Climb the mountainous
Big wheels strong
In the sandbox.
Come and rescue
The poor shovel,
Buried amidst alien
For Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Plastic
Climb the mountainous
Big wheels strong
In the sandbox.
Come and rescue
The poor shovel,
Buried amidst alien
For Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Plastic
“My mommy said not to write my name.”
I am easy pickings for leg pulling and the kids know it, but somehow this little tyke looks dead serious. None of the tell-tell signs of lip corners dying to lift in merriment. None of the twinkly eyes that let me know I have been had. Again.
I’ve been through all manner of stories that led to hilarity-about-my-gullibility: Believing that a child had gone to the circus instead of school, or that their grandma allowed ice-cream for dinner, that they went to the zoo on a rainy day and everyone got wet (in actuality, this one was wishful thinking, as the trip got cancelled…), or that their dad said they would get another iPad all their own (scratch that, this one ended up being true … the earlier version having lost its sheen, in the eyes of the child or father, I’m not sure …).
This no-writing-name business; however, that was new. No hidden grins, either.
“Your mommy said not to write your name?” Maybe I misheard. Happens.
Little-Tyke nods serenely.
Fair enough. We grownups should get a taste of our own medicine at times. Not that I do a lot of the “because” why-chain-question-closer, but I probably have said it once in a while when it became too clear that questions served to avoid work, and not for real curiosity or learning.
“Hmm. I’m curious, though …”
Little-Tyke gazes at me.
“Is it you who should not write your name, or is everyone not allowed?”
Frown. Tiny creases appear in the five-year-old’s forehead. Cute as a button, this one. Even perplexed. Maybe especially when perplexed.
“I think only me. Me not write it. You can because it is your job already.”
“Ah, okay. That’s good to know.”
“Why do you think you can’t write your name?” I really want to know. This rings of misunderstanding of adult-talk.
Throughout this all the nanny, her head buried in her cell phone, ear-buds plugged in, sits motionless by the far table she often chooses to wait by, rather than on the couch near us, where most caregivers sit. I have come to believe that the sessions are a time of rest for her, a calm refuge from having to constantly watch an active munchkin, and I know she has very long days.
“Because you’re not suppose to,” the kid brings me back to the topic. “You not suppose to write your name.”
Now I’m not supposed to, either? Is this a repeat of something he heard said, a glimpse into the bigger context of this misunderstanding?
“The bad people will steal it.” The boy’s expression is certainty reincarnate.
“Yeah, if you write your name then the bad people take it and steal it and take all your numbers and even all your money and then you don’t have a name anymore.”
Identity theft. Preschool style.
A few moments of discussion of private information and how one can still have a name even if they write it … and Little-Tyke is reassured that he ‘probably’ could add his name on the drawing he had made to take home. I leave it as an open option. No pressure … For extra measure of reassurance–and because I don’t want to put him in a bind of doing something I say is okay but that be believes his mom said was not–I send a text to his mom in his presence and following his approval of the query wording: “can LT write his name on the work he does here?”
The mom’s response is “??? of course he can! Is everything okay?”
“All fine.” I respond. “I’ll explain on phone. TTYL,”
The little boy’s eyes have been glued to the phone’s little screen. He sits up suddenly, part-admonishing, part-suspicious, part-gratified. “Aha! You see? You didn’t write your name, either!”
“Calm down!” Sounds simple, but for many young children it is a foreign concept unless and until we show them how. Especially if they had known more overwhelm than calm.
Young children who experience overwhelming events such as neglect, severe stress, abuse, chronic illness, or sudden separation at a young age can be traumatized. The world around them no longer–maybe never–feels safe. They don’t know how to regulate, how to calm themselves, how to manage when they get upset. They act out, they hit, they don’t listen, they ‘misbehave.’ They have a hard time making good decisions, explaining their actions, or utilizing memory. They fall behind at school, socially, in their ability to learn new things, communicate, or play.
Trauma changes the brain and can interfere with development. It also creates a vicious cycle of hyper-vigilance and checking-out that costs children opportunities for learning, interaction, and connection.
Children need adult support to manage traumatic aftermath. They cannot be expected to find the way without help. Many of them may need psychotherapy, but even then they need support in non-therapeutic interactions in the day to day. Support that we can all learn to provide by understanding trauma. By knowing what trauma is and how it works, recognizing what it does, how it affects children, and learning what we can do to help reduce its effects so a child get traction in the now.
