By Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Recently our extended family, which included several of my grand children, took a trip together. I delighted in spending time with all the children, and got to know five-year-old Antonio, one of the cousins, much better over the two weeks we were together.
One evening when we were getting ready for a big family party, Antonio’s mom told him it was time to take a shower. Antonio dove under my bed and would not come out. He got himself into the center of the floor under the queen-sized bed where no one could reach him, and he kept saying, “I want to take a bath.” Antonio’s mom explained that there was no bathtub in the house we were staying in, just a shower.
Antonio refused to come out and kept repeating, “I want a bath.” We all coaxed and cajoled Antonio for quite some time. I tried to put things in concrete, sequential terms to help him understand: “The party is starting, people are going to come to the door and we aren’t ready to open it. First you need to take a shower and put clothes on.” After some time, Antonio emerged from under the bed and headed toward the shower with his understandably exasperated mom.
The next day, I looked for a chance to talk with Antonio alone.
I said to him, “Antonio, remember last night when you got under the bed and wouldn’t come out?” Antonio shook his head ‘yes.’ “I wanted you to come out, but you stayed under the bed. That was really hard.” Antonio looked at me. I was holding him gently on my lap. “The next time something like that happens,” I said, “when you want something and I want something and they are different, what can we do?”
Antonio thought for a moment. “Just tell me again and I will try harder,” he said. “Okay,” I said, “next time you’ll try a bit harder to do what I’m asking you to do?” “Yes,” he said.
The next time I have a problem with Antonio, I am going to say this: “Antonio, remember when you wouldn’t come out from under the bed and what we agreed on? You said next time you will try harder to listen to me. Can you do that now?”
This is a good example to show the ingredients that make for solid social and emotional learning in kids. We work step by step with children, helping them to build self-understanding, social skills, and positive relationships. But it’s a long, slow process! We talk with children about their behavior as I did with Antonio, reflect with them on what happened, and encourage them to get better at working things out. We ask for their ideas and engage them in their own growth process. We coach them and use our power not to coerce, but to instruct.
In this situation, we could have threatened Antonio while he was under the bed. We could’ve said we’d take away his Power Ranger toy if he didn’t come out. We could’ve drawn him out with the lure of candy or a present. These tactics would probably have gotten Antonio out from under the bed quicker than our coaxing! Bribes, threats and punishments often get us the response we want in the short-term, but what do they accomplish in the long run? What is it we want Antonio to learn? I know I want him to become a caring human being who treats other people with kindness and respect. Even when no one is watching him; even when there is no one to give him a reward for doing it. The more we control children from the outside, the less they develop their own internal morality.
So I have to work with Antonio, as his ally and coach, to help him build self-awareness and social skills within himself over time. Each experience builds on the last when we work in this way, and over time children develop the social and emotional foundation that becomes part of their humanity.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch. Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.