In this project I will detail how holding an accepting space for a child across their development is of vital importance to their feeling secure enough in themselves to develop the psychological robustness required to grow emotionally and cognitively.
When I was in the setting an incident occured. A child got out the play-do and dipped it in the water from the water table. The senior supervising practitioner immediately took the play-do off the child and told them that now they had to play with something else – informing me that the child in question already knew that play-do and water were not to be mixed in this setting.
Boundaries in any setting are important, as they serve as a social framework for children to experiment within, guiding them towards cooperative and socially functional behaviour. This enables smoother interaction within the setting – allowing everyone to come together with a higher degree of harmony.
When the child, dejected but not objecting, came over to me for a cuddle, the supervising practitioner instructed me not to cuddle them to further their punishment. “He’s trying to go to you because I told him off,” she informed me. “You mustn’t cuddle him. It’ll only encourage him.”
Often it may seem suitable to us, as caregivers, partners or friends, to deny a person affection in an effort to condition their behaviour. The idea behind this is that any positive attention reinforces the negative behaviour displayed by the person in question and runs the risk of encouraging this bad behaviour to develop into a pattern.
A lesser-acknowledged truth of this withholding of affection is that we, in our resentment, are often trying to punish the person who has misbehaved for their defiance, perceived as a personal slight. In our resentment, we do not feel like being affectionate. We worry that being affectionate would make us vulnerable to further slights. We put up a boundary – not to guide the person’s behaviour towards being cooperative and socially functional, but to protect ourselves by keeping them out.
Keeping them out undermines our bond. It says, “I accept you only when you behave in a way which does not challenge my authority.” Sending this message is likely to have negative repercussions, not only for our bond of attachment with the child, but for their developing behaviour. It is our duty to care for children in such a way as to nourish their confidence both in exploring their surroundings and in forming bonds with their future and present peers. A child who has been denied affection in response to undesired behaviour is more likely to fear rejection and to form behavioural patterns around this fear of rejection.
A child whose caregiver has demonstrated the ability to accept the child without accepting the behaviour by prioritising the preservation of their bond of attachment over the conditioning of their behaviour, is less likely to fear rejection and they are consequently more likely to make their behavioural choices from a place of loving connection to the situations they find themselves in.
When a child is demonstrating uncooperative behaviour, we may firmly enforce the boundary – “We don’t wet the play-do in creche.” If this is a reoccuring issue, it may well be that the child must now lose out on playing with the play-do to enforce the strength of this boundary. Defined, consistent boundaries are often a source of reassurance to a child, who is then empowered to use them to scaffold their developing personhood.
After having been reminded of the boundary and having a privilege temporarily removed to demonstrate the boundary, the lesson has been taught! When they seek our reassurance via a cuddle or some other gesture of affection, they are searching for confirmation that they are still accepted even though their behaviour is not. They may as well be asking, “But you still love me, right?”
When we reject this opportunity to connect with the children in our care, at the precise time when an event has caused them to question the depth of our care for them, we are undermining our bond with them. This makes future tests of our patience increasingly likely, for two reasons;
- The child is not satisfied that our acceptance of them as a person is unconditional. They will continue to test the limits of our patient care for the remainder of the time they are in our care (something that is likely to happen anyway, but perhaps less so if each experiment is met with consistent boundaries and a solid reaffirmation of our acceptance of them).
- The weaker our bond with the child becomes, the less likely they are to be agentic to us and our will. They will be more likely to model their behaviour on that of their peers, and, should we continue to meet these moments of doubt with our failure to reinforce our shared bond, this will likely spiral into a negative feedback loop of immature behaviour. This is characterised by peers, now modeling their behaviour more on each other than on their caregivers, reinforcing through mutual acceptances the behaviours which we as caregivers seek to discourage.
Although this has obvious ramifications for the immediate learning environment, the more long-lasting consequences of this peer-orientation are perhaps more disturbing. A child can not be a comprehensive role model in the ways of moral and social or even practical behaviour. Peer-oriented children will develop their personhood along the lines of what ‘works’ within their peer group, as opposed to what is functional from a more mature and experienced perspective. Just as Jesus is quoted to say, “Man can not have two masters,” a young person lacks the emotional and intellectual dexterity to have two strong, oppositional bonds of attachment. Over time, as one strengthens, the other will inevitably weaken, until one – in the case of our continued failure, ours – will become largely irrelevant to the development of the child.
At this point, culture is being transmitted laterally, instead of vertically, as it would be among youths who were securely attached to their adult caregivers.
Furthermore, a child is in no way capable of meeting the emotional needs of another child. Imagine a child who seeks unconditional acceptance from another child, only to be told, “you’re not my friend,” or some equally childishly innocent display of a lack of care. Of course, the second child is unlikely to be saying this out of malice, but the impact of being rejected when we ourselves are so vulnerable is a huge one for any person, and this is especially true the younger we are. The more this happens, the lesson that vulnerability leads to hurt becomes increasingly reinforced. As mutual vulnerability between us and our loved ones is one of the cornerstones of a healthy, progressive relationship, this is an incredibly damaging lesson to instill in our children.
Techniques which we as caregivers can use to retain our composure in the face of perceived slight or other challenges include general mindfulness as well as a familiarity with stoicism. Stoicism is the practice of accepting that which we can not control in the pursuit of better allocating our energy towards managing that which we can control. This state of inner acceptance is key when cultivating an accepting space for others. The current legislation requires ECCE practitioners to take a certain amount hours a day to reflect and complete paperwork. Together with this I recommend ten minutes of meditation.
Having a five to ten minutes meditation period within the setting with the children is also likely to engender a calmer and more peaceful atmosphere. When I volunteered at a creche in Italy, I guided a meditation session with a group of five year olds. They all responded very positively, each appearing refreshed and energised after only five minutes. The teacher present also demonstrated and remarked upon feeling refreshed and energised.
It is of paramount importance that we remain compassionately connected to the children entrusted into our care, especially in times in which we are having to correct their behaviour. Viewing ourselves as the scaffolding for our children’s development, as theorised by Lev Vygotsky, allows for us to perceive their behaviour as something not centered around us, and this state of selflessness is what is required to meet their transgressions with the level of firm, cool-headed, warm-hearted and reaffirming compassion they in turn require and deserve.