Sunday, July 7, 2019


When I sat down to write this, I typed out the title "Children need a cheerleader". But as I was writing, I realized that what I really wanted to address is the power of the narrative.

I like to think of myself as a narrator of the children's lives. Narratives have power. How we tell our story not only reflects its current meaning for us, but it re-creates an evolving interpretation as we compose our story.

Years ago, I remember, a newer, greener teacher we had, David, said something very powerful. We were talking about why we narrate the children's lives back to them. For instance, we would notice, and say out loud, "there goes Tomas with a huge bucket! I wonder where he is taking it?" or "Sara looks like she's trying to decide what to do about Aden taking her doll". David noted that by reflecting back what we see to the children, it brings their consciousness back into what they are doing in that moment. Children move so quickly sometimes, it's easy for them to get lost in their fast-paced activity. How often are we mindlessly walking through each moment, impulsively and habitually behaving and acting? When we act on habit, we are responding to the past. But this moment, the present, the new version of the situation, might call for a different course of action, or may draw our attention to a different nuance of the situation, or might present a new opportunity. By narrating out loud what we see, the children can return to the moment and return to themselves.

Narrating also takes the adult out of the situation in a more visible way. We want children to own their experience, to own their behavior, to own the unfolding of each activity. They so easily fall back into approval-seeking from the teacher, looking to the adult for cues on what to do or what is okay. By narrating, we create the illusion that we are coming from afar. We communicate to the children that "I'm over here because you are capable and powerful and you can handle this."

That doesn't, however, mean we cannot still be their cheerleader.

"Wow, Dillon chose to help Maddie, and now look at the big block tower they've made together!" or, more directly to the child, "I noticed you decided to ask for the red marker back instead of grabbing it and that seemed to work really well for you to get it back!"

We are noting, out loud, the child's choices and consequences rather than involving ourselves in the process, which can often become intrusive and detract from the organic process between children. This allowing is deeply empowering for the child. It reveres the children's sense of agency and competency to live freely as an initiator of change. By narrating, we facilitate a narrative for the children of self-empowerment and contribution to their own sense of self.

We strive toward objectivity with our words (even though our feelings are often portrayed through our tone, posture, etc.). Things like "I'm so proud of you" or "you did a good job", while complimentary, are judgmental and highly subjective. Without going into much discussion about the "inverse power of praise" (see the work of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck for more), praise can be hugely detrimental to children. It creates a "praise junkie" mentality and sends the message that what I think about your activity matters disproportionately more than it should. What matters is what the child thinks and feels. What matters is the intrinsic experience. To have that be judged by an adult--yuck. Something so precious--the inner work--should stay sacred.

It's so tempting to want to be right there giving all the positive feedback, though. It feels good to see the kids feel good. Everyone is happy, so what's the problem?

The problem is that today's happiness is tomorrow's insecurity. "Will they like my painting if I don't do it the way I did it yesterday?" or "The teacher isn't telling me she's proud of me this time...WHY NOT?" "Am I still ok even though I'm not getting compliments?" They will begin to wait for your judgment, ahem, I mean compliment, every time they produce something, and over time, lose that internal sense of pride and intrinsic value in their work. And what's worse, they will begin to lose their sense of that inner quiet self, that small voice inside that we call intuition. The new point of reference is external validation. We want to continually bring that back inward.

It feels good to be noticed. It feels good to simply be seen. We don't need to judge to do that. We just need to BE THERE. Not on our phones. Not half listening. Not patronizing to show how much you're listening. Be. There. Take a minute. Take a few minutes. Honor the space around the child by allowing it to be whatever it is.

We can narrate. We can notice. We can comment pleasantly with a healthy degree of enthusiasm. We can be close to the child and be quiet. We can remember that just by being there as a silent yet attentive witness, we are doing a great service to the children.


Food for thought - so, you are taking yourself out of the equation and not trying to dictate or change the child's experience. What, then, is your role? I'd love to hear your comments.

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