Updated: Feb 27
Ignoring the first few years of life is the biggest missed opportunity ever when it comes to creating a less violent world.
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focusing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-
So I'm paying attention.
In fact, I've spent the last 45 years or so paying attention to bullying in the early years. That's how long I've been an early childhood educator.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret that you may or may not already know. It's the main goal of people who actually work with very young children.
When we get up and go to work in the morning we just want to have a peaceful and productive day. We want the children to get along and learn social skills without pummelling each other (and us) or crying all day. Any other skills we teach them are just icing on the cake.
But sometimes they hurt each other anyway. That's why I wrote this article about what to do when it happens.
Here's another secret. I used to not have any idea about what to do when a young child hit or hurt me. Through many, many years of training and education, both on and off the job, that was a subject not often mentioned. So I guess I just played it by ear.
Then my own child hit me. Honestly, I don't know of many young children who never hit or tried to hurt their parents in anger. If they do exist, I would have to wonder why.
But it really made me think about what the right action would be on my part. Some would say that if the child was 2, they should get an immediate time-out in order to teach them not to hit. But punishment doesn't actually teach. If it did, we have a much less violent world.
Children do what we do, not what we say.
Here's what I do now.
I move away from the child. I look right into their eyes. I try to look both firm and concerned but always totally in control of my actions. If I'm holding them, I set them down immediately. Then I say this:
I don't let anyone hit me.
I need to be sure that they don't get what they were after by hitting and I use this as an opportunity. I make a mental note to teach them a better way to get what they wanted later when emotions settle down.
Here's what I mean.
21-mo-old Forest was sitting at the breakfast table and he got hold of a 2-cup pitcher of milk. Since he's been learning to pour himself, I sat down next to him and tried to guide his hand to the middle of his cup.
He wasn't having it. He jerked the pitcher from my hand and tried to whack me and then push me away. Milk was flying around.
I've got to give him credit for wanting to learn to pour by himself but letting him do it now after striking out at me wouldn't be the best idea. So I moved away from him, looked him in the eyes and calmly used this powerful "I" message.
I don't let anyone hit me.
Then I put the pitcher on the counter for a little while. A bit later I made sure to help him with his pouring skills.
That's the "I" message that works best for me. I don't let myself become a victim but swiftly take control of the situation. I really hope they use this phrase themselves throughout their lives.
A young parent once asked me if they should try to comfort their child during a temper tantrum. He heard that they should let it take its course without interfering but he saw other parents comforting their children and he felt bad about not even trying.
I said it was ok to comfort the child if it helped. Just don't give them the thing they threw the fit about.
But, as usual, there is another side to this coin. The one where you actually take the time to teach the behavior you want to see. It's also the one where you model the positive things you want to hear them say!
Over the years I've become convinced that the best time to start antibully stategies is at birth.
Words are powerful and what we chose to say matters. Since I already shared my favorite thing to say when a child hits or hurts you, I'd like to finish this up by giving you 2 positve phrases to use as often as you possibly can with very young children.
Give infants and toddlers the attention and language development they crave by saying this...
I see you. I see you _________. (fill in the blank)
And for slightly older toddlers and preschoolers.
That was helpful! You helped me with _________ (fill in the blanks)
This gives positive attention and lets them know what you want to see more of which is actually much more effective than punishment. It also teaches them to notice others in a positive way.
If you already know about the phrases above, as many of you probably do, just spend the day trying to use them more and take note of how your children react. You'll be doing your part in creating a more peaceful world for everyone!
Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.
Click on the word PLAY!