Lately, I've been reflecting a lot on how adults too often jump in and break up groups of children when it appears as if the slightest hint of conflict is happening. All too frequently I see caregivers/parents/nannies/teachers rush to a group of children at the sound of raised voices and, without pausing to observe what is happening, tell the children to stop. Frankly? I think this is incredibly lazy and harmful to the social-emotional growth of the children. In particular, because often what the adults interpret as anger and conflict is actually the sounds of the children trying to solve a problem.
Take this snippet of my morning at the playground with a toddler as an example. The toddler and I were sitting near a piece of equipment that had a small horn shaped object on the top of it. The front of the horn was wide open and the back had a grate. As we sat and watched, a toddler from the local daycare that was visiting the park came over with a stick and began to push the stick through the front of the horn and out of the back. Fascinated, the toddler I was with grabbed for the stick. Toddler one resisted giving up his stick and instead handed my toddler a different stick. Satisfied, my toddler began to attempt to replicate toddler one's success at pushing the stick through the horn with much guidance and modeling from toddler one. As I sat near the toddlers I showed curiosity and excitement for their problem solving. My verbalizations attracted several other toddler boys from the daycare group. Curious, they crowded around the first 2 toddlers and eagerly grabbed for the sticks. As the original two toddlers resisted control of their sticks I suggested that we explore some of the many sticks on the ground to see which ones would also go the entire way through. And that's exactly what they did. With a lot of excited (loud) voices and a bit of jostling to get into position and have a turn, the toddlers experimented with different sticks to see if they could get the same result.
I suppose from the outside it looked as if a lot of pushing and arguing was going on. Suddenly one of the daycare teachers came running over and started to tell the boys to stop, yelling at them to drop the sticks and to leave "that lady and her baby alone". Being me, I didn't keep quiet. In my eagerness to share the boys' accomplishments I told the teacher that one of her children had discovered that he could make a stick slide through the horn and that the other boys were now exploring this phenomena. I told her that if she stood back she would hear their conversations and see that the boys were not fighting, that they were attempting to figure out how to get a turn and how to watch what the other children were doing. They were not fighting. They were discussing the ideas of fairness ("let me have a turn", "I do it too"), the properties of the sticks ("your stick is fat", "do this one"), and they were observing ("it's stuck, mine now"). I told her that, all because one of her young students initiated an exploration, that the boys were now engaged in scientific inquiry and were able to practice solving conflict problems.
What would those boys have missed out on had their teacher simply made them disperse before finding out what was happening? What had the teacher missed out on learning about these boys? That's a huge price to pay, missing out on learning about what your children are learning, by being too quick to rush in. This is why I say that it's lazy. It's easier to use your power as an adult to make a child or group of children stop something rather than taking the time to observe and then facilitate (if needed) among the group. We owe more to our children. We owe them the best use of our power as adults, in many cases the willingness to relinquish this power and to back up and let the children figure things out, so that our children can grow up to be problem solvers and innovators. Yes, it is hard work as an adult to do this. It requires us to trust the children and to honestly listen and observe. But it's work that must be done.
As the toddler and I got ready to leave the park for the morning it struck me by the amount of adult voices I heard yelling (from a far) at children telling them no. "No, don't touch that child's ball." "No, get down from that block." "Stop digging a hole." Lazy. As a caregiver/teacher/nanny/parent it is our responsibility to our children to facilitate and encourage problem solving and innovation rather than simply suppressing it because we can't be bothered to walk over and engage with the children, to truly see what they are doing.
Let's provide our children with opportunities to face a brick wall and figure out how to get over it.