A few days ago I was facilitating a day course on the book, The Growth of Love (Abingdon: BRF 2008) with a team from a Pre-School. In the process we began to focus on one of the most common practical challenges of daily interaction in this environment. In my experience it is a conundrum not just in these early years settings, but in any and all therapeutically-aware interactions with children and young people wherever they occur. So, let me begin by describing it. A child comes into the setting and the first thing she does is to show you her new shoes (or coat, or ribbon, or lunch-box or anything else that she is wearing or carrying). Later on she brings you a piece of paper which she has covered with brightly-covered paint (or some lego she has assembled, or a construction involving egg-boxes, cardboard and some stickers). Or perhaps it is something that she has found (a leaf, a stone, or a ladybird). I hope this makes the scenario clear, and leave the reader to imagine where it occurs most often for you.
The question is: how should you react? Now we can dismiss the obvious inappropriate responses immediately. No responsible or sensitive adult is going to ignore or turn their back on what the child is bringing or showing them. And neither would they be critical or dismissive of it. So what is the problem? Surely it’s not difficult: one receives the object with a smile and by praising it? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Let’s go back a stage or two. The purpose of the setting is to provide a secure base (safe space) in which a child can develop the trust, confidence, social skills, encouragement, acceptance and affirmation that consitute the elements of love. I take it that this (that is the growth of love) is the overall objective. How can we possibly settle for less than this? (This may require some digestion, but in the meantime I move on.)
Where love grows, and for love to grow, there will be lots of creativity in activities and relationships, so shaping, making, wearing things is integral to the growth of positive relationships. Who could imagine a courtship in any culture or stage of history, for example, without the gift of a love-spoon, a card, flower, poem, ring, bracelet etc.? In a setting for young children nothing could be more normal than a child sharing with a significant adult something that they value. But, and here’s the rub: how can you react and respond to the proffered object without reinforcing the problematic dynamic that you value, not the child for and in herself, but rather because of what she does, wears or makes? What if the interaction is prompted by the child’s chronic sense of insecurity, lack of self-worth and desire to gain attention or to win affection? Such commonly learned behaviour could be anywhere on a spectrum from a conscious act, to something completely unconscious on the part of the child.
With this possibility in mind, the nature of the adult’s reaction both in a particular case, and in general, over a period of such interactions, becomes critically important. Clearly there needs to be acceptance and valuing of the object, but not at the expense of finding a way of showing the child that our attention, commitment to them and our affection and love for them do not depend on such acts.
To give lavish and ecstatic praise every time is both inappropriate and self-defeating because it is likely to prompt more such gifts at the expense of the affirmation of the identity, person and significance of the child in and or herself. It risks the search on the part of the child for more striking clothes, and more excelptional gifts or creations.
This is where one of the group, trained in Montessori educational philosophy, offered a remarkably well-honed and practical observation. She reminded us that Maria Montessori recognised that this was a dynamic common in all interactions in an educational setting, and that it required careful thought. There were two key elements to it. First, was getting the right language; and second, what is for me the crucial dimension, of taking time with the child as part of the response. Let’s take each in turn. First, it is vital that what is said to the child is wholly appropriate: commensurate with the object and situation in question, and said with complete intergrity. Overblown language, including those meaningless adjectives that dominate the airwaves such as fantastic, brilliant, absolutely wonderful and the like, are nearly always going to be out of place. Pre-schools are not bursting at the seams with Leonardos and Shakespeares at their mature best (however promising every child may be). And what language does that leave for the deeper responses to the child as a person?
So possible alternatives suggested during the training were these: “That’s an interesting/good/colourful creation…would you like to take that home, I wonder?” “You know, I think that your mummy would really like that. Shall we show it to her?” “That’s an interesting colour: how did you make it, I wonder?” “Where would you like to put it for the rest of the morning?” “Look how the colours are running into each other: that’s cool!” The list can, and should be extended, as the adult considers carefully their honest and thoughtful reaction to the actual object in question. If, as happens quite often in my interactions with young people, you are playing snooker with them, then when they make a really good shot, I tap the edge of the table lightly, as is the convention in this particular sport. And if the child or young person begins to start a celebrity-footballer type of routine expressly designed for the television cameras, I remind them that this is snooker, and the best players react in this way when, and only when, it is deserved. The first element therefore is a careful, considered and commensurate response.