In an excellent opinion article in the NYTimes this week: Teaching Children To Calm Themselves, David Bornstein details one such system of support set in place, and how it already works to change the lives of the children as well as of the adults who care for them: teachers, caregivers, siblings, even the school-bus drivers. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/19/first-learn-how-to-calm-down/
Read it. Then share it with anyone who works with children. Or who has one.
Spread the word. Our children are worth it. Open the path to teaching calm.
For more information about the impact of trauma on communication, check The Language of Trauma, and other publications here.
For more information about the Adverse Child Experiences Study, and the cost (literally and figuratively) of trauma throughout the lifespan, check: http://www.cdc.gov/ace/
For more information about how to help traumatized children at home and in the classroom, check the links to the ISSTD’s FAQ pages here.
Kids are wizards of pointing out minutia of life that can seem quite arbitrary to us. They note things we missed completely. They seem to ‘insist’ on irrelevant details like the way the plate is organized, who got to open the refrigerator this time, or what touches what. Everything takes far LONGER to do with a little one around …
In good part it may well be because their life moves slower. Time is yet to be shackled onto watches and the ticking of a schedule. They pause mid-sleeve, pondering the way light filters through the cloth, unconcerned with how rushed the morning is. They stare in wonder at a pigeon when the light changed and it is time to cross the street. They have an urgent question or need just when you finally sat down to eat.
And they notice. Everything.
They collect each leaf and pebble. There is no such thing in their vocabulary as a “quick run to the store and back” … not when there’s a big exciting world out there. There is endlessness to explore: Cracks in the pavement. Bits of paper flown by winds. Funny people. Yippy dogs. Horns and beeps and squeaks and windows with wonders and when finally at the store, multitudes of candy at eye-level … How could it be that this was not what you came all the way for? …
They teach us patience, that’s for certain.
They also teach us that time is what we make of it. That stress can catch one breath, and relaxation ride right in upon another. That one can laugh before their tears have dried and emotions coexist and flow without a judgment.
They hold a mirror to the things we have forgotten or have misplaced our truth about or have given up on trying to critically examine.
They listen. Even when they do not seem to.
More than most anything else, they note the mismatch of expression, the ambiguity of tone and matter. The odd things our mouths can say and we do not hear.
In part it is because small children are so literal. They get confused when they listen to the WORDS we say and find it not to match the words’ MEANING. Their reaction (and ensuing cuteness) can have us realize hidden ambiguity. They reflect what we once saw and now are almost blind to: how the world works even though words so often mean things they do not really mean.
Want a few examples?
A father talked about his mother looking after the children when he and his wife had to both be away. “She has a heart of gold,” he gushed. His preschooler daughter piped up and added, “no daddy, you forgot. Nana’s TEETH are gold …”
A mother had forgotten something she needed to ask me. “I’ve had it at the back of my head all day,” she sighed, frustrated. Her three-year-old scrambled up onto the couch and took a look, exclaiming, “No mamma, it is nothing there!”
“It is all politics and money,” another parent moped when a kindergarten admission did not go the way she’d hoped, “there’s absolutely nothing new under the sun!” Her almost kindergartener son looked at her sideways. “That not true, Mommy,” he said, rather accusingly. “I have new Spiderman shoes! You forgetting my new Spiderman shoes?!!”
Then there are the cats and dogs that do not really rain; the invisible pins and needles one can be on (and no wonder one’s child refuses to sit where the parent sat a moment prior!!); the feet in mouths (“You can’t do that no more, Daddy. You’re too old. You can’t reach like baby Deena!”); the bleeding hearts (think on that …); the pants on fire…
Language is a treasure trove of meaning, and learning symbolic language is a big task. It calls for the ability to hold two lines of listening: one for the words, another for the context. Children get very good at that around age 5 or so, though they get thoroughly confused before they realize that “listen to what I say” is far from straight forward.
Kids practice logic. They spend a good bit of their time making connections, figuring out how things work and what brings on what. If you pour too quickly, you spill everything. If you push your brother, mom gets cross. If you don’t stop whining, you may lose a privilege. If you mix milk with chocolate syrup magic happens and you get chocolate milk!
