Taming the Wild Beasts
What I want to talk about here is the art of re-direction. That’s a large part of what positive discipline is: instead of saying what NOT to do, say what you DO want your child to do. This can be very straightforward (“Please talk in a soft voice”), but it can also be creative, and here is where you can really learn to enjoy being with young children in a whole new way. My first exposure to this was when I was first considering working in early childhood, and I was observing a kindergarten class at a Waldorf school in Colorado. It was a class of 18 children, and during the free-play time there was a group of four 5-year-old boys who were playing that they were a pack of wild dogs. They roamed wildly around the classroom, growling and barking and wreaking havoc on the games others were playing.
The teacher called them over to her, and they came running over. “We’re a pack of wild dogs!” they proudly announced. The teacher looked at them thoughtfully. “Wild dogs!” She said, finally. “Wild dogs don’t come inside. If you’re inside, you must be tame. Where are your owners? Each dog MUST have an owner, you know.” The four boys looked at each other, and an animated discussion immediately broke out amongst them about who would be the dogs, who would be the owners, where they could find leashes, etc. I was impressed. She didn’t try to get the boys to “stop” being loud, or “stop” being wild, or “stop” interrupting the other children’s play. She simply re-directed their play into something more appropriate. These boys came out with absolutely no sense of being wrong; in fact, they never came out of their fantasy at all. It merely changed its form. I remember thinking, “Wow.”
Re-directing play sometimes comes in the form of entering into a child’s fantasy-play and changing its direction: if the “monkeys” on the bed are getting a little too rambunctious, you might suggest that it’s time for them to start making a monkey-home because a baby monkey is on its way. If two boys desperately want to play with the same truck, you might suggest that one boy is the owner, and the other is the mechanic. Once the mechanic finishes fixing it, he gives it back to the owner again. If two children are upset that a littler child keeps ruining the house they’re building, suggest that the littler child can be a kittycat, and if he crawls up to them, they might give him a bowl full of milk. In these ways, children don’t have to “stop” whatever it is they’re doing that is unacceptable; they simply do something different. This method of re-directing boosts our enjoyment of the children we care for in a very immediate way, as we transform behaviors that are annoying or inappropriate into more appropriate behavior, without using the word “stop” at all.
In addition to dipping into a child’s fantasy, re-direction can also be used to introduce fantasy, either to make a suggested action more attractive, or to transform a situation in which no fantasy had been previously. This is especially effective with toddlers.
Re-direction for Toddlers
Using imagination to change behavior can still work when children aren’t consciously playing a game, or when they’re still too young to be fully in the throes of fantasy-play. In the last article I wrote, I used an example or a child banging his spoon on the table during a meal, and I asked him to stop again and again, until I took the spoon away. Had I had more sleep the night before, the situation might have been solved much more simply by saying, “Look, my spoon is a bulldozer. It’s scooping up some rice: Zzzzzzz” (sound effect as I scoop some rice laboriously towards my mouth). Chances are good that little Luke, who loves bulldozers, would immediately realize that his spoon is a bulldozer also.
This technique of introducing fantasy is very useful when doing things that need to be done, when your child doesn’t want to do them. When a two-year-old doesn’t want to get her shoes on, her attention might be re-directed away from the power struggle if her shoe magically changed into a bunny. “This little bunny is trying to find a home. Hip-hop! Hip-hop!” If she has been protesting the shoe going on, she might need some time to enter into the fantasy with you. So don’t go directly to the foot: “Is this my home?” The shoe hops onto the child’s ear. “No! That’s no home for a bunny!” (pause) “Is this my home?” The shoe hops onto the child’s hand. “No! That’s no home for a bunny!” “Is this my home?”Finally the shoe hops to the child’s foot. “Hooray! The bunny has found a home. This is a good home for a bunny.”
Sometimes re-direction can be accomplished with just a word or a phrase, but on some occasions, more effort is required. After working with toddlers for three years, I finally discovered what I could do with toddlers who just NEED to run while we’re inside, especially during our snowy Colorado winters. One child would start running, and this would excite another child to start running, and soon there’d be a pack of them, running and yelling. It was so fun for them, my re-direction efforts fell on deaf ears. It always seemed to be twenty minutes till lunch, too short to dress everyone to go outside. What could I do? Well, after three years, I finally came up with this perfectly simple game: I would see children running, and I would start singing a little song that I made up: “You’re running, you’re running, you’re running ‘round the room.” Then came the key part. I’d continue the song: “You’re running, you’re running, fall—down—boom!” And down they’d all go. From that down-position, I could start another action. “You’re crawling, you’re crawling, you’re crawling ‘round the room. You’re crawling, you’re crawling, fall—down—boom!” When I was first establishing the game, I did it with them to reinforce the actions, especially the falling part, which is vital. Soon they would do it on their own. As I got more savvy, I’d start with lots of big-motor movements: running, jumping, giant steps, spinning. After spinning I’d move on to lower movements: crawling, bear-walking, rolling. And sometimes, depending on the mood, I’d end with a very soft, “You’re sleeping, you’re sleeping, you’re sleeping round the room. You’re sleeping, you’re sleeping, shhh—shhh—shhhhh.” And I’d tiptoe over and cover each one with a soft cloth, then tiptoe away. They didn’t stay down very long, but when they got up, the energy was completely different from the running energy before the game. This is a fairly involved re-direction effort, but compared to groups of toddlers running and yelling, and me tearing my hair out, it was well worth it. The children loved that game, and would often request it. And I enjoyed my time with them through the long winter.
Faith Collins is the owner of Joyful Toddlers!, where she blogs, offers teleclasses, and individual coaching. You can check out her website here: http://joyfultoddlers.com/. Faith is also the editor of the LifeWays newsletter and blog, and a guest teacher at the Rocky Mountain LifeWays training.