What seem like conflicts with little children can often provide a rewarding learning experience about their strengths. This is especially true during that two to three year old period when children become more assertive and issues of autonomy loom large. It is a time when children are caught between wanting to do more by themselves but not yet having the skills – or size – to do everything they think they can. This can be frustrating for both child and parent as well as a source of conflict between them around specific tasks.
This can also pose a challenge for teachers. A two and a half year old in a nursery group I observed already had a reputation for being provocative and difficult to manage. Having seen him before, I had become aware that in the midst of ignoring teacher requests and annoying other children, he would rush to get the garbage pail for the children to throw their juice cups away. At other times, he would do things that in his mind would be helpful – a self-appointed teacher helper.
On this day, he began to collect the colored circle mats on the floor that were used for the children to stand on while lining up to wait their turn at the sink. He patiently waited for each mat to be free before picking it up. Having collected them all, he walked over to a counter against the wall, where a teacher tried to take them from him. He resisted, so the teacher opened the cabinet above the counter and again tried to take them from him to put them away.
This time he resisted more forcefully and again the teacher seemed uncertain about what to do, wanting to assert her authority but not wanting to get into a power struggle. At that moment, the head teacher came by and understanding the scene lifted the boy up so that he could put the mats into the cabinet himself. The job done, the child happily went off to join the other children.
This little episode was a wonderful example not only of the potential for misreading a child’s behavior, but also of how easily a child’s strength can be interpreted as defiance. This child’s eagerness – and ability – to do “teacher like” things was actually a key to helping him become a member of the group in positive rather than negative ways. He could be rewarded for positive behavior rather than getting the attention he seemed to need through negative behavior.
Actually, teachers and parents are familiar with this strategy, which is why children are given jobs at school or at home, such as handing out things to be used in a project or asking children to set the table for dinner. Children like the feeling of being grown up and especially of being treated as if they are grown up.
The difficulty comes when the parent or teacher doesn’t think the child capable of a given task or may not have the time needed to let a child do something by himself. It may be easier or quicker to do it oneself. On the other hand, the adult involved may take the child’s behavior as a challenge to adult authority and become invested in making a point to the child about who is in charge.
In the example above, the teacher involved was stymied because of her own conflict. She didn’t want to start a power struggle with the child but also felt she should do something about what felt to her as his having defied her. This is a familiar situation to many parents. They want to avoid a possible scene that may occur if they try to enforce their will, but also feel the child should not be allowed to “get away with not listening.”
Undoubtedly, there are times when a child is being provocative or defiant for reasons that are unrelated to the immediate situation. But this speaks to the value of trying to understand the child’s behavior before responding. A child who seems to be pushing back against something we want him to do may actually be invested in something he is trying to accomplish – not in defying us. This happens often when children want to pour their own juice or milk or use a knife themselves.
If we take a moment to try to understand what a child is really after, we may be able to make a real difference by helping him accomplish his goal while taking a step forward in his development in the process. In fact, showing that we get what he is trying to do rather than seeing him as being difficult is itself meaningful in connecting to a child even without any concrete help that is offered.
Children’s self-assertive behavior is about them – not about us. Often they are trying to build themselves up, not put us down. Plugging into their strengths can be the key to avoiding or resolving potential conflicts.