USE WORDS.

 

So I work with kids. I work with people who work with kids. In my free time, I read books about working with kids. I don’t, however, always drink the Kool-Aid. For example…

There are few phrases I find more inherently condescending than “Use your words.” This expression, all too common in English, is intended as a prompt to children to choose prosocial ways to communicate their wants and needs. At the best of times (which is by no means all the time) I think it’s meant to be empowering, a kind of “Go, you!” coaching. Even where the aim is worthy, though, the method makes me wince.

No caregiver enjoys tantrums. Kicking, flailing, screaming, wailing—that’s misery for all concerned, including children themselves. Just as newborns feel safer when swaddled, children are significantly happier when they’re regulated, i.e., in control of themselves.

In community mental health—where so many of the kiddos we see start their lives already burdened with trauma—tantrums can be even scarier, leading to assaults and destruction of property. One little boy I know, in the midst of a recent fit, climbed to the top of a fridge to grab the butcher knife kept there and threaten his family.

When children have facility with words, not only are they better able to make themselves understood by others, but they are also better equipped to make sense of events and form lasting memories. Thus the importance of reading to and with children, and talking over events both before they take place (in preparation) and after (to create narratives).

It has been demonstrated through studies that children from variously disadvantaged backgrounds typically hear far fewer words a day than their more secure counterparts—yet another way that inequality is perpetuated, making social strata more difficult for some to climb. Literacy programs seek to work against that pernicious trend.

“Use your words” is meant to work against the trend of tantrums, storms of tears, sullen silences. Does it? I haven’t seen the evidence. I know I have a contrary, independent streak and tend to want to kick over any traces that harness me to someone else’s direction or notion of labor; but from my perspective, the expression feels more like an impatient, insensitive dictum from on high than like a loving and truly attuned and listening encouragement.

Anything can be co-opted; but think of the ease with which grown people say “Use your words” to one another, with the explicit intent of being snide. If I were still a child, I wouldn’t have the words to say how I felt about hearing that from an adult, but I know it would make me feel as though the person speaking were asserting an unwelcome and invasive authority over me. How do you know what words are my words? What does it mean that you know, when I apparently don’t?

Another way to think about it is that in saying “Use your words,” the adult is often (and often unknowingly) simply outsourcing the hard work of relating, to the person least qualified to do it. “Use your words, as I wash my hands of this.” If words themselves are the point, why not just leave it at that? Would that not suffice as a reminder? “Use words” says much better, “Remember there’s a tool at your disposal.” Adding that possessive pronoun just raises questions about what the hell is meant, and who really owns what.

From a neuroscientific perspective, a child in a tantrum state or weeping fit needs first and foremost to calm down physiologically; the brain is not capable of cool reason and logic in a heated HPA cascade. And the way to calm a child is to love that child in ways the child can feel—to be patient; to touch if touch is welcome (or required for safety) and give near and supportive space if it is not; to offer sympathy for the strong emotions, via reflective statements. Not only does this demonstrate concern, but it models the exact behavior that’s desired: the positive use of words to communicate during a difficult time. When adults use their own words in prosocial ways, children are more likely to do the same.

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Two excellent resources on working effectively with children are The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I can’t recommend them enough!

Now: I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

FIGURINES & HIGH-FIVES

 

 

Ten-year-old Gertie was beside herself one afternoon early this summer, because her sister was joining us as her guest. The last time had been a year prior; Amanda, two years older, had held herself with impeccable posture and poise on that occasion, allowing an ironic smile to play about her lips as Gertie, exclaiming, attempted to include her sister in her favorite activities. By asking arch and pointed questions, Amanda called attention to the immature nature of Gertie’s play and undermined her confidence as host.

This summer, however, Amanda was generous with her younger sister. She treated her kindly and played by her rules. Gertie delighted in her directive role and soon had us closing our eyes while she buried objects in my sand box for us to find. Feeling around in the cool soft spill of near-white particles, we uncovered shells and gems and fake fossils, cars and keys, dice and a dog dish, various animals, and little painted baby figurines: crawling baby, sleeping baby, baby with a blanket. Then it was Amanda’s turn to hide objects for us; and to help Gertie manage her impatience, her inclination to peek, I suggested that we leave the room and skip up and down in the long hall until we were summoned. That, she seemed to love. Skipping became part of every spell of waiting, sometimes with me, sometimes with Amanda.

Later in the summer, Gertie and I were out for a walk around the grounds—if such a term can be applied to a vast sea of asphalt with a shoreline of rough grass and scrubby trees—when I learned that she had never played Follow the Leader. Therein was a golden opportunity to offer her a healthy, sanctioned chance to take charge, since her interactions at school tended toward bullying behavior. Abused and shamed as a younger child by those she used to live with, she was hungry for acceptance and had a history of forcing herself upon her peers, neither respecting boundaries nor taking no for an answer. Notably, when given the role of leader, she offered me turns unprompted—a sign to me that it was, perhaps, serving as a corrective experience.

Follow the Leader followed us indoors and took up where skipping had left off, as a way of extending play beyond my small square office and into the hall. We walked in slow motion, and backward, and bawk-bawking like chickens. Gradually, inexorably, this turned into running laps.

For an “office-based therapist”—my term of self-introduction when we interview candidates for open positions, of which there are perpetually many; more on that another day—I run an awful lot of laps. And I feel, in doing so, a vertiginous awareness of what it used to be like to weigh almost nothing, my childhood body so light that I could nearly fly. I feel this as kids fly along beside me, colts beside a mare. I give it my all and sometimes even beat them to the far door or, back, to the wall where we land, smack, our hands planting hard.

Starting out, I don’t think Gertie was running for the pure joy of running; she was running to win, and with perfect competitive instinct, she forced me out of my own path, such that I would have had to physically push her to clear my way and run at full speed. I wasn’t going to do that, of course; I just trailed her, back and forth, wall to door to wall. When she announced she needed a break for water, I validated her awareness of that need. We’d stop for water, then start again.

And then something interesting happened. She said, “Go,” but let me take off on my own. Confused, I stopped. She directed me to run without her. So I did, back and forth. She sent me out alone again. This time, however, when I reached the door and turned, she started out from the wall and ran toward me, such that our paths would be crossing halfway. Instinctively, I reached for a high-five.

That became our new game: running separately, as if in a relay, and high-fiving each other in passing. For fun, I introduced variations: two-handed, to the side, down-low. Our palms met perfectly each time, a satisfying clap such as I have rarely known. As we passed my open office door, she must have had her eyes on the clock, for she started curtailing her circuit. Again, I was at first confused—was this a move to gain some advantage?—but she explained, “It’s almost time to go, so I’m shortening it.” So we ran shorter and shorter laps, clapping hands with increasing frequency, until at last we were circling each other, in a kind of do-si-do.

Gertie had gone through a prolonged angry phase over the course of the year, in which she proclaimed to hate her life and the world around her, especially her caregivers. There were exceptions, of course; but literally for months, she looked like she wanted violent revenge for every one of the many wrongs done her. She wore that look even while playing Follow the Leader. When we walked out to the lobby on the first day we ran laps, to rejoin her grandmother, she was wreathed in smiles.

I, too, felt wreathed—as if laurels had been woven and set upon my hair. Because again she had transformed her play, from competition to cooperation. And because I’d seen her face flushed and lit with its former, glorious light.

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“The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading!