Slowing Down

One of the core pieces of the Educaring Approach, part of what makes it so special, part of what really makes it work… is one of the most challenging to put into practice: slowing down.

Gah! There is always just so much to do, so much to get done in a day, from things you just want to get through and be done with to things you want to hurry up and get to. We want to rush through the hard stuff to get to the fun and playful moments, kiss away the tears and bring a smile to that sad face; we may be biting the inside of our cheeks and balling our fists as we impatiently wait for a tantrum to be over. And even when things are copacetic and peaceful, joyful and delighted, we may find our minds wandering, hurrying ahead to the things that will come next.

It’s human nature…I would say we’re born like this, but we’re not! Babies are some of the most unhurried creatures, and toddlers can be, too. It’s one of the things I’ve learned to love best about being with infants and toddlers…when I can slow myself down to their pace, when I can let go of ‘what’s next’ and just be with them in the moment, even in hard moments, it’s a gift.

I don’t think I could put my finger on exactly when it happens, but as we grow up, we have more and more to do, more and more responsibilities and distractions. And especially in this culture we are expected to have more and more to do…to constantly be busy, active, and doing. The ability to slow down and be in the current moment gets rustier and rustier. And our technology aids and abets our speediness…just this morning I tried to pick up a cup of coffee from a 7-11 and discovered I couldn’t pour my own coffee like usual (no, I haven’t been in a 7-11 since March!). I was so surprised and reached for my phone to call my Mom to ask her if it’s the same for her in Virginia*…but I stilled my hand and decided, hey, I don’t have to do this right now…I can wait and ask her later! But I had the ability to give in to that impulse. I had to make a conscious choice to slow myself down.

*Nope, it’s not like that in Virginia: you can still pour your own coffee.

And that’s what it comes down to for those of those who practice the Educaring Approach…we make the conscious choice to slow down. To observe children, to observe ourselves, to make choices about what we say and do, and how we say and do things. To see things from their perspectives and to let them make their own discoveries and solve their own problems.

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a child encounter a new kind of swing…it was round netted swing kind of like this. She had observed another child on the swing and was very interested, jumping at the chance to climb on when it was vacated (inserting herself before another child, who’d also been watching, could hop on). But, she couldn’t quite figure it out. When she held one of the ropes and lifted her knee, as she might do with a swing with only 2 ropes, the swing started to tip towards her and spin away. She hesitated. She thought about it. She tried again. The swing tipped again. She hesitated. She looked back at me. I nodded and said that I could see she was trying to get on. She turned back to the swing. Tried again. Let out a moan of frustration. Thought some more. Tried again. Moaned again. Tried again. Looked at me. Noticed the child who was waiting to try the swing, too…I mentioned that the child had said to me that he wanted to get on the swing, too. Somehow, the eye contact between the two became enough of an invitation and the boy came to the other side of the swing, and they began pushing it back and forth. And then they moved off to do other things.

She never got on the swing.

And folks, it killed me! I so wanted to hold the swing steady for her to climb on. I wanted to suggest that she lay down on the swing on her stomach and roll over. I almost wanted to pick her up and put her ON the swing. But I held back…it was my desire to see her get on the swing. It was my excitement for her to have that experience. Yes, I could clearly see she also wanted to get on that swing. And yes, I could see she was stymied. And yes, she looked to me for help. But it was her opportunity to figure out something new and puzzle it out. I didn’t want to take that away from her. So, I put my excitement and anticipation aside and offered her my presence while she worked and then found something entirely different to do with the swing.

She has years and years of swings ahead of her. Someday, and soon, she’ll puzzle it out and get herself up there, and I have no doubt she’ll love every moment of that first swing and all the ones after it. And that process will help her figure out yet another new-fangled swing, somewhere down the line…and she’ll be ready to do that because she will know, from within, that she can because she’s done it before. Maybe she’ll take that feeling and apply it to other challenges she encounters.

