At the core of my beliefs about working with children is that children need us to make a stand for them emotionally. At so many levels I feel this, but probably because when I was a child no one protected me emotionally - no one made a stand for me. I have since developed what I describe as an on-your-side-ness for children. I give children the benefit of the doubt. I realize that while children need our support and for us to relate to them validating and accepting their feelings - at the same time adults are recovering children who need their own attention and relationships too. We all needed someone to make a stand for us emotionally when we were growing up. If we did not receive it how can we learn to think about this or feel the same way toward others? This question is central to my work with children and teachers. How do we balance it so that everyone gets their emotional needs met especially when children are unable to make a stand for themselves except in ways that adults abhor and reject often through humiliation and violence?
I want children to feel like they are our priority: at home, in classrooms, and in society at large. Each time I make a child my priority I am able to somewhat heal the child within me. I relive what it could have/should have been like for me growing up, and indeed, I make an emotional stand for me over and over again - vicariously through other people's children. Self regulation works if it is learned as a positive experience - when it makes sense, and when the child is emotionally capable of understanding the value of self control. It does not help the child develop mental health in the long run if it works as repression out of fear and longing. I am a testament to that!
So - as adults, teachers and parents, how do we determine when a child is emotionally capable of understanding the adult objectives of self regulation? For example, I think of the five year old who had been moved from foster home to foster home - feeling he was to blame for each abandonment - arriving in a school classroom and finding it so very difficult to self regulate - an emotional bundle of self worthlessness. In the end, of course, not only was he expelled from the school, out of the teacher's frustration that he would not conform to their strict rules, he was moved to yet another foster home. At which time in his life would a compassionate adult give him enough attention that he craved for to break the cycle of abandonment? How does a young child express to us their fear of abandonment? Their longing for more of us? How do we gauge what is the right amount for each person? When will we understand that children will do anything to please us or get us to like them - for they need our affirmation for their emotional survival - and when that fails they will show us in all sorts of ways usually as evident as we care to admit - how deeply they hurt.
I imagine we gauge what is the right amount for each person mostly according to our own emotional needs, external pressures, childhood memories, and the ways in which we learned to survive when we were children. As subjectively and as biased as can be. There is no one right way for everyone, and we are tested over and over again when there are very strong emotions. This topic is serious for children. We laugh at little children a lot - all too often because we think of them as cute, when, in fact, children are serious. We trivialize children's self expression thereby teaching them that their thoughts, feelings and opinions are less important than adults. Trivializing is a form of attention too. Just as humiliation and violence are. All of those methods teach children something about who they are - and how we perceive them. Because of their egocentric stage of development, they will think there must be something wrong with them when we reject them.
We have the power and opportunity as adults to confront our painful memories, and to try a different option from what was done to us. For, attention also includes compassion, empathy and understanding. It is up to us each time we interact with children in emotional situations, to choose a form of attention-giving that helps a child learn how worthwhile and lovable she is.