, to hurry the process along. These kinds of things too often result in protective-defensive conversations between respective adults with the prospect of punishment or at least a good scolding up for consideration. All of this robs children of essential learning about themselves and their emotions: that I will and can get beyond it. The feeling must be felt, of course, but it will diminish, and I will come out on the other side, knowing more about myself and how to deal with disappointment.

As parent educator and author Maggie Dent told me at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "If you overprotect children from these moments they do not learn the emotional buoyancy or the fact that this a feeling that does pass. They learn it's wrong."

Of course, we hug them. Of course, we stroke their foreheads and speak soothing words. As Maggie says, we validate the feeling. We might say things like "Doesn't it suck, sweetheart?" or "Doesn't it feel really yucky inside?" But beyond that, it isn't our job to take the pain away. It isn't our job to hurry them through the important and vital process. This, says Maggie, is how they learn that they will and can bounce back.

"Under five is a great time to practice being disappointed," says Maggie. "That's why I really believe you need to marinate in them at times, in these opportunities, because you actually get better at dealing with it when it's not made to be wrong, and it's made to be a normal part of being a feeling human. I think when parents try to step in to avoid their child falling or they only celebrate when they win, we put too much pressure on a developing child."

"Children can learn that a poor choice is a poor choice, and they're going to make lots of them. But when they're shamed," which is often the unintended result of our interventions, "they learn there's something wrong with me . . . The children that struggle the most in teen years are the ones who've been shamed deeply in their early childhood."

Too often, we adults believe that we're making things better when we insert ourselves into a child's emotional life. As Maggie points out, so often in our overprotectiveness the message we send is that there is something wrong and, naturally, the child will come to believe that the thing that is wrong is their feeling. When we understand that our children's emotions are not our emotions, when we are there to comfort them, to be with them, but not to "solve" or "fix" anything, that's when we give them the space to do this essential emotional learning. It will pass and they will be wiser for it.


To watch my entire interview with Maggie, as well as those with 26 other early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world, please join us for our reprise of Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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