They get right fast at figuring out what makes what, and a never-ending list of ‘why’s helps them figure things out. They realize there are desired outcomes and less favorable ones, some adults that are easier to get things from, that there is misfortune and consequence. They get uncannily creative at hopeful attribution of fault …
They map their world into cause and effect. Into how things happen. Who does what.
And sometimes they make connections that are not quite as we would have put them. … Like the little girl with the (newly) pregnant mom, who asked quite loudly and in public: “Daddy, how did God put a baby inside mommy and didn’t tell her about it until she peed on the stick?”
She always comes in style.
Her own, that is: purple tutu over jeans and boots, flowered shirt under star-splattered sweater and deliberately mismatched socks, frilly short-sleeve shirts over chunky turtlenecks, her satiny pajamas with princesses on them, or a sheer dress under a sweatshirt along with leggings with holes in the knee.
Added to her ensembles are usually clues to the day she’d had: color splatter from finger painting at school, well placed smudges from lunch (shirts are so much more convenient than napkins!), crusted bits around her mouth that she refuses to wash off, unidentified grime, tears in filmy clothes that were not sewn with monkey-bars in mind.
It drives her mama nuts. Always impeccably put together herself, the mother is forever trying to wipe this or straighten that or offer alternate dressing solutions (that are summarily declined), and cannot contain her sighs and growing despair at her daughter’s flighty attitude toward cleanliness and matched-everything.
The girl? She could not care less. Or rather, she cares plenty, in her own way. Her language delay does not allow much expression of verbal subtlety (yet), but she certainly shows affinity to collating varied fabrics and textures and to weaving together combinations that feel artistically deliberate in an offhanded sort of way. She likes the way she looks. To me, this is more than good enough.
“Let her be,” I tell the mom one day when the little gal excuses herself to the bathroom and the mother follows her daughter’s mismatched wear with agonized eyes. I am admittedly somewhat amused at the perceived gulf between them, which in fact says a lot more about their similarities than differences. They are both acutely interested in how they look. It is just the “how” that may seem different … One immaculately coordinated harmoniously to appease the eye; the other explosively expressive in riotous combinations that cannot go unnoticed for their mishmash.
“It may not be how you’d choose to dress her,” I press, knowing that this little gal’s fashion-sense is pushing her mother well outside her comfort zone, “but there’s beauty in her freedom. She’s four, and she’s got a keen sense of her own being. I think it’s brilliant.”
The mother looks pained but nods in resignation. She understands, even if she does not quite love knowing it. After all, she does let her only daughter leave the house “all messy” and “in awful combinations,” and she generally suffers the seemingly incongruous pairing of the pretty clothes she buys for her not-so-cooperative princess. Ever hopeful, she fills the child’s closet with beautifully matching outfits that the girl turns into wild-combos in a blink of an eye: chunky socks with her patent leather or frilly tights under short jeans.
“I want her to be her own little person,” the mom whispers. “I just wish she was a bit less … how shall I say it … visible about it …” She blushes then, fussing with the satin hem of her tailored dress with carefully manicured fingers. “Do you think she’ll calm down when she grows up?” she adds, hesitating, vulnerable.
I smile. “I don’t know,” I answer gently. “What would ‘calming down’ mean to you? Or for her? Who would she ‘calm down’ for?”
The water flushes in the bathroom and the little girl can be heard singing “fly me to the moon” at the top of her lungs as she washes her hands (splashing all around the sink, I am quite sure–she finds special pleasure in the way water droplets spatter and in how soap foam squirts between fingers). The mother looks up and we both grin. Such effervescent joy is contagious.
“She’s a free spirit,” she sighs. “I think I was a bit like her, at her age. Then I got too concerned with what others thought … and maybe lost the spark.”
As the little girl prances back to us, she swirls the edges of the tutu peeking under the shirttails of her button-down flannel over holey jeans. She has one brown sock, one purple with blue polka dots. Her tennis shoes have stickers and possibly some grape jelly on them. She’s radiating ease and unfettered delight.
“Maybe there’s nothing to calm down,” I offer. The girl’s a sight, for sure. A balm for sore eyes and achy hearts, too.
Mom takes a deep breath. Nods. She’s working on it. It is all one can truly ask …
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