Another example: two children playing happily, each with one bottle…experimenting with them, exploring them, imitating one another and having a delightful time. And then, suddenly, the boy has both bottles, and the girl is not happy about it. I walked across the yard to help mediate. I let the boy, who appeared to be oblivious to his friend’s distress (but of course he knew that she was upset), that I was going to check in with his friend. She was VERY upset, so upset that she actually fell to the ground as she told me, with great anguish, that she wanted her bottle back. I simply said a couple of things like “you really want that bottle/you seem really upset/this is really hard.” As she started to calm a bit, I suggested that we go talk to the boy about it. She let me know she’d wait right there until I went and negotiated the bottle back for her! Ha! This girl has skills!! I let her know that I didn’t want the bottle myself, so I wasn’t inclined to go get it…but I would go with her to talk it out with the bottle holder. She reluctantly agreed and we walked over. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t feel like handing a bottle over. I expect he was experimenting with his power, seeing what it feels like to be the one with all the cards, erm…bottles…for once. And I wasn’t making him hand one over. I think both children were a little surprised. I asked them what they thought we should do. No answers from him, while she voted for him to hand over a bottle. I simply restated their positions: He has both bottles. She wants one. Pause. Hmm. What can we do? The bottle holder mimicked my “what can we do” gesture with his bottles. Pause. He changes the subject…points out an “owie” on her leg. We talk about owies for a moment, but then the girl remembers and brings us back around to the task at hand. I restate the positions and again ask “what can we do?” Another pause…and then…the bottle holder runs away. Ack! BUT…he runs just a little ways and then tucks both bottles under a lawn ornament. He steps away, then reaches under and takes out a single bottle, then steps away again. Anxious and excited, the child who wanted “her” bottle back, stretches and reaches and gets the other bottle. Triumph.

All of that took close to ten minutes or maybe more, and you may be asking yourself why I didn’t simply ask the boy to give back one of the bottles. To share. I mean, I’d seen that they each had a bottle earlier, but even if I hadn’t, aren’t we working on giving children social skills? Aren’t they supposed to learn to share? They absolutely are supposed to learn to share, and they are…they’re learning about how it feels to hoard when someone else wants some of what you have (not great), they’re learning how to reel in their emotions so they can negotiate to get what they want, and learning how to deal with it when what you want isn’t immediately forthcoming. They’re learning how to give in gracefully and in a way that saves space when they realize they don’t feel great about something they’ve done. These aren’t things that can be taught from the top down…you can impose behavior, but you can only guide and allow for feelings.

I really didn’t know how it would resolve. I promise you, I felt a little nervous and unsure…but I also reminded myself that it didn’t matter to me how it resolved (as long as everyone stayed safe), it was really up to the children to figure it out…the more opportunities they have to figure these things out between themselves, the more skilled they will become, and the more generous…I promise. We are social creatures and we want to be in harmony with others…but we have to learn how to do it. That learning takes time and practice.

The reason I chose to write about slowing down today is because I recently read a line that has been sticking with me. It came from Raising Good Humans, yes that book is very much on my mind these days!! The quote, page 64, is

“Our nervous system receives the simple act of hurrying
as a threat,
which triggers the stress response.”

Take a beat and think about the last time you hurried. Think about how your body responded. Did your heart speed up? Maybe you were breathing faster, sweating a little, maybe your hands shook. I don’t know about you, but I also got a little snappish, more easily angered by the little things that were thwarting me in my rush.

That’s why, when I saw those two children upset over the bottle situation, I walked over. There was no immediate danger of injury and I wanted to arrive as even-keeled as I could.

That’s why, when I really wanted to help that child into the swing, I forced myself to slow down and was therefore able to check my impulse to jump in and do it for her.

That’s why, I really do think, it was Magda Gerber’s genius to remind us to slow down, and then slow down a little more. At the end of her 60 hour course, Foundations: Theory and Observation, she’d look into the eager faces of new educarers who all wanted to rush out and change the world with their newfound knowledge, and she’d tell them she wanted them to just do one thing when they went back to their homes and their children or to their childcare programs. She’d say: just slow down. That’s all. Just slow down.

Can you?

A reading from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching:

17.  No Need for Threats

You can control your children
through threats and punishments,
and they will learn to fear.
You can control their behavior
by praise and reward,
and they will learn to look outside themselves
for approval and worth.
You can watch over their every movement,
every action, every decision,
making sure they do it “right,”
and they will learn always
to doubt themselves.
Or you can love and guide
without controlling or interfering,
and they will learn to trust themselves.
If your child fails at something
merely express your confidence
in their ability to handle the consequences.
If they behave irresponsibly,
merely point out the consequences to themselves and others,
and again express your trust that they will learn.
As soon as possible give them another opportunity
to be appropriately responsible.
Do not slip into the downward spiral
of blame,
and control.
It doesn’t work.