by H. Stephen Glenn & Jane Nelsen
Do you create any of the following barriers regularly with someone you love? Do you believe that if you worked at it you could use them less often? Let's look at an example as a means of understanding the barriers and builders. Suppose four-year-old Linda becomes stuck when her tricycle wheel runs off the sidewalk. There are several ways a parent could handle this situation that would decrease feelings of capability:
Directing: "Don't just sit there and cry. Get off and push the tricycle back on the sidewalk." Directing children through each step instead of exploring how a task can be accomplished sends the message that children are incapable of doing the task on their own without specific directions.
Explaining: "That's what happens when you don't watch where you are going." Explaining what happened and how to fix it, instead of helping children examine and analyze their own problems, is neglecting an opportunity to foster the perceptions that children are capable.
Rescuing: "Don't cry, honey. I'll fix it for you." If we rush in and save our children, we are telling them they are incapable of taking care of their lives. By allowing them to take the consequences of their actions, we are telling them they are capable of handling both the behavior and the consequences.
Assuming: "Be sure you don't let your wheel come off the edge of the sidewalk, because your bike will get stuck." This remark reflects a combination of barriers. Assuming that the child would not stay away from the edge of the sidewalk led to a form of directing. And directing involved an attempt to rescue the child in advance. Assuming keeps us from letting the child ride down the sidewalk and discover the problem. These barriers create an extremely frustrating experience for children.
Adultisms: "You knew you were supposed to keep the handlebars straight. How come you never keep your eyes on the sidewalk? Why can't you ever do it right? Surely you realize what will happen if you don't! When will you ever listen?" Children feel personally attacked by adultisms, because this type of remark implies, "Well, I should have known you weren't big enough to ride by yourself yet." In short, by attacking the person and failing to point to the problem, adults make children feel worthless and incapable.
What might be an appropriate response to Linda's predicament, then?
"Whoops! Honey, what do you think would happen if you got off your tricycle and backed it up?" That question may seem very similar to explaining or directing, but there is a subtle and important difference. The final answer must come from Linda after she pauses to consider the question. She may even try out the suggestion to find out what would happen. This would represent fruitful explorations of the experience conducted by the child and encouraged by the parent. Linda's perception of bikes and sidewalks might even change, and the change would constitute true learning.
Each barrier behavior reduces the capacity of a relationship to support, affirm, and encourage the less mature party and diminishes his/her self-confidence. When we do nothing more than eliminate these barriers, we experience a substantial improvement in all our relationships with children.
The following video clip is from the Developing Capable Young People Course set.