But my sense is that the second is the one that may be of most significance: it is that the adult deliberately takes time to be with the child while reflecting on what is being given or signed. Time in relationships is a priceless commodity. It is ultimately about recognising and offering the child our presence: we are at that moment present for them, and tangibly with them. If love is to grow this matters more than any words however carefully they are chosen. So the very process of considering what to say is the means of offering something more precious. Without words we are honouring and respecting the presence of the child, including their gift, but not simply because of it. And perhaps there will be times when what the child has showed us or made deserves not only our consideration, but our wonder: “You know, I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like that! Have you?” “I didn’t think those colours went together, but now I realise they do!” And there is just the possibility that the time together results in a conversation about the child and her relationship to home, family, kith, allowing the subject of the focus to shift from the object to the person. And this will be enhanced if in between the display of objects, we take the initiative so that the child has no thought or need of engaging our attention: we are already there for them.
As so often tends to happen, such an insight is, for me, coupled with a real-life example of the very issue in question. On Easter Day at Mill Grove we were as usual hand-painting eggs ready for a display. Without any planning I found myself interrupted in my own very unimaginative first strokes on the brown egg assigned to me, when I was joined by one of the youngest members of the Mill Grove family. We have done a few things together, but this was a new venture. I offered my egg and brush to him and asked him what he would like to do with it. He pointed to the box of poster paints indicating the colour, white. So it was that we quickly established a working method: I put the colour on the brush, and he painted it on our shared egg with his left-hand.
After a time, and surrounded by others who were getting caught up in increasingly colourful and imaginative creations (a foetus on the outside of the egg; a garden of daisies; the representation of a broken egg and so on), I enquired as to whether there might be another colour he would like to use. I am not sure whether he ever heard this question because it was becoming evident that his sole aim was to cover the whole egg in thick white paint. So we did. We put it in an egg-cup and placed it on the window-sill to dry. At that point he was outside in a flash, playing football with a few others who had finished their eggs. (In case you were wondering, he kicked the ball consistently with his left foot!) When he came back inside again, our egg was dry, and I asked whether he thought it was finished, or whether we should add some stickers that my wife had graciously provided for those of us differently- abled when it comes to painting. He opted enthusiastically for the stickers, and once again we immediately found a method of working as a team. He pointed to a sticker he liked and I put it on the plain and neat white surface of the egg where we agreed it should go. He seemed not to notice what I did on the surface of the egg, because he was so engrossed in choosing the next sticker. I had to work very fast! And within less than two minutes, before he headed out to play again, we had created an egg that had a lace-like girdle around its circumference, and tiny eggs and flowers arranged in curves on the rest of the surface.
With that, it was placed with 11 other eggs in a tray and handed over to the judges. We had some egg rolling and an egg hunt before the time came for the announcement of the winner, runner-up and third-placed painted eggs. The judges had no idea who had painted what, and so there was no allowance for age or ability. The winner was the egg covered by elegant and well-spaced daisies. But can you imagine our surprise when our distinctively white-based egg was selected as the runner-up? I am not at all sure whether my young partner actually understood what was going on at the time, but he soon did, when I let out a whoop of joy. This was the first time I had ever won any prize for something drawn or painted, so I was over the moon with the accolade, and he was mighty pleased with the Easter Egg he received on our behalf (for the record, I never saw or heard of the prize chocolate egg again!)
We engaged in high-fives and found others around us applauding. So the response to his labours was spontaneous. And I have a hunch that we will as a community revisit this story and achievement over the years. It will enter our mythology and folklore. And the next time that he sits on the lawnmower while I cut the grass (this is something we much enjoy doing together) we will remind ourselves of it. Not every creation evokes such a response, but it has the hallmarks of what Montessori was looking for: a commensurate response, and shared time.
And as far as I can recall he has never seen fit to show me or offer me anything else: to this point in time, and thankfully, he just seems to accept that I welcome and value him as a person.