Monday, December 05, 2022

What Makes All Happy Families Alike

Over the years, thousands of people have written me, or come up to me at an event, with essentially the same question: What would you do about the behavior of this child?

They provide me with context, with examples of the troubling behavior, and even with a list of things they've tried to no avail. If their question is simply about a child who is too loud, impulsive, or reluctant to do what the teacher is demanding of them, then I can usually be helpful. I'll suggest that they need to find a way to say "yes" to loudness, impulsivity, and choice. This generally means making changes to the environment, which might include altering our adult expectations.

For instance, one teacher recently told me about a not yet two-year-old who persisted in throwing toys in the classroom. When I visited the classroom, I found a small (too small) space choc-a-bloc with hand-sized wooden blocks and hand-sized wooden cars. I suggested that she replace the small wooden playthings with larger and softer items, things that he either couldn't throw or that when thrown would be unlikely to cause harm. When I visited their outdoor space I found plenty of large balls, balls that seemed to say "kick me," but none that were hand-sized. I suggested she try adding some small spongy balls to their outdoor play and perhaps some sort of targets where he could throw to his heart's content. 

Most of the time, however, these educators are asking about behavior that harms the other children: hitting, biting, scratching, etc. I ask follow up questions and strive to get to the heart of the matter, but the truth is, I have no idea what I would do until I've actually met the child and observed them, over time, in context.

One of the most famous first lines in literary history is from Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I think this is true about individual unhappiness as well, and generally speaking, harming others is a way expressing "unhappiness" of some sort. The child is unhappy in their own way. Their unhappiness may have something to to do with the environment as well, but it might also be tracked back to family difficulties, a child's neurological make-up, a recent loss or other traumatic event, or any number of other things that make we humans unhappy. And because of this there are no cookie cutter short cuts.

I've often said that my first goal with every child is to get them on my bandwagon. Failing that, I strive to get on their bandwagon. And failing that, we get to work building a whole new bandwagon that suits us both. This is my way of thinking about creating a relationship of trust between the child and me, one that allows me to be on the "inside" with them, which is the place I need to be if I am going to understand them. It means becoming intensely curious about the child. It does not necessarily mean asking them a bunch of questions (although it might). It does mean asking the parents questions. It does mean close and careful observation. And it does mean falling in love with the child, because ultimately that is the only way I've ever been able to discover the source of their unhappiness.

The only time I've ever had success in helping a child overcome their challenging behaviors is when I've loved them enough to echo the words of Mister Rogers, "I like you just the way you are." This is where healing begins and, I would assert, it is this that makes all happy families alike